– Pliny, Natural History X.133.
Marcus Gavius Apicius was a Roman merchant famous for his legendary epicurean talents. He devised exotic and sumptuous recipes, and hosted dinner parties for the luminaries of his time. Among his notable associates were Emperor Tiberius, and his son, Drusus. According to Pliny the Elder, Apicius convinced Drusus not to consume low class foods such as cymae, cabbage tops or cabbage sprouts. Cymae, sprouting broccoli, was known as Italian asparagus in the Roman province of Britanniae (Great Britain).
Apicius’ lavish dinner parties featured such delicacies as peacocks, sweetbreads, cuttlefish, flamingo tongues, ostrich, sterile wombs, udders, testicles, venison, heads of parrots, camel heels, flowering bulbs, and truffles. The rarest part of the animal was considered the most desirable, and foods transported the longest distance were of the highest status.
Greek grammarian and author, Athenaeus, relates that Apicius sailed to Libya in search of their celebrated large shrimp. Upon arrival, local fisher boats sidled up to his vessel and offered their crustaceans. After viewing the paltry catch, he compared them to the measly crawfish caught near his villa. Apicius returned home empty handed, having never left the boat.
A true connoisseur, he is known to have served the prized red mullet, a fish of such exorbitant cost that it was nearly unattainable. Apicius advised drowning it in a bath of mullet fish sauce prior to cooking. Martial wrote that dinner guests wrapped their leftovers in a napkin to eat at home (see First Century Life: Red Mullets).
Pliny notes that Apicius’ created a delicious recipe for pork foie gras (liver pâté). It required feeding a starving sow dried figs, then intoxicating it with honeyed wine. The result was an enlarged liver and death for the unlucky pig. To preserve the green color of cooked cabbage, he recommended the addition of soda. His intricate recipes called for numerous exotic spices, of which he lists 140. It is estimated that the modern cook utilizes half that number.
Several early sources report that Apicius was addicted to the pleasures of the stomach, and squandered 100 million sesterces on “digesting the blessings of land and sea.” Eventually he became overwhelmed with debt, and was unable to maintain these extreme indulgences. Accounts from the time say he was unwilling to alter his lifestyle, and out of despair, committed suicide in A.D. 37.
From his exile in Corsica, Seneca wrote to his mother, Helvia, concerning Apicius’ death: “After he had spent a hundred million sesterces on his kitchen, spending on every banquet a sum equal to the many lavish gifts given to him from reigning emperors, he became overburdened with debt, and for the first time was forced to examine his accounts. Calculating that he had only ten million left of his fortune, and, as though he would be living a life of starvation on these mere ten million ($500,000), he put an end to his life by poison.” Letters of Consolation, chapter X, A.D. 40.
Apicius has been credited for authoring numerous recipes of complexity and refinement. His cookbook of sauces, De re codituris, was later integrated into a 4th century volume called De re coquinaria (On The Subject Of Cooking). It is considered one of the oldest compilations of recipes ever found. Two 9th-century copies of the cookbook are known to have survived. One is in the Vatican; the other is at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City.
“You had spent, Apicius, sixty million of sesterces on your belly, but you still had a mere ten million left. In despair at such a reduction, as if you were condemned to endure hunger and thirst, you took as a last draught, a dose of poison. No greater proof of your gluttony have you ever given, Apicius. Martial, Epigrams III, XXIII.
All Rights Reserved
Excerpt from Ancient Minutus