The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

22 Jan 2012
  From Imperial Hall to Mediaeval Castle - The Aula Palatina in Trier

Salvete amici. Yes, it's me again, your friend Aelius Rufus. Gabriele told me to ignore the fact that I wasn't alive when the Aula Palatina, also known as Basilica of Constantine in Trier was built. You got this friend in Britannia, she said, you'll figure out something. She handed me the link (something like a virtual wax tablet) to an old post about the place - this one is too short and boring, she said, and it appears at place 3 on Google Search so people read it. Make it more fun.

That Google Search sounds like something our authors would have loved to have. You can find information about everything there, even about those German tribes Tacitus never really met.

Well, a lot of the information isn't any more reliable than Tacitus' hearsay stories about my ancestors, but yes, some sites are helpful.

Aula Palatina, aka Constantine's Basilica, seen from the west

The Aula Palatina has survived because several important people over time thought it was of better use intact than as quarry (like so many other Roman buildings). It's today one of the largest rooms that has survived from my time. Though I must admit the roof had fallen in in the 5th century and it took some time to get a new roof up - those barbarian Franks or Merovingians or whatever they called themselves at the time (sorry, Gabriele, the history of that time is a mess not even Merlinus can make sense of) probably had no idea how to construct a roof that large.

Aelius, it was a worse mess in Britannia, and the fact that Merlinus appears in several sources and songs makes me wonder about his time travel research methods. *grin*

(Aula Palatina, interior)

And especially for Constance who I understand likes to have numbers, here's the measures of the hall. The length is 71.5 metres (including the apsis), the breadth 32.6 metres. The original height can only be estimated since the original roof got lost; it's supposed to have been about 33 metres with the gable top at 40 m. The walls are 2.70 metres thick. Yeah, we built walls there. ;)

A hall like this shows the difference between the residence of a governor and that of an emperor. Everything needs to be two or three sizes larger. Or four, if you can find the money. The Aula Palatina was built on the foundations of a palace from my time, the living quarters, offices, and representation rooms of the legatus Augusti pro praetore, or governor. That one already had a rather large main hall with an open anteroom with some pretty colonnades. Not the place an auxiliary soldiers usually gets to see - we're not invited to the posh parties - but I served as messenger and had to see the governor, so I could take a peek. Not bad at all, marble floors and some nice frescoes on the walls. But it got out of fashion in the 3rd century and nothing remains of the dismantled hall and the governor's living quarters.

Treviris got a boost when it became the favourite residence of Emperor Maximinianus who supposedly planned for the Extreme Makeover Home Edition of the governor's residence. Though it fell to his successors Constantius Chlorus and Constantine the Great to get the actual work done. It's often ascribed to Constantine alone, but since that emperor left a lot of half finished projects behind when he moved his main seat to Constantinople in AD 326, while the Aula Palatina and the palace were completed, it's more likely work had begun before his time. Though somne bricks with a stamp from a factory dating to 310 shows that building was still going on then.

Today the Aula Palatina looks like a single building, but at the time it was erected, the hall was part of a larger complex. For one, it had another hall laying crosswise in front so both buldings formed a reverse T. That one was a pretty big affair, too, with a length of 67 metres (again, including the apsides at the ends) and a depth of 16.5 m . Additional smaller pillared halls stood at the sides of the aula.

Aula Palatina, interior, view to the apsis

The walls are made of bricks, and like most other Roman buildings, were whitewashed (dunno why you people in the future never put the paint back on), only the window reveals were decorated with golden leaves on red background - faded rests of them can still be seen in some parts. The quality of those paintings is outstanding.

The walls inside the hall were lined with marble all the way to the upper row of windows (how's that for fancy insulation, lol), and the floor was laid out in white and black marble tiles. A few tricks made the room look even larger: the windows and the niches below them in the apsis get smaller towards the middle and create a perspectivic illusion. Those niches served to hold statues of the Imperial family. The glassed windows are 7 metres high and 3.50 m wide though the seem smaller because the hall is so large.

There was a wooden gallery along the upper row of the windows along the long walls and the apsis. It was anchored in the walls (so no wooden pillars) and painted so it looked more massive than it was. The feature gave access to the upper windows and sturctured the large room horizontally.

Now, Trier isn't the coldest place in Germany, but it's not Rome-sort of warm either. So, how did the emperor, the magistrates, staff, vistors and whatnot stay warm in such a huge hall? Well, hypocaust heating does the charm, and it didn't only heat the floor but also the walls up to the first row of windowsills. One of the reasons the walls are so thick.

Closeup of some of the windows

After the Emperor left and the Germans started invading big scale in the 4th century, Trier's splendour declined but it survived as town and with some of the buildings more or less intact, because it had become the seat of a bishop. I've mentioned in my post about the amphitheatre that Constantine legalised the Christian cultus, and bishops are a rank of their leaders, like a pontifex or something. And obviously, they like a bit or Roman luxury. They also built what they call churches on the remains of Roman halls and baths, though - part of the Imperial palace can today be found under the cathedral.

The next time the Franks invaded (475) they didn't come for plunder but to stay. For one, that was the end of the first church erected on parts of the palace and some villas of rich magistrates - the Germans definitely were not Christians at the time, and burnt the thing down to ruins. The Aula Palatina fared better, becasue the leader of those Franks liked the place and made it his seat.

Actually, he didn't use the great hall for his living quarters - I suspect the hypocaust heating wasn't working and the hall too cold - but one of the side wings. It was still a most impressive seat for a barbarian count. The aula itself was used for storage for the entire village, and the windows walled in. It was at that time the roof collapsed. Gabriele thinks the storage was maybe kept in huts built inside the roofless hall while the thick walls served as a good protection, also from fellow barbarians who may have been interested in carrying stuff away. In case of war people could have found shelter in the ruins as well (like it happened with the amphitheatre). From Imperial representation hall to barbarian fortress, what a career. But it survived reasonably intact.

Another view of the Aula Palatina

The Aula Palatina was used as castle in the Middle Ages as well (there's a documentary proof from 1008). Later (around 1190) Archbishop Johann I renovated the aula and used it as his seat. He turned the apsis into a keep, with additional towers in the opposite corners; the walls got merlons and a battlement, the walled-in windows were reopened but in smaller scale. The roof was repaired so that the aula now looked like a palas with an adjacent keep (usually, keep and palas are separate buildings in a castle) and corner towers. The anteroom may have become a gatehouse.

If you wonder why a pontifex would need a castle - well, those bishops and archbishops in Medieaval times were no mere priests but held secular power as well. And they got enemies, and sometimes they got involved in wars. So a keep came handy, and a representative hall as well. Power is always a good deal about demonstrating it.

The Aula Palatina looked like that until about 1600. The next significant change happened under Archbishop Lothar of Metternich at the beginning of the 17th century. He tore down what remained of the Roman buildings outside the aula and had a four winged palace built around the it. Most of the southern wall was dismantled to obtain an immediate connection. One of his successors, Johann Philipp von Waldendorff (1756-1768, archbishop and prince elector), wanted an even prettier palace, so the architect Johannes Seitz built him that pink thing you can see on the photo below.

Kurfürstliches Palais (Electoral Palace), behind it the south side of the Basilica

It's all playful rococo and a horrible colour not even the Romans would have liked; and they used a good deal more colour than todays remains and reconstructions let you imagine. Gabriele calls it candy pink. She took the photo because it's so horrible it's fun, she says.

Fortunately, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia who was very interested in architecture, and Carl Schnitzler, officer and architect, had the Aula Palatina returned to its original Roman shape (1856), with no towers and palace wings intruding into its walls, but the original large windows and a cassette roof instead. The one thing they did was to add pseudo-historical paintings instead of the - probably too expensive - marbe linings. But the aula burned out during WW2 and the post-war renovation removed what was left of those paintings, reducing the building to the original brick walls.

It looks more austere today than it may have done in Roman times, though. The whitewashed exterior walls should have looked more friendly. The aula is today used as Protestant (a sect of the Christians, I think) church. It's often called Constantine's Basilica these days.

And now Gabriele tells me I should also rewrite the post about the Imperial Baths. *sigh*
Awesome pictures. And of course a very interesting discussion of its history.
Thank you, Ann.

Hank, yes, it is an impressive building. To imagine it was once shininly white - I bet it did what the emperors wanted and stunned many visitors. :)
Wonder what those little windows on the left were for.
Lighting a stair well?
That basilica is Incredible - the room! The space!
And that horrible pink wedding cake of palace on the outside!!

Well, the Romans might have just loved it. You never know. It just looks dreadfully out of place there, lol.
Good question, Bernita. Since there never was a staircase anywhere in the aula, it can't be that, but I agree, they're strange.

Sam, the colour of this palace makes me wonder about that Elector - maybe he had a collection of statues of nude Roman men in this wedding cake. *grin*
maybe he had a collection of statues of nude Roman men in this wedding cake. *grin*

I bet he did. And not only statues... *Naughty grin*

I like that pink palace, actually, but then, I like anything pink. :-) Does look out of place, though.
Lol, Edward has some bad influence on you. *naughty grin, too*

Out of place, that's it. It would look fine as annex to Versailles. :)
Wow, Constantine's Basilica is an imposing building.
The Romans liked their buildings big, that's for sure. :) Even their ruins are still impressive.
Welcome back, Aelius Rufus :-)

Who was the Frankish count who moved into the Aula Palatina, and how do we know about him? (Gregory of Tours?)
Better preserved than the stuff in Rome.
Thank you for the numbers! It's a very imposing building, inside and out. I bet I'd feel really small in there.
I could not find a name of the Frankish count (or warlord or whatever he may have styled himself) but all my references about the Aula Palatina agree on him having been there, so it may be correct. It can be proven by archaeologial means that the aula has been used as storage room, and probably also that other rooms had been inhabited by someone not of Roman culture. Some shinies and grave finds from that time point at someone of higher rank.

There has been another Frankish noble connected with Trier, Arbogast, but he was around earlier (AD 388), a Roman officer - magister peditum in the West - an all. He was involved in the execution of Magnus Maxiumus and his son Victor during the time of Theodosius - one of those unruly epochs where the claimants to the imperial title lined up quite a bit. :)

Stag, Rome's Rome, and Germany is Germany, lol. Though it is a pity Rome doesn't care for its heritage the way it should. Spend the money on that and not bunga bunga.

Constance, yes, the hall is imposing. A number of churches I've seen may be larger, but there are a lot more pillars and vaults around, not one great room like here.
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.

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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Bronze / Iron Age
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Geological Landscapes: Germany

Baltic Sea Coast
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Flint Fields on Rugia

Harz Mountains
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in Southern Harz
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Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations
Salt Springs at the Werra

Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

Geological Landscapes: Great Britain

The Shores of Scotland

Geological Landscapes: Baltic Sea

Geology of the Curonian Spit

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite (Czechia)

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