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Dining with Martial October 23, 2001

In the first-century A.D., the Roman poet Martial sent his friends the following invitation:

Canius, Cerialis, Flaccus--will you come? My dining couch holds seven--there are six of us--add Lupus. The housekeeper from my farm has brought me laxative mallows and the various resources the garden affords amongst which are lettuce which sits close to the ground and leeks for cutting. Burping mint will not be absent nor the aphrodisiac herb. Sliced eggs will crown a dish of Spanish mackerel with rue and there will be a moist belly of tuna from the salting barrel. These are the hors d'oeuvres. This little dinner will consist of a single course: a kid snatched from the mouth of a savage wolf, chops which do not need the carver's knife, the workman's broad beans and unsophisticated shoots. To these will be added a chicken and a ham which has already survived three dinners. When you have had enough I will give you mellow apples, wine which was three years old in Frontinus' second consulship, decanted into a Nomantian flagon. In addition there will be jokes without bile, a freedom not to fear the next morning and nothing you would wish unsaid. My guests talk of chariot racing teams and our cups do not put anyone in court. (Book 10, Epigram 48)

In our November/December 1990 issue, Edith Evans of the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust wrote of Roman cookery ("Dining with the Ancients," pp. 54-61). In her article, Evans used the recipes of the Roman chef and author Apicius to suggest what a meal described by the poet Martial entailed. In conjunction with her article, we published a set of Roman recipe cards so that our readers might try their hand at Roman cooking. Here we reprint the recipes, with slight revisions, and invite you to join Martial and re-create a meal that was first served in the first century A.D., nearly two millennia ago. The amounts given in the recipes are for seven people, the number of people at Martial's dinner. Evans recommended a light stone-ground wheat bread and a sweet white wine from muscat grapes as accompaniments to the meal.

Hors d'oeuvres

Boiled Spanish mackerel with sauce

First boil mackerel (1 lb weighed before cleaning), then dress it with the following:

  • 1/4 tsp white peppercorns
  • 1/8 tsp lovage seed or 1 tsp chopped green lovage
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 5 small sprigs green rue*
  • 1 tsp chopped onion
  • 3 tsp honey
  • 3 tsp wine vinegar
  • liquamen (Asian fish sauce)
  • olive oil

Salt tuna with sauce

In view of the overfishing of tuna worldwide, we strongly suggest you substitute a farm raised fish, such as tilapia or catfish in this recipe.

To salt fish: soak 1/2 lb of deboned fish cut into thick slices in seawater or brine for several hours. Salt it lightly, put it in a barrel with weights to press it for a week. Rinse off salt and dress it with the following:

  • 1/4 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp chopped green lovage or pinch lovage seed
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp chopped onion
  • 2 tsp fresh mint or 1 tsp of dried mint
  • 2 sprigs rue*
  • 1 1/2 tbs chopped hazelnuts
  • 1 chopped date
  • 1/4 tsp black mustard seed
  • 1 1/2 tbs wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tbs olive oil

Pound dry ingredients together in a mortar then add the liquids.


Lettuce with oxyporium, vinegar, and liquamen


  • 2 oz cumin
  • 1 oz ginger
  • 1 oz green rue*
  • 1/2 oz dates
  • 1 oz pepper
  • 9 oz honey

First soak pounded cumin in wine vinegar and let it dry out. Combine oxyporium ingredients then add a little liquamen (Asian fish sauce). Pour over lettuce or other salad greens.

*Please note that rue, commonly used in medicine and cooking in ancient times, can cause an allergic reaction in some people.


Chicken Vardanus

Cook 3 lbs of chicken (with bone) in the following liquid:

  • 3 tbs liquamen (Asian fish sauce)
  • 1 1/2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 cup fruity white wine

After the chicken is done, pour off cooking liquid and reserve.

For white sauce, combine the following in a sauce pan:

  • 1/2 tsp white pepper corns
  • 3/8 cup pine nuts
  • crushed whites of two hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/4 cup cooking liquid
  • 1/4 cup milk (for a stiff sauce)
  • 1/2 cup milk (for a more liquid sauce)

Cook, stirring constantly for a smooth sauce. Pour sauce over chicken on a platter and serve. Note: free-range chicken is closest to what Romans would have eaten.

Pork Chops With Sauce

Fry 1 1/2 lbs pork chops until they are nearly done. Move them to a clean sauté pan and add the following:

  • 4 1/2 tbs liquamen (Asian fish sauce)
  • 4 1/2 tbs water
  • 4 1/2 tbs wine vinegar
  • 4 1/2 tbs olive oil

Continue to cook the pork chops until they are done.


Cabbage shoots (broccoli)

Steam vegetables (2 lbs broccoli florets) and flavor with the following:

  • cumin
  • salt
  • white wine
  • olive oil

Broad beans or split peas

Soak 1 lb dried broad beans or dried split peas with skins removed for 24 hours before cooking.
Cook peas in water over a low heat for several hours, adding water as necessary. When the peas are done fold in the following:

  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 4 tsp fresh lovage or 1/2 tsp lovage seed
  • 1 1/2 tbs ground ginger
  • 1/4 cup fruity white wine
  • 1 1/2 tbs liquamen (Asian fish sauce)
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • wine vinegar to taste

Top dish with yolks of hard-boiled eggs.


Egg sponge with milk

Mix together the following:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/8 cup milk
  • 1 oz olive oil

Put a little olive oil into a shallow pan and bring it to a boil. Pour in egg mixture. When the mixture is done on one side, turn it out onto a serving dish and then coat it with honey and cracked pepper.

* See also "When Gluttony Ruled!"

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America