BMCR 2003.11.08

Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome

, Around the Roman table. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. 371 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0312239580 $29.95.

In recent years ancient Roman cuisine has become more and more accessible to modern audiences, due largely to contributions from Dosi and Schnell, Ricotti and Dalby.1 This book, an English translation of a work published in Dutch in 1994, is a further contribution to this effort. It is meant to serve both as a cookbook and as an exploration of the ways in which religion, geography, society and culture influenced the dining practices of the Romans. Ultimately, it is more successful as a cookbook than a work of history.

The author, a chef and food historian who has appeared widely on European television and who writes a column about food for the national Dutch newspaper Der Volkskrant, has organized the volume in two sections. Part one, more historical than part two, includes chapters on culinary history, Roman meals (including table manners, venue and etiquette), wine and other drinks and the cook and his condiments. Although some recipes are included, the emphasis is on providing a broad overview of Roman culinary history along thematic lines, from the founding of the Republic to the fall of the Empire.

Part two contains more than 150 ancient recipes reconstructed for the modern cook. The majority of them are from Flower and Rosenbaum’s critical translation of Apicius’ Romanae Artis Coquinariae Liber.2 In fact, F. utilizes the Flower and Rosenbaum numbering system for the Apician recipes he cites. The remainder of the recipes belongs largely to Cato and Pliny the Elder.

The recipes fall into four broad areas: from the earth (grain, pulses, vegetables and fruits); from the fire (meat from sacrifices, the butcher’s shop and the hunt); from the air (wild, tame and aviary birds and their eggs); and from the water (fish and shellfish). Within each section the format is largely the same. A brief background on a particular dish is followed by the original Latin recipe, an English translation and then a modern adaptation of the recipe, complete with necessary ingredients and cooking instructions.

Here, F. offers a true potpourri of recipes, from the simple (boiled eggs) to the complex (stuffed suckling pig). In the process, he sensibly emphasizes many of the practices that make Roman cooking so distinctive, such as a penchant for disguising food in other forms and a heavy reliance on spices and sauces. Here too the reader will find that ancient tastes often differed dramatically from modern ones, a reality confirmed by the presence of animal brains, sow’s udders and all kinds of birds as ingredients in Roman recipes.

Furthermore, F. is able to draw upon his wide culinary expertise to make connections between ancient dishes and their modern descendants. I did not know, for example, that Roman placenta, a pastry dish, is likely related to baklava; that beet root juice survives in its fermented form as Russian borscht; or, that what is known as figatello in Corsica has its origin in Roman liver sausage. Complementing this kind of insightful analysis is an appendix of useful tables on weights and measures, as well as conversion tables that provide equivalent measurements of liquids, solids and oven temperatures.

On the other hand, this book has its share of problems, many of which occur in part one, where F.’s lack of familiarity with the ancient sources is most apparent. In fairness to F., he makes no claim to be a classicist; even so, some of the more egregious oversights tend to create a misleading picture of Roman culinary life. For example, F. relies on the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta for imperial dining habits, such as those of the emperor Elagabalus; he provides an overview of Roman medicinal theory without any mention of Galen or Celsus; and he misidentifies Cicero as a notorious Roman drunkard instead of the orator’s son. Elsewhere, he attributes fried shark and fried electric eel to the Greek cook Archestratus, as cited in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae of the second century. The problem is that F. quotes these as contemporary recipes, even though Archestratus lived in the fourth century B.C. Ultimately, we do not know if anybody in Athenaeus’s Rome ever even knew of these dishes. In addition, the fall of the Republic/beginning of the Empire is mysteriously dated to 7 B.C. and Epicureanism, misspelled as Epicurianism, is inaccurately equated with hedonism. Furthermore, the bibliography is not only quite short but also contains only four titles in English, surely a drawback for F.’s target audience. Other shortcomings are simply the result of poor proofreading. Works are misattributed to authors, titles disappear from citations, Apicius’ recipes are sometimes misnumbered according to the Flowers and Rosenbaum schemes and captions are missing from 13 illustrations. Errors are also common in the Latin versions of the recipes as well as in key terms ( visceratii for a distribution of meat instead of visceratio, prosceta for meat sliced up for the gods instead of prosecta, Paternalia for the celebration in which food was taken to the graves of family members and relatives instead of Parentalia, etc.).

This book is most successful in recreating much of the uniqueness and color that characterized Roman cookery. The author has chosen a representative cross-section of ancient recipes and has provided adaptations and background material that will render the volume quite user friendly, especially for students who wish to try their hand at ancient cuisine. On the other hand, F. is much less successful in providing a reliable overview of the complex relationship between cuisine and wider Roman culture, proving in the process that this task is best left to the classicist or to the Roman social historian. In the end, F.’s volume is much like Roman cookery itself: it contains plenty of spice but smaller measures of complexity and nuance.


1. See A. Dosi and F. Schnell, I Romani in cucina (Rome, 1986); A tavola con i Romani antichi (Rome, 1984); E. Salza Prina Ricotti, L’arte del convito nella Roma antica (Rome, 1983); A. Dalby, Food in the Ancient World A-Z (London, 2003); Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World (London, 2000).

2. Apicius, Romanae Artis Coquinariae Liber. Introduction, translation and notes by B. Flower and E. Rosenbaum (London, 1958).