I’ve chatted on here before about my interest in ancient Rome. I love me some good historical fiction set in ancient Rome, the worse behaved the Romans are the better. Those of you who know me well know that I even named my dog after a Roman emperor. (Don’t judge.) But I digress.
A couple of years ago fellow book blogger Vanessa (foodinbooks), who has a magnificent blog about books and food, recommended the book Feast of Sorrow to me precisely because of its ancient Roman setting. I just now got around to reading it, and I only regret not reading it sooner. Thanks so much for the fantastic recommendation, Vanessa! (Also thanks so much to my boss Julie for adding this book to the collection at my request.)
Marcus Gavius Apicius is often credited as the author of an ancient Roman cookbook. The oldest-known cookbook, to be more precise. Feast of Sorrow is not about Apicius but rather his fictional slave chef Thrasius, who is the real culinary power behind the throne, though Apicius is quite the accomplished gourmand.
Apicius’s greatest desire is to be the culinary advisor to the Emperor Augustus Caesar, and his quest will drive him to some pretty crazy extremes. Be careful what you wish for, Apicius–because you might just get it. Thrasius has a more balanced view of, well, everything and often gets caught in the middle. In the process, he develops a complex relationship with his master, who can be fantastically generous, affectionate, and encouraging but also incredibly selfish, profligate, and cruel. Thrasius is a likable character–and an engaging narrator–but the real focus of the story is his intimate view of a number of historic figures, ranging from Apicius to the poet Ovid to Augustus and his whole notoriously dysfunctional family.
I love historical fiction, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in that genre that reminds me of this one. It’s basically I, Claudius meets Downton Abbey meets Julia Child, which is a pretty amazing combination, if I may say so myself. For all my interest in ancient Rome (and eating), I’d never particularly given much thought to what Romans ate, and one of the things I particularly loved about this book was the way it delved into Roman food culture (some of which sounds amazing and some of which sounds disgusting, as is kind of a given with many historical periods far different from our own) but without ever seeming like a tedious textbook. The book is also a marvelous depiction of the minutiae of everyday life in a patrician Roman home.
The imperial history of Rome is more familiar to me–I may have had Augustus’s family tree memorized at one point, which was useful for this book–but I thought the author did a great job of working in familiar plot lines in a way that was still compelling and suspenseful. This book is a delightful read but, as its name suggests, not a feel-good one. As soon as one particular historical figure was mentioned (whom I’m leaving nameless to avoid spoilers), I knew things weren’t ending well for most of these characters. In fact, it all leads up to one of the most savage episodes of Roman history I’m aware of. But even with that knowledge, I never wanted to put the book down. The more I read, the more I had to keep reading to see how it would all unfold in the book.
I also thought the book did a wonderful job of making historical figures seem like actual people in a way that is relatable to the modern reader but without sacrificing what we know about them from the historical record. Apicius (whom we do know less about than some of the other Romans featured) especially emerged as a wonderfully complex character. He was not a character I really liked, but I always understood him and why he was the way he was, even when he was being horribly all too human.
If you like historical fiction, I highly recommend this book. It’s an evocative, original look at a famous (and infamous) time period, with superb plotting and characterization. Crystal King knows her history–and also her way around a kitchen–and she blends the two topics marvelously.
P.S. Please be sure to check out Vanessa’s original blog post about the book. She includes both a review and a tasty asparagus recipe inspired by the book.
P.P.S. If you’re intrigued by the premise of the book but not particularly up for anything too tragic or too Roman, try the author’s other book The Chef’s Secret, which we also have in the system. Same basic ingredients (pun intended)–a fictionalized look at a famous historical chef/culinary figure. But this time the setting is Renaissance Italy and this time the innovative cook in question is Scappi, as seen posthumously through the eyes of his fictional nephew. It is also, per the author, a much less tragic tale.
What’s your favorite story set in ancient Rome? Do you like novels about cooks and cuisine? What’s your favorite novel about a famous historical figure? Tell us in the comments! And as always, please check out our online catalog to learn more about both of these items and to place them on hold.