This week the Debs take on the point-of-view of their characters.
After a bumpy litter ride across the Palatine Hill in Rome, I arrive at the palatial home of the ancient gourmand, Marcus Gavius Apicius, to find out what makes him tick. We settle into plush couches in a corner of the villa’s expansive garden.
Me: Tell us when and where you were born?
Apicius: I was born on the Ides of Julius, 29 B.C.E. in Rome. My father, Marcius Gavius Rutilus, was the wealthiest man in the empire and I inherited his vast fortune. He gestures with a tanned arm to the garden around him, complete with playful fountains and trees laden with pomegranates and vines fat with grapes.
Me: No wonder this villa is so extravagant! As someone who has money to buy everything he could imagine, to what do you aspire?
Apicius: I want to delight the world, of course! Most of all, I want to delight the man who rules this world – Caesar Tiberius. I want to become his gastronomic advisor. But then, you probably knew that, didn’t you?
Me: I wink at Apicius. Perhaps. I also know that you need a great cook to help you achieve that goal, right?
Apicius: You are right. My coquus, Thrasius. He is a master in the kitchen. Everything that man’s hands touch turn to edible gold. You are the only one who knows the truth—that I would be nothing if it weren’t for him… His voice trails off, then he brightens once more. If you stay for cena, you can see for yourself. Thrasius is preparing an incredible meal that is sure to please the senators we’ve invited. There will be stuffed eggs, peppered truffles, pheasant meatballs, roasted peacock, fried dormice, crispy flamingo tongues, lamb with mint sauce, fig-fattened pork livers, honey fritters and my best Falernian wine.
Me: I would be delighted. But first, tell me, what drew you to the person you fell in love with?
Apicius: He pauses and his brow furrows, as though he had never contemplated the subject before. My father arranged my marriage to Aelia, my wife, who I consider to be the perfect Roman matron. She is an excellent mother to my beautiful little daughter, Apicata. She always has kind words to say to everyone, including the slaves. She loves poetry, especially the words of our friend, the poet Ovid.
Me: She’s the cousin to Sejanus, a man that you know well, correct?
Apicius: Damn that man to Tartarus. Yes, I know him. He is a Pratetorian Guard to Tiberius and he… Apicius pauses and drains his cup of wine. A massive slave, an Egyptian, emerges from the shadows and refills the wine.
Me: You and he had a relationship of some sort long ago did you not?
Apicius: I don’t need to tell you! You already know why I hate Sejanus so. His ambition is too great. He would use my money, my family and my power for his own. I wish him dead a hundred times over! He suddenly dashes his cup to the ground, the glass scattering in a thousand pieces of pink and green.
I stand and take him by the arm to lead him away down a path of the garden. Several slaves rush to clean up the mess.
Me: Let us talk of something else. What really moves you, or touches you to the soul?
Apicius: The first bite. Especially of something I have never tasted before. It is always so when that first sip, that first crumb that touches my tongue. I feel like I know who I am in those bites. I am alive, I am happy. It is as though the gods are filling me up with light. I wish everyone could feel that same sensation. The world would be better if we only reveled more in the tastes that the gods have granted us.
Me: What are you most afraid of?
Apicius: Losing status. That my popularity might wane. That I might be forgotten.
Me: I’ll tell you a secret.
Me: History will remember you. Historians will write about you. But it won’t always be good.
Apicius: He stops and looks at me, wonder in his date-brown eyes. Historians? Like Herodotus? Yes, yes. Perfect.
Me: Did you hear me? It isn’t all good, the things they write.
Apicius rubs his hands together, his thoughts clearly fixed on something imagined. Finally he turns back to me.
Apicius: Do they remember my recipes? Thrasius and I have been working on a cookbook.
Me: Why yes, they do. And they are delicious. My husband and I made Parthian chicken just the other day. And mustard beets.
Apicius: Wonderful! Wonderful! Did my recipe for boiled sow vulva survive? It’s especially good right after the sow has given birth. Pair it with lentils and chestnuts or perhaps with Vitellian peas.
I sigh and pat Apicius’s arm, knowing that he is not one who will see the forest for the trees.
Me: I have one more question for you. How would you like to die?
Apicius: You know how I will die. I should ask you how that happens.
Me: I’m the one asking the questions.
Apicius: Very well. I should like to die in the grandest way possible. In a way that everyone would talk about for centuries to come. And food…there must be food. Incredible food. I want everyone to talk about it, and to be sad that there would be no more lavish parties to be given by Marcus Gavius Apicius.
I smile but say nothing.