Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Saints, Sinners, and Socialists: A Brief History of Trier

In my last post, I wrote about a coin I purchased in Trier, Germany. Augusta Trevorum, as the city was known to the Romans, was most likely founded late in the 1st century B.C. by the Romans. Julius Caesar subdued the Treveri, the local tribe, during his Gaulish campaigns and the territory included a section of the Mosel river valley which the Romans found a convenient location for governing their new subjects.  Augusta Trevorum came to be the capital of Gallia Belgica, the Roman province, and later the capital of all Roman Gaul.

Many centuries later, the medieval chroniclers of the town would move the date of Trier’s founding from the days of Caesar Augustus back to the days of Abraham.  Fabricating an elaborate myth of Assyrian nobility, they would claim that the city was created some 2000 years before Christ and craft for it, and its people, a lineage to rival even that of Rome’s.

None of it is true, of course. Medieval chroniclers apparently had too much time on their hands. Despite this, Trier has a fascinating, and factual, history.

Though a distant satellite of Rome, Trier pops up continuously through the chronicles of the Western Empire. First as an outpost, a center of rural governance, and later as a capital in its own right. This continuous relationship with the Empire, especially in the days of Constantine who made the city his residence in the west, has left a permanent mark on the place.

For a small city in the idyllic, but decidedly rural, Eifel region of Germany, Trier is the birthplace of a surprising number of prominent figures. Helena, the sainted mother of Constantine the Great was born here as was Ambrose, bishop of Milan, one of the original Doctors of the Church, and a Saint.

Saint Ambrose
Ambrose, born in the 4th century, was the son of a praetorian prefect.  Born to a Christian family, Ambrose originally followed his father and sought a career in administration. After being educated in Rome, he eventually found himself a consular prefect in Milan.

It was in Milan that Ambrose found himself elevated, quite unwillingly, to the office of a bishop by two disputing factions who saw in him a disinterested third party. At the time, he wasn’t even baptized much less ordained or even trained in theology.

Whatever he may have lacked initially in religious bona fides, Ambrose made up for through his native intelligence, his hard work, and his somewhat surprising zealotry. He was chosen for the post of Bishop of Milan largely due to his apparent neutrality in the bitter fights between the orthodox church and the Arians. But whatever neutrality an unbaptized, un-ordained Ambrose may have possessed, the new Bishop of Milan was an unwavering supporter of orthodoxy.

Ambrose’s battles with the Arians, his persecution of pagans, and his defiance of Imperial will are all legendary. Before Ambrose, the State and the Church were the same entity. After Ambrose, in the west at least, they were separate and the Church was on a much higher plane. His ideas and influence would set the stage for the next 1000 years of Church dominance in Europe.

Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast covered Ambrose this week. It is an excellent podcast in general and this was an excellent episode about Ambrose. I highly recommend it.

On the spectrum of Trier’s famous sons, Ambrose sits firmly at one end. Sitting firmly on the other end is a very different, and more modern, scion: Karl Marx was born in Trier as well (664 Br├╝ckergasse to be exact). Marx is in many ways the father of modern Socialist thought. His ideas have impacted most of the softer sciences: from history to economics to politics.

Born in 1818, Marx’s father was a middle-class owner of vineyards along the Mosel (viticulture and the vineyards were brought by the Romans) who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Karl Marx was educated at first in Bonn where he was more interested in his drinking club than in studying. His father would then send him to complete his studies in Berlin where he became interested in the philosophers that would lead him to develop his ideas and theories.

It would be hard to deny the influence that either of these men had on history (ancient and modern) and I find it ironic that both came into to the world in the same small but lovely city in rural Germany.