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


24.9.11
  Built Into a Town Wall - The Amphitheatre in Augusta Treverorum (Trier)

Salvete amici, here's Aeilius Rufus again. Gabriele asked me to take over today's post. That she had to drag me out of the baths in Augusta Treverorum is just a rumour, though. She caught me on my way to the baths.

Gabriele said she thought her readers were starting to miss posts about the glorious Roman civilization after all that stuff about odd rock formations, and castelli in what some of our geographers refer to as Thule. I'm really glad Tony ... oops, the noble Emperor Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus Pius, never got the idea to conquer that dismal country. Darkness for three months and snow for six is not my idea of fun, and I'm used to some snow from my home in the Alpes. The Romans would mutiny if they got deployed to that Vardøhus place - they didn't even have decent baths there. Definitely worse than the Hadrian's Wall.

So, today we're going to visit the amphitheatre in Augusta Treverorum.

Amphitheatre Trier, main entrance (the south gate)

I mentioned in my post about the Roman Bridge that the Colonia Augusta Treverorum was founded in 17 BC by the Emperor Augustus and soon developed to a rich and prospering town. Most inhabitants were members of the tribe of the Treveri and other Gauls who imitated the Roman lifestyle gladly. Can't blame them; indoor plumbing beats going to the well every morning, especially in winter. And underfloor heating is nice, too. It didn't take long for the first mosaics and frescoes to appear, either. Those wine, pottery, and cloth merchants made a helluva money.

After Vespasian won the civil war in AD 71 and cleaned up both Iudaea and northern Gaul and the German border, he put some effort into making Augusta Treverorum even more beautiful. He had new building sites developed, erected the first stone bridge across the Moselle, and a splendid forum. Gabriele says nothing remains of the latter, though.

Main gate seen from the arena

During the time of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), the government and the central tax office of the province Gallia Belgica were moved to Augusta Treverorum which became the residence of the legatus Augusti pro praetore, and wow did he get a fine office block. Mosaics are not part of government buildings these days, I've heard, they tend to be rather bland. But the amount of clerks and subclerks, and the paperwork were pretty much the same - two copies, please.

Our venerable Antoninus Pius then added a town wall, not for defense since the province is calm these days and the Germans mostly stay put on the other side of the Rhenus, but for show. One of its great gates, the Porta Nigra, has survived 2000 years.

North gate

A town the size of Augusta Treverorum (it was three times as large as the Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis aka Cologne, neiner, neiner) of course needed an amphitheatre. The Celts are as fond of gladiator fights and animal baitings than the Romans. I know what I'm talking about. *grin*

There had been a timber-built amphitheatre dating to the 2nd half of the 1st century AD, but no self respecting Roman town wanted to keep such an outdated thing around, so a new one was constructed in the last third of the 2nd century. The remains of that one are still visible in the future, Gabriele told me. Roman concrete, I tell ya. :)

(Staircase beside the main entrance, leading to the upper seatings)

About 70 Roman amphitheatres are known; the one of Augusta Treverorum (you know, I'm getting tired of scratching that long name onto my wax tablet every other sentence; I'll use the modern one, Trier, from now on) ranks at number 10 in size. The theatre could hold 18.000 - 20,000 visitors. That makes the 6000 seats of Caerleon look like a provincial arena indeed. But they had the bigger baths.

Ok, ok, back to the amphitheatre it is. The arena measures 47.5 x 71 metres (that makes 2710 m2) and is fenced in with a four metres high wall. The wall is so high because you don't want a hungry lion or bad tempered aurochs jump it and have some spectators for lunch. There was an additonal wooden screen in front of the wall as post holes show. Timber seldom survives the centuries, but archaeologists are good at finding the holes where timber posts once anchored in the earth since the colour and consistency of the soil often is different from its surroundings. And then those archaeologists discuss what the posts in those holes had been good for.

Maybe I should ask my friend Merlinus to do another time travel journey with Gaius Fannius and me to see those people from the future with their little picture boxes, dressing up as Romans and playing gladiator. We don't have picture boxes, only coins with the image of the Emperor so that everyone in the Empire knows what he looks like - if the artist did a decent job. In most cases Tony could probably pass by without being recognised if not for all that staff hanging out with him. Overpaid civilians with illusions about their own importance.

You see that the arena proper isn't larger than in the smaller theatres. The difference in size lies in the structure and number of seatings.

The seatings, in particular their support constructions, are the trickiest part in building an amphitheatre. You don't want the whole shenagian come crushing down - which has happened a few times with the older timber-built theatres. So you either go for huge, solid stone like in Vespasian's amphitheatre in Rome, which cost a fortune and some, or you need to cheat a bit.

View from the north gate across the arena to the south gate

The architects in Trier did cheat. They used the slope of the Petrisberg hill to get a rampart to support the seatings on the eastern side. Then they dug out the earth in front of it to get a nice, flat arena, and heaped that lot up on the other side of the oval. And while they were busy constructing that flashy town wall anyway, they built it so it would bend inward in a semicircle along the theatre, and volià, as the Gauls say, there they had the support wall for the western seatings. Ok, it came out a bit higher than the town wall, to 22 metres (which makes for 26 seat rows), but still it was only half the job. So one inner wall I mentioned above, half an outer one, and a few gates, and that was it. A lot less work than that monster in Rome required.

They made up for that much earth with two splendid stone portals, though, and some smaller entrances. Gabriele caught the still impressive remains with that picture box of hers. As usual, the gates were built in multiple shell technology, with two facing walls filled with a mix of concrete and abris (the latter is what mostly remains, though some of the outer stones can be seen as well). The material used in Trier is limestone for the facing walls and local shale for the filling. The masonry was once whitewashed and decorated with red grout lines.

Vomitorium on the town side

The portals were not used as visitor entrances but for parades and such. The actual entrances and the stairs leading to the higher seatings are located beside the main gates. Today the remains of the gates seem to cut the building into two halves, but once the portals had been roofed in to form an arch, and connected with the upper ranks of the seatings to complete the oval.

Besides the entrances at the portals, there were two additional, smaller entrances in the western side - the town side. This sort of entrance was called vomitorium. It has nothing to do with visitors bringing too much food and wine (though some did that); the name does mean 'spew out', but people, not breakfast. The seatings were divided by walks and a number of stairs to avoid jostling crowds.

(Arena wall with vomitorium and remains of the town wall in the background; one of the doors to gladiator chambers in the foreground)

If you look back to the wall surrounding the arena you will notice 15 doors. Those led to subterranean chambers for the gladiators and animals. The amphitheatre also had a cross-shaped cellar under the arena, with elevators and other technical equipment to add more thrill to the performances. It was added in the 3rd century. The cellar survived because it had been filled with wet clay during the centuries that preserved even part of the timber structures. The place gives a much better impression of the darkness and narrowness of arena cellars than the one of Vespasian's amphitheatre in Rome that today is open to the sky.

Like Caerleon, the amphitheatre in Trier had a drain that collected the rain water and led it through a channel under the south gate into a nearby rivulet.

Thanks to my slightly unsavoury connections (Celtic druids capable of time traveling are not people you mention in front of your centurion) I can also tell you a bit about the history past my time.

Gabriele's ancestors got frisky again in AD 275, overran the border to the Roman Empire and sacked Trier (Aelius, my ancestors were most likely Saxons, not Franks). Well, those Franks and some other Germanic tribes caused Rome enough trouble until Diocletian thoroughly reformed the administration and the military and put a stop to the raids. Trier - then called Treviris, and sometimes nicknamed Roma secunda - became one of the administrative centres of the newly organised Empire in AD 293. The Imperial towns closer to the borders pushed Rome to the second rank.

In the years to follow, Trier flourished; the amphitheatre and baths were rebuilt, a circus for chariot races added, the Imperial Palace got a complete Home Makeover and a new aula. During the 4th century, Trier had 80,000 inhabitants and was the largest town north of the Alpes.

Remains of one of the chambers for gladiators

Constantine the Great gave the last impulse to the building activities, with the Imperial Baths and the Aula Palatina as most outstanding projects. But when he later made Constantinople his residence, he left some half finished buildings behind, and the usual lack of further fundings. The Imperial Baths would become the garrison quarters while the Aula eventually got finished. (Gabriele tells me that her old post about the Aula Palatina is woefully short and that I should get my behind in a chair and scratch a better one onto my wax tablets. *sigh*).

Constantine dealt with some Frankish raider kings he captured, Ascaric and Merogais, and their merry band of robbers by feeding the whole lot to the lions in the amphithreatre. That's at least how the story goes.

Constantine also legitimised the sect of the Christians in AD 313. Those Christians had been around since the time of Tiberius; a small sect back then that believed someone called Jesus, whom Rome had crucified for insurrection down in Iudaea, was a god or the son of a god or something. I know that a few men in the army are Christians, but they never really speak about it because their religion is considered illegal. But it seems those Christians have grown in numbers and power in the future, and Constantine considered them valuable allies in his war against Maxentius.

The cellar under the arena

So when the Roman Empire collapsed and many Roman towns fell into ruins, Trier survived in a better state because it was the seat of a Christian priest, a bishop, and had several temples, what they call churches and cathedrals.

When Constantine left, the amphitheatre, situated in a handy position within the town wall, was turned into a fortress. The place gave shelter to the inhabitants of Trier when the Germans sacked the town in AD 406, the year of the great invasion across the Rhenus.

The Franks eventually conquered Trier and stayed put. They made the Aula Palatina their residence, and since they soon became Christians as well, the cathedral and most churches didn't fare too badly. The amphitheatre fell into ruins, but the vaults of the vomitoria were used as storage rooms.

View from the north across the arena

The stone seats and facing stones eventually made their way into other buildings. There's even a written contract form 1211 allowing the monks of some monastery to use the amphitheatre as quarry. In the 19th century, the place became a vineyeard, and that's almost Roman, heh.

Later, the interest in us Romans grew again, and some archaeologists dug the remains of the amphitheatre out of the earth - the earthen slopes had over time eroded and covered most of the remains. The first digs took place in 1816. The ruins were preserved and the inner wall was rebuilt so that the theatre can be used for performances today (though not involving lions and sharp weapons). The cellar has also been made accessible. Curse tablets which have been found there - what is that about gladiators and curse tablets, lol - can be seen in the Landesmuseum.

Source:
Klaus-Peter Goethert, Römerbauten in Trier. Burgen, Schlösser, Altertümer Rheinland Pfalz, volume 20. Landesmedienzentrum Rheinland-Pfalz, 2005
 
Comments:
Great! Love it. No history like that here :[
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/
 
Fascinating!
 
Great photos, thanks Gabrielle! It's very beautiful, there, and I had never heard of those ruins. Would love to see them some day.
 
What a neat amphitheater! Thanks for the tour, Aeilius Rufus. Love the photos. :)
 
Where is the "Like" button on this blog? :-)
 
Thank you, everyone.

Simon, Trier is definitely worth a visit. Three baths, the amphitheatre, the Porta Nigra, the Aula Palatina, the Roman bridge.... Plus it's a pretty, typical German town with half timbered and step gabled houses, an old cathedral and whatnot.
 
Welcome back, Aelius Rufus :-)
Ingenious, using the town wall for part of the seating. You have to hand it to Roman engineers.
 
Salve, Carla. Yes, those engineers had a few tricks up their sleeve. And the amphitheatre in Trier came much cheaper than the big new on in Rome. The administration appreciates that. ;)
 
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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 and Scandinavia.

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 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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