Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


14.2.11
  The Roman Bridge in Augusta Treverorum (Trier)

(This is another of those posts that needed to be rewritten. So here's a better version - with more photos as well.)

Oh, and I asked Aelius Rufus to give us a tour. Hallo Aelius.

Salvete, Gabriele and dear readers. Or 'long time no see' as they say in your time.

You're some friend, making me dig out those dusty old history books so I can fill your readers in on the two bridges that were there before the one they built in my time.

Well, let's get started. Augusta Treverorum, what is now called Trier, is situated on the right side of the Moselle though today its spreads to the other shore as well, Gabriele tells me. The river, widens into a valley here, framed by hills which are mostly wood covered, sprinkled with the occasional vineyeard - not enough of them for my taste - or grazing ground. But already the Roman town encroached up the hills looming behind it; the arena is situated on one of them, for example. Some guy names Ausonius wrote a Latin poem about the Moselle, though I should not know that one; it's from the 4th century AD.

The Roman bridge seen from the direction of Koblenz upriver
(The photos were taken during a Moselle river cruise.)

Trier was founded in 17 BC, and the first bridge spanning the Moselle dates to that time. The deified Augustus had just made the last of his enemies fall upon their swords or snakes and won the civil war. He now could concentrate on the neglected provinces. He sent his friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to kick some German marauders out of Gaul (what is the matter with those ancestors of yours?) and bring the infrastructure up to Roman standards. You know, us soldiers want nice roads to march on, not tree roots, swamps and undergrowth.

We also don't mind bridges instead of splashing through fords, but I suspect the merchants were the main reason to set up a dry crossing of the Moselle. The old ford was on the interstate from Marseille to Mainz, a very important road, and already guarded by some soldiers stationed in a fort on the Petersberg hill on the east side of the river. Now Agrippa not only ordered a bridge to be build but also founded the a new town in the name of Augustus - Augusta Treverorum (after the tribe of the Treveri living in the area) - on the right shore where the valley widens.

Getting closer to the bridge

The town was planned on the drawing board and has a very regular street pattern, not very different from our forts. Same everywhere in the Empire, but the good thing is you can't get lost in an unknow town or castellum once you've memorised the standard Roman street map. Augustus had guessed right; the town lies in an excellent spot where a major road and a river cross, and prospered.

That first bridge was a wooden pile bridge. The Romans still make those sometimes so I know how it's done. Long, massive poles, usually of oak, were rammed deeply into the soil beneath the bridge until the grip of the soil around the piles would support the load of the superstructure; that is, the supporting beams and the deck. Gabriele tells me that remains of those poles have been found in the riverbed in AD 1963, and were dendrochronologically dated to 17 BC (and you tell me Latin is complicated; that word is worse than those languages they speak around Caerleon up in Britain). But it's fascinating that you can tell such things from an old, wet oak bole.

(Closeup of one of the Roman pylons, seen from downstream. Notice the sharp wedge that was intended to break ice shoals in spring, and prevent flotsam like broken trees from cluttering up and damaging the bridge.)

In the long run, wooden bridges aren't good enough for real Romans, though. The first stone bridge, about 8 metres downriver from the present one, dates to AD 71. There is an earlier date (AD 45) floating around on that place called internet, but that looks like the result of several website scribes copying an outdated manuscript. The date of AD 71 is dendrochronologically confirmed now.

That puts the construction of the stone bridge to the time of the Emperor Vespasian, shortly after the Batavian rebellion, the big mess along the lower Rhine that eventually spread to parts of Gaul. You may remember that one of the battles of that uprising - after the Treveri joined the fun - took place around and on the bridge of Trier. Took the Romans their sweet time to defeat the rebels, too, but they managed in the end, thanks to Cerialis. I admit I had to read Tacitus' account twice to make sense what legion was where and who was fighting whom. That guy never heard about 'linear writing', I suspect. Or maybe the Romans indeed didn't know where their legions were and whom they supported. But that's something us auxiliaries only talk about when no Roman centurion is around. So don't tell the wrong people I said that.

The wooden bridge survived, but it fit well with Vespasian's rebuilding program (remember the Isis temple in Moguntiacum), to sponsor a new and better bridge to show the inhabitants of Augusta Treverorum that being part of the Roman Empire had its advantages. The town got a pretty new forum with a stone basilica as well and some new insulae with water flushing, so everyone said they were very sorry about the mess and would not revolt again.

The bridge seen from the direction of Luxembourg downriver

If you wonder how a stone bridge can be dated with a method in need for timber, there's an explanation: timber was used during the construction process of the pylons. The same method would be used for the second stone bridge which I helped building - as far as the Romans trust us auxiliaries with the job; it was mostly shoveling mud and carrying stones. So I know how it's done.

The Romans first erected a casing of double cantilevered retaining walls filled with clay, then pumped the water out of the encased area, dug out enough soil to reach the rock beneath and set up a solid stone foundation on which the pylons rested. The whole was fixed with opus cementitium. The bridge had 13 stone pylons with a timber superstructure. Remains of those wooden retaining walls, together with the stone foundations, have been found in the Moselle riverbed where they can still be seen at low water.

The third bridge, constructed in the same technique, can be dated to AD 144-157. The town had expanded considerably to about 5000 inhabitants and the old stone bridge was too small to deal with the increasing traffic (that's a very modern problem, Gabriele says). So our venerated Emperor Antoninus Pius decided to have an even larger bridge built. It was ten metres wide (the old one 'only' 6.5 metres).

Another photo of the bridge in the evening twilight

Those photos Gabriele took look a bit different from the bridge I know. Not the entire bridge spanning the Moselle is Roman, ony the pylons - the pillars made of the grey stone supporting the reddish brick archs - are still Roman and almost 1850 years old. Originally there had been nine pylons but only five remain; the others fell victim to the training of the Moselle after the Second Great War (what they call WW2). The Porta Inclyta, the bridge gate, had already been dismantled in the 19th century. Stupid people from the Future.

The pylons have a kernel of a mix of quarry stones and opus cementitum (a typical Roman technique) that is faced with large lava basalt cuboids we got from a nearby inactive volcano. They are connected by iron clamps; the whole thing, foundations and pylons, is 14 metres high and carries a wooden superstructure. That makes the bridge high enough so that the ships don't have to take down their mast when the water level is normal. The ships use sails for the voyage downriver; upriver they need to be hauled because of the strong current.

Closeup of a pylon

I've been told that the wooden superstructure was replaced by brick archs in the 14th century, and later some Gauls tried to blow up the bridge with some odd black powder, but they only got the brick stuff down, not the part we built, neiner, neiner. Our pylons were still good to support another set of brick archs, and the bridge is still in use today.

The Roman Bridge in Trier is today part of the Unesco World Heritage, a list of famous historical buildings. Obviously being on that list involves getting a bit money, too, and with no emperors around to fund repairs that might be a nice thing.

Well, my friends, I've told you everything I know about the Roman Bridge in Augusta Treverorum, and I'll now cross that bridge into town and visit the baths. Tony .... oops, the venerated Antoninus Pius has sponsored a new and large bath, and you know how much I like those.

Oh yes, dear Aelius, I do know. At least I'll also know where to find you next time.

Aelius' Raetian cohort probably wasn't involved in the construction of the bridge, but Aelius gets around a fair bit. *grin*
(To save the interesting comments on the older post, I edited it and reposted with a new datum.)
 
Comments:
Super post and nice picture. We have been in the Mainz area. I was stationed in Bad Kreuznach in the early 80's.
 
Gorgeous photos. Wow, isn't it amazing how much history can be contained in a bridge?
 
Thanks again for the wonderful photos and history lesson.
 
Oh! Thank you so much Gabriele! *hugs* Beautiful pictures! Seeing where the battle took place makes the writing much easier.
If you ever want some pics from Norway, just ask. I've got some from Trondheim and a fair few from Troms as well :)
 
Thanks, everyone.

Celedë,
I have some more pics of the bridge and the river for another post. :) Unfortunately the book about Roman Buildings in Trier doesn't cover the bridge, so I have less detailed information about it than about the various baths, the Porta Nigra and the arena.
 
I always enjoy your photos. And it happens my friend and travel buddy Patrick comes from Mainz.
 
"it served as basis for the basalt stones - the blackish stones you can see. The bricks are modern; the bridge had been blown up at the end of the 17th century and was rebuilt some years later."

Have I understood that correctly - is all the black base of the pylon original Roman?

How did the battle on the bridge work out? Was there a unit trying to hold the bridge and another trying to fight their way across it, or what, and how did it fit with the battle on the bank?
 
That first picture gave me thrills.
It is easy to understand why there is no way you can have avoided writing historical fiction.
 
Wynn,
Mainz has some nice Roman remains, too. Especially the ships of the Rhine fleet they dug out of the mud in the 1980ies.

Carla,
yes, the black stones and the underwater structures are Roman. Solid stuff, lol. When the French destroyed the bridge in one of the many wars along the ever-shifting borders between France and Germany, they didn't bother to destroy the pylons because it would have needed a lot more work than the Mediaeval brick structures, and blowing up those sufficed to make the bridge unusable.

Bernita,
on walks on history here. :)
 
Carla,
Celedë should know the details. I hope she'll find the time to write a bit about the Batavian rebellion in Writing History, or on her blog.

If I started looking that stuff up, I'd only get plotbunnies. :)
 
Many thanks. Roman concrete seems impervious to almost everything except possibly TNT.
No, don't invest time looking up the details if it's not something you're already using! If Celede has time to write something about the battle or point me to the relevant source I'll be interested to know more, but don't worry about it.
 
I’m still working on the essay, which is taking longer than I thought, sorry (it's getting rather longer than I thought too).

To sum it up quickly: in 69 AD (the year of the 4 emperors) the Batavians, a tribe in what is now the Netherlands, revolted against the Romans. They were joined by various Gallic tribes; the most important of these were the Lingones and Treviri.

After Vespasian won the civil war and became emperor, he sent legions north to deal with the rebels in the north. The Treviri tried to stop them from reaching Trier, but they were unsuccessful. When the 21st legion arrived in Trier they met two other Roman legions (the 1st and 16th) which had surrendered to the Gauls a few months earlier, but now these legions returned to their original allegiance. The Romans dug a ditch and built a rampart around their camp, on the west bank of the river.

The Batavians and their allies decided to attack before more legions could gather at Trier. At night, perhaps the night of 7/8 June, the Batavians moved up between the road and the river, the Ubii and Lingones by the road, and the Bructeri and Tencteri attacked from the hills in the west. They fell upon the Romans unexpectedly and managed to penetrate the camp. The Roman cavalry fled, and the bridge was in the hands of the Batavians. The Roman commander Cerialis drove his men back to the bridge and eventually managed to recover it. It was impossible to deploy in the normal line of battle though, since the fighting was going on inside the camp and the tents got into the way, but the 21st found a more open space and successfully threw the enemy back.

From this point it began to go better with the Romans. Tacitus writes that the Germans were scrambling among themselves for loot instead of killing Romans. Then the auxiliaries, who had scattered at the beginning of the battle, came back, and this gave the Batavians the impression that reinforcements had arrived on the Roman side. The Batavians and their allies lost their nerve and retreated, and so the battle of Trier ended in a Roman victory.
 
I’m still working on the essay, which is taking longer than I thought, sorry (it's getting rather longer than I thought too).

I know. That always happens with my essays as well.
Thank you for sharing the info.

Tacitus writes that the Germans were scrambling among themselves for loot instead of killing Romans.

Seems to have been a common problem. Arminius had troubles with the greedy lot, too, though in case of the train at the Teutoburg Forest he obviously got his men back to fighting and distributed the spoils after the battle.
 
Celede - thanks very much, that's fascinating.
 
Great post and pics! Trier is a wonderful place.
 
Thanks, Kathryn. Have you been to Trier? If not, you should go; it's not that far from your place.
 
Nice to see Aelius Rufus again :-).
Great photos, especially the close ups of the pylons showing the Roman stonework.

When they built the bigger bridge, did they keep the older, narrow bridge as well and have two bridges, or was the old one demolished?
 
the Great War (what they call WW2)

Ælius is hardly to know, of course, but your Anglo-Saxon readers in what he would call Britannia usually mean WW1 by 'The Great War', not WW2, which might cause some confusion for your international readership. So it seemed worth mentioning.
 
Carla, the older bridge was demolished.

Jonathan, thank you, I changed it into the 'Second Grat War': Life and learn. :)
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction and Fantasy author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction and Fantasy living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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