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.

THE FACTS

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?

THE FOOD

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 Recipe: Parsnip Fries with Wine Sauce (Roman, 5th Century CE)

“Then there is the carrot. ‘This vegetable,’ says Diphilus, ‘Is harsh, but tolerably nutritious, and moderately good for the stomach; but it passes quickly through the bowels and causes flatulence. It is indigestible, diuretic, and not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, on which account it is called a love-philtre by some people.” ~ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae [The Philosophers’ Dinner-party], 2nd century CE 

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The Ancient Romans didn’t eat fries in cones of wax paper, but they should have.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: carrots are orange, parsnips are white. But it wasn’t always that way.

From a botanical standpoint, the two plants are different enough to keep them out of the same genus (they belong to Pastinaca and Daucus, respectively). Most modern people simply use color to tell them apart. But ancient people tended not to differentiate between these two tapered, edible roots, in spite of the fact that parsnips seem to have been first cultivated in northern Europe and carrots in Persia. In Old English, for example, both were called by the same name, moru. The Romans had two different words but used them interchangeably, just as the roots were used interchangeably in their cuisine. Apicius, the compendium of all things Roman and culinary, offers recipes for carotae seu pastinacae, carrots or parsnips. The ancient confusion hints at the carrot’s biggest secret: it wasn’t always orange.

Farmers selectively breed their crops, encouraging desirable traits like size, productivity, and sweetness to create new cultivars and strains. Our modern food plants have been genetically manipulated for so long by human beings that they look extremely different from their ancient ancestors (who says GMOs are a recent phenomenon?) Ancient fruits and vegetables had more of the “bad” qualities that have been bred out in the centuries since: you can bet that the Romans never heard of a seedless grape. Color is a trait that can be selected for just like any other, and Roman carrots, in addition to being smaller and less sweet than our modern ones, only came in purple or a very parsnip-like white. So where did orange carrots, rich in the same beta-carotene that gives everything from pumpkins to flamingos their color, come from?

Scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the purple carrot resulted in the first yellow carrots around the 11th century, which was then selectively bred to create our modern orange. A popular legend asserts that orange carrots were developed in the 17th-century Netherlands as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange in that family’s name refers to the French principality of Orange, a transformation of the Latin place-name Aurasio that came to be associated with both the color and the fruit. But should we believe the carrot-as-political-tribute story? Maybe. It’s true that the Netherlands was known for its carrot production in the 17th century. It’s also true that a century later, “carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative” by the Dutch Patriot party who forced out the House of Orange. But whether the orange carrot was actually developed in tribute to the House of Orange is unknown, though it’s the kind of unqualified claim that frequently gets presented as fact in places like tourist guides and bar trivia.

All this means that when reconstructing a Roman recipe in your modern kitchen, orange carrots are to be avoided at all costs, but parsnips or carrots in other colors will do just fine. The Roman love for both vegetables is well-documented. In the first century BCE, they were demanded as tribute from the tribes of Germany by the Emperor Tiberius; two hundred years later, the Roman-Greek writer Athenaeus records their health benefits in the text quoted above, including the ability to rouse sexual desire in men.* Any aphrodisiac qualities attributed to carrots and parsnips by the Romans are likely due to their phallic shape. In ancient medicine, this was the plant’s “signature”, the physical resemblance between a plant and the part of the human body it could cure or affect. This belief continued well into the Medieval period, when for example walnuts were believed to be good for brain health because a walnut looks like a tiny, wrinkled brain.

In this simple and delicious recipe from the Roman cookbook Apicius, the roots are fried in olive oil and dressed with a pungent savory/salty sauce called oenogarum, a reduction of red wine, fish sauce (garum) and pepper. We might consider this recipe an antecedent of French fries with ketchup. The parallel is a surprisingly close one; the South American potato would eventually dethrone the parsnip as the favorite starchy vegetable in Europe, while ketchup arose from the same origins as Roman garum.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 large parsnips or (non-orange) carrots
  • Enough olive oil to fill a pot about two inches deep
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1/3 of a cup fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ground black or long pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Wash and peel the parsnips and cut them into small pieces. I did half-circle wedges, but you could also try a traditional French fry shape. Dry the parsnip pieces thoroughly with a paper towel.

 

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This is what happens when you put moist, fresh vegetables into hot olive oil. Be careful!

Fill a pot with olive oil up to around two inches and raise the heat to medium-high. After a few minutes, drop a small piece of parsnip in to test if the oil is hot enough to fry. When the oil is ready, fry the parsnips a few pieces at a time (they are moist and will produce a lot of bubbles). Move the parsnips around with a wooden spoon or other tool to prevent them sticking.

 

When the parsnips are golden brown on the outside, remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Next, make the oenogarum. Bring the red wine to a low boil in a saucepan. When it has reduced by about one-third, add the fish sauce and pepper. Mix the cornstarch and about half a cup of water into a slurry in a separate bowl, Slowly add this to the wine while stirring with a spoon to prevent clumping. Reduce the mixture another third. The end result should have the consistency of barbecue sauce, thicker than water but liquid enough to pour.

Serve as you would French fries and ketchup, with the wine-sauce drizzled on top of the parsnips or on the side for dipping.

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These pastinacae are ready to prompt men to amatory feelings.

VERDICT

I feel like with every ancient recipe I make, I claim that it’s the best one ever. I’d better start on that rose-and-lamb-brain patina, or the dish invented by Emperor Vitellius that contained fish semen. This one really is good though! The parsnips are soft on the inside and crunchy outside, and the oenogarum has a powerful blend of flavors that provide the salt and other seasoning. I wouldn’t want to eat the oenogarum on its own, but it’s perfect when balanced against the bland starchiness of the parsnips. This is one of the first Roman recipes I could genuinely imagine someone ordering from a modern restaurant (or a food truck, for that matter, which inspired the photo above). X out of X.

* The aforementioned Emperor Tiberius was accused by his enemies of the most extreme sexual perversion. One wonders if his documented love of a vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac is purely coincidental.