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


15.12.12
  The Unfinished Gate - The Porta Nigra in Trier, Part 1

Salvete amici, it's me, Aelius Rufus. Yes, it is quite some time you last saw me, and I had to have a word with Gabriele about the lack of Roman posts. She's always traveling to those barbarian places, first the Mare Suebicum and then into the lands of the Hermunduri and other, more obscure tribes. Really, no sane Roman goes there. And those posts about old rocks - not even the Greek philosophers believe the world is that old. And when she's not traveling, she's writing. Fiction, of all things, and not even trying to disguise it as a true account. ;-)

But well, I got her to transfer what I told her about the Porta Nigra in Augusta Treverorum into this funny thing with the screen which everyone everywhere can read, she says. Oh, and she also tells me she has not many pictures this time, because it was the first time she used that little picture box and didn't take as many magic drawings as she does now.

Porta Nigra, the town side

Ok, so here we go. The Porta Nigra is one of the best preserved gates from Antiquity and the people in Augusta Treverorum are still proud of it; not to mention visitors who want to see the gate leave some money in the town.

Like most other buildings, the gate dates to the 2nd century AD and was planned as part of the expansion program under the Emperor Antoninus Pius. At the time, the town was walled in and got five flashy gates of which only the Porta Nigra survived. I've already mentioned Tony's construction activities in this post.

The Porta Nigra wasn't black back then, though instead the nice cream colour of sandstone, but all the smoke tinted it dark (environment problems are not a 21st century thing). Of course, it wasn't called the Black Gate back then, either (and why does Gabriele now murmur something about Mordor?) - the name is first mentioned in 1041. The original name was likely Gate to Confluentes (Koblenz), and for a time it was called Porta Martis, Gate of Mars.

It looks huge, but the size is actually Standard Roman Din-A-Gate: 36 metres wide and 21.5 metres deep in the centre of the oblong towers; the towers were 32 metres high (the west tower has still almost the original size), the middle building, the gate proper, 24.5 metres. The foundations are 4 metres wide, the walls up to 3.4 m. The gate was integrated into the town wall (which - another number for Constance *grin* - was 6.4 km long), the battlements of the walls ran at 6 metres above ground and were accessible from the gate towers.

From the landside, the Porta Nigra with its protruding towers must have looked impressive to visitors and enemies alike.

The inner yard between the two towers is framed by two galleries which could be reached by timber staircases - one of those has been repaired for visitors to get to the galleries. The landside gates could be locked by a portcullis. The inner gates should have been protected by wooden doors but those were never installed. If finished, the whole contraption would have kept enemies who breached the outer gate locked inside the yard where they could have been shot by missiles from the galleries. But as it is, the inhabitants of Augusta Treverorum could be glad no enemy ever made it through the gate because else they'd just have run onward into town.

They might even have found shelter from the rain, since the main roads in Trier, including the one leading off the Porta Nigra, were framed by pergolas. That's more than you get today in the way of comfort.

The arcades around the yard (first floor)

The missing doors are not the only unfinished part of the Porta Nigra. A lot of the large sandstone squared stones (weighing up to 6 tons) that were used for the facing have only been roughly hewn on the outside. The ground facets where they fit together have been well smoothed, though, so that the stones stay put without mortar or opus cementitium. The stones had been worked with water powered bronze saws as some traces show. Iron clamps babbitted in lead had been added nevertheless, but those have been plucked out during the Middle Ages; it made no difference to the walls.

From the town side, the gate would almost have looked like a palace, but most of the decorative pillars, capitals and bases are only roughly hewn as well, which is surprising in a grand building like the Porta Nigra which was clearly intended to impress visitors and show off the wealth of the town magistrates.

The town walls, of which almost nothing remains save some traces only the archaeologists from Gabriele's time can read (how do they do that; some sort of time traveling?), had been erected on a grand concept, too, with two facing walls filled by the usual Roman mix of mortar and ashlar. The care taken with those walls clearly shows that they had been built in a peaceful time. One part of the wall (45 metres in the south side) remained unfinished to give access to the area of potteries outside town, and that part was later built in a much more haphazard manner. Some of Gabriele's ancestors were milling outside Trier then. The walls were additionally protected by a series of trenches.

So the question remains why the Porta Nigra has never really been finished. That includes trying to find the exact date when it was built, which seems to be a bit of a puzzle for those archeologists. But there are a few hints. The gate is connected to the town walls, and among the rubble pottery shards from the second half of the second century AD have been found. That puts the date in the time of the reigns of Antoninus Pius (138 - 161; more likely the second half), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Commodus (180 - 192) and maybe Septimius Severus (193 - 211; likely the first years). A few statistics have been calculated about the time it would have taken to erect the gate, but I'm prone to go for one of the longer estimates; governmental projects were never finished in time. I see Gabriele nods.

One of the reasons could have been that the magistrate of Trier ran out of money and none was forthcoming from the emperors, either (Marcus Aurelius was busy fighting the Marcomanni at the Danube among others, and Septimius Severus had to fight contenders for the position of emperor).

The arcades around the yard, closeup

But it's not impossible that inimical actions got in the way of fine-tuning those stones and pillars. In 162, the Chatti crossed the Rhine and raided the province of Germania Superior (around Mainz, for those who slept during their geography lessons), in 175, the Chauci in northern Germany did the same and raided the provinces of Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica, to which Trier belongs. The inhabitants of the town may have thought it more prudent to dig another trench and fill in that gap in the wall than polishing a few decorative pillars. If the Chauci ever laid siege to Trier, they didn't succeed; siege warfare was not the strength of the Germanic tribes. (I know, Aelius, we would have needed Constance and her trebuchets, lol.).

The man to repel the Chauci was the governor of Gallia Belgica, Didius Julianus, who was made consul for his gallant defense of the province. He would later become emperor for nine weeks by paying for the job during the Year of the Five Emperors after Commodus' death in AD 192. He was executed by the victorious Septimius Severus.

Another contender for the imperial purple at the time was Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia. At first, Septimius Severus, who had another rival in the east to deal with, made an agreement with Albinus, offering him the position of caesar and heir, but when he had defeated the rival, he wanted to establish his own sons (the brothers Geta and Caracalla) as heirs. As a consequence, Albinus, who had some support in the Senate in Rome, took his three legions from Britannia and crossed over to Gaul where he was acclaimed emperor by the troops, defeated the legionary legate Virius Lupus, and made his headquarter in Lugdunum (Lyon).

But he failed to gain the alliance of the Rhine legions. The XXII Primigenia stationed in Mainz came to the relief of Trier when Albinus besieged the town in AD 196, and the following year, Albinus was defeated at the Battle of Lugdunum, and either fell or was executed upon orders of Septimius Severus, and condemned to damnatio memoriae, oblivion of memory. Severus also executed some senators who had supported Albinus, and from that time on he was the uncontested emperor.

A sidenote from my time-travelling friend Merlinus: When Albinus took most of the Roman army with him to Gaul, the tribes north of the Hadrian's Wall promptly raided the province, and Severus sent the same Virius Lupus who had been defeated in Gaul, to restore order which he did by buying peace. Not exactly Severus' idea, so he would later come to Britain himself and show those northern tribes what an army looked like.

For some reason, the gate was not finished after those wars, either. Maybe money was indeed the issue then.

And now Gabriele mutters something about 'damn plotbunnies'.
Yes, I do, I don't need a prequel to my story set at the Hadrian's Wall during the time of Septimius Severus, about the wars in Gaul.

Source:
Klaus-Peter Goethert, Römerbauten in Trier. Burgen, Schlösser, Altertümer Rheinland Pfalz, volume 20. Landesmedienzentrum Rheinland-Pfalz, 2005

 
Comments:
Aelius Rufus, do you realize how tempting the Standard Roman Din-A-Gate is for an ex-engineer? Although the size is rather formidable for knocking down...

I think Gabriele's theory that it was lack of money that impeded progress on the town walls is probably a good bet. Money should always come to the engineers first, and everyone else after. :)
 
You surely have a point there. Though in this case the engineers had pretty much done their job (except for the wooden doors); the money should have gone to the masons specialised in making fine pillars, capitals and such.

But it is another sign that the Romans rarely trusted slaves (aka cheap workers) with those jobs; often the building stuff was done by the army that also provided the engineers.
 
Lovely to read your Roman stuff again, Gabriele! What an amazing sight it is.
 
Gabrielle, the introduction is actually great:-) And much needed! It catches the visitor's attention immediately. I think I will have to use the simillar technique on Henry's blog :-)

Anyway, great post! Keep writing in the same vein ( I mean the introductions :-))
 
Thanks for posting Gabrielle- that is a fantastic structure! I'd love something like that on my wargames table, would need to scale it down, though...

Cheers, Simon
 
Kathryn, it's a pity I took sos few photos in Trier, compared to what I do these days (though it were still considerably more than at the time of film rolls).

Kasia, Aelius Rufus and his time travelling friend Merlinus are characters I made up some time ago to present the readers my Roman stuff in a fun way.

Simon, you could add the missing gates on the townside and have your miniature Germans - if you have them - trapped in the yard and getting shot by your miniature Romans. Or maybe there's a daring breakthrough and some attempts to climb the galleries. Fun stuff. :-)
 
Gabrielle, good to know. I will look for them in your other texts :-) especially that I know very little about the Romans, their short stay in Britain being the exception, of course :-)
 
OMG - what a stunning picture to start your blog with!
 
Kasia, check the sidebar under 'Peregrinationis' for the Roman posts; all of those about Trier are by Aelius Rufus, plus some of the Saalburg stuff, Segedunum in Britain and the ones in Wales.

Thank you, Anerje.
 
Thanks, Gabrielle. I will definitely take a look at the posts during my Christmas break. BTW, have you any texts concerning medieval Christmas celebrations? I'm planning to recommend a few texts for further reading on Henry's blog. Just wanted to ask if you don't mind.

Oh, and feel free to drop by. I've justed posted a short text on the new king Wenceslas :-)
 
Gabrielle, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and in my native Polish: Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku! It's been great to meet you. 2012 was (and still is) a good year. So many new people...
I'm really happy :-)
 
Gabrielle, if you don't have anything connected with Christmas, I will include links to your Fram texts. Would it be okay?. I know, Amundsen has nothing to do with Henry the Young King but a lot with my teenage years, when I was head over heels in love with him and Fridjof Nansen and polar explorers in general :-)

Merry Christmas again!

(Gee, hope I haven't overused your precious space:-))
 
Kasia,
I haven't specifically researched Mediaeval Christmas celebrations, but I got the impression that Christmas was a lot less important than Easter at the time. There were always Easter diets and other, more informal meetings, and the palatine castles and the churchs chosen for Easter celebrations gained a lot of prestige. I've never found similarly important Christmas diets and other official meetings.

Of course you're welcome to link to posts from my blog.

And I wish you ein frohes Weihnachtsfest und ein glückliches Neues Jahr. :-)
(I can even pronounce those Polish words; picked the rules up during my studies of historical Linguistics.)
 
Thanks, Gabrielle. That's very interesting. I know nothing about German medieval Christmas traditions, I admit. Although I know how much the theatre owes Easter celebrations in Germany and one Hroswitha :-) It somehow confirms that in Germany Easter was more important than Christmas.
 
Post a Comment

<< Home


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.

My Photo
Name:
Location: Germany

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.

e-mail
Twitter


Links leading outside my blog will open in a new window.
I do not take any responsibility for the content of linked sites.