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"Apicius, the most gluttonous gorger of all spendthrifts, established the view that the flamingo's tongue has a specially fine flavor."
Pliny, Natural History (X.133)
The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria ("The Art of Cooking") is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure who flourished during the reign of Tiberius early in the first century AD. (Renaissance humanists mistakenly ascribed the book to a "Apicius Caelius" from an attempt to reconstruct the letters API and CAE that appear on the damaged title page of one of two ninth-century manuscripts that preserve the document.) The recipes themselves were not compiled until late in the fourth or early in the fifth century and derive from a variety of sources, although about three-fifths are Apicius' own, some of which are quite elaborate. Apicius was said to have discovered how to treat the liver of sows, just as those of geese, stuffing them with dried figs and, then just before the animal was killed, giving it honeyed wine (mulsum) (Pliny, Natural History, VIII.209, cf. recipe 259).
The ten books are arranged, much like a modern cookbook, by the type of item to be prepared and include recipes for meats, vegetables, legumes, fowl, meat, seafood, and fish. Almost five hundred are given, presumably to be used by an experienced cook, as there is little indication of the quantity of ingredients or their proportions. Over four hundred of them include a sauce, invariably made with fermented fish sauce (garum) or defrutum, syrupy reduction of grape juice. The preparation of most sauces began with spices and herbs, usually pepper, which often were combined with cumin, although it sometimes is difficult to determine whether they were to be fresh or dried, leaf or seed. Then, after being ground in a mortar, fruits (plums, dates, raisins) and nuts (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts) were added (and often pounded as well) as well as liquids, including garum, water, stock, milk, honey, oil, vinegar, and wine, both plain and reduced. Thickening usually was by wheat starch but also included the yolks and whites of eggs, pounded dates, and steeped rice or the water in which the food had been boiled. Fish sauces tended to be particularly elaborate: boiled murena (likely eel), for example, called for pepper, lovage, dill, celery seed, coriander, dried mint, and rue, as well as pine nuts, honey, vinegar, wine, and oil (recipe 451).
Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae, I.7) relates that Apicius, "an exceedingly rich voluptuary," once sailed all the way to Libya in search of particularly large prawns. Not finding any to his satisfaction among those that were brought out to his ship, he then returned to Campania without even going ashore. Seneca, too, mentions Apicius, who competed for a huge mullet put up for sale by Tiberius that sold for five thousand sesterces (Moral Epistles, XCV.42). Digesting "the blessings of land and sea, and reviewing the creations of every nation" (On the Happy Life, XI.4), Apicius was the very embodiment of effete prodigality, his cooking school "defiled the age with his teaching." Having squandered a hundred million sesterces and overwhelmed with debt, Apicius was said to have calculated that he had only ten million sesterces left, not nearly enough to satisfy his cravings, and so killed himself in despair (To Helvia on Consolation, X.8-9; also Dio, LVII.19.5, who says he was familiar with Sejanus, whose wife Apicata may have been the daughter of Apicius, Tacitus, Annals, IV.3).
Ultimately, though, after stuffing himself with dainties, it was the gluttony of Apicius that killed his body and soul (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XX.1.1), an end that would have been applauded by the notorious Elagabalus, who declared that, as a private citizen, his model to be Apicius and, among emperors, the profligate Otho and the glutton Vitellius (Historia Augusta, XVIII.4). It is Elagabalus who "in imitation of Apicius" ate camel heels, cockscombs, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, the brains of flamingos and thrushes, partridge eggs, the heads of parrots and pheasants, and the beards of mullets (XX.5-7).
Curiously, although both Pliny and Apicius wrote in the first-century AD, they regarded the mullet in completely different ways. Pliny, for example, is fascinated by the value (and size) of the fish, which he complains costs as much as a cook once did to prepare it (IX.67). For Apicius, "a man who displayed a remarkable degree of ingenuity in everything relating to luxury" and proposed a prize for anyone who could invent a new sauce for the fish (IX.66), the mullet, whether served in a shallow pan (pantina), salted or grilled, is less important than the sauces accompanying it (De Re Coquinaria, IV.2.22, 31; IX.10.6, 7, 9; X.1.11, 12).
The oldest cookbook very well may be by Apicius, but that is not to say that he was the first epicure. That was Archestratus, a Sicilian Greek whose fourth-century BC poem on gastronomy survives only in the sixty or so fragments preserved by Athenaeus. In reading them, one is struck by his emphasis on simplicity and insistence that a delicate fish be sprinkled only with a little salt and basted with olive oil, "for it contains the height of pleasure within itself" (321d).
The detail above is from The Romans in the Decadence of the Empire (1847) by Thomas Courture, the one work by which he is best known and now in the Musée dOrsay (Paris).
Varro has something to say about the proper number of guests at a banquet: they should begin with the Graces and end with the Muses, that is, there should be no fewer than three guests and no more than nine. Nor should they be too talkative or too reticent, or speak of anxious or perplexing affairs. Rather, the conversation should be about the common experiences of life, diverting and cheerful, so that the interest and pleasure conveyed refine the character (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, XII11).
A bibliographic note: Although Vehling was the first to translate De Re Coquinaria into English, the work is not regarded as accurate. Liquamen, for example, is understood to be any kind of liquid, whether broth, sauce, stock, gravy, or drippings; and garum a name for "fish essences." Indeed, Flower and Rosenbaum consider it "almost useless as a translation," even though their own edition is sometimes not as critical as it could be. Half a century later, the standard text now is Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text Apicius (2006) by Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger.
References: Seneca: Naturales Quaestiones (1971) translated by Thomas H. Corcoran (Loeb Classical Library); Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (1925) translated by Richard M. Gummere; The Roman Cookery Book (1958) translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum; Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (1936) translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling; Archestratos of Gela: Greek Culture and Cuisine in the Fourth Century BCE (2000) edited by S. Douglas Olson and Alexander Sens; Historia Augusta (1924) translated by David Magie (Loeb Classical Library); Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists (1937) translated by Charles Burton Gulick (Loeb Classical Library); "The Apician Sauce: Ius Apicianum" (1995) by Jon Solomon, in Food in Antiquity edited by John Wilkins, David Harvey, and Mike Dobsonds; "Mulled Thoughts: Mullus and Mugilis in Pliny's Naturalis Historia and the De Re Coquinaria of 'Apicius'" (2016) by William C. Coney, Pseudo-Dionysius, 18, 49-58.
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