Apicius [De re culinaria Libri I-IX]

Cover image for De re culinaria that links back to book reader view

This stunning manuscript packs a powerful wow factor: it transmits a fourth or fifth century compendium of culinary and medical recipes, compiled from a number of 2nd century Roman culinary and agricultural works. The manuscript contains 500 Greek and Roman recipes from the Mediterranean basin; a handful may date to the 4th century B.C. As such, our manuscript is sometimes referred to as the oldest extant cookbook in the West.

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The manuscript is divided into ten books, offering recipes for different kinds of dishes, including mise en place, meats (pork and hare appear to have been favorites), vegetables, pulses, fowl, quadrupeds, and seafood. Recipes found here include roast lamb with coriander, deep-fried honey fritters, and cucumber with mint dressing. The recipes use a range of spices not indigenous to the Mediterranean, accessed by Greek and Roman traders who travelled to the spice markets of southern Asia. Pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves are common ingredients.

Ancient sources document the culinary excellence of one Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who flourished during Tiberius’ reign (1st century AD). No evidence exists that this Apicius was ever the author of a book of cookery. This collection of recipes, historically attributed to him, was more likely compiled from a myriad of sources. The 2nd Century satirical writer Juvenal indicated that the name “Apicius” was frequently used to describe a foodie. Other sources suggest that “Apicius” would have conjured luxury and excessive eating.

In spite of the high-end associations the Apicius attribution may have implied, the recipes, though urban and in many cases sophisticated, would have been affordable for a large number of Romans living in the second-century. There is no evidence that the recipes were doctored by a high profile compiler; these appear to be recipes by and for cooks. While some recipes called for cuts of meat that might have been beyond the means of the average Roman citizen, many others, including a number of meat and vegetable and legume dishes, were well-within the reach of Rome’s tradespeople, builders, artists, and modest farmers. Some of the recipes may have reflected popular dishes served in local popinae (street bars).

The dishes reflect the polyglot culture of the Mediterranean basin. The dominance of Greek culinary tradition in the early empire makes it likely that the Apicius began as a Greek collection of recipes, though mainly written in Latin, and adapted for a Roman palate. A number of Greek terms have been incorporated. The Greek melizomum (honey sauce), and hypotrimma (here a mixture of cheese and herbs) are used, despite the existence of Latin glosses. Other words are hybrids of Greek and Latin, like tractogalatae, combining the Latin (dry pastry sheets) and gala, Greek for milk.

Our manuscript was penned in several hands in a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian scripts at the monastery at Fulda (Germany) around 830 AD. It is one of two manuscripts (the other at the Vatican) presumed to have been copied from a now lost common source.

The Apicius manuscript is the gem of the Academy’s Margaret Barclay Wilson Collection of cookery, acquired in 1929. It was restored and rebound by conservators in 2006. The text of the Apicius has been reprinted liberally in almost every century since it first appeared in print in 1498, and has been translated into many languages. Apicius enthusiasts will find many of the print descendants of this extraordinary manuscript in the Academy’s library.

Apicius. [De re culinaria, Libri I-IX]. s.n., [9th century].

Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.