Imperial Roman Baths – Trier

Germany has a ton of Roman ruins scattered about, and Trier is no exception. We spent three days in this quaint little city. You could barely throw a stone in any direction without hitting some Roman ruins. One of our favourite sites was the Imperial Roman Baths.

Imperial Roman Baths

The meager entry fee of €3.00 (the 2015 admission price; now it’s €4.00)  made us think the site wouldn’t be all that impressive. We kept our expectations low, but wow, this place blew us away. It’s no wonder that it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the grouping of “the Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady”.

Imperial Roman Baths

The Imperial Roman Baths (or Kaiserthermen in German) were built in the 4th Century AD. They were one of the largest Roman bath complexes outside of Rome itself. So why were the baths so impressive? Trier was an important trading center and one of the largest cities during the height of the Roman Empire. In fact, it was often referred to as “Second Rome”.  Emperor Constantinus Chlorus started the baths project sometime after 293 AD when the Tetrarchy was formed. The work continued under his son, Constantine the Great, but work stopped when he left Trier in 316.

The baths sat unfinished for 50 years, until Gratian started the project back up in 367. But instead of continuing work on the baths, he had a military garrison built on the site. With changing leadership and political priorities taking precedent, the baths were never fully completed.

One of the coolest things about our visit was that we could walk through the maze of extensive underground tunnels. The state of preservation was remarkable.

tunnels under Kaiserthermen

Not all of the tunnels were open to the public, but it definitely gave us an impression of just how much work went into this project. Below is the maintenance clearance tunnel under the cold water baths or frigidarium. Romans tended to start in the frigidarium, then moved to the tepidarium (warm room), before ending in the caldarium (hot room). The ritual ended back in the warm room for a massage with oils and a good scraping with a metal instrument called a strigil. (Whoa, my university archaeology classes are coming back to me!)

Tunnels under Imperial Thermal Baths, TrierThe Romans used hypocausts to raise the floor in order to heat them from underneath:

Imperial Roman baths underground heating

This is the eastern apse of the hot water bath (caldarium). The walls are still up to 19m high! The site was undergoing restoration/preservation at the time of our visit, hence the scaffolding.

The site of the Imperial baths went through numerous stages of what we would term today as “adaptive re-use”. The De Castello family used the caldarium and boiler house as a castle stronghold in the Middle Ages. The church of St. Gervaise was built in the center of the courtyard not long after. During the Frankish period, settlers built their houses inside the walls encircling the baths. And in 1295, the monastery church of St. Agnes was built the the northwest former spa complex. Both the church of St. Gervaise and the monastery church of St. Agnes were dismantled around 1802-1803 due to secularization.

All of this constant activity greatly contributed to its preservation today.

Just look at the intricate brickwork. This really is a beautiful building, even without plaster and paint, as it would have had once completed:

details of caldarium wall

The caldarium from another angle:

To give some idea of the immense size of the site, here is a photo overlooking the palaestra, where athletes once worked out.

View of palaestra at Trier

There is also a small museum on site, but the baths and its two stories of maintenance tunnels are the main event here. We loved exploring the winding tunnels and imagining what life must have been like at the height of the Roman Empire. We spent nearly two hours here and could have easily spent even longer!

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