Ancient Eaters: Marcus Gavius Apicius, the Other Other One (Roman, 1st century CE)

“He spent countless sums on his belly.”
~ Apicius described by Athenaeus of Naucratis in his Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dinner), 3rd century CE

This imaginary portrait of MGA comes from the Pantropheon (1853), a history of food by 19th century French chef Alexis Soyer.

Roman men were known by a personal name, a hereditary clan name and a nickname. Gaius Julius Caesar would have been understood as “Gaius of the Julia clan, called the Caesar.” Children could inherit their father’s identifying nickname or cognomen, and like our family names, they were often passed down for so long that people forgot their origin; Caesar was variously parsed as “Hairy”, “Blue-Eyed”, “Cut”, or having something to do with killing an elephant. But cognomina were originally intended to reflect the most noteworthy thing about an individual. If an individual accomplished something remarkable, they might gain a new cognomen, as when Publius Cornelius Scipio became Scipio Africanus after his military victories in Africa. This was also the case with Marcus of the Gavia clan, called the Apicius, who got his cognomen by loving food more than anyone else in Rome.


Marcus Gavius Apicius (henceforth referred to as MGA) was a wealthy Roman gourmand who lived in the early part of the first century, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (14 – 37 CE). His cognomen of Apicius derives from an earlier Apicius of the first century BCE. This man was not his ancestor; rather, the first Apicius was so much of a foodie that his name became synonymous with the love of fine dining, so that anyone with a similar interest would receive it as a nickname. There was even one more famous food-lover called Apicius in the second century, a hundred years after MGA. We know this because anecdotes about “Apicius the food-lover” are dated to the reigns of various Emperors, too far apart to be the same person.

MGA is by far the best-documented of the three Apicii, and many Roman historians at least mention him in passing (a contemporary biography called On the Luxury of Apicius has sadly been lost). He was famous for his grand dinner parties, where he served costly delicacies like cockscombs and flamingo tongues, fish drowned in fish sauce and the livers of fattened pigs. He kept a villa at Minturnae, a seaside town about a hundred miles southeast of Rome, known for its fine shrimp. On hearing that the shrimp of North Africa were even better, Apicius once took a special trip there just to try them. But when locals brought the catch of the day to his ship, he found it underwhelming and had his captain turn around, returning to Minturnae without ever having made landfall.

Unfortunately, like all the best stories from Roman histories, the shrimp story is nigh-impossible to verify. But it does at least paint a picture of how Apicius was perceived. Roman historians depict him as a member of the Emperor’s inner circle, on casual terms with powerful people and not afraid to splash his money around to impress them. Seneca writes that while walking through the fish-market, Apicius engaged in a playful bidding war over a huge red mullet with the Emperor and another friend. Pliny tells us that Drusus, the Emperor’s son and heir, stopped eating cabbage sprouts after Apicius told him they were commoners’ food.

A contemporary portrait of Claudia Livia Julia, or Livilla. Amongst family, Roman women were often known by an informal pet-name (in this case, Livilla, “Little Livia”) because they rarely had personal names. Sisters often had the same name and were distinguished with Major and Minor (Elder and Younger) or Prima, Secunda and Tertia (First, Second and Third). Photo by saiko (2012).

An especial friend of Apicius was the ambitious social climber Lucius Aelius Sejanus, whose first wife Apicata was likely Apicius’s daughter. Tacitus makes an offhand remark that Sejanus “sold his body to Apicius” as a young man. Accusing public figures of sexual misconduct was as Roman as the Coliseum, so this story may be only hearsay meant to mock the closeness between the two men. Whatever the nature of his relationship with his father-in-law, Sejanus would divorce Apicata to marry his lover Livilla, the Emperor’s niece. This was after Sejanus had helped Livilla end her own marriage, through poison rather than divorce. Livilla’s ill-fated first husband was her cousin Drusus, the same guy who took Apicius’s dietary advice. While Livilla and Sejanus plotted to extend their power, Apicata discovered their crime in the year 31 and sent a letter to Tiberius revealing the true killers of his son. The Emperor’s revenge was swift and terrible. Sejanus was executed along with his three children by Apicata, so that he would have no heirs. Livilla was executed too, and popular legend asserts that her punishment was carried out by her own mother, who locked her in a room without food. Disgraced by the scandal and grieving for her children, Apicata committed suicide by poison, a common last resort for Romans facing extreme public humiliation.

Apicius, we are told, also chose to die by poison. While his death may well have been related to the tragedy that befell his family, Roman sources connect it back to food, like every other detail of his life. Seneca describes the death of MGA thus:

“Having spent a fortune of 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, spent all the gifts he had received from the Imperial court, and thus swallowed up his income in lavish hospitality, Apicius found that he had only 10 million sestertii left. Afraid of dying in relative poverty, he poisoned himself.”

The Imperial court of Tiberius was fraught with danger, a place where life was cheap and one’s social position might change at any moment. If Apicius really did poison himself, who knows how freely he made that choice?


Apicius is the common name of De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), the best-known and most-complete surviving Roman cookbook. You can’t go far into the subject of Roman cooking without mentioning the ten books of Apicius; it’s the ultimate sourcebook on Roman cuisine, with recipes for everything from asparagus to braised flamingo, and nifty kitchen hacks like how to fix bad-tasting broth and how to make cheap olive oil taste expensive. But Apicius wasn’t solely written by MGA, nor was it written by the Apicius before him or after him, though they may have all been contributors. The name seems to have become attached to the cookbook because of its long association with culinary matters. It’s likely that Apicius the book was compiled over a long period of time by multiple authors, including enslaved and formerly-enslaved career chefs working in the kitchens of the wealthy. The text is telling; different recipes use the Latin of different time periods, and the majority is written in the vernacular of daily life (“Vulgar Latin”), not the literary Classical Latin of the highly-educated.

Seven recipes found in Apicius the book are attributed to Apicius the man, and MGA may be the one that is meant. “Apicius” was also the name of a type of cake and a method of cooking cabbage greens with a pinch of mineral soda to maintain their color (though we can assume that MGA, who turned up his nose at cabbage, was not responsible for that last one). When MGA appears in later Roman literature, it is sometimes as the quintessential extravagant glutton, and sometimes as an ingenious expert who “proclaimed the science of the cookshop.

Though his family fell victim to cruel dynastic politics, history remembers MGA best as a culinary experimenter and seeker of pleasure. Hearing some of the stories about him, I can’t help but think he would have fit right in with today’s food world. I can picture him feverishly typing out Yelp reviews, or standing in line for hours to taste the latest trendy hybrid delicacy, only to get bored after a couple of bites. He lived up to his cognomen, creating a legacy that would outshine his personal tragedies.

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.