Following a period of civil unrest, a young Syrian priest was installed as the emperor. A religious zealot and licentious partier, he soon gained a reputation among the Roman populace. Here is a recipe he may have indulged in at one of his feasts.
A picture of the dish of the chicken Elagabalus I prepared, garnished with thyme, cilantro, and leeks.
On April 8, 217 AD, the emperor of Rome was assassinated. Known as Caracalla, this man’s reign was plagued by invasions by Germanic tribes from the north, making him largely unpopular among his subjects. The assassin, one of Caracalla’s former bodyguards known by the name of Macrinus, took the throne.
A series of riots, carefully orchestrated by a woman named Julia Maesa, ensued, pitting one legion of the army against another led by Macrinus. The government was thrown into chaos and Macrinus was overthrown. Julia Maesa had succeeded in eliminating Macrinus, the killer of her nephew Caracalla, and paved the way for the next emperor, her grandson, Elagabalus.
This new emperor seemed like an oddity: he was a foreign Syrian priest who served in the unfamiliar temple of a pagan sun god. He soon made a name for himself as a disgraceful, distasteful teenager — he was only 14 when he took power — who wanted to party and show off his money. I would say it’d be fair to cut him a little slack, but let’s see truly how bad he was.
First things first, he announced the replacement of Jupiter, the universally recognized head of the Roman pantheon, with his own god, Elagabal (the source of his name). Right out of the gate, he solidified his utter disregard for established religious traditions, generally something you wouldn’t want to do as the leader of a pious group of people.
Next up, he made it so every other deity had to be worshipped alongside Elagabal, so there was no escaping this heretical emperor’s reforms. Elagabalus (sometimes called Heliogabalus) also built a replica of his temple in the Syrian city of Emesa on the side of the Palatine Hill in Rome to solidify his religious authority.
In the senate house, the Curia Julia, Elagabalus would force senators to watch him dance around the altar of Victoria, the goddess of victory (because why not?), and had a painting of himself hung over the statue of the goddess. This meant that whenever the senators went to give offerings to Victoria they essentially were giving them to Elagabalus. A bit egotistical, I’d imagine. But the list of fiascos doesn’t stop there.
Elagabalus had five marriages. The most scandalous of these was to a Vestal Virgin, a woman who vowed to be celibate, but he supposedly had many more mistresses. Promiscuity certainly wasn’t unknown to Elagabalus, who frequented brothels around the city.
He too would work as a prostitute, a pursuit that drew even more scorn from his subjects. Cassius Dio wrote in his work Historia Romana, or Roman History, that Elagabalus would paint his eyes, pluck his hair, and put on wigs before soliciting himself outside the imperial palace, an act seen as a terrible disgrace.
Within the palace, Elagabalus was equally wild. The dinner parties Elagabalus arranged tended to be ragers, extravagant and in some cases deadly. The Historia Augusta documents that one of the emperor’s carouses took place in a banquet hall with a reversible ceiling. In a true display of luxury, the emperor dropped heaps of rose (or violet, or other flowers) petals from the false ceiling when the diners were least expecting, so heavy that they crushed and smothered the guests.
Whether or not this tale is true, it’s undisputed that Elagabalus loved decadence and feasting. Below is a chicken recipe from Apicius, one which arguably could’ve been a course the emperor himself served at one of his feasts:
Pullus Varianus: pullum coques iure hoc: liquamine oleo, vino, fascuculum porri, coriandri, saturelae. Cum coctus fuerit, teres piper, nucleos cyathos duos et ius de suo sibi suffundis et fasciculos proicies. Lacte temperas, et reexinanies mortarium supra pullum, ut ferveat. Obligas eundem albamentis ovorum tritis, ponis in lance et iure supra scripto perfundis. Hoc ius candidum appellatur.
Chicken Varianus: cook a chicken in the following stock: liquamen, oil, and wine, with a bundle of leek, coriander, and savory. When it is cooked, grind pepper and two cyathos of pine nuts, and pour over its own stock with the bundle of herbs removed. Blend with milk, and pour the contents of the mortar over the chicken and heat. Bind this together with chopped egg whites, put on a plate, and pour the above sauce over. This is called white sauce.
Variously translated as pullus Vardanus, Vardamus, and Varianus, this dish’s true eponym is unclear. Why else would he have written a bunch on that Elagabalus guy, then? you might begin to wonder. To answer that question, I made a personal decision. I couldn’t find an authentic Latin manuscript of Apicius, so I had to pick the most sensible option in my mind.
Elagabalus wasn’t likely known as Elagabalus by his friends and courtesans, but instead Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus. The Varianus interpretation would make sense then, as Varius was his nomen or family name. With respect to its name, then, this dish was much like today’s eggs Benedict. This is my modern version of chicken that could’ve been named for and enjoyed by this unorthodox yet amusing emperor:
2 chicken breasts
3 tbsp of liquamen
1 tbsp of olive oil
1 cup of white wine
3-4 sprigs of cilantro
2-3 sprigs of thyme
½ cup of goat milk
Whites of 2 eggs, hard-boiled
1 tsp of peppercorns
1 cup of pine nuts
¼ cup of broth from the chicken
Salt to taste
Put the chicken in a 2-quart saucepan. Salt lightly, then pour over the liquamen, wine, oil, and enough cool water to cover the chicken by about an inch. Thinly slice the white part of the leek and add to the saucepan, along with the cilantro and thyme. Let simmer on medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring gently and skimming off the scummy foam that may begin to form. Once cooked, take the chicken out of the saucepan. Save the broth from the saucepan but strain the herbs. Grind the peppercorns in a mortar, slowly adding in the pine nuts. Once you have a paste, add to a small pan with the milk and the broth. Finely dice the cooked egg whites and add to the pan, cooking on low heat. Put the chicken on a plate and pour the sauce over, then serve.
Pictures of the ingredients, the chicken cooking in the saucepan, the prepared dish, and the infamous floral dinner party.
Despite all the ingredients in the broth, the chicken just tasted like regular chicken to me. The sauce was interesting, unlike anything I’ve had before, especially with the egg whites. It had the consistency of a runny cottage cheese, whether that’s good or bad, and tasted mostly of milk. I’m not quite sure if this would be my go-to dish as emperor, but it’s mild and unassuming. To spice things up, if you’re so inclined, the chicken would look magnificent with a pile of rose petals on top!