Cooking vol. 6: Anthimus (511 a.)

The Roman Empire ends in 476 AD and the Middle Ages are gradually born in the chaos of the Migration Period. The art of cookery, on the other hand, sinks into a deep slumber until European crusaders discover the luxury of the Orient many hundreds of years later. This story has been told many times, but it is a legend. Even in the "dark" centuries of the early Middle Ages, knowledge of the culinary arts was not completely lost. For example, the Greek physician Anthimus, who sought exile with the Goths in Ravenna and then wrote a cookery guide for a Frankish king.

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In the early Middle Ages, it is still widely believed that rich and poor ate essentially the same food and that the diet of the different classes differed primarily in terms of the amount available. This has since been refuted by numerous archaeological and textual testimonies. On the contrary, carefully selected ingredients and meticulous preparation not only served to display a higher social status, but also to legitimise authority. And around the year 500, even for Germanic barbarians, this meant following the culinary traditions of Rome.

A gourmet on the road

In fact, the situation at this time is confused. The Roman Empire still existed de facto only as Ostrom/Byzantium with its genuine Greek capital Constantinople, which, however, still laid claim to rule over Western Rome. However, Italy was ruled by the Gothic military leader Theodoric. He wanted to inherit the tradition of the Western Roman Empire and take on the role of a new Augustus, which was mistrustfully tolerated by the Eastern Roman emperor. The former Roman provinces of Gaul and Germania, on the other hand, were invaded by even “wilder” Germanic tribes. The most important of these, the Franks, took control of an area stretching from the River Main to the Pyrenees shortly after their king from the Merovingian dynasty was baptised. After his death, his four sons succeeded him. The eldest of them,Theodoric I, ruled the east of the Frankish empire from Metz.

You need to know this complicated history to understand the political significance a cookbook can have. Anthimus, its author, was, as far as we know, a doctor from Constantinople – who was, however, expelled from the country for treason in 478 after exchanging letters with Gothic politicians about events in Byzantium. After a few detours, Anthimus ended up in Ravenna at the court of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy. He made a career there and eventually became a member of Theodoric’s court council. The latter then sent him as an envoy to his great-nephew, the Frankish king Theuderic I. Anthimus then wrote a long letter to Theuderic on healthy eating (“De observatione ciborum”), presumably after this time, in which numerous recipes have been handed down.

A cookbook as a guide for the barbarians

Anthimus is Greek and, as a doctor, is familiar with the great medical and dietary tradition of this culture. He had read authors such as Hippocrates and Galen. But he certainly had his own point of view – and wrote in a much more popular style. In fact, there was a great demand for this type of advice literature in Gothic-ruled Ravenna at the time. Obviously, the new rulers wanted to acquire ancient knowledge as easily as possible. The unsophisticated relatives north of the Alps were also able to benefit from this. In this sense, the letter to Theuderic I is also intended to be educational. Anthimus wanted to give the King of the Franks an overview “according to the ancient authors” of how “appropriate nutrition” fundamentally influences human health .

Time and again, it becomes clear between the lines that Anthimus is not particularly happy about the table manners in northern Europe, as he repeatedly emphasises moderation (not least when it comes to alcohol). No wonder, other contemporaries described Germanic table manners in drastic terms. Isidorus of Seville ascribed “wildness of manners” and “a natural licentiousness of temper” to the Franks. Sidonius Appollinarius reported that the neighbouring Burgundians would smear rancid butter in their hair. Anthimus is, of course, diplomat enough to maintain restraint – and even more. In his recipes, he repeatedly refers to and integrates regional customs, such as the use of milk and dairy products or bacon, which he described as a Franconian speciality (“delicias Francorum”).

Imperial lifestyle

Such compromises will not have been easy for Anthimus. After all, he is not only a physician, but a cultivated gourmet, a “médecin gourmet”, as Carl Deroux called him. Conveying a culinary lifestyle is the second main purpose of the letter alongside medical education – which is anything but a private matter. Anthimus deliberately teaches the barbarian Theuderic I “Romanitas” by reminding him of the banquets of the Roman Senate. However, it is not without irony that Anthimus has presumably never seen Rome and only speaks Latin orally and that his letter is written in rather faulty “vulgar Latin”. He is also familiar with the classic Roman cookery book “Apicius”, as some quotations suggest, at least in terms of its content, but he is not in its tradition. For example, he clearly differs from it in his ban on using garum, a fermented fish sauce that was omnipresent in Roman cuisine.

More important than the presentation of authentic Roman cuisine was to help the royal “newcomer” Theuderic I legitimise his status as ruler by means of a culinary upgrade. Just as a mosaic hung in Theodoric’s imperial dining room in Ravenna, inviting guests to savour the fruits of all seasons and from all over the world. This was entirely in keeping with Theodoric’s advisor Cassiodorus. For him “a private citizen should only eat produce from his own region. But it is part of the king’s glory to have all specialities from everywhere on his table.”

When Theodoric sent the envoy Anthimus to his great-nephew Theuderic on the edge of the crumbling Roman Empire, he saw this primarily as a political gesture: to turn a barbarian chieftain into a Roman prince. Anthimus’ work has been described as the last Roman cookbook. But it has also been called the first French cookery book or the oldest European medieval cookbook. But depending on your perspective, it is all of these things at the same time. However, the Frankish aristocracy was probably somewhat overwhelmed by it, as the letter had no surviving effect. Instead, it ended up in the libraries of monasteries, where the culinary arts were to find an exile for many centuries.

The plate: Afrutum

The recipes in the letter – which do not specify quantities and are succinctly formulated – blend a number of influences, but interestingly only a few traditions from Gothic cuisine. Instead, there are preforms of marzipan and hummus as well as a reference to Byzantine cuisine: “Afrutum” made from beaten egg whites, which was unknown in ancient Roman cuisine. As a prefiguration of Œufs à la neige, it also looks very modern due to the steam cooking. You can find great cooking instructions here.

At Anthimus, the recipe is as follows: “What is called in Greek afrutum and in Latin spumeum is made from chicken and egg whites. Lots of egg white must be used so that the afrutum becomes foamy. It should be arranged in a mound on a shallow casserole with a previously prepared gravy and diluted fish sauce underneath. Then the casserole is set over the charcoal and the afrutum cooked in the steam of the sauce. The casserole is then placed in the middle of a serving dish, and a little wine and honey poured over it. It is eaten with a spoon or a small ladle. I often add to this recipe some good fish or even some sea-scallops, because they are extremely tasty and are particularly plentiful around where I live. From clean scallops are made ‘snow balls’.”

Captions and copyrights

Featured Image: Mosaic of the Magi from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna from the end of the 5th/beginning of the 6th century. Username.Ruge on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Mausoleum of Theodoric: © Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images

Replica of a Merovingian villa, after Charles Garnier. In: Charles Garnier and A. Ammann: L’Habitation humaine. Paris 1892.

First page of Anthimus’ letter in the appendix (72r-75v) of the Lorsch Pharmacopoeia (8th century) from the Bamberg State Library (Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Med.1, p. 72r, urn:nbn:de:v2_bsb00140785_00149). The opening sentence reads: “Incipit Epistula Antimi Viri Inlustri Ad Theudoricum Regem Franchorum”, which means: “Here begins the letter from the illustrious Anthimus to Theudoricus, King of the Franks”.

Image of a bakery on a Gallo-Roman tombstone. Metz, Musée des Beaux Art. © @josetteking on josetteking.com

Mosaic of a symposium from the eastern Mediterranean (Levant) around 450 AD or later. Musée de la vigne et du vin in the Château de Boudry. Wikimedia Commons / Public domain; Anonymous: https://parenthetically.blogspot.com/2012/08/unswept-and-unwelcome.html. Detailed information on image content and context: https://chateaudeboudry.ch/le-musee/les-collections/pieces-principales/

Mosaic inscription from the triclinium (dining room) of the so-called Palace of Theodoric in Ravenna: “SVME QVOD AVTVMNVS QVOD | VER QVOD BRVMA QVOD ESTAS | ALTERNIS REPARANT ET | TOTO CREANTUR IN ORBE”. “I am the one through whom autumn, spring, winter and summer alternately arise and everything on earth is brought forth.” Illustration from: Gherardo Ghirardini: Gli scavi del Palazzo di Teodorico a Ravenna. In: Monumenti antichi 24 (1916), pp. 737-836, p. 795.

Plate with Afrutum: © Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images


Bonnie Effros: Creating Community with Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul. New York and Houndmills/Basingstoke 2002.

Jim Chevallier: How to Cook an Early French Peacock. De Observatione Ciborum: Roman Food for a Frankish King. 3rd revised edition op. cit. 2020 [Bilingual and annotated English/Latin text edition]

Carl Deroux: Anthime, un médecin gourmet du début des temps mérovingiens. In : Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire Année. 80, issue 4 (2002), pp. 1107-1124.

Yitzhak Hen: Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul. In: Brigitte Kasten (ed.): Tätigkeitsfelder und Erfahrungshorizonte des ländlichen Menschen in der frühmittelalterlichen Grundherrschaft (bis ca. 1000). Köln 2006), pp. 99−110.

Mark J. Johnson: Towards a History of Theoderic’s Building Program. In: Dumbarton Oaks. Papers 42 (1988), pp. 73–96.

Karl Schneider: Ein Kochbuch für das Frankenland aus dem 6. Jahrhundert. In: Schweizer Schule 40 (1953), pp. 709−713. [Descriptive summary, online here]

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