Monday, April 28, 2014

The Books of Apicius by Apicius, Starr and Vehling

The Ancient Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, De Re Coquinaria is presented in an English translation together with a treatise on Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome.  The editors are skilled cooks in their own right, which makes their book, which is in the public domain, one of the more intelligible printings of Apicius's book of recipes.

The Apicii Librii, The Apicius Books, are actually the ten chapters of the Ancient Roman chef's recipe collection.  Included in this edition is a chapter of notes collected by a student of Apicius.  Manuscripts, books written by hand, of Apicius's cookbook were copied over and over again through the centuries, from roughly 100 B.C., during the reigns of Augustus Caesar and Tiberius Caesar, to the late 1400s.

M. Gabius Apicius

In the late 1400s, the only surviving cookbook from the Ancient Roman era was printed using the newly invented printing press.  It has been in print ever since.  While not the first European cookbook to be printed on a press, which was Platina's cookbook in 1474, Apicius's is the oldest European cookery book in existence, and its early printed editions are rare and highly valued.  It is possibly the oldest cookery book in the world.

Time-capsule city Pompeii, in southern Italy, teaches us much about Ancient Roman food.  This wall mural depicts fruit and a wine amphora.

These are the ten chapters (roughly 500 recipes) of Apicius's cookbook:
  1. The Careful Experienced Cook:  Basic cooking tips including storage and preserving food, substitutions, troubleshooting, medicinal mixes, and standard spice mixes and sauces
  2. Minces:  Chopped meats and fish for sausages and patties and fillings
  3. The Gardiner:  Cooked vegetables, salads and dressings
  4. Miscellaneous Dishes:  Aspic salads and one-dish meals, condiments and dressings
  5. Legumes:  Chickpeas, lentils, peas and beans, many served over savory grain puddings
  6. Poultry:  Mostly chicken but also ostrich, crane, flamingo, parrot, and sauces for them
  7. Fancy dishes:  Also called "Sumptuous Dishes" which refers to the "sumptuary laws" in Roman times that put high taxes on certain rare ingredients.  These dishes feature those ingredients.  Rare cuts of meat, and expensively raised animals (fig-fed pork, for example).  Truffles.  Mushrooms.  Snails.  Large numbers of eggs.  Dates.  Apricots.  Large amounts of almonds (for a marzipan sweet).
  8. Quadrupeds:  Literally four-footed animals, which includes cow, goat, sheep, boar, and even a sort of opossum.  They are oven roasted, spit roasted, and stuffed.  Lots of sauce recipes for dressing the raw meat, and then for serving with the cooked meat.
  9. Sea Food:  Lots of sauces for the seafood, and ways of cooking things from lobster to oysters.
  10. Fish Sauces:  Lots of sauces for use with fish, generally assumed to be translated from a Greek sauce book.


Pompeii fresco showing eggs and birds, two main sources of protein for Ancient Romans.

The editors include the notes from a Goth (the original meaning!) student of Apicius's called Vinidarius.  Vinidarius includes with his 31 recipes more instructions for cooking and serving the dishes than Apicius does.  Vinidarius also lists Apicius's recommendation for what should be included in every well-stocked kitchen in the form of spices, seeds, dried herbs and legumes, liquids ingredients, nuts, and dried fruit.

You will find no bread recipes, and very few sweets recipes, because these foods were generally purchased from specialized cook-shops.  Just like today, most people do not bake their own bread, nor do them bake all their own desserts and snacks.  You will also notice the direct link made between food and health, which is often lacking in modern cookbooks.  For example, vinegar and brine are added to vegetable dishes "to counteract inflation" meaning gas, which is a problem when diets are heavy in vegetables.

There are no bread recipes in Apicius, bakeries provided the bread

Cooking ingredients and cooking utensils have not varied much since the dawn of human settlements.  The plants and animals are those of the Earth.  The means of preparing food and cooking it has varied little over time.  Only the sources of the heat for cooking, and the means of storing food have changed, slightly, through the ages:  gas and electricity for cooking and sterilizing, electricity for refrigeration and freezing.

Utensils, serving dishes, plates and bowls, and pots and pans are remarkable similar over the centuries, since the cooking tasks have remained the same.  Once a good design was developed, it lasted!  The major difference is that today these things are normally mass produced, and most often machine produced.


Similar to Asian Indian food, the food of Ancient Rome relied heavily on legumes, with spices and vegetables to vary the flavors.

The flavors of Ancient Roman cooking are very similar to traditional North African and southern Spanish and Asian Indian cooking, with a reliance on staple grains and legumes and vegetables, with a heavy use of spices and other flavorings to vary the taste of the dishes and to create many layers of flavor in each dish (the "pepper" in the cookbook is likely a spice mix like all-spice or five and seven-spice).  The meat dishes are strikingly similar, too, the major difference being a lack of pork dishes, and the lack of dishes reliant on wine in Muslim North Africa, where both pork and alcohol are proscribed.  

Here is a knowledgeable British woman explaining in two minutes about Ancient Roman food while cooking some in the the Ancient Roman way:


A Roman tavern, most citizens of the Ancient Roman capital city, Rome, did not have kitchens in their apartments, they had to eat in taverns or from street food stalls

Three other major differences between Ancient Roman cooking and today's cooking are the New World ingredients, sugarcane, and more meat:
  1. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, etc. have enriched the world's diet since their discovery by explorers around 1500.
  2. Sugarcane, spread by North African conquerors to Europe, now dominates the former stars:  honey and condensed grape juice/must (sapa).
  3. Meat production has become supersized and specialized, which together with modern freezing technologies and transport, has made it an ingredient that is more available than ever before.  Romans ate more freshly harvested fish, and freshly killed domesticated poultry, and freshly collected poultry eggs.  They also used all parts of the animal from the brains to the udders, and especially the offal, wasting nothing!


Honey and reduced grape juice were the primary sweeteners for the ancient Romans.  The Arabs brought sugarcane to Europe around the year 800.

The editors of this wonderful translation provide such scholarly additions as:
  • A description of Apicius's era
  • An Index/Glossary with definitions and Roman terms, with much history
  • Illustrations of Roman cooking and serving tools, with much history
  • Copious footnotes so each recipe makes sense to a cook, and historically
  • Frontispieces from early editions and manuscripts of Apicii Librii and information about those early editions

Pompeii fresco of peaches and clear glass water jug

The creators of the e-book edition have hyperlinked many parts of the book for easy of reference.  The e-book is free.  Some entrepreneurial persons have taken the free text and created books for sale.  I provide links here for free and paid versions.

I leave you with the thought that food culture is as timeless as human nature:  the editors of this book quote from the wall of a Pompeian inn-keeper's wall, where it is boasted that his roast pork is "pan-licking good".

Pompeii fresco of woman collecting herbs and flowers

The Books of Apicius:  Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome is available as a free e-book in various e-book formats from Project Gutenberg, the grand-daddy of free on-line books.

If you wish to a free Kindle e-book or to purchase a printed copy of the book, here are direct links to several available via

You can download a PDF book, facsimile images of each page, from the Internet Archive.  I link to the book's page at the Internet Archive site, from where you can choose the e-book version you wish to download (left column), including the PDF.

Visit my review on this site of free e-books of Italian Medieval and Renaissance cookbooks.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.


  1. Really enjoyed this review. I love how your curate your writing with so many beautiful,(and informative) additions. Molto grazie.

  2. Thank you, Nancy. Grazie mille.