As the Roman Empire began to crumble in the 5th Century AD and the conquerors departed, they left in their wake, all over Europe, buildings whose remains are still visible today. This is nowhere more evident than in the city of Trier in western Germany, where the ruins of Roman baths and an amphitheatre, a 2nd Century bridge over the River Mosel and the Constantine Basilica bear witness to Roman occupation that began with the Emperor Augustus Caesar and lasted for more than 400 years.
The most impressive of all the Roman remains in Trier is the Porta Nigra, an immense 2nd Century gate at the end of Porta-Nigra-Platz in the centre of the city. It is the oldest defensive structure in Germany and also the only complete Roman building in the world. Its original Roman name has long been forgotten. The name Porta Nigra, meaning “black gate”, refers to the weathering of the sandstone and dates from medieval times.
The Porta Nigra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is open daily to visitors. An entry gate leads to an inner courtyard where a grand flight of stone steps spirals up to the two upper floors.
No mortar was used in the construction of the Porta Nigra – the massive sandstone blocks are held together by iron rods.
After Roman times the Porta Nigra was inhabited from 1028 to 1035 by a hermit monk called Simeon. When he died, he was buried in the gate and the Church of St Simeon was created inside the building. The Emperor Napolean dissolved the Church community in 1803 and ordered the Porta Nigra be restored to its original Roman appearance, but carvings of religious figures and stories can still be seen on the walls.
It’s not just the Porta Nigra and the other Roman structures that pay testament to Trier’s ancient story. Roman coins, jewellery and other artefacts are unearthed every day, and they are so common that there are shops where visitors can purchase a piece of antiquity if they are prepared to pay the asking price. A cheaper option for most tourists is to do some ‘people watching’ in Porta-Nigra-Platz. Who knows, Augustus Caesar might come strolling by!