Ancient Eaters: Elagabalus, the Roman Doctor Frank-N-Furter (203-222 CE)


To a Roman, Elagabalus’s mustache was one of many characteristics that marked him as a foreigner (and to me, definitely reads as a teenage boy trying to appear grown up). Photo by Carole Raddato (2015)

Higgledy-piggledy, Heliogabalus
Lurched through the Forum, his
Bottom a-wag.

Vainly pretending to
Matters beneath his
Imperial drag 

~Anonymous “double dactyl” poem

If any figure in Roman history could be summed up by the phrase “don’t dream it, be it,” it would be Elagabalus. Also called Heliogabalus, he was Emperor of Rome for just four years in the third century, from the age of 14 until his assassination at 18. Despite his youth and short reign, he managed to develop a reputation for debauchery and excess that makes his predecessors Caligula and Nero look like Buddhist monks. In a long parade of mad tyrants, matricides and horse-lovers, Elagabalus stands out as maybe the wildest Roman Emperor ever. That is, if any of the stories about him are true.

Roman histories tell us that Elagabalus spent all his time and money on lavish entertainments, including elaborate dinner parties. At one of these affairs, guests could expect up to 22 courses, with a menu of everything expensive and rare. Tables were piled high with such delicacies as camel’s heels, peacock tongues and ostrich brains (600 at one banquet alone), not to mention “peas with gold-pieces…and rice with pearls.” The boy-Emperor took a hands-on approach to party-planning, choosing each element carefully for its sensory impact. “He gave summer-banquets in various colours, one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer“, while the fish that he ate were cooked in a bluish sauce that preserved their natural colour, as though they were still in the sea-water.” At some parties guests could get in on the fun, as when “he would propose…that they should invent new sauces for giving flavour to the food, and he would offer a very large prize for the man whose invention should please him, even presenting him with a silk garment.”

Recipe contests were just one of the many entertainments Elagabalus devised for his dinner guests, some of which came at their expense. Once he smothered a group of diners beneath an avalanche of rose petals. On several occasions, he unleashed wolves and leopards on people without telling them the animals were tame and harmless. And in between terrorizing his own parties, the teenage Emperor managed to fit in various other crimes, from cross-dressing and sexual deviancy to corruption and blasphemy, as though working his way through a checklist of everything offensive to Ancient Roman sensibilities.


Most of the wild stories about Elagabalus come from Cassius Dio’s Roman History and the multi-authored Augustan History, sources we should take with a hearty helping of salt. Both were written well after the young Emperor’s death and sponsored by enemies of his family. One scholarly analysis determined that only 24% of the Life of Elagabalus section in the Augustan History is reliable historical fact. While Elagabalus was certainly an unpopular Emperor, the real reasons behind his unpopularity were far less outrageous than the sources tell us. Constructed from a handful of reliable crumbs, the true story runs as follows:

Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, first cousin once-removed of the Emperor of Rome, enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the city of Emesa (modern Homs, Syria). The ruling class to which his family belonged was of Roman origin but had adopted Syrian culture. Varius’s native language was Aramaic, and he was raised to worship a local god named El-Gabbal, the Lord of the Mountain, eventually serving as the god’s high priest. When the political scheming of his grandmother and mother led to his being declared Emperor, Varius brought his faith with him to Rome as only a melodramatic teenager could. He had the sacred black meteorite of El-Gabbal enshrined in a grand new temple and demanded the Roman people worship the Lord of the Mountain above all other gods. He later tried to unite the Roman gods to his own through a symbolic marriage ritual, but in the eyes of his subjects the damage had been done, and the Emperor’s popularity plummeted. His power-hungry family decided he was a liability and moved swiftly to replace him with his more tractable and predictable cousin. The eighteen-year old once called Varius was assassinated in a plot organized by his own grandmother. Worship of El-Gabbal in Rome ended with his death.

The story of Elagabalus tells us a lot about how the Roman people saw him as well as how they saw themselves. The Romans were not pleased to have an Emperor who considered himself more Syrian than Roman. They were even less pleased when he tried to impose his Syrian god on them. Elagabalus, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is the Latinized form of El-Gabbal, but he never called himself by that name. After his death, the boy-emperor was so strongly associated with his foreign religion that Romans started using the name of his god to refer to him. It was his foreignness of dress and worship, his being from “the East”, that made the Romans hate Elagabalus. The outlandish stories about him are, at their heart, born of racist Roman stereotypes of Easterners. Opulent and hedonistic. Effeminate and weak, yet also cruel and merciless. Weird sex habits, weird religion, weird clothes and weird food.


The tall tales of Elagabalus simultaneously draw on the Romans’ worst fears about foreigners and present an exaggeration of typical Roman patrician behavior. The Roman upper classes really did serve food and drink imported from far-off places (such as flamingo) as a means of impressing their guests and displaying their wealth in being able to obtain it. Perhaps no Emperor ever actually mixed gold with his peas, but costly dried spices brought in from Asia were the culinary equivalent.

Various Roman sources demonstrate an interest among the upper classes in food as entertainment, and food accompanied by entertainment. In the comedic Satyricon, sausages and cakes spill out from the belly of a whole roasted pig, to the delight of the audience, while the cookbook Apicius offers recipes with disguised ingredients meant to inspire diners to guess what’s on their plates, such as “patina of anchovies without anchovies“. Elagabalus’s dinner parties are again described in keeping with real Roman traditions, but distorted and exaggerated to extremity. The bizarre and sadistic games that followed his grand meals are a corrupted reflection of the poetry recitation, dance and music that accompanied a real Roman Imperial banquet.

That food figures so prominently in the legends of Elagabalus is no accident. The young Emperor’s apparent devotion to dining would have been frowned upon by a Roman reader as further evidence of his lack of manly restraint and thus, his unsuitability for the throne. Traditional Roman ideals emphasized frugality and moderation and decried the vice of decadence (luxuria), in food as in other areas of society. A decent, honest Roman man, particularly an Emperor, ought to be working hard and fighting for the pride of Rome instead of fooling around with fripperies like crafting recipes. Elagabalus’s keen interest in food was just another example of his impropriety, no less grave a violation of social norms than his dressing in drag or refusing to worship the Roman gods.

There are two Elagabaluses: one the serious-minded and deeply religious boy Varius, the other a mythologized caricature. Yet ironically, it is this second, false Elagabalus, the product of propaganda and hearsay, that has captivated later peoples ever since he was first decried by the Romans. Elagabalus’s rockstar image has made him the subject of numerous operas, plays, poems and paintings. This one from 1906 by French artist Gustav-Adolfe Mossa is my favorite; the title is simply Lui, “Him.” And while I acknowledge that the Elagabalus of popular imagination is a fantasy, I have to admit there is something alluring about it. Part supervillain, part queer icon. A mad genius, a gleeful deviant, a culinary experimenter. A “wild and untamed thing” who tried to make the world match the beauty of his own imagination.

Ancient Recipe: Braised Flamingo (Roman, 5th century CE)

_DSC3235_02“Epicures regard my tongue as tasty. But what if my tongue could sing?” ~ A flamingo in Martial’s Epigrams laments his wasted potential

In case you couldn’t tell from the blog title, I have a special fondness for that marvelous pink monstrosity, the flamingo. Why? Because everything about them is weird. In their pained, awkward movements, they remind me of the borogoves from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky; “thin, shabby-looking birds” who are perpetually “mimsy” (miserable and flimsy). They thrive on lakes of poison where few animals larger than the plankton they eat can survive, striding comfortably through boiling brine and laying eggs inches from gaseous fumes. They have naturally white feathers that change to pink from a diet rich in beta carotene, the same chemical that makes carrots orange. Their outlandish color and unique profile has made the flamingo the icon of American tropical kitsch and the unofficial mascot of Florida, and official mascot of the Bahamas.

But to the Ancient Romans, they were food.

Not that we should imagine Roman storefronts selling flamingo pie, fried battered flamingo bites, flamingo on a stick, etc. Nor should we picture vast leggy herds of flamingos corralled in the Roman countryside, although the poet Martial makes a tantalizing reference to flamingo husbandry in his Epigrams (3.58.14), describing them alongside other exotic livestock on a wealthy man’s farm in Baia (modern Naples). Native to the salt lakes of Africa, the flamingo was eaten in Rome only by those who could afford it. In Roman times, having a roast fenicopterus (“scarlet-wing”) on the table was a status-symbol and a means of flaunting one’s riches. Truly wealthy gourmets ate only the choicest parts, like the brains and tongue. Emperor Elagabalus was even said to offer the costly birds in sacrifice to the gods, when a regular old chicken would have done just fine.

The 5th-century cookbook Apicius, the most complete primary source on Ancient Roman cooking, features a recipe for flamingo in spiced date sauce with a note that “parrot is served the same way”:

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice] to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond [drippings] of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. ~ Apicius 6.231

So what was it like to eat a flamingo? Was the taste really worth the trouble of acquiring the creature, or did Roman patricians eat them for show? Unfortunately the Romans left no firsthand testimony behind, aside from a passing mention in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History that flamingo tongue has “the most exquisite flavor”. And flamingo meat is not exactly easy to come by. The birds are protected by law in the United States (where I live) and in many other countries as well. But we can make a few educated guesses. Like all waterbirds, flamingos have an insulating layer of fat. This means that eating flamingo is likely a several-napkin affair, and that their meat, like duck, is probably rich and dark. For flavor we might look to ducks as well, specifically a wild-caught fish-eater like a merganser or scaup, species usually scorned by modern hunters for their pungent flavor. In a 2009 article describing an increase in flamingo consumption in India, one scientist is skeptical of their popularity: “As a rule, all fish-eating or carnivore birds, the flesh of these birds is stinky. It never tastes good.

We may never know exactly how stinky was the flesh of a Roman flamingo (although it’s worth noting that the flamingo recipe appears in Apicius directly after a technique for removing foul odor from wild birds). And while I don’t want to rule out the possibility of my eating a merganser someday, today is not that day either. I decided to use a store-bought, farm-raised duck; milder in flavor but not too dissimilar from the ducks eaten in Ancient Rome. I also decided to go full ancient-style and buy a duck with the head and feet still on.

_DSC3125Those brown chunks on the plate are pieces of asafetida or hing, a dried plant resin that will stand in for laser root. Also called silphium, laser was so popular in antiquity that the Romans over-farmed it into extinction. Asafetida makes a great substitute because it’s the silphium plant’s nearest living relative. It has a pungent flavor reminiscent of cooked onions, and can be found online and at South Asian grocery stores.

The dried leaves on the plate are rue, a bitter herb which was very popular in the ancient world but today is rarely used in food, except in Ethiopia. I ordered it on Amazon. Use caution if you plan to cook with rue; some people are allergic. If you’d rather play it safe, you can substitute rosemary or sage.


Parboiling before roasting as described in Apicius is a good technique that I have used on duck before. It tightens the skin and renders out a lot of the fat so that it doesn’t become a greasy, splattery mess in the oven. Presumably the same could be said of flamingo (where did the Romans find a pot, and an oven, big enough? How did they deal with the neck and the legs?)

I washed and dried my flamingo substitute and trimmed off the extra fat, claws and wingtips. Then I poked holes in the skin all over with a fork to help the fat leak out during cooking (I remembered this from modern roast duck recipes).

Next I brought a large pot of water to a boil and put my whole duck in head first, together with a large pinch of salt, a quarter cup of white wine vinegar and about half a bunch of fresh dill. While my duck was boiling, I reduced one and a half cups of grape juice in a saucepan and added a cornstarch slurry to thicken it (only semi-anachronistic. The Romans didn’t have corn, but they did use starch powder extracted from raw wheat). I lifted my duck out of the boiling water and into a roasting pan with a rack after 25 minutes.

I was confused by Apicius‘s instruction to “finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander [cilantro].” Roasted leeks, sure, but it doesn’t make sense to roast a bunch of fresh herbs, so I guessed that some sort of preparation was being implied. I chopped the cilantro, mixed it into the thickened grape juice and basted the duck with the mixture before putting it in the oven at 350 degrees. I didn’t have room for the duck and the leeks together, so I put them in separate pans.

Now it was time for the sauce. Like all ancient cookbooks, Apicius doesn’t use precise measurements, so I mixed together my spices through a combination of gut instinct, taste-testing, and the silent guidance of the Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods. I tried to keep everything equal, using half a tablespoon each of asafetida, powdered cumin, powdered coriander, dried mint, dried rue, and black peppercorns, plus 3/4 of a cup finely-chopped dates and a splash of white wine vinegar. I mashed everything with a mortar and pestle until I had a thick, gummy brown paste._DSC3166_01

My duck cooked for about 45 minutes, and I turned the heat up to 450 for the last ten minutes to brown the skin. Once the bird was out of the oven, I added the drippings to my paste and heated it in a saucepan. This step is important to mellow the flavor of asafetida, which is pretty nasty raw. Apicius says “thicken”, but the sauce was already so thick I actually added water to it, which didn’t really help. I realized after the fact that the Romans probably used fresh rue and mint leaves in this recipe instead of dried, which would have added more moisture. My sauce had the consistency of jam, and in the end I had to spread it on the duck with the back of a spoon rather than pouring it on top.


I tend to make a “Hmm!” noise of curiosity when I taste something unusual that isn’t exactly good or bad. My boyfriend told me that all he heard from the kitchen at this point was one “Hmm!” after another. The sauce is really the star of the show here. The combination of flavors was bold, complex, and totally unfamiliar: truly Ancient Roman. I could taste each ingredient separately. First came the sweetness of the dates and the punch of the asafetida, then a tea-like bitterness from the rue, a hint of coriander and cumin, and the bite of black pepper at the very end. (The only flavor that seemed to get lost was the mint). It was overpowering on its own, but in small quantities balanced the milder flavors of the duck and the leeks quite nicely. I could see why a strong-tasting sauce might be necessary on a strong-tasting meat like flamingo.

I may never know what a real Roman flamingo tasted like, but now I have some idea. Next time I’ll try using fresh herbs and whole seeds and a bit less asafetida (or more mint) in the sauce. Overall, a surprising and interesting dish. VII out of X.

POST SCRIPTVM: This was my first time eating a duck’s head, and it was AMAZING. Especially the brain. Now I know what Elagabalus was talking about.

POST POST SCRIPTVM: FELIX IDES MARTIAE, everyone. What better day to post my first ancient recipe?