In ruins: The Roman empire in Germany

by Jeana Coleman
Stripes Europe

By today’s standards, the Romans were hedonistic, savage warriors  – educated and cultured yet brutally barbaric. They are also considered one of the most powerful civilizations in history, dominating Europe for more than 1,200 years. Their mastery of architecture, engineering, government and law would become a foundation for modern civilization. Their military’s crushing power and enduring control – from monarch, to republic to empire – would influence further attempts to resurge imperialism, witnessed in both World Wars.

Today, 1,500 years after the fall of the Empire, we are still fascinated by the Romans, their legendary gladiators, lavish lifestyles and military genius. To gain insight into their lives, visit one of the many preserved Roman ruins and museums found across Europe. But before you head to Rome, consider that most of Germany was occupied by the Roman Empire at one point during its rule; exceptional ruins, artifacts and architecture are discoverable right here in your host country.


Trier is Germany’s oldest city, founded by the Romans in 16 B.C. and named Augusta Treverorum after Emperor Augustus. In A.D. 306, Constantine the Great became emperor over the western region of the Roman Empire, and moved to Trier, the capital of the western front.  A significant figure in world history, Constantine would soon control the entire Roman Empire, establish the Byzantine Empire and as the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, spread the religion among the Empire. Several Roman ruins in Trier, most of them attributed to Constantine, have been discovered and preserved; Roman artifacts are also on display at local museums. Learn more about the following exhibitions and locations at the city’s official website.

Porta Nigra —This “Black Gate,” built around A.D.  180, is one of the most dramatic Roman remains in Germany, and one of the best preserved Roman gates in the world. Visitors may enter the interior, upper levels of the gate, and seasonal tours are provided.

St. Peter’s Cathedral – Although most of the cathedral is Medieval, the ”Dom” sits on the remains of Trier’s early Roman structures, including Constantine’s gigantic palace and basilica complex. Visitors may tour the excavated underground site to see columns, reliefs and tombs. Don’t miss the relic, Holy Tunic, supposedly worn by Jesus shortly before his crucifixion and later brought to Trier by Constantine’s mother, Helena.

The Basilica of Constantine — Constructed as Constantine’s audience hall, the Basilica is impressive; its size and window optical illusion leading into the apse were designed to portray the emperor as larger than his audience. The building is now occupied as a church.

Imperial Baths of Trier — Constructed as part of Constantine’s renovation of Trier, the Imperial Baths are one of the most well-preserved and largest examples of Roman baths outside of Rome. Like the luxurious spas of today, Romans constructed bathhouses as both hygienic facilities and social gathering places. Superior engineering  and plumbing systems allowed for heated water and flooring. Visit the labyrinth of rooms, tunnels and passageways below ground.

Trier Roman Amphitheatre — This well-preserved amphitheatre dates to at least to the second century and is one of the few Roman amphitheatres utilized for open air events. Originally it was capable of seating 20,000. Like other Roman amphitheatres, it was used for gladiator fights, executions and animal battles. The basement below the arena is still intact, with holding cells and hallways used to confine animals and prisoners during events.

Rheinisches Landesmuseum — The Rhineland Museum holds one of the best collections of Roman artifacts in Germany. Exhibits include architectural reliefs, columns, burial tombs, mosaics, jewelry, coins, sculptures and more.

St. Matthias Abbey — This Benedictine abbey is of the Medieval period, but within is an impressive Roman cemetery said to hold the remains of  the last appointed apostle, Matthias.  Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot as one of the twelve apostles after Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide.

Although not the complete list of ruin sites, these will more than get you started on your discovery of the Romans among us. For more details about each of these ruins, or to learn about more locations with Roman ruins near Trier, visit


Originally called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, Romans founded Cologne in A.D. 50 as an outpost, which later became the capital of the Empire’s colonies in Lower Germany. Colonia Claudia continued to thrive as a Roman capital until the Franks’ occupation of 462. Today, Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany and a center for culture and art, with more than 30 museums and 100 galleries.

Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne — As one of the most visited museums in Germany, it holds three million Roman artifacts. Included are the reconstructed tomb of Poblicius, an exceptional collection of Roman glass and jewelry, and a complete mosaic floor with depictions of the life of Dionysos. The museum was actually built around the floor. 

Praetorium — Beneath the Alt Rathaus is the structural remains of the praetorium, or parliament building from the Empire’s military command center in Colonia Claudia. Request a dual ticket when visiting the Roman-Germanic Museum to see both. Plus, see the Roman sewer exhibit and earthquake stimulator.

Weiden Roman Burial Chamber — Just 10 kilometers west of Cologne is a second century Roman tomb.  This lavish burial chamber impresses with its architectural arches, intricately carved stone casket and busts.

Want to see more? You’ll find remains of watch towers, fortification walls and more around the city, such as at Komödienstraße and the corner of Tunistraße, and at the intersection of Zeughausstraße and St.-Alpen-Straße.  For more Roman ruin locations, information about these sites and exhibits, visit


The Romans founded a military camp here in 12 B.C., and colonized a settlement in A.D. 98 called Colonia Ulpia Traiana with a population of 10,000. In 1975, the Xanten Archaeological Park was opened and is Germany’s largest open-air museum. The park contains the original Roman Colonia Ulpia Traiana settlement, with partial reconstructions and ruins including an amphitheatre, temples, a city hall, bath house and homes.  Visit for more information.

The German Limes

Using the Danube, Rhine and North Sea as natural boundaries, the Romans built connecting fortified walls, called Limes Germanicus, to create territories that would help control their settlements from invasion. A 700-kilometer tourist road, called the German Limes Road, was built to allow tourists to follow the path of the limes, now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It runs from Bad Hönningen on the banks of the Rhine through Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria to Regensburg on the Danube. Along the road are several points of interest about Roman culture and history in Germany, including an original Roman fort, in Saalburg near Bad Homburg. For more information, visit the sites and

Once you’ve navigated these locations, you may want to start creating a new list of Roman sites to see, perhaps in neighboring France. A good place to start would be in Nîmes; the city’s amphitheatre, La Maison Carrée, and Pont du Gard aqueduct rival exhibits in Rome … but we’ll save that for another story.


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