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.


Exchange Experience in Frankfurt Rhine-Main

When my daughter began German classes in middle school, we could not have imagined how much the experience would add to our lives. Four years later, we hosted a student from Germany; we were preparing for my daughter to go there when the coronavirus pandemic spoiled everyone’s plans. In the summer before she started college, we decided to re-create part of that canceled tour, and I got to go, too. 

We knew the student who had stayed with us, but now both of us would be staying with her family, so we were excited and a bit nervous. The wide smiles and warm hugs that greeted us in Frankfurt set the tone for a marvelous adventure. 

We usually sleep flying east and stay awake flying west to help us adjust to the new time zone. With that in mind, I told our host mom we could hit the ground running, so she loaded us into her car and drove us to nearby Wiesbaden for the afternoon. 

This was a swanky town for centuries because of its hot springs. Also here are a high-rolling casino and a shopping district spread through historic cobbled streets. Cafes offer outdoor seating, and metal sculptures along the route are 3D replica maps of the town’s center. We walked through a lush green park lined by elegant old mansions and eventually came upon a water-powered funicular from 1888 that takes visitors up Neroberg hill for a view of Frankfurt Rhine-Main that is unparalleled. 

Our second day in Germany was a workday for our host mom, so she booked a tour of Mainz for us with a guide who explained the city’s rich and complicated 2,000-year history. We learned that Gutenberg perfected his printing press by modifying the presses his family had used to prepare grapes in this wine-rich region. We also learned that Mainzer Dom, the city’s magnificent cathedral, was the only place outside the Vatican ever to be a Holy See — from 975 until 1011. Outside the church we paused at a wide wooden post covered in nails sold as a fundraiser for World War I widows. 

After our tour, we noshed on sausages baked into pretzels with cheese from street vendor Ditsch then headed to the Gutenberg Museum to see the famous Bible and watch a demonstration of how the original press operated. The presentation was in German, so my daughter and her host sister translated the high points, and later the docent gave us the document he had pressed. 

On our way home, we popped into a modern mall, where we found an archaeological dig of a temple devoted to Isis that was discovered during the mall’s creation. We also stopped at the ruins of a coliseum that once held 10,000 Roman visitors who came annually to celebrate Drusus, an important military hero in the first decade B.C. A modern train station nestles against them now, and a silent video is on constant display to show how it once looked and how the ruins have been preserved. 

Later we drove up a winding hill to Laubenheimer Hohe winery to taste local Reinhessen wines. The sun set and moon rose over the vineyards where we ate dinner and watched the twinkling lights of Frankfurt come alive on the horizon. Vinegar, local handkase cheese and onions on bread went well with our riesling and pinot gris wines, and a soft pretzel dipped in savory spundekas was divine. 

With Frankfurt just a short train ride away, that was our next destination. Our daughters joined us for lunch in the oldest part of the city before going off on their own. 

“I just love to meander and find new places,” our exchange mom told me, so that’s exactly what we did. 

Twenty thousand steps later, we had visited a beautiful old church where a glowing bride swept down the aisle on her father’s arm, watched an artist weave bubbles in the air for delighted children by an old city fountain and paused to take in the city skyline from Eiserner Steg, an iron bridge from 1869 where engraved padlocks clipped to railings forever lock in their owners’ love. 

Behind the beauty, however, remains a real element of responsibility and renewal in each of these cities and towns where the fingers of history are long and often painful. They were heavily bombed at the end of World War II, when Allied forces intentionally saved only churches and large buildings to use as landmarks for bombing raids, but much effort has been made to rebuild. New buildings are remade to look like their predecessors or incorporate fragments of statues or detailing that recalls the past while looking toward the future. 

As for us — we are looking to the future, too. Not every foreign-exchange experience provides lifelong friends, but in Germany we found people who will be forever family.


Wiesbaden: www.wiesbaden.de/en/tourism/index.php

Casino Wiesbaden: www.spielbank-wiesbaden.de/en

Nerobergbahn (funicular): www.nerobergbahn.de/home.html

Mainz: www.mainz-tourismus.com/en

Gutenberg Museum: www.mainz.de/microsite/gutenberg-museum-en/index.php

Temple of Isis: www.mainz-tourismus.com/en/explore-enjoy/living-culture/museums/sanctuary-of-isis-mater-magna

Laubenheimer Hohe Winery: www.rheinhessen.de/en/to-eat-and-drink/a-hofgut-laubenheimer-hoehe-1 

Frankfurt: www.frankfurt-tourismus.de/en

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