Biblical Archaeology Review 43:6, November/December 2017

Strata: BAR’s Ancient Test Kitchen: Something Sweet from Ancient Rome

The next item on BAR’s Test Kitchen menu—a sweet custard—derives from ancient Rome. Roman cooking presents a set of challenges to the modern chef. The Romans used many ingredients (especially spices) from Asia and Africa, which can be difficult to obtain. Roman recipes, moreover, did not always include precise measurements, unless those recipes were medicinal in nature. Thus, we have selected a recipe that can be duplicated and stomached—the Romans tended to eat things that would make some of us squirm, such as fish eyes and wombs—by the modern cook.

The only Roman cookbook that has survived from antiquity is De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), written by Apicius—a pseudonym, as Apicius was a nickname for “gourmet.” Nothing is known about the person behind the nickname other than that the text was written in fourth-century “vulgar” (i.e., popular) Latin, implying that an average person—perhaps even a chef—wrote the text, not a noble. The nickname comes from the legendary epicure Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 C.E.).1 Apicius was apparently such a gourmand that, when his fortune dipped down to a measly 10 million sestertii, he took poison rather than live a life eating ordinary food.

In Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (First Ed.: 1936), Latin scholar and professional chef Joseph Dommers Vehling published the first English-language translation of De Re Coquinaria. Below is Apicius’s Latin text (7.11.7) and Vehling’s translation:


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