A Walk Through Time in Ancient Rome

It is the quintessential symbol of Rome, printed on mugs, pencil cases, T-shirts and canvas bags all over the city – the Colosseum. Every movie filmed in Rome includes a shot of the protagonists zooming around its lofty arches a la Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. On a recent five-day tour of Rome, my husband and I knew this had to be at the top of our list, and planning the particulars of it led to something of an education. 

I soon learned that a tour of the Colosseum almost always comes with an afternoon wander through the Forum because of their proximity to one another. I also learned that my Shakespearean idea of Caesar being murdered on the steps of a building called the Forum was misguided. The Forum was actually a five-acre commercial heart of ancient Rome filled with social, political and religious buildings. This was the center of government as far back as 700BC and was in use into the 700s AD. And while the Forum was, indeed, the seat of government during the time of Julius Caesar, the senate house there was not in use at the time of his death. It had been burned to the ground and was being renovated and rebuilt by Julius Caesar himself. In fact, he was about a mile away in a neighborhood called Largo di Torre Argentina at the Roman Senate’s temporary location when he was murdered by fellow senators on the Ides of March, 44BC – a mistake they soon lamented when all of Rome deeply mourned his death. 

With my myths dispelled and a realization that I had a lot yet to learn, I booked a tour with Paola Puecher, a Licensed Tourist Guide with the city of Rome whose knowledge of the history, geography, architecture and art of the city have been tested through oral and written exams. She did not disappoint. 

My husband and I met Puecher and four other visitors at a coffee shop just outside the Colosseum’s metro station where we had enjoyed a cappuccino and pastry in preparation of what turned out to be a marathon, not a sprint, through ancient history. She began our education immediately with a history of the giant structure. Built in the first century AD by Emperor Vespasian, the Colosseum was meant to be a gift to the people of Rome on the site of Nero’s former Golden Palace. In fact, a colossal golden statue of Nero that had stood in that space became the structure’s namesake – the Colosseum. As many as 60,000 people could fill the Colosseum in about a half hour with their numbered marble coins for reserved seating. And with the first historical use of zig-zag stair cases to improve the flow, visitors could be evacuated in only five. 

A trip into the tunnels beneath the main arena was a rare treat worth a few extra Euros. From there we could see the aqueduct that originally brought water to Nero’s pleasure lake that had once shimmered on this spot. We also saw some of the 28 hoists that slaves operated to lift animals, people, supplies and even boats up into the giant arena. With three daily events, occasionally in a flooded arena, the Colosseum was built in 10 years to bring the people of Rome together; it remains 2000 years later bringing people together from around the globe.

Just across the road from this iconic structure we stepped further back in time to Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills that form the boundary of Rome’s ancient city. Legend says that demigod twins who had been raised by a she-wolf argued over the location and leadership of the city, and when Romulus killed his brother Remus in 753BC, Rome was born – on Palatine Hill. From there the community grew sprawlingly until Julius Caesar decided to get things organized in 55BC. It was he who concentrated shops, public offices and buildings in one location to create the city center, the legendary Forum. 

Not long after, Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia built their palace atop the hill. In Latin, palatium simply means building, but after the home they created on Palatine Hill, the word palace evolved to mean an opulent residence of someone in power. And this one does not disappoint. With fountains, a private amphitheater, aqueducts, pools or courtyards for almost all of the 10,000 rooms, and more than 200,000 servants to cater to them, Augustus and Livia’s 52-year marriage was luxurious, and walking in their space felt like a privilege. 

The rest of the Forum nestles at the bottom of Palatine Hill. Puecher expertly guided us down the cobbled roads while bringing the ancient city to life with her words. The basilica we saw had been handed over to the Christians after Emperor Constantine converted in 312AD, and its distinctive shape became the template for all Christian basilicas thereafter. In another building, she pointed out little hooks hanging in alcoves painted with Christian frescoes. This had once been a pagan temple, and the hooks had held sacrifices before Rome’s abrupt change in theocracy. 

Time is clearly visible in the Roman Forum where the lower parts of buildings are in much better shape than the tops. Puecher explained that the Forum fell into decline when Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, and eventually it was abandoned. It crumbled in earthquakes and landslides, and it was even used as dumping grounds with detritus so deep that the bottoms of the ancient buildings were protected from environmental decay and from architectural scavengers who stole marble to build, among other things, St. Peter’s Basilica.  

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that restoration of the Forum began in earnest – a recent past for this ancient neighborhood. As we walked with Puecher down Via Sacra, she told us that this had been the Sacred Road of ancient Rome that had proudly guided visitors past religious temples and grand buildings into the very heart of the Forum. We commented reverently about the many layers of history that existed in this one location. 

“Yes,” she replied with her head tossed back in a laugh, “Rome is like a club sandwich – so many layers!” 


Hire a Guide – Paola Puecher is available at paola.puecher@libero.it

Book a Small Group Tour of the Colosseum Underground, Arena and Forum – www.viator.com

Lesley Frederikson is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.