Basilica of Constantine (Aula Palatina), Trier

Originally built in the 4th century, the Aula Palatina has been remade several times according to the aesthetics of each age that transformed it.

Basilica of Constantine (Aula Palatina), c. 310 C.E., Trier, Germany. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


Additional resources

Alfred Frazer, “The Imperial Realm: Architecture,” Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, edited by Kurt Weitzmann (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979), pp. 109–23.

Richard Krautheimer, “The Constantinian Basilica,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, volume 21 (1967), pp. 115–40.

Noel Lenski, “Building Churches,” Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), pp. 179–96.


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”AulaTrier,”]

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We are in the city of Trier in Germany, looking at the monumental structure built by the ancient Roman emperor Constantine in [the] early 4th century. An earlier Roman emperor, Diocletian, divided the Roman empire into four parts, but basically divided it into the eastern and western empires, and Trier became one of the capitals of this newly divided state.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:30] Now, the building that we’re looking at is an audience hall that once formed part of Constantine’s palace here in Trier.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] This is a basilica, and this particular basilica has no side aisles. It is a single enormous interior space. When you walk in, your eye’s immediately drawn to the far end of the building, where there is a semicircular apse, and it is there that Constantine presumably would have sat — possibly as judge, and certainly as the head of the state.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] It’s amazing to me to think about this building as from the very early years of the 300s. That seems miraculous, and it turns out that would have been miraculous had it been true.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] But it’s not entirely true. This building has had a very long life, and it has been through numerous transformations. In some ways, this building has been remade according to the aesthetics of each age that has transformed it.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] In its simplicity, in its pared-down form, it suggests an intense spirituality. It reminds me, for example, of Cistercian architecture from the Middle Ages that sought to remove decorative forms in order to focus one’s spiritual devotions.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] What we’re seeing is a building that has been reconstructed from a building that has been reconstructed from a building that has been reconstructed. As art historians, that subsequent history is important. We’re not only interested in the origin of the structure, we’re interested in how its meanings and how its physical form has been altered over time.

[2:07] The first thing we should say is that the building’s basic form is largely unaltered. However, there were colonnaded courtyards on both long sides of the structure, and in the front there was a transverse passageway with two semi-circular turns at either end.

[2:23] What we’re left with on the exterior is a beautiful rhythm of form, the strong verticals countered by the horizontal of the line of the windows. The same is true inside. We’re now seeing a coffered wooden roof, and that’s different from the trussed roof that the building would have originally had.

[2:39] In addition, what we’re seeing now is exposed brick everywhere, on the inside and the outside, and that would not have originally been the case.

[2:47] The interior, some art historians think, would have been covered with plaster. That plaster was then covered with elaborate stone revetment. It would have been a more lavish space. It is a much more spare, in some ways seemingly modern, space, because all of the decorative has been removed.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] This building starts its life as an audience hall, as part of the palace, but it soon becomes used as a church.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to think about how old this building is. There are reports of destruction at an early point in the building’s history, and then it became part of the residence of an archbishop who pulled down part of the wall in order to incorporate the structure into his palace.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] Napoleon occupies and defeats Germany.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] Then after Napoleon was defeated and Germany was seeking its national identity, the king of Prussia sought to return the building to its original Roman nobility.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, king of Prussia, decides to rebuild churches across Prussia as a way to consolidate this new German Prussian identity.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] The king of Prussia is known for two alterations. On the one hand, he frees the building of many of the structures that had accumulated around it so it can be seen as almost a freestanding structure.

[4:06] He also remakes the interior in a 19th-century vision of what an ancient Roman building should look like, and so he creates pedimented niches. He puts sculptures in them.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] The next significant historical moment for the life of this building is World War II. Trier is bombed by the Allied forces. The building is on fire, the interior is destroyed, the roof is gone, and the building will be rebuilt.

Dr. Zucker: [4:33] And that’s the building that we’re visiting now. And so the building has been transformed to the aesthetics of each age. The monumentality of the interior is overwhelming. You walk in and you’re awestruck by the scale, and that’s true now in the 21st century.

[4:48] One can only imagine how intense that feeling would have been when the emperor Constantine was at the far end, seated on a majestic throne in this enormous structure in the new capital of Rome in Trier.

[5:01] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Basilica of Constantine (Aula Palatina), Trier," in Smarthistory, August 16, 2023, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/basilica-of-constantine-aula-palatina-trier/.