Whenever possible, I try to include complete, original Roman recipes for each dish along with my own interpretation. Though I can’t always find Latin texts for everything I write about, I like to give credit to ancient authors whenever possible. However, I don’t normally describe the texts in detail, so here I’ve provided a short description of the sources you’ll see cited most frequently in my writing.
By and large, the most useful text for me has been a cookbook called Apicius. This book is actually more like a collection of smaller manuscripts – there are ten chapters, each of which addresses a specific type of food, e.g., fish or vegetables. The text’s title is thought to refer to the name of a Marcus Gavius Apicius, a 1st-century-AD gourmet who was most likely not its author. It’s sometimes presumed that the book was written around the time he lived, but the earliest manuscript copy dates to three or four centuries later.
Despite its massive collection of recipes, many of them are frustratingly vague – some consist of only ingredients but no preparation or measurement instructions. It’s likely the text was intended only to be used as a memory aid, with each cook adding their own embellishments to any given recipe. The Latin text I’ve used is from the Bibliotheca Augustana, and English translations are generally from LacusCurtius, a Roman history site hosted by the University of Chicago.
Naturalis historia (Natural History) by Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus)
This book is one of the largest single surviving works from an ancient Roman author, and its scale truly is monumental. Containing 37 separate sections that encompass subjects ranging from mathematics and astronomy to painting and sculpture, Pliny intended not to describe what we now think of as natural history – the study of organisms and their origins and behaviors – but to cover every aspect of the natural world, or life in general.
Impressive in its own right, this book also has a decent number of recipes, most of which are in the botany section. Both the Latin and English versions I’ve sourced from the Perseus Digital Library, run by Tufts.
De re rustica (On Agriculture) by Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella)
Columella was a notable writer on agriculture, and De re rustica was his crowning achievement. Although he was cited by influential authors like Pliny the Elder, many of Columella’s works were overshadowed by contemporaries who also wrote about farming, such as Varro and Cato the Elder. However, De re rustica does include knowledge on many topics, such as soil, game, viticulture, and gardening. I’ve used the Latin version from the Perseus Digital Library and the English translation from LacusCurtius.
De agri cultura (On Farming) by Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato)
Certainly Cato’s most famous work, De agri cultura is the oldest recorded work of Latin prose, dating to around the 2nd century BC. Cato, who served as a legionary but later rose to significance as a senator, was said to have stuck to a basic military diet of cheese, bacon, and posca, even decades after he left the army. The nature of the book itself echoes Cato’s belief in simplicity and the traditional rural lifestyle, with the text following archaic customs and superstitions and reading more like a personal notebook than typical “literature.”
Nonetheless, this book’s straightforward writing has appealed to centuries of readers and still does to this day. I used the original Latin version from the Latin Library and translations from LacusCurtius.