Emperor and Christians –Residence of the Western Roman Empire

(269 to 485)

  • Model of the imperial residence Treviris in Late Antiquity, view from north to south. Photo: Trier Landesmuseum, Thomas Zühmer.
    Model of the imperial residence Treviris in Late Antiquity, view from north to south. Photo: Trier Landesmuseum, Thomas Zühmer.
  • A true-to-original copy of the head of the ancient colossal statue of Constantine the Great was the logo of the Trier Constantine Exhibition in 2007.
    A true-to-original copy of the head of the ancient colossal statue of Constantine the Great was the logo of the Trier Constantine Exhibition in 2007.
  • A coin depicting Constantine the Great. Photo: Trier Landesmuseum, Thomas Zühmer.
    A coin depicting Constantine the Great. Photo: Trier Landesmuseum, Thomas Zühmer.
  • Gratian was one of the last emperors residing in Trier. Photo: Trier Landesmuseum, Thomas Zühmer.
    Gratian was one of the last emperors residing in Trier. Photo: Trier Landesmuseum, Thomas Zühmer.
  • Reconstruction of the bishop’s church in the 4th century, from which the present Trier Cathedral developed. Picture: Trier Landesmuseum, Lambert Dahm.
    Reconstruction of the bishop’s church in the 4th century, from which the present Trier Cathedral developed. Picture: Trier Landesmuseum, Lambert Dahm.
  • Partial view of the "Basilika", today the Protestant Church of the Savior.
    Partial view of the "Basilika", today the Protestant Church of the Savior.
  • The ruin of the “Imperial Baths” with the modern entrance completed in 2007 (left).
    The ruin of the “Imperial Baths” with the modern entrance completed in 2007 (left).
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The 3rd century was the period of the soldier emperors. One usurper after the other followed in ever increasing succession, and hardly a one of them died a natural death. Finally Trier was also caught up in this chaos: When the short-lived Gallic Empire became established starting in 269, its rulers chose Trier intermittently as their residence. The Franks and the Alamanni, Germanic tribes, took advantage of the unstable conditions and conducted raids in 275 and 276, leaving a wake of destruction in Trier as well.

However, the status of Trier as capital city of the Gallic Empire led to a lasting increase in prestige: Treveris – as it was called in Late Antiquity – became the seat of the provincial governor, a military base, and a mint. Emperor Constantine the Great took advantage of these structures and resided mostly in Trier from 306 to 316; and from here he undertook his struggle for sole rule of the Roman Empire.

With about 50,000 inhabitants, the city then advanced to one of the most significant cities of the western half of the empire. It was the seat of the Gallic praetorian prefecture whose territory extended from Britannia and the Iberian peninsula to North Africa. Under Valentinian and his sons Gratian and Valentinian II, Trier was once again imperial residence from 367 to 390.

Concurrent with its growing significance, a new construction boom set in at the beginning of the 4th century. The structure known as the “Basilika” today served as the Imperial Throne Room and was a part of an extensive palace facility. Close by, the “Imperial Baths” were built, conceived as a bath but never finished. Later the complex was possibly used as a barracks.

Christians can be documented in Trier quite early. A continuous list of Trier bishops stretches back into the second half of the 3rd century. Constantine and his mother, Helena, promoted the Christian community and facilitated the construction of a monumental double church complex, the origin of the present Cathedral.

Towards the end of the 4th century, the Western Roman Empire was convulsed more and more often by invasions of Germanic tribes. Because of its exposed location in the border area, Trier could no longer maintain its position as residence. The end of Roman rule was completed in stages: the seat of the Gallic prefecture was moved to Arles around 400. Between 410 and 435, Trier was plundered four times by Frankish raiders but not yet conquered for good. Only about 485 was the entire region incorporated into the Frankish Kingdom of the Merovingians.

Text: Ralph Kießling
Literature: Gabriele Clemens/Lukas Clemens: Geschichte der Stadt Trier, Munich, 2007

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