The stereotypical view of Ancient Rome is Russell Crowe bellowing “Are you not entertained?” in Gladiator. Although the film is gripping (albeit historically inaccurate), the culinary habits of Ancient Romans was forgotten in lieu of fake blood and breasts.

For such a pivotal society, the foodstuff of the Romans is understudied and overgeneralized (i.e. wealthy Romans ate fruit, seafood, and watered-down wine on triclinia). They beheaded barbarians, created concrete, and ushered in Christianity – and yet their dining habits are a mystery.

pizza, beer
Mackenzie Patel

I recently purchased De Re Coquinaria, the oldest surviving cookbook in history by Apicius.  Penned by a prominent Roman who lived during the Julio – Claudian dynasty, this book (translated as “Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome”) is a comprehensive insight into the stomachs of the ancients.

I’ve read the introduction and skimmed the recipes – what a strange collection of foods. Fish balls, roasted ostrich, and pig brains were featured, along with “normal” recipes like chicken Parthian style and shellfish in cumin.

Mackenzie Patel

In addition to the book, I’ve been an ardent student and lover of Ancient Rome for six years. I’ve clocked hundreds of podcast hours, read 10+ books about Rome, and visited the crumbling city three times. I even threw an Ancient Roman party for myself to celebrate the anniversary of my obsession.

My attachment with the ancients is strange, just like these seven recipes antiquity has hidden from us.

1. Fish Balls in Wine Sauce

Patella Arida

Isn’t your mouth watering at that title already? Dried pieces of salted tursio (which Pliny the Elder describes as dolphin) are boned, cleaned, shredded, and seasoned with a slew of modern and ancient spices.

Parsley, ground pepper, cumin, coriander, and dry mint are rubbed with lovage (similar to celery and parsley) and origany (Middle Eastern oregano) into the fish mix. The blend is formed into balls and poached in wine, broth, and oil.

According to translator, J. Vehling, the Romans incorporated spices into their fish and meat dishes to mask the smell and flavor of the flesh. Fish often traveled from Pontus (modern day Turkey) to Rome, and without refrigerators, stinky fish was always on the menu.

2. Boiled Ostrich

In Struthione Elixo

Hope this doesn’t ruin the zoo for you…Wealthy Romans loved their exotic meats, and boiled ostrich was a favorite for Patrician tongues. A stock of mint, pepper, cumin, leeks, honey, vinegar, wine, and broth was brought to a boil. The ostrich meat “cut in convenient pieces” was added to the liquid and seasoned with garlic.

Since ostrich isn’t native to Italy, the Romans had to import it from their extensive provinces. Apicius lived from 80 B.C. to 40 A.D., when the Roman Empire extended from Spain to North Africa to the border of Persia — they had plenty of land to pluck exotic beasts from.

3. Roman Vermouth

Absinthium Romanum

liquor, wine, beer, alcohol
Mackenzie Patel

The Romans had absinthe! Reading this recipe made me giddy since absinthe is a sneaky favorite of mine. The ancients had one up on Picasso, Hemingway, and Toulouse-Lautrec – they had absinthe millennia before those creative burnouts.

To distill the liquor, the Romans cleaned and crushed wormwood (a woody shrub) from the Pontus. Wine, saffron, and costmary (a minty plant) were added to the wormwood and filtered. Most recipes in the Apicius lack defined measurements, step by step instructions, or cook times. However, the vermouth recipe had specifics such as “1 Theban ounce” and “6 scruples.”

4. Ragout of Brains and Bacon

Patina Ex Laridis Et Cerebellis

The ancient meat lovers must’ve drooled over this recipe. A steamy goop of calf or pig brains (“the skin and nerves of which have been removed”), hard boiled eggs, and chicken giblets are placed in a saucepan. A thickener is combined with the typical spice mix and heated with bacon in the center.

Any indication of how long to cook the brains or on what heat setting isn’t given – the last instruction is “stir briskly with a rue whip.” Thanks, Apicius.

5. Milk-fed Snails

Cochleas Lacte Pastas

Fattening snails and frying them sounds like something the French would do – or someone who’s fond of playing with their food. The Romans were all about bizarre dining, so this Apicius specialty was nbd for the ancients. The Romans ripped snails out of their membranes, soaked them in milk for a few days until they were engorged, and fried them in oil and wine sauce.

The Romans even had special breeding grounds for their snails – cochlearia. Wealthy Romans would eat this dish at the triclinia, lounge couches where conversation, Mediterranean food, and orgies (jk) were in high demand.

6. Smelt Pie

Patina De Abua Sive Apua

Also called sprat custard, this dish is basically anchovy casserole. Boiled anchovies are garnished with crushed pepper and added to rue, broth, oil, and raw eggs so that “one solid mass” is formed. Heat this appetizing mixture with sea nettles and top with ground pepper.

To my understanding, this dish is supposed to resemble congealed goo. Apicius writes “nobody will be able to tell what he is enjoying” – the main requirement for any delicious meal.

7. Stuffed Pumpkin Fritters

Gustum De Cucurbitis Farsilibus

This complicated recipe reminded me of Indian samosas, except the casing is pumpkin instead of puff pastry. Pumpkin is cut into oblong pieces and hallowed out so it can be filled later. The stuffing is a mixture of pepper, minced brains, raw eggs, and broth (“as taste requires”).

This gummy paste is stuffed inside two pumpkin pieces, which are skewered together and fried in a wine sauce. The pumpkin is then covered with rue, raisin wine, and pepper. The translator also notes that cucumbers can be substituted for pumpkin and breaded beforehand.

Mackenzie Patel

Although the Apician meals sound outlandish, the bulk of Roman citizens did not eat so extravagantly. Poor plebeians or the middle class subsisted on simple grains, meats, and cheeses. However, when this recipe book was compiled, the Romans were in “full regalia,” conquering barbarians left and right and bringing home spoils of war.

The Romans were reaching towards their apex with Trajan, and the hard decline with Constantine wasn’t even a thought. As Trinidad James rapped so eloquently “we cook good, we eat good, we look good” – and the Romans certainly did that in their prime.