Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
Today we continue examining the list of 52 Ancient Roman Monuments which had been claimed as a “must see” by Touropia Travel Experts. The last location we had checked out was #32 – the Arch of Constantine.
Today we’re headed to the frontier as we enter the barbarian territory of Germania to bring to you #31 – Porta Nigra!
Porta Nigra (Black Gate) is a large Roman city gate in Trier, Germany. Named for the color of its darkened gray sandstone, the name Porta Nigra originated in the Middle Ages since the original Roman name has not been preserved.
Locals commonly refer to the Porta Nigra simply as Porta. It now serves as an entrance to the town.
Porta Nigra was built between 186 and 200 AD. The original gate consisted of a pair of 4-storied towers, projecting as near semicircles on the outer side.
A narrow courtyard separated the 2 gate openings on either side. For unknown reasons, however, the construction of the gate remained unfinished.
The stones at the northern (outer) side of the gate were never abraded, and the protruding stones would have made it impossible to install movable gates. Nonetheless, the gate was used for several centuries until the end of the Roman era in Trier.
In Roman times the Porta Nigra was part of a system of 4 gates of a castrum, one of which stood at each side of the roughly rectangular Roman city. The Porta Nigra guarded the northern entry to the Roman city, while the Porta Alba (White Gate) was built in the east, the Porta Media (Middle Gate) in the south, and the Porta Inclyta (Famous Gate) in the west, next to the Roman bridge across the Moselle.
The gates stood at the ends of the 2 main streets of the Roman Trier, one leading north-south while the other east-west. Of these gates, only the Porta Nigra still exists today.
In the early Middle Ages the Roman city gates were no longer used for their original function. The locals took the Porta’s stones and reused them for other buildings.
Also iron and lead braces were broken out of the walls of the Porta Nigra for reuse. Traces of this destruction are still clearly visible on the north side of the gate.
After 1028, the Greek monk Simeon lived as a hermit in the ruins of Porta Nigra. After his death in 1035 and sanctification, the Simeonstift monastery was built next to the Porta Nigra to honor him.
Saving it from further destruction, the Porta Nigra was transformed into a church. The inner court of the gate was roofed and intermediate ceilings were inserted.
The 2 middle-stories of the former gate were converted into church naves with the upper for the monks and the lower for the general public. The ground floor with the large gates was sealed, and a large outside staircase was constructed alongside the south side (the town side) of the gate, up to the lower storey of the church.
A small staircase led further up to the upper level. The church rooms were accessible through former windows of the western tower of the Porta Nigra that were enlarged to become entrance doors (still visible today).
The top floor of the western tower was used as church tower, the eastern tower was leveled, and an apse added at its east side. An additional gate (the much smaller Simeon Gate) was built adjacent to the East side of the Porta Nigra and served as a city gate in medieval times.
In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the church in the Porta Nigra and the monastery beside it, along with the vast majority of Trier’s numerous churches and monasteries. On his visit to Trier in 1804, Napoleon ordered that Porta Nigra be converted back to its Roman form.
From the newest Emperor’s mandate, only the apse was kept. However, the eastern tower was not rebuilt to its original height.
Local legend has it that Napoleon originally wanted to completely tear down the church, but locals convinced him that the church had actually been a Gaulish festival hall before being turned into a church. Another version of the story is that they told him about its Roman origins, persuading him to convert the gate back to its original form.
The modern appearance of Porta Nigra goes back almost unchanged to the reconstruction ordered by Napoleon. At the south side of the Porta Nigra, remains of Roman columns line the last 100+ yards of the street leading to the gate.
Positioned where they had stood in Roman times, the columns give a slight impression of the aspect of the original Roman street that was lined with colonnades. It also has crowning cornice and parapet on its top.
The gate is today closed to cars, but stands right next to one of the main streets of Trier. Despite general pollution, exhaust fumes of the passing cars, and weather over many centuries, the Porta Nigra is still in remarkable condition.
The Porta Nigra, including the upper floors, is open to visitors. In summer, guided tours are also offered by an actor dressed up as and portraying a Roman Centurio in full armor.
In 1986 Porta Nigra was designated as part of the Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is today the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps.
New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, USA, is named after the city of Trier, Germany, and the New Trier Logo depicts the Porta Nigra.
We hope you enjoyed today’s adventure as much as we did. We look forward to having you back soon to check out what we have in store.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Fiske Kimball, George Harold Edgell et al. History of Architecture. Research & Education Association, 2001. ISBN 0-87891-383-1.
Elsner, Jas. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire AD 100-450. Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-284201-3.
Site of the Porta Nigra in Google Maps