Trier: From the Celts to Karl Marx

Panorama view of Trier © picture-alliance / DUMONT Bilder Enlarge image Panorama view of Trier from the Markusberg (© picture-alliance / DUMONT Bilder) If you love wine, Roman, medieval, and contemporary history, then Trier might be the right destination in Germany for you. Trier is located on the scenic Mosel River, known worldwide for its Riesling wines. It is the fourth-largest city by population in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and can easily be reached by train or car from major European destinations such as Paris (260 miles), Brussels (157 miles), Cologne, and Frankfurt (117 miles). Close to four million tourists visit the city every year.

In 1984, Trier celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of the city’s founding. Even today, the massive ancient ruins lend the cityscape a special character. Among the medieval sights to see are the Cathedral of St. Peter and the Gothic Church of Our Lady. These two churches and the Roman structures were placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986.

Slice of the first Roman bridge in Trier © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Bust of Emperor Augustus with the so-called "founding disk," a piece of wood from the first Roman bridge in Trier dating back to 16 BC (© picture-alliance/ dpa) Trier developed out of a settlement of the Celtic tribe Treveri, whose territory belonged to Rome for over a half a millennium after Caesar conquered the region. The city was founded as Augusta Treverorum (City of Augustus in the land of the Treveri) under Emperor Augustus in approx. 16 B.C. Due to its favorable location on the Mosel river and at the crossroads of important imperial routes, it became a bustling trading center and quickly grew prosperous. Celtic and Roman cultures melded over the course of time.

At the time of the Romans, Trier experienced its heyday from A.D. 286-393, when it served as the imperial residence and administrative seat of the western Roman imperial provinces of Gallia, Britannia, Upper and Lower Germania, Spain, and Morocco. The city had a palace district, an amphitheater, and a Circus maximus, a stadium. It had several baths, paved roads, a water supply with capacity commensurate with the drinking water needs of modern-day Trier, and a sewage system. It was dubbed Roma secunda or “Rome of the North.” The rise to imperial residence triggered a construction boom. Various members of the Constantine dynasty, who resided in Trier from 293 to 340, as well as later Emperor Gratian, had an especially profound influence on the architectural landscape of the late Roman city. Some 80,000 people supposedly lived there at the end of the fourth century.

Trier, copper engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1593- 1650 © picture alliance / akg-images Enlarge image Trier, copper engraving by Matthäus Merian, 1593- 1650 (© picture alliance / akg-images)

With the relocation of the seat of government to Milan and the withdrawal of the troops from the Rhine frontier around A.D. 400, the city began to fall into decline. It was not until the twentieth century that the population reached the level it had been at during the fourth century, after having shrunk to roughly 5,000 around 1700.

Seven Roman monuments in and around Trier dating from the second to the fourth century count among the World Heritage Sites. The city emblem, the Porta Nigra, was the north gate of the fortified Roman city wall. It is the sole remaining Roman city gate north of the Alps. The massive stone pillars of the Roman bridge are still up to supporting even the stresses of modern road traffic. The amphitheater, the tenth-largest of the Roman Empire, held 25,000 people. The Baths of Barbara, which were publicly accessible in Roman times, and the Imperial Baths, which were part of the palace district, were on par with the bathhouses of Rome. The Igel Column, a tombstone honoring a cloth merchant family, lies just outside of Trier and is one of only two such memorial sites existing north of the Alps in their original condition. 
The enormous Aula Palatina, or Basilica of Constantine, was originally the throne hall of Constantine the Great. Trier’s Catholic bishops used it from the 11th to the 18th centuries. In the 17th century, they began building the Elector’s Palace next Former residence of the prince-elector and archbishop of Trier © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Former residence of the prince-elector and archbishop of Trier (© picture-alliance/ dpa) to the basilica by incorporating parts of it. The palace is one of the finest Rococo buildings in Germany. The Protestant Prussians reduced its size in the 19th century and restored the basilica to its original state. Since then, it has been used as a Protestant church (Church of the Redeemer).

(For the Roman monuments see photo gallery)

Christians have lived in Trier probably since the third century. Even though the ban on assembly also applied to them, they were not as brutally persecuted as were the Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire. With the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, the two Roman emperors Constantine, who then lived in Trier, and Licinius finally placed Christianity on an equal footing with other Roman religions. Constantine and his mother Helena became major benefactors of the still nascent religion. Once Constantine became sole ruler over the empire in A.D. 324, he laid the cornerstone for a Christian Europe through his policy on religion.

Cathedral (l) and Liebfrauenkirche (r) © picture-alliance / dpa Enlarge image Cathedral (l) and Liebfrauenkirche (r) (© picture-alliance / dpa) The Cathedral of St. Peter is the oldest church in Germany. Its origins trace back to A.D. 315, when the Christian church was erected as twin basilicas in the palace district. The imposing complex was all but destroyed during the Germanic incursions, with only the annex at the northern basilica left intact. It became the nucleus of the medieval cathedral, which the Trier bishops began to restore and expand in the 11th century. Elements of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque styles were added in later expansions.  In the 13th century, the Church of Our Lady, the oldest Gothic church in Germany, emerged on the grounds of the southern basilica.

The cathedral is known, above all, for its most precious relic, the Holy Tunic of Jesus.  According to legend, the Holy Tunic is said Holy Coat © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Pilgrims touching the Holy Tunic Shrine (© picture-alliance/ dpa) to have been brought back to Trier from Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. It cannot be definitively said or determined through tests how old the garment actually is. It was first mentioned in documents in 1196. Since 1512, the Trier diocese has shown the Holy Tunic in irregular intervals. Millions of Catholics have made the pilgrimage to attend the viewings. In 2012, on the 500th anniversary and 18th Holy Tunic pilgrimage, which lasted from mid-April to mid-May, some 545,000 pilgrims made the journey to Trier.

Karl-Marx-Haus in Trier © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Karl-Marx-Haus in Trier, birthplace of the philosopher and today a museum (© picture-alliance/ dpa) In addition to Roman and medieval structures, Trier has yet another tourist attraction, which draws 40,000 visitors annually: the Karl Marx House. Many of those visitors are Chinese tourists, for whom the house is one of the main attractions in Germany. It is the birthplace of Karl Marx, the founder of Marxist social and economic theory. Social democrats, socialists and communists alike invoke his theories. In 1928, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) acquired the house. Today, it is a museum of the life, work, and  influence of Karl Marx in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition also traces the history of communism in the Soviet Union, in the former East Bloc, and in China.

Zurlauben district Trier © picture-alliance / DUMONT Bildarchiv Enlarge image Restaurants in Trier's Zurlauben district (© picture-alliance / DUMONT Bildarchiv) Also not to be missed is a wine-tasting in one of the many charming wine bars and restaurants or during a boat ride on the Mosel River. Trier lies in one of Germany’s leading wine-growing regions. The steep Mosel valley, with its mild climate and its slate and limestone soil, is extraordinarily ideal for producing wine. That was known already to the Romans, who brought the first grape vines to Trier and pressed wine here.

Trier Fast Facts

Population: around 105,000

Federal State: Rhineland-Palatinate

Area: 117.12 square kilometers (45.22 square miles)

Economy: 0.6% agriculture, 21.6% industry, 77.8% service sector 

Trier University: Founded in 1454; closed by the French administration in 1798; re-foundation in 1970; number of students around 15,000

Sister City in the U.S.: Fort Worth, Texas, since July 13, 1987

Various sources (Facts and Figures)


Roman sculpture showing a wine ship © picture-alliance / dpa