My name is Tiro. For 36 years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous.

“Imperium” by Robert Harris



For centuries people have been intrigued with false document novels, which turn on a fabricated or nearly fabricated work of history, art, or literature. More than just historical fiction, these novels rely on the reconstruction of lost or imaginary works which would give us profound insight if only they were in our possession.

Once such novel is Robert Harris’ “Imperium” recently released in paperback. Unlike other novels which try to reconstruct events from Roman history through fabricated dialogue, Harris’ approach appeals because he recreates the voice of Tiro, scribe and biographer to Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s great statesman and orator. While Tiro is actually responsible for editing and publishing Cicero’s letters to family and friends, his lost biography of Cicero forms the basis of the novel, as Tiro, approaching his 100th birthday, relates his memoir to us in the book’s 28 chapters called rolls.

The action begins as Cicero, limited in wealth and resources, but a truly intelligent and gifted orator, single-mindedly works his way up Rome’s political ladder with little help. Tiro, born on the Tullian estate near Arpinum, is enlisted to accompany Cicero everywhere, taking down his every thought through his remarkable shorthand method, which truly remained in use well into the Middle Ages.

One fateful day, Tiro admits a stranger into Cicero’s study, setting in motion one of the most suspenseful courtroom dramas in Roman history, but one that would help Cicero attain the imperium (power) he so desperately seeks. The scribe sees the many sides of Cicero, his insecurities and his vanity, shaping him into a more complex character than his contemporaries, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.

One drawback to the novel is that the action ends rather abruptly with Cicero winning the consulship at the age of forty-two, but two sequels are planned for an “Imperium” series. Harris has several other novels, the most popular being “Pompeii” about the events taking place over four days surrounding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius recorded by Pliny and “Fatherland” a chilling thriller in which the Third Reich won the war and a conspiracy is about to be revealed as the Fuhrer approaches his seventy-fifth birthday.

For authentic Roman recipes, Apicius, author of the only completely surviving Roman cookbook, is the authority. Sauces such as liquamen, a fermented fish sauce, dominated ancient Roman cooking, but smelled so horrible the Romans banned its production in the city limits. With a little modification, your book club can recreate some ancient recipes for the dog days of summer.



Julia Child’s

Asparagus Eggs

Roman dinner parties began around 3 p.m. because of lighting and Rome’s being very dangerous after dark. The poet Juvenal describes the appetizer course at one of his dinner parties as being asparagus and eggs.

6 hard boiled eggs

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 or 3 tablespoons butter

salt and pepper

12 asparagus spears, fresh or frozen

Hard boil eggs until yolk is set, about 10 minutes. Prepare asparagus by steaming if frozen or according to package directions (I like the Wal-Mart brand of frozen asparagus in a steaming tray in a pinch) until just tender. Cut tips off spears and set aside as garnish. Cut tender middle from asparagus, reserving the ends for soup, if wanted. Puree mid-section of asparagus in blender or food processor. Mix with mayo, butter, salt and pepper, and egg yolks. Stuff eggs, garnishing each with an asparagus tip.



Isicia Omentata

The Romans had burgers made with must, a reduced wine concoction. This is an adaptation of Apicius’ recipe. A good substitute for the liquamen would be Paula Deen’s merlot steak sauce, which contains all the original Roman ingredients, available at Dillard's for $7.95.

1 1/2 pounds ground sirloin

1 French roll, soaked in red wine

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup liquamen (can be replaced by 1/2 teaspoon salt plus a little red wine or 3 teaspoons Paula’s sauce)

1 tablespoon Il de Re Gray Sea Salt with Five Pepper Blend (Williams-Sonoma)

1/4 cup pine nuts

Swiss or cheddar cheese

Romaine or red leaf lettuce

Mix ground beef with the soaked french roll. Add spices and liquamen/steak sauce and mix into the meat. Form burger patties and press in the pine nuts. Grill over charcoal until medium-well doneness. Serve on whole wheat or hearty buns garnished with cheese and some European lettuces.



Giada de

Lauerentis’s Grilled Artichokes

Pliny claimed the choke was the most horrible monstrosity on earth, but nevertheless he enjoyed the delicate flavors of the edible parts. I was stabbed by my artichoke during preparation, so exercise caution, but it is really not as intimidating as it seems.

2 lemons, halved

6 large artichokes

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Squeeze the juice from half a lemon into a large bowl of water. Using a sharp knife, trim the stems of the artichoke to about 1 inch. Bend back and snap off the outer leaves until you reach the light yellow inner core. Cut off the top inch of the artichoke to remove the dark green outer leaves and prickles. Using a vegetable peeler, pare away the tough, dark green areas from the stem and base of the artichoke. Quarter the artichoke lengthwise. Using a small, sharp knife, cut out the thistly choke and remove the purple, prickly-tipped leaves from the center (be careful, this is where I was stuck by a thorn). Drop the trimmed vegetables into the lemon water to prevent discoloration. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add drained artichokes to boiling water and cook for about 12 minutes; drain and cool (can be covered and refrigerated up to a day). Whisk 1/3 cup lemon juice, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper in small bowl; gradually whisk in oil. Brush the artichokes with dressing. Grill over medium high coals until tender and lightly charred, turning occasionally, about 10 minutes. Drizzle with remaining dressing and serve warm or at room temperature.



Pasta Salad

The ancient Romans had no pasta, tomatoes, potatoes, coffee or tea. Ingredients we think of as essentially Italian were not known to them until around the Renaissance.

8 ounces DaVinci twist pasta

2 ounces gorgonzola crumbles

1/4 cup chopped Kalamata olives

1/4 cup whole black olives

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 or 2 Roma tomatoes, chopped

1/2 green pepper, sliced thin in strips

1/2 cup toasted walnuts

1/4 cup champagne salad dressing

1/4 cup honey

Boil pasta according to directions; drain. Put pasta into a large mixing bowl. Add gorgonzola, olives, parsley, tomatoes, green pepper, and walnuts. Mix salad dressing and honey until blended. Keep chilled until ready to serve. Place pasta into decorative serving dish; stir dressing, then pour over pasta and serve.



Modern Pear Patina

4 pears

water or white wine (to cook the pears)

1 tablespoon honey

pinch each pepper and cumin

1/2 cup passum (or a raisin wine such as the Italian dessert wine Vin Santo)

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups milk (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil

Poach the whole pears in water or white wine. When they are done, peel and core them, then crush them into a puree, mixing in the honey, pepper, cumin and passum. Beat the eggs, adding the milk if desired. Then blend this into the pear mixture with the olive oil. Pour into a casserole and bake for around 20 minutes at 350 degrees Source: pbs.org, reprinted from “A Taste of Ancient Rome” by Illaria Gozzini Giacosa.

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