Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King. (Historical Novel, April 2017).
This unusually good first novel is a well-researched, discerning and ultimately quite poignant book about life in Ancient Rome. Thrasius, an educated slave with special culinary skills, movingly narrates this first-person tale. While he is a fictional character, many of those he comes into contact with are actual historical figures. That includes Marcus Gavius Apicius, the extremely wealthy and ambitious nobleman who pays an absurd amount to buy the slave/cook’s services as the story opens.
The real-life Apicius was indeed considered a spendthrift. Today he’s known (to the extent he is, at all) as the first author of the world’s first cook books. For the novel we’re shown to have had an uncredited co-author in the form of the literate and wise Thrasius. Various chapters of the book even feature actual recipes for often odd Roman delicacies (roasted peacock tongues—yum, yum)!
It’s the 26th year of Augustus Caesar’s reign and Apicius is a man obsessed. He’ll pay any price (in money, influence, even the happiness or personal safety of his family) to be known for giving the most unbelievably lavish parties, featuring the finest foods and the best wine in all of the Empire. He even dreams of rising into Caesar’s inner circle as the ruler’s official food and party planner (not a phrase used here, of course, but that is what it amounts to).
That might not seem that compelling a goal to us, but for him (a member of the luxury-fixated Roman ruling class) it was a big deal. Apicius, already a notoriously big-spender and gourmand, faces several rivals for the position he covets, most notably his fierce longtime enemy, Publius Octavius.
Thrasius settles into the Apicius household, which includes many distinctive characters. Prominent among them are the ultra-loyal bodyguard Sotas (who becomes a close friend); Apicius’s thoughtful and forgiving wife, Aelia; their delightfully energetic young daughter, Apicata; and little Apicata’s nanny Passia.
Passia catches his eye and in time romance blooms despite the many restrictions their enslaved status puts on them. Meanwhile, he finds himself bonding (somewhat reluctantly) with his new owner. The two men share a fascination with preparing and serving fine food. It proves a surprisingly genuine point of mutual understanding and connection.
Apicius can certainly be egotistical, even blindly cruel at times—especially when in pursuit of the recognition he craves. Yet he is also absurdly generous and unexpectedly affectionate at times. No hero, yet no coward either. He’s a complex character, to be sure. He is more often than not a barrier to Thrasius’s happiness, including his desire to wed Passia, to win their freedom and raise his own family.
Still, the Apicius household becomes the first true family Thrasius has ever known.
Tragedies and triumphs follow over the years. Augustus gives way to his adopted son, Tiberius, and with him an evil relative of Aelia’s (the infamous Sejanus) comes back into their lives, more dangerous than ever as head of the Imperial Guard. He’ll prove a virtual dictator in Rome, what with the uncaring Tiberius largely absent from the city.
Conspiracies become the rule, with Apicius and Thrasius and all those around them caught up in murderous political and personal intrigues. And all the while, the two keep cooking and entertaining, establishing an odd symbiotic relationship. Wild success leads mostly to tragedy for Apicius and his family, as a string of unheeded astrologers, soothsayers and mystics try fruitlessly to warn him.
Apicius lives through the final carnage around Sejanus’s famously bloody downfall (which his family helps engineer, at a horrible cost), yet he finally sees what he has brought onto those he loves (not to mention his typically self-involved terror of losing most of his immense wealth). So he poisons himself (a very Roman thing to do).
In a short but eloquent epilogue set seven years later, the crazed Caligula is now in power. Thrasius, Passia and the other survivors have escaped to the relative safety of Greece. Here our narrator remarks about his mixed feelings and the bond he ultimately felt for the man who bought him only to share so much with him, finally freeing him and his family.
It’s a tribute to the author’s skill that in the end, we—as well as Thrasius—find the contradictory character of Apicius a tragic figure, worthy of our compassion despite his many flaws.