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Feast of Sorrow

A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Crystal King

Hardcover, 406 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26.99 |


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Feast of Sorrow
A Novel of Ancient Rome
Crystal King

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NPR Summary

Purchased by infamous gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius during the 26th year of Augustus Caesar's reign, young chef Thrasius, whom Marcus believes is his key to serving as culinary advisor to Caesar, finds a family in his new household until Apicius' reckless disregard for anyone who stands in his way takes a dangerous turn.

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Fortified dwelling and open air banquet, detail from a mosaic portraying a Nilotic landscape from El Alia, Tunisia. Roman Civilisation, 2nd century. Musée National Du Bardo (Archaeological Museum) DeAgostini/Getty Images hide caption

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Excerpt: Feast Of Sorrow

Feast of Sorrow


Marcus Gavius Apicius purchased me on a day hot enough to fry sausage on the market stones. It was the twenty-sixth year of Augustus Caesar's reign. I was nineteen and I'd been put up for sale at the slave auction in Baiae after three months under Titus Atilius Bulbus, a fat, swarthy beast I was glad never to see again. I thanked the gods for the day Bulbus realized that a good cook was worth ten times his weight in denarii and decided it was more advantageous to sell me than to sleep with me.

Midmorning, the slave master, a heavy man with a barrel-shaped torso supported by birdlike legs, shuffled me toward an empty pen at the end of the slave platform. He brought a stool so I didn't have to sit on the dusty ground as two haggard old women scrubbed my naked body until not a trace of grime lingered on my skin. They trimmed my hair and scraped off my beard, leaving me cleaner than I'd been in months.

From my bench in the new pen, I heard my future master before I saw him.

"Ah, Master Apicius," the slaver said in a simpering voice unlike the one with which he usually barked out commands at his slaves. "I am glad you are here. I have two others inquiring about the cook. I hoped you would arrive first."

"Where is he?" Apicius asked, his voice a smooth baritone.

There was a rustle of tent flaps and the slap of sandals on the hot stones. I scrambled to my feet as they rounded the corner and came into view. Apicius looked about a decade older than me, with dark hair and an aquiline nose typical of a long Roman bloodline. An extraordinarily tall Egyptian with wick-black hair and biceps the size of ham hocks hovered in the background. I surmised that he was Apicius's body-slave—the personal attendant who accompanied him everywhere.

The slaver opened the door to the pen and yanked me out to stand in front of Apicius, who took appraisal of my naked body, noting with his eyes that my head was bare. "No cap." He nodded his approval. The lack of a slave cap meant the fat slave master would guarantee me for six months. It also meant I was worth more.

Apicius lifted the bronze plaque around my neck, freshly polished and etched with my credentials and history of ownership. I would wear it every day of my life as a slave. "Free of illness. Does not steal. Good, good. Thrasius, eh? That's a Greek name."

I nodded, unsure if I should speak.

"You were the coquus to Flavius Maximus?" Apicius let go of the plaque and it slapped against my chest. "Interesting. I dined with Maximus a few months before his death. We had sausages of pheasant, sweet melon relish, and a patina of small fry. Was that your doing?"

I gathered my courage and hoped my voice did not shake. I remembered that patina—an egg custard of which Maximus was quite fond. "Yes. The sweet melon relish was something new that I was trying."

"How long did you work for Maximus?"

"I ran his kitchen for a year before he died. He was fond of entertaining." My mind raced. Apicius was certainly interested in my cooking but what if this man was as cruel as Bulbus?

Apicius raised an eyebrow at me. "Can you make roasted peacock?"

"Yes. I have a recipe for peacock with damson raisins soaked in myrtle wine. It works equally well with partridge or duck. I'm sure you would find the dish to your liking." I wiped sweat off my brow.

"What do you consider your specialty?"

"There are three," I answered, raising my voice in order to be heard over the din of the market. "My ham in pastry, with honey and figs, has often been praised, but I have been told it is equaled by my truffles with pepper, mint, and rue. I can also make you a dish of roasted salt belly pork with a special mixture of garum, cumin, and lovage."

Apicius smiled and started to ask another question. But the slave master was growing impatient. "The boy will make you famous," he whispered to Apicius. "With him cooking, you will have clients and friends lining up in the morning, begging for a spot at one of your cenae!" He paused. Apicius glowed.

The slave master continued, "His talents go beyond that of the kitchen. He can read and write, he is excellent at figures, and he speaks several languages. This is the coquus for you!"


The slave master cocked his head and smiled. "Most definitely."

I expected Apicius to ignore the slaver's words. Yet he asked my price of the slave master and the answer shocked me. Twenty thousand denarii! Slaves rarely sold for more than a few hundred denarii.

"Sotas!" Apicius beckoned to the body-slave. Disapproval briefly flashed across Sotas's features as he stepped forward with a bag.

Apicius opened the bag to reveal several gold aurei, then laid the heavy pouch in the slaver's dark calloused hand. "The argentarii know me well," he said, gesturing in the direction of two men standing under a small canopy at the corner of the slave market. As representatives of the Roman bank, the argentarii were responsible for officiating over the larger sales, verifying credit, and making sure transactions went smoothly. "They will sign my letter of credit for the rest."

The slave master grinned. He had profited heavily.

I would later learn that my selling price was more than all the other slaves sold that morning combined.

• • •

After the slave master had removed my shackles and thrown a threadbare tunic at me, Apicius motioned for me to follow. Sotas followed behind.

As we made our way through the Baiae streets, I could sense unease in my new dominus. Perhaps he was having second thoughts about the high price he paid for me.

When he spoke it was with impatience. "Tonight I'm having a small cena with a few close friends. Tell me what you will make for the meal."

I faltered at my new master's words. I gazed up at the laundry lines strung between the insulae we walked past, with colorful stolae hanging out to dry. The sun was already past its apex.

"I am unsure of the staples in your kitchen." I kept my eyes down. My stomach churned as if I had eaten a rotten apple.

Apicius stepped around a small group of boys playing a game of knucklebones. "Never mind that. If you had any ingredient at your disposal, what would you make?"

"You said it was a small dinner?"

"Yes," he affirmed.

"In that case, I would begin with a gustatio of salad with peppers and cucumbers, melon with mint, whole-meal bread, soft cheese, and honey cake." I tried to draw on my memory of one of the last meals I'd made for Maximus.

Apicius licked his lips. "Yes, yes, go on."

"Then pomegranate ice to cleanse the palate, followed by a cena prima of saffron chickpeas, Parthian chicken, peppered morels in wine, mussels, and oysters. If I had more time, I would also serve a stuffed suckling pig. And to close, a pear patina, along with deep-fried honey fritters, snails, olives, and, if you have it on hand, some wine from Chios or Puglia."

"Perfect. Simple and the flavors would blend nicely at the beginning of a meal. Good."

• • •

Apicius led us across the square to the altar to Fortuna Privata, the goddess of luck and wealth. I had been right in thinking my new master was worried about his purchase—it was the only reason he would need to ask the goddess for a divination. On the way to the altar, we stopped at a grocer's stall to purchase offerings: a live goose, fruit, and honey cakes.

The altar was between two buildings on top of a tall stone platform that housed a richly adorned statue of the goddess. Sotas handed the goose to Apicius, who brought it toward the priest waiting next to the altar. My heart pounded. This divination was about me, about how I would affect the Gavian household. An unlucky reading would place doubt in Apicius's mind, and the last thing I wanted was for Apicius to return me to that filthy slaver. He would beat me within an inch of my life for cheating him out of such a fortune. The gods only knew who I might end up with then—the slaver might decide to send me to the salt mines, which would be a death sentence. Few slaves lasted more than a year or two cutting salt.

The priest, a bald man with heavy-lidded eyes, wore red robes that, despite their color, could not hide the dark blood stains of his trade as a haruspex, one who gave divinations by viewing the entrails of sacrifices. Apicius handed the squawking goose to the priest, who sprinkled it with salted flour, poured a few drops of wine on its forehead, and said a blessing. He placed the goose in the copper bowl resting on a low side table and abruptly ended its cries with a quick slash across its neck and a push of the knife down its belly. Scarlet flooded the feathers and flowed into the bowl in a rush.

There was no struggle, which bode well for the divination. The haruspex rolled the goose over and pushed upon it until the entrails fell into a viscous mess in the bowl. I observed my new master, wishing I knew what thoughts were going through his mind. An ironlike smell wafted up from the bowl.

A few more cuts and the haruspex set the carcass into a second bowl off to the side. The goose meat was payment for his services. He pushed his hand through the goose guts, pulling aside intestines and organs. Last, the priest singled out the liver, heart, gizzard, and gall bladder. He turned each organ over in his hands, searching for spots and abnormalities by which he could discern the goddess's wishes. As a cook I had seen the insides of hundreds of geese, but I still didn't understand what a haruspex saw when he examined the blood and guts.

After many long minutes, Apicius was unable to take the priest's silence any longer. "Well?" he asked as he twisted the thick gold wedding ring around his finger.

I was just as impatient. What if the divination said I was a terrible purchase? Would I be back on the slave block before the end of the afternoon?

The haruspex cocked his head at Apicius, one eyebrow raised. I imagined he had seen the same look in the eyes of the wealthy before. He cleared his throat. "The goddess Fortuna smiles upon you in some ways but, I fear, not in others."

Apicius wiped his palms on the folds of his toga. I held my breath.

The priest pushed around the entrails. He lifted up the liver. It was larger than normal but very smooth. "In this I see a life of indulgence and prosperity. You will win many hearts and bring pleasure to many people. You will have much to love in your life." He examined the gall bladder. It was swollen and no longer green as it should be, but a bright, angry red.

A whirring noise engulfed us as several hundred flapping pigeons swirled through the air. Apicius cursed. "Damn pigeons." He glanced upward. "Perhaps I should have sought an augur to read the birds instead of a gut gazer." I had to wonder as well; so many birds appearing at that moment must have great significance.

The priest didn't look up. Apparently birds meant nothing to him unless they were sprawled open under his knife. He slashed the gall bladder open and pulled it apart with the tip of his blade. It was filled with hundreds of yellowish-orange pieces of gravel. He grimaced and my stomach lurched. What did he see?

"This is most unfortunate. A healthy liver and a rotten gall bladder. You will feel the blood of life mingling with the pang of death. Your good fortune will be as a disease throughout your life. The more you work toward success, the more your sky will darken." The haruspex jabbed a fat finger toward a particularly large rock glistening with bile. Two larger pebbles stuck to its sides. "See that? Beware! For every success, greater failures will cluster to the sides."

The priest ignored Apicius's sharp intake of breath. He put the gall bladder aside and turned to the rest of the entrails. He lifted the gizzard, a double-bulbed organ, and cut it open carefully, exposing a cavity full of grass, rocks, and other debris. "Look here," he said, pointing to a piece of rounded pale blue glass amid the slimy debris. "This means unusual judgment."

"What do you mean?" Beads of sweat stood out on Apicius's brow.

"It means that, ultimately, you will be judged in the Underworld by how our world and the world of the future perceive you."

The haruspex picked up the bowl and turned away.

I felt sick—it had been a dismal fortune and surely Apicius was bound to march me right back to the slave trader.

"I see," said Apicius, looking perplexed.

The statue of Fortuna glowed in the early-afternoon sunlight. Her eyes, painted blue, stared at me.

As he rose, Apicius repeated the priest's words over and over in a whisper: "Judged in the Underworld by how the world sees me now and in the future."

I glanced at Sotas, but the body-slave only bowed his head. I wished that I could ask Apicius what he intended. Would he send me back? I looked toward Fortuna and dared to stare into that aquamarine gaze. I thought back to my time with Bulbus and how he abused me in ways no person should have to endure. Please, my lady, grant me your favor. Please. Do not send me back to a beast like Bulbus. Please . . .

• • •

After the divination, Apicius was agitated. There was no more friendly discussion on the way back to his domus, which was a short walk outside of town. I was glad for the silence. It gave me time to think about the whirring of birds still spiraling in my mind. The last time I'd seen birds fly in such a manner was the morning my previous master, Maximus, had fallen dead as his slaves were helping him don his toga. If birds foretold death to Maximus, what did the flock of pigeons mean for Apicius? Did they mean anything for me? Terror held court in the circle of my heart.

This terror took new form when I saw the vastness of the estate where I was to work. Apicius lived in a grand domus that rested on a high ridge with sweeping views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was larger and more elaborate than any I had seen, despite the fact that I'd been owned by three different patricians, each among the very rich. I was not prepared for the opulence of the house that lay before me. Apicius led us through a labyrinth of painted corridors that sometimes opened toward the ocean and the beach below. We passed through the peristylium, and I almost gasped aloud. The courtyard was immense, and laden with fountains and small running streams. Flowers bloomed everywhere and the rich smell of thyme permeated the air as we crushed the growing herbs against the stones beneath our feet. In an unusual design for a domus, one side of the peristylium was open toward the sea, and specially rigged gates could be closed to create a wall against the elements if the need arose. The size of the house was massive. I tried to imagine how many slaves worked for Apicius. There must have been hundreds.

"Sotas, take the boy to the kitchen and start him working," Apicius ordered.

A sour taste rose in my mouth. "But, Dominus, I need more time to . . ."

As soon as the words escaped my mouth I knew that I should not have said them.

Apicius whirled around. "Do not question me. Sotas will take you to the kitchen, where you will cook me the cena meal you described, with two exceptions. I don't want Parthian chicken. Instead, you will cook me your 'specialty' ham in pastry and there will be lobster instead of mussels."

Then his tone changed. "Eat no food tonight you did not prepare by your own hands. If you must partake of food other slaves have made, make them taste it first. And under my explicit instructions, you are not to touch any food that one of my guests asks you to taste, understand? Find another slave to taste but you are to take the utmost care for your own well-being."

What had happened to the last cook? A lump of panic rose in my throat.

Apicius put a hand on my chest and thrust me in Sotas's direction.

"How did I anger him?" I asked Sotas when Apicius was out of earshot. I had to look up to meet his eyes—the top of my head came only to his chest.

"It wasn't you. It was the haruspex."

"Why did he want to buy me so badly?"

Sotas gave me a crooked smile. "Because you're a good cook, or at least you were the night Apicius ate at Maximus's house. Apicius still talks about that meal. He wants that for his own table. He wants someone who will help him become gastronomic adviser to Caesar. He is expecting you to be that person. As for money, you'll find he has a lot of it and he spends it freely."

"I don't understand. The reading for the haruspex was terrible."

Sotas laughed but it was a bitter sound. "Didn't you notice what he was whispering to himself the whole way back?"

I remembered only Apicius mentioning the part about judgment in the Underworld and I said as much.

"Exactly. Apicius heard what he wanted to hear. The part about success, what was it . . . ?"

"The more he works toward success, the more his sky will darken. Sounds like failure to me."

"Yes, that. He's angry and worried now, but by morning he will have convinced himself the failure part was never said."

I remained silent.

Like the domus itself, the kitchen was the largest I had ever seen, full of bustling slaves preserving food, cleaning pots, and cooking on the three large hearths. The fresh, sweet essence of honey cakes wafted through the air, mingling with the acrid smell of vinegar and the rich aroma of smoking meats. The kitchen was loud and hot despite the ocean breeze drifting through the open windows. A red long-tailed hound lay in one corner, asleep with his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth. A large sundial in the garden was visible through the kitchen window. I had only a few hours to prepare an elaborate meal.

I counted fifteen kitchen slaves. They all appeared to be cooking, not serving, and I guessed there must have been at least a dozen more elsewhere who served the courses of the cena. A few prepubescent youths wandered in and out of the kitchen, likely errand runners. I could barely breathe—by the gods, how was I going to manage all these people? I knew how to run a kitchen, but only a small one, with three slaves and three servers—nothing on the scale of what appeared to be expected of me in the Gavian household! My moment to worry passed quickly, for after we entered the room, Sotas rang a large bell on a shelf next to the kitchen door and all the slaves stopped their work, their faces shining in the heat. He pushed me forward into the room and presented me to the kitchen.

"That the new coquus?" an older, mostly toothless woman asked from her post at a low counter where she was pickling parsnips. Her long gray hair, streaked with white, was loose and cascaded down her back. I wondered how much of it found its way into the food.

"He's your new boss. Don't make him angry," Sotas warned, and headed back into the depths of the house.

I watched him go, unsure of what I should do. The kitchen staff waited for me to speak but I could not find a thing to say. A huddle of women plucking chickens and pheasants kept working, looking from me to the birds and back again. The dog lifted its head expectantly. After an uncomfortable silence, the toothless woman spoke up. "Are you mute, boy?"

The words of my former master Maximus came back to me. He had always said that there would be certain times, despite my status as a slave, when I would need audacity and sheer brazen nerve. In those moments I should assume that all around me understood that I knew best. For the first time, I understood the truth of Maximus's words. If I didn't speak and react with authority, I would never have the respect of the staff, and given all the money Apicius had spent on me, I had better gain that respect fast.

"Mute? Unfortunately for all of you, no, I am not." I strode to the center of the kitchen. I gazed at each of them as I spoke. "I am Thrasius but you will call me Coquus. I run a smooth kitchen and I expect the best out of my staff. You there"—I pointed to the old woman—"what is your name?"

She arched her brow, deciding whether she should answer me. I stood my ground, staring intently at her until she blinked, her black eyes disappearing behind wrinkles of skin.


"Balsamea, who is second to the coquus in this kitchen?" My eyes scanned the room, refusing to betray my fear to the other slaves. Most were older than me and that would make gaining their trust even harder.

"That would be me, Coquus," said a man standing near a large jug of garum in the corner of the room. I noted the stamp on the vessel, from Lusitania, one of the finest garum factories in the Empire. Good garum, a sauce made from the entrails of little anchovies, was one of the most important flavors in a dish. I was glad to see I would have access to the best.

"I'm Rúan." The man stepped forward, wiping his floured hands on his thick kitchen tunic. He was young, still in his teens, with an unusual head of red hair and striking green eyes. I wondered if he was from Hibernia, the large isle off Britannia.

"Rúan, I have a menu which Dominus has instructed me to prepare for tonight's cena. Have you slaughtered any pigs recently?"

"There is fresh ham from this morning stored in the cellar," Balsamea spoke up. Rúan glared at her for answering on his behalf, but she didn't look away from the vegetables she was slicing.

"Good." I glanced around the room. "Who bakes the best pastries in this kitchen?"

"Vatia has won the praise of Dominus Apicius," Rúan replied, pointing to a young woman standing behind a low table on the right side of the room. He was Hibernian, his accent so thick that I had to concentrate to understand. Vatia stopped kneading bread long enough to nod her acknowledgment. Her dark, shiny hair was pulled back in a tight knot, which pleased me. Before the end of the night, I planned to tell Balsamea that imitating Vatia would be in her best interest and that she would no longer have the liberty of keeping her greasy locks free in my kitchen.

"Have you prepared the honey cakes?"

Vatia pointed to a nearby pan filled with little cakes ready to slide into the oven. Good. One less thing to worry about. "There are two more tasks for you this evening. You will prepare fifteen rounds of dough, which I'll use to wrap the hams. I also want you to cook the fried honey fritters for the cena secunda. It seems you are already at work on baking the bread." I assumed Apicius had invited guests according to tradition, meaning there would be nine guests, symbolizing the nine Muses. Still, I could be wrong and being prepared for accidents was wise. Additionally, there were often uninvited guests, "shadows" or "parasites," who sat at the ends of the couches and would need to be fed.

"If we do not have on hand melons, saffron, morels, chickpeas, pomegranates, lobster, oysters, pears, and snails, you'd better send the fastest boy we have to the market to get them," I said to Rúan.

A cry rose from the back of the room. "I'll do it, I'll do it!" The voice came from a blue-eyed boy dressed in a ripped tunic, waving his tanned arm around wildly. The boy moved forward. Rúan opened his mouth as if to say something when the boy tripped and crashed into a table. The kitchen slaves shouted as the table toppled, taking with it a dozen brightly colored glass goblets. Several of the slaves lunged to catch some of the glasses but no one was swift enough to save them. They crashed into the tiles, shattering into a thousand rainbow pieces. I closed my eyes and took a deep sigh to keep calm. No doubt those goblets were precious.

"Pallas! You fool! Out! Get out!" Rúan yelled at the boy. Balsamea took him by the shoulder and led him away.

The broken glasses were the least of my worries. Despite the gravity of the situation, I could not stop thinking about Apicius's last words to me—the instructions not to eat any food I hadn't directly prepared. I watched the slaves hurry to clean up the mess: Rúan, the ruddy Spaniard with the broom, the girl with the unusual blond hair picking up shards of glass, and all the others milling about. I regarded each of the fifteen slaves, wondering who among them might want to poison me.