The life story of a notorious ancient Roman gourmand, recounted by his slave, a master chef.
Wealthy patrician Apicius was famous for his profligacy and for a palate so exacting that when he was down to what his contemporaries considered a small fortune, he committed suicide because he could no longer afford the best ingredients. In her addictively readable first novel, King expands on the mostly apocryphal stories about Apicius, complete with lavish detail about Roman cuisine. In the year 1 B.C.E., at a slave market, Apicius pays a king’s ransom for Thrasius, an excellent coquus (cook) who can prepare the luxurious spreads Apicius’ banquets are known for. Thrasius soon becomes indispensable to Apicius’ household, which includes loyal Egyptian bodyguard Sotas, wife Aelia, daughter Apicata, and Apicata’s slave, Passia, with whom Thrasius falls in love. Over the next 30 years, the fates of Apicius and his family are caught up in the momentous events of the reign of Augustus Caesar and his successor, Tiberius. Personages who will be familiar to followers of the I, Claudius books by Robert Graves, and the BBC series they inspired, are all here, including Livia, who threatens to purchase Thrasius for the emperor’s kitchens, forcing Apicius to manumit and then hire the chef. Thrasius and Apicius become partners in a cooking school and write a cookbook together. On Cookery, a codex attributed to Apicius, does exist—recipes from it appear throughout the book, featuring exotic ingredients like liquamen, a fish sauce, and silphium, a wild herb so delicious it was apparently rendered extinct by ancient foodie foragers. Livia adds Apicius to her grudge list, with typically dire consequences. However, the villain in chief here is ambitious ruffian Sejanus, Rome’s de facto dictator, who wreaks havoc on Apicius’ world through blackmail and a forcible marriage to Apicata. Unfortunately, though the food lore is fascinating and the time period is inherently dramatic, the characters are so thinly drawn that the reader will care little for their fates, however grim.
Nonetheless, aficionados of all things SPQR will eat this up.