Cooking vol. 5: Apicius (42 a.)

The same rumours keep circulating about the cuisine of ancient Rome: decadent, over-seasoned, inedible. What's more, its thousand-year-old afterlife is said to have prevented the development of modern European gastronomy. Apicius' "Book on the Art of Cookery", the only completely preserved cookery book from Roman antiquity, is repeatedly the focus of criticism. Of course, this raises just as many questions as it answers, especially as the author appears to have existed four times over. However, this does not change much about the outstanding importance of the Roman Empire for the development of culinary art.

5 mins read

In a comedy written around 200 BC, the poet Plautus has a Greek mock the Romans as ” mash-eating barbarians”. He was no stranger to self-irony, as Plautus himself was a Roman – and as such an enemy of Greece, which was once again at war with Rome at the time of writing. At this time, Rome was not yet an empire, but a republic that had risen from a city state to a regional power through numerous wars. Accordingly, its ethos was clearly military in character: first and foremost self-harshness, discipline and frugality. The cereal mash “puls”, to which Plautus alludes, was in fact the staple food not only of the soldiers, but of the majority of the Roman population.

Luxury from the East

This changed after the victorious campaigns in the east. The army commanders staged the exotic spoils in numerous triumphal processions through the city of Rome. The Roman historian Livy links the victory of the consul Gnaeus Manlius Vulso over the (Greek) Macedonians in 187 BC to the beginning of a new era. At that time, the army had brought the “first charms of foreign opulence” to Rome. Expensive arts and crafts, but above all lavish banquets. “Now the cook, the lowest rank among the ancients, was given a value, and what had been a slave trade was now considered an art.”

In fact, parts of the Roman aristocracy opened up to Greek culture within a few decades, from philosophy and poetry to architecture and cookery. Archestratus’ cookbook was translated into Latin by Quintus Ennius, and it became fashionable to keep specialised, educated cook slaves (while cooks in Greece had the status of free citizens). Consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus even had statues built for two of his cooks. Culinary terms from Greek migrated into the Latin language – as French did into German and English 2,000 years later.

Culture war over the kitchen

The conservative part of the Roman upper class did not like this at all, and so the refined cuisine “from the East” was branded as un-Roman, decadent and feminised. The statesman and general Cato the Elder, for example, agitated against the “corrupt nature” of the Greeks. He went so far as to claim that Greek doctors had sworn an oath to poison all Romans. The result was a culture war centred on the “right” diet, in which every ingredient and every recipe was symbolically charged.

However, the rapidly growing class of nouveau riche in Rome after the victory over Carthage thought little of the rigid morals. And so a whole series of luxury laws were enacted to curb the newly awakened culinary addiction. Starting with the Lex Fannia of 161 BC, which limited the expenditure on dinner, the type of food offered and the number of guests, through to the Lex Aemilia of 115 BC, which forbade the preparation of stuffed (or fattened) dormice, mussels or birds from foreign countries.

The Roman kitchen miracle

Gradually, however, the fundamental Roman pragmatism of learning and perfecting everything of value from other cultures prevailed. Viticulture, agriculture and food preparation techniques reached unprecedented heights in the Roman Empire. Inland fish aquariums supplied with seawater, the first oyster parks, artificial wild animal enclosures and the planting of new types of fruit and vegetables from all over the world, such as cherries, peaches and almonds, ensured the supply of specialities for the kitchen. New techniques such as fattening geese (but also pigs) ensured product optimisation. No wonder that Roman gourmets soon made a name for themselves. For example, the proverbial senator and general Lucius Licinius Lucullus and his sumptuous banquets. Or a legendary gourmet named Apicius in the nineties BC.

His reputation seems to have been so considerable that up to three other people and eventually a cookery book were associated with this name. Two anecdotes in particular have been handed down about the most important, Marcus Gavius Apicius (around 25 BC to around 42 AD), who lived at the time of the emperors Augustus and Tiberius. The first reports that, having grown up in Campania, which was spoilt by prawns, he set off for Libya after receiving indications of even better goods. When he arrived there after a stormy journey and was presented with the first samples by dinghies, he immediately turned back without setting foot on land. The second tells of his suicide after he learnt that his fortune had fallen to “only” 10 million sestertii. This would have meant that he would have had to restrict his lifestyle minimally.

The Apicius cookbook

The cookbook associated with the name Apicius has only survived in various medieval copies and appears to have been compiled from a number of sources in the first half of the 4th century – probably around a core of recipes by Marcus Gavius Apicius. Contrary to what is often portrayed, it is surprisingly “restrained” – in hardly any recipe does it reflect the culinary orgies of the late imperial period, when emperors such as Elagabal delighted in presenting excesses with peacock tongues and flamingo brains as a banquet. Rather, in its ten chapters with Greek titles (e.g. on vegetable, poultry and fish cuisine), it is a true reflection of the eclectic fusion cuisine (Werner Tietz) of Rome after the 1st century, in which the ancient Roman cuisine of the Republic coexisted peacefully with Greek cuisine.

This cuisine gradually became established in all provinces of Rome, and it is said that every cookery cookbook in Europe was influenced by “Apicius” until the 17th century. After the cookery revolution in Versailles, however, the great oblivion set in, and even prominent attempts to revive it by Queen Christina of Sweden, Empress Joséphine Bonaparte or celebrity chef Alexis Soyer were unsuccessful. However, the dispute between ascetic virtue and vicious indulgence, which gave rise to the “Book of Cookery”, continues to this day.

The plate: Patina Apiciana

This meat pie, which is reminiscent of a lasagne due to the different layers of bread dough, explicitly refers to its creator as “after Apicius” and is also one of the most elaborate recipes in the book in terms of its structure. It is characterised by the high proportion of songbird meat such as warbler and juniper – but also pork udder. In fact, Roman cuisine was very much inspired by the “noise-to-tail” concept and utilised all parts of the pig, right down to the uterus. The use of boiled must and, above all, the fish seasoning sauce garum (similar to Thai nam pla) are also typical characteristics of Roman cuisine, which, of course, separate it from modern European cuisine.

The dish was created according to a recipe by Linda-Marie Günther, Professor of Ancient History in Bochum. The filling between the layers of lavash bread consists of wild boar, unstuffed goose liver and smoked mackerel.

Image rights

Featured image: Roberto Bompiani: A Roman Feast. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Plate-carrying slave: preparing for a banquet. Mosaic fragment from Carthage, 4th century Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, MNC 1577 © 2007 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

Peter Paul Rubens: A Roman Triumph (c. 1630). © The National Gallery, London

[Detail from:] Pig butcher with his ife in his shop. Roman relief, c. 140-150 A.D. Staatliche Museen zu Dresden/Skulpturensammlung

Still life with eggs, partridges and bronze crockery. Fresco from the house of Julia Felix, Pompeii, before 79 A.D. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Still life. Fresco from Insula 10/Regio IX in Pompeii, before 79 A.D. © Parco Archeologico di Pompei

Still life with food. Mosaic from the Villa of Numisi in the Tor Marancia estate near Rome, 2nd century AD, © Archivo del Parco Archeologico dell’Appia Antica

Floor mosaic depicting birds, fish and a basket of fruit from the Grotte Celoni. End of the 1st century BC/beginning of the 1st century AD Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmot

Oldest surviving Apicius manuscript (around 900 AD) from the Fulda Monastery, in the possession of the New York Academy of Medicine since 1929. Source:, CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed © Bonho 1962

[Frontispiece of :] Apicius, De Opsoniis et Condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. ed. by Martin Lister. Source : K[ansas] State [University] Libraries

Patina Apiciana: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images.


Marcus Gavius Apicius: Das römische Kochbuch. Aus dem Lateinischen übersetzt und kommentiert von Robert Maier. Stuttgart 1991/2016.

Andrew Dalby:  Food in the ancient world from A to Z. London und New York 2003.

Veronika Grimm: The good thing that lay on hand. Taste of Ancient Freece and Rome. In: Paul Freedman (ed.): Food: The History of Taste. London 2007, p. 63−97.

Linda-Marie Günther: Kochen mit den Römern. Rezepte und Geschichten. München 2015.

Werner Tietz: Dilectus ciborum. Essen im Diskurs der römischen Antike. Göttingen 2013.

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