Marcus Gavius Apicius: Top Gourmand of the Roman World
Marcus Gavius Apicius is one of those Roman names that have (almost) been lost to the ravages of time. The characteristic that has allowed Apicius to stick out from the rest of the crowd of obscure figures in Roman history is his extravagance when it came to food. In other words, Apicius was a gourmand (gourmet). It is likely that there were other gourmands in the Roman world as well, though the fact that Apicius was the only one (apart from one story where he bids for a fish with another gourmand) referred to by other Roman writers, indicates that he was likely to have been the ‘top gourmand’ of the Roman world. Additionally, there is a collection of recipes from the 4th century AD entitled De Re Coquinaria (meaning ‘On the Subject of Cooking’), which is traditionally attributed to the gourmand Apicius.
The History of Apicius
There are (at least) three figures in Roman history bearing the name ‘Apicius’. The first of these is said to have lived at the turn of the 1st century BC, and was mentioned to have been a great gourmand. The third Apicius is said to have lived during the reign of the emperor Trajan in the 2nd century AD, and is credited with the invention of a special packaging that preserved the freshness of oysters that were transported over long distances. In between these two figures is Marcus Gavius Apicius, who is believed to have lived during the reign of Tiberius in the 1st century AD.
Apicius: De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), 1709 cover. ( Public Domain )
There is no known biographical account of Apicius’ life, such as those written for some of the illustrious figures of Roman history. Neither do we know of an autobiography written by Apicius himself. Rather, references have been made by a number of ancient authors towards the figure of Apicius. It is from these references that we derive most of our present knowledge about Apicius. These references speak mainly about the excesses of Apicius, and the kind of luxurious food that he was interested in.
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Apicius in Pliny’s Natural History and as a Glutton
In Pliny’s Natural History , for example, it is written that:
“Apicius, that very deepest whirlpool of all our epicures, has informed us that the tongue of the phœnicopterus (literally meaning ‘red-wing, known today as the flamingo) is of the most exquisite flavor.”
Pliny also wrote that:
“M. Apicius made the discovery, that we may employ the same artificial method of increasing the size of the liver of the sow, as of that of the goose; it consists in cramming them with dried figs, and when they are fat enough, they are drenched with wine mixed with honey, and immediately killed.”
Pliny’s Naturalis historia, printed by Johannes Alvisius in 1499 in Venezia, Italy. ( Public Domain )
As Pliny was a naturalist, it is understandable that such information was of interest to him. Other Roman writers, however, preferred to focus on Apicius’ gluttony. The poet Martial, for example, wrote in his Epigram:
“You had spent, Apicius, sixty millions of sesterces on your belly, but you had still left a loose ten millions. 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 than this, Apicius, was ever given by you.”
Seneca’s Epistles Continue the Image of Apicius’ Gluttony
Another example of Apicius’ excesses when it came to food can be found in Seneca’s Epistles, in which it is written that:
“A mullet of monstrous size was presented to the Emperor Tiberius. They say it weighed four and one half pounds (and why should I not tickle the palates of certain epicures by mentioning its weight?). Tiberius ordered it to be sent to the fish-market and put up for sale, remarking: "I shall be taken entirely by surprise, my friends, if either Apicius or P. Octavius does not buy that mullet." The guess came true beyond his expectation: the two men bid, and Octavius won, thereby acquiring a great reputation among his intimates because he had bought for five thousand sesterces a fish which the Emperor had sold, and which even Apicius did not succeed in buying.”
Seneca. Ancient Roman bronze bust now at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy. ( Public Domain )
Seneca, it should be said, was a Stoic, and certainly did not approve of the actions of these gourmands. Prior to relating this story, Seneca criticized people like Apicius by writing that:
“What is more shameful than a costly meal which eats away the income even of a knight? Or what so worthy of the censor's condemnation/a as to be always indulging oneself and one's "inner man,"/b if I may speak as the gluttons do? And yet often has an inaugural dinner cost the most careful man a cool million! The very sum that is called disgraceful if spent on the appetite, is beyond reproach if spent for official purposes! For it is not luxury but an expenditure sanctioned by custom.”
De Re Coquinaria
Nevertheless, Apicius became ‘the’ name when it came to food, and this is evident in the 4th century AD cookbook, the De Re Coquinaria . It has been suggested that, apart from some dishes which seem to be named after him, there is little direct connection between this piece of work and the notorious gourmand. The use of Apicius’ name, however, is thought to have enhanced the prestige of this book due to its supposed association with the gourmand.
A copy of the Apicius Manuscript from the Monastery of Fulda, Germany and dated to 900 AD. ( Public Domain )
Apicius’ reputation survives till this day, as it is said that a great number of restaurants bear his name. For all the haranguing of Stoics like Seneca, it seems that Apicius will continue to have devotees amongst the people for his elaborate relationship with food.
Featured image: ‘ Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vases’ by a Pompeian painter in 70 AD, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy. ( Public Domain ) Insert: Mosaic depicting a man labelled as the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius. ( The Monastery )
Anon., Apicius: De Re Coquinaria [Online]
[Vehling, J. D., (trans.), 1936. Apicius: De Re Coquinaria .]
Daley, B., 2014. Apicius: Ancient Roman epitomized life of excess. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/recipes/sc-food-0815-giants-apicius-20140816-story.html
Déry, C. A., 1996. The Art of Apicius. In: H. Walker, ed. Cooks and Other People. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, pp. 111-117.
Grainger, S., 2006. Cooking Apicius. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books.
KET, 2015. Marcus Gavius Apicius. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dl.ket.org/latin3/historia/people/apicius.htm
Martial, Epigrams: Book 3 [Online]
[Anon. (trans.), 1897. Martial’s Epigrams: Book 3 ]
Pliny the Elder, Natural History [Online]
[Bostock, J., Riley, H. T. (trans.), 1917-32. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History .]
Seneca, Epistles: Vol. 3 [Online]
[Gummere, R. M. (trans.), 1917-25. Seneca’s Epistles: Vol. 3 ]
Available at http://www.stoics.com/seneca_epistles_book_3.html