Dec 062016


Quito, current capital of Ecuador, was moved to its present location and re-founded on this date in 1534 by 204 Spanish settlers led by Sebastián de Benalcázar. If that sounds complicated, it is. Let me explain.

Quito’s origins are reputed to date back to the first millennium CE, when the indigenous Quitu occupied the area and eventually formed a commercial center. According to Juan de Velasco in Historia del Reino de Quito (1767) the Quitu were conquered by the Caras, who founded the Kingdom of Quito about 980 CE. For more than four centuries, Quito was ruled by kings (shyris).

The Caras and their allies were narrowly defeated in the epic battles of Tiocajas and Tixán in 1462, by an army of 250,000 led by Túpac Inca, the son of the Inca emperor. After several decades of consolidation, the Kingdom of Quito became integrated into the Incan Empire. In 1534, the Caras/Quitu people were conquered by the Spanish.


Indigenous resistance to the Spanish invasion continued during 1534, with the conquistador Diego de Almagro founding Santiago de Quito (in present-day Colta, near Riobamba) on August 15, 1534, later to be renamed San Francisco de Quito on August 28, 1534. The city was later moved to its present location and was re-founded on 6 December 1534 by 204 settlers led by Sebastián de Benalcázar. The forces of the Inca resistance general, Rumiñawi, and Benalcázar met at the Battle of Mount Chimborazo, where Rumiñawi was defeated. However, before the Spanish forces defeated the Incas, treasures stored in Quito were secreted away and never recovered. The capture of Rumiñawi effectively ended any organized resistance. Rumiñawi was tortured by the Spanish, but never revealed the location of the treasures and so was executed on January 10, 1535. Rumiñawi is now regarded in Ecuador as a hero with 1st December reserved in his honor.


On March 14, 1541, Quito was declared a city and on February 14, 1556, was given the title Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de San Francisco de Quito (“Very Noble and Loyal City of San Francisco of Quito”). In 1563, Quito became the seat of a Real Audiencia (administrative district) of Spain and became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, until 1717 after the Audiencia was part of a newly created Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. Its administration on both Viceroyalties remained to Quito. (see Real Audiencia de Quito)

As with other places colonized by the Spanish, the colonizers promptly established Roman Catholicism in Quito. The first church (El Belén) was in fact built even before the city had been officially founded. In January 1535, the San Francisco Convent was constructed, the first of about 20 churches and convents built during the colonial period. The Spanish converted the indigenous population to Christianity and used them as labor for construction.


In 1743, after nearly 300 years of Spanish colonization, Quito was a city of about 10,000 inhabitants. On August 10, 1809, an independence movement against Spanish domination started in Quito. On that date, a plan for government was established that placed Juan Pío Montúfar as president with various other prominent figures in other positions of government. However, this initial movement was ultimately defeated on August 2, 1810, when colonial troops came from Lima, killing the leaders of the uprising along with about 200 settlers. A chain of conflicts concluded on May 24, 1822, when Antonio José de Sucre, under the command of Simón Bolívar, led troops into the Battle of Pichincha. Their victory marked the independence of Quito and the surrounding areas.


Ecuadorean cuisine has many variations because of the extreme range in geographical zones, especially as concerns altitude, which dramatically affects farming conditions. Goat is popular in the mountainous regions, and seco de chivo (goat stew) is a common festival dish. The poaching liquid was traditionally chicha, a mildly alcoholic, fermented corn drink, and tart fruit juices were added as well. Naranjilla, guanábana, and granadilla, are indigenous, but any tart juice will make an adequate substitute. Locals now often use beer in place of the chicha. Piloncillo (or panela) is unrefined brown sugar in a hard block.


Seco de Chivo


2 lb goat meat, with bones
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp achiote powder (or sweet paprika)
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cups seeded and chopped tomatoes
2 cups chicha de jora (or beer)
2 cups tart fruit juice (or stock)
2 tbsp grated piloncillo (or brown sugar)
salt and pepper
small bunch fresh cilantro, chopped


Wash the goat meat in cool water, drain and pat dry. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, brown the meat on all sides in the hot oil. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Add more oil to the pot if needed and stir the achoite powder (or paprika) to color the oil. Stir in the onion and bell pepper and sauté  for 3 or 4 minutes, or until the onions are cooked down and translucent. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes.

Add back the reserved goat and stir in the chicha (or beer), fruit juice, piloncillo (or brown sugar) and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered for 2 or more hours, or until the meat is tender and falling off the bone. Add water as necessary to keep the seco from drying out.

Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped cilantro. Serve hot with a side of arroz amarillo (rice colored yellow with turmeric or achiote), platanos fritos (fried plantains) and slices of avocado.


Aug 292015


Today is the commemoration of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (also known as the Decollation of Saint John the Baptist or Beheading of the Forerunner), a holy day observed by various Christian churches that follow liturgical traditions. The day commemorates the martyrdom by beheading of Saint John the Baptist on the orders of Herod Antipas (often called Antipas to distinguish him from other Herods), through the vengeful request of his step-daughter, Salome, following the advice of her mother, Herodias, (Antipas’ second wife).

According to the Synoptic Gospels (primarily Mark and Matthew, and passingly in Luke), Antipas, who was tetrarch, of Galilee under the Roman Empire, had imprisoned John the Baptist because he reproved Antipas for divorcing his wife (Phasaelis) and marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip I. It’s a bit hard to assess what John was objecting to. Herodias was Antipas’ first cousin once removed, so some commentators claim John thought this was an incestuous marriage. This is unlikely since first cousin marriage was lawful; commonly preferred. He was more likely objecting to the divorce(s). Both Antipas and Herodias had to divorce their spouses to be married to each other, which is forbidden under Mosaic Law. So, John was most likely thinking of the union as adulterous.

On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ daughter (whom Josephus identifies as Salome) danced before the king and his guests. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that he promised to give her anything she desired, up to half of his kingdom. When Salome asked her mother what she should request, she told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Although Herod was appalled by the request, he reluctantly agreed and had John executed in the prison. Obviously there is a deep element of disapproval here, not just because of the beheading, but because of the salaciousness of the act leading to it. Salome was not performing some demur dance, but arousing the whole male company.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod killed John, stating that he did so, “lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John’s] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death.” He further states that many of the Judeans believed that the military disaster that fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas, his father-in-law (Phasaelis’ father), was God’s punishment for his unrighteous behavior.

The liturgical commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is almost as old as that commemorating his birth, which is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest, introduced into both the Eastern and Western liturgies to honor a saint. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast on August 29, as does the Lutheran Church and many other churches of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England.

The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches also celebrate this feast on August 29. This date in the Julian Calendar, used by the Russian, Macedonian, Serbian and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, corresponds in the 21st century to September 11 in the Gregorian Calendar. The day is always observed with strict fasting, and in some cultures, the pious will not eat food from a flat plate, use a knife, or eat round food on this day.


The fullest account is given in Mark 6:17-25:

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.

I’m inclined to think that the story is apocryphal ,and more likely to believe Josephus that Antipas was afraid of John’s political power and so had him executed. I’m not sure why Mark wants to whitewash Antipas and make Herodias the villain. The Judeans hated Antipas as much as they hated Herodias.

The beheading of John is a very popular story in art. Here’s a small gallery.

jb8 jb7 jb5 jb4 jb2

Although today is a serious day for fasting in the eastern Orthodox church, I’m Presbyterian so I can cut loose. I’m thinking more about Antipas’ feast. Meat in ancient Israel was prepared in several different ways. The most common was to cook it with water as a broth or a stew (for example, Ezekiel 24:4-5). Meat stewed with onions, garlic and leeks and flavored with cumin and coriander is described on ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, and it is most likely that it was prepared similarly in ancient Israel. Stewed meat was considered to be a dish worthy of serving to honored guests (Judges 6:19-20). So let’s go with a meat stew. You could use any meat really (except pork, of course). Hunted meat, such as venison was a highlight in ancient Israel. You may recall that in Genesis 27 Isaac asks his son Esau to hunt some game to make a tasty stew before blessing him, but his wife Rebekah got her other son Jacob to kill two choice goats and prepared a stew for Jacob to take to Isaac before his brother Esau got back from the hunt.


If I were you I’d make the following stew with goat if you can find it, or stewing parts of deer if you live in hunting territory, or lamb as a fallback. For lamb or goat use bone-in, stewing cuts. I make this stew without a recipe so this one is just some guidelines.

©Antipas Meat Stew

Coarsely chop a large onion and sauté it in a heavy-bottomed pot in a little olive oil until transparent. Add 1 kg of goat, venison, or lamb cut into bite-sized pieces and brown evenly. Cover with stock and bring to a simmer, skimming any scum. Add two leeks, green and white parts, cut into chunks. Add a clove of garlic finely minced and ground cumin and coriander to taste, along with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. I’d go light with the seasonings at first and adjust during the cooking process. Cover and simmer for 2 hours or until the meat is very tender. Let the stock reduce but not dry out. Add more if necessary during the cooking process. Serve in deep bowls with flatbread such as pita. As a side dish you can serve a lentil stew.

Aug 112015


Today is Independence Day in Chad, officially the Republic of Chad, marking the end of French colonial rule on this date in 1960. In the past I have not celebrated countries with poor human rights records, but a friend recently challenged this policy saying that (a) a country’s people should not necessarily be held responsible for the actions of its leaders, and (b) anniversaries of this sort are a chance to highlight abuses. So here is Chad.


Chad is a landlocked country in Central Africa. It borders Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest, and Niger to the west. Due to its distance from the sea and its largely desert climate, the country is sometimes referred to as the “Dead Heart of Africa.” The territory now known as Chad possesses some of the richest archaeological sites in Africa. A hominid skull was found by Michel Brunet in 2002 in Borkou that is more than 7 million years old, the oldest discovered anywhere in the world. It has been given the name Sahelanthropus tchadensis. In 1996 Brunet had unearthed a hominid jaw which he named Australopithecus bahrelghazali, and unofficially dubbed Abel. It was dated using beryllium based radiometric dating as living circa. 3.6 million years ago.


During the 7th millennium BCE, the northern half of Chad was part of a broad expanse of land, stretching from the Indus River in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, in which ecological conditions favored early human settlement. Rock art of the “Round Head” style, found in the Ennedi region, has been dated to before the 7th millennium BCE and, because of the tools with which the rocks were carved and the scenes they depict, may represent the oldest evidence in the Sahara of Neolithic industries. Many of the pottery-making and Neolithic activities in Ennedi date back further than any of those of the Nile Valley to the east. In prehistoric times, Chad was much wetter than it is today, as evidenced by large game animals depicted in rock paintings in the Tibesti and Borkou regions.

chad10 chad9 chad6 chad5

Recent linguistic research suggests that all of Africa’s major language groupings south of the Sahara Desert (except Khoisan), i. e. the Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger–Congo phyla, originated in prehistoric times in a narrow band between Lake Chad and the Nile Valley. The origins of Chad’s peoples, however, remain unclear. Several of the proven archaeological sites have been only partially studied, and other sites of great potential have yet to be explored.

Toward the end of the 1st millennium CE, the formation of states began across central Chad in the sahelian zone between the desert and the savanna. For almost the next 1,000 years, these states, their relations with each other, and their effects on the peoples who lived in stateless societies along their peripheries dominated Chad’s political history. Recent research suggests that indigenous Africans founded most of these states, not migrating Arabic-speaking groups, as was believed previously. Nonetheless, immigrants, Arabic-speaking or otherwise, played a significant role, along with Islam, in the formation and early evolution of these states.

Most states began as kingdoms, in which the king was considered divine and endowed with temporal and spiritual powers. All states were militaristic (or they did not survive long), but none was able to expand far into southern Chad, where forests and the tsetse fly complicated the use of cavalry. Control over the trans-Saharan trade routes that passed through the region formed the economic basis of these kingdoms. Although many states rose and fell, the most important and durable of the empires were Kanem-Bornu, Baguirmi, and Ouaddai, according to most written sources (mainly court chronicles and writings of Arab traders and travelers).


The Kanem Empire originated in the 9th century CE to the northeast of Lake Chad. Historians agree that the leaders of the new state were ancestors of the Kanembu people. Toward the end of the 11th century the Sayfawa king (or mai, the title of the Sayfawa rulers) Hummay, converted to Islam. In the following century the Sayfawa rulers expanded southward into Kanem, where was to rise their first capital, Njimi. Kanem’s expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (c. 1221–1259).

By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn Kanem apart. Finally, around 1396 the Bulala invaders forced Mai Umar Idrismi to abandon Njimi and move the Kanembu people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad. Over time, the intermarriage of the Kanembu and Bornu peoples created a new people and language, the Kanuri, and founded a new capital, Ngazargamu.


Kanem-Bornu peaked during the reign of Mai Idris Aluma (c. 1571–1603). Aluma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety. The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma sustained the empire until the mid-17th century, when its power began to fade. By the early 19th century, Kanem-Bornu was clearly an empire in decline, and in 1808 Fulani warriors conquered Ngazargamu. Bornu survived, but the Sayfawa dynasty ended in 1846 and the Empire itself fell in 1893.

In addition to Kanem-Bornu, two other states in the region, Baguirmi and Ouaddai, achieved historical prominence. Baguirmi emerged to the southeast of Kanem-Bornu in the 16th century. Islam was adopted, and the state became a sultanate. Absorbed into Kanem-Bornu, Baguirmi broke free later in the 17th century, only to be returned to tributary status in the mid-18th century. Early in the 19th century, Baguirmi fell into decay and was threatened militarily by the nearby kingdom of Ouaddai. Although Baguirmi resisted, it accepted tributary status in order to obtain help from Ouaddai in putting down internal dissension. When the capital was burned in 1893, the sultan sought and received protectorate status from the French.

Located northeast of Baguirmi, Ouaddai was a non-Muslim kingdom that emerged in the 16th century as an offshoot of the state of Darfur (in present-day Sudan). Early in the 12th century, groups in the region rallied to Abd al-Karim Sabun, who overthrew the ruling Tunjur group, transforming Ouaddai in an Islamic sultanate. During much of the 18th century, Ouaddai resisted reincorporation into Darfur.

In about 1804, under the rule of Sabun, the sultanate began to expand its power. A new trade route north was discovered, and Sabun outfitted royal caravans to take advantage of it. He began minting his own coinage and imported chain mail, firearms, and military advisers from North Africa. Sabun’s successors were less able than he, and Darfur took advantage of a disputed political succession in 1838 to put its own candidate in power. This tactic backfired when Darfur’s choice, Muhammad Sharif, rejected Darfur and asserted his own authority. In doing so, he gained acceptance from Ouaddai’s various factions and went on to become Ouaddai’s ablest ruler. Sharif eventually established Ouaddai’s hegemony over Baguirmi and kingdoms as far away as the Chari River. The Ouaddai opposed French domination until well into the 20th century.


The French first penetrated Chad in 1891, establishing their authority through military expeditions primarily against the Muslim kingdoms. The decisive colonial battle for Chad was fought on April 22, 1900 at the Battle of Kousséri between forces of French Major Amédée-François Lamy and forces of the Sudanese warlord Rabih az-Zubayr. Both leaders were killed in the battle. In 1905, administrative responsibility for Chad was placed under a governor-general stationed at Brazzaville, capital of French Equatorial Africa (AEF). Chad did not have separate colonial status until 1920, when it was placed under a lieutenant-governor stationed in Fort-Lamy (today N’Djamena).

Two fundamental themes dominated Chad’s colonial experience with the French: an absence of policies designed to unify the territory and an exceptionally slow pace of modernization. In the French scale of priorities, the colony of Chad ranked near the bottom, and the French came to perceive Chad primarily as a source of raw cotton and untrained labor to be used in the more productive colonies to the south. Throughout the colonial period, large areas of Chad were not governed effectively: in the huge BET Prefecture, the handful of French military administrators usually left the people alone, and in central Chad, French rule was only slightly more substantive. France managed to govern effectively only the south. During World War II, Chad was the first French colony to rejoin the Allies (August 26, 1940), after the defeat of France by Germany. Under the administration of Félix Éboué (lead photo), France’s first black colonial governor, a military column, commanded by Colonel Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, and including two battalions of Sara troops, moved north from Fort Lamy to engage Axis forces in Libya, where, in partnership with the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group, they captured Kufra.

After the war ended local parties started to develop in Chad. The first was the radical Chadian Progressive Party (PPT) in February 1947, initially headed by Panamanian born Gabriel Lisette, but from 1959 headed by François Tombalbaye. The more conservative Chadian Democratic Union (UDT) was founded in November 1947 and represented French commercial interests and a bloc of traditional leaders made up primarily of Muslim and Ouaddaïan nobility. The confrontation between the PPT and UDT was more than simply ideological; it represented different regional identities, with the PPT representing the Christian and animist south and the UDT the Islamic north.

The PPT won the May 1957 pre-independence elections thanks to a greatly expanded franchise, and Lisette led the government of the Territorial Assembly until he lost a confidence vote on 11 February 1959. After a referendum on territorial autonomy on 28 September 1958, French Equatorial Africa was dissolved, and its four constituent states – Gabon, Congo (Brazzaville), the Central African Republic, and Chad became autonomous members of the French Community from 28 November 1958. Following Lisette’s fall in February 1959 the opposition leaders Gontchome Sahoulba and Ahmed Koulamallah could not form a stable government, so the PPT was again asked to form an administration – which it did under the leadership of François Tombalbaye on 26 March 1959. On 12 July 1960 France agreed to Chad becoming fully independent. On 11 August 1960, Chad became an independent country and François Tombalbaye became its first President. Since then Chad has been torn apart by coups and attempted coups, civil war, external wars and interventions, insurgencies, brutal repression, civilian massacres, government corruption, and constant abuses of human rights. Nothing much new on the horizon.

Like most cuisines of central Africa, Chadians use a variety of grains, mainly millet sorghum and rice, vegetables, such as okra, tomatoes and cassava, and meats, including goat, mutton, beef and chicken. Fish is the most easily available protein in the region around Lake Chad. Here’s my version of a local goat stew. It’s not easy to find goat in the West. I used to find it frozen (in bony chunks) in an immigrant community in Rockland County, NY. It requires long, slow simmering to be tender, but it is very flavorful.


© Chadian Goat Stew

Over high heat in a deep, heavy skillet sauté, in a little vegetable oil, 1 Kg of goat meat cut in chunks until nicely browned on all sides. Add 3 onions coarsely chopped, 1 clove of garlic minced fine, 1 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg, 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 1 (8 ounce) can of tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste, and light stock to cover. Bring slowly to a gentle simmer and cook, covered for 2 hours or longer, until the meat is rags. Add more stock if the stew begins to dry out.

Add ½ cup of smooth peanut butter and stir well to incorporate. Heat through for about 20 minutes. Serve with boiled white rice.

Oct 152014


Today is the birthday (70 BCE) of Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil in English, an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. A number of minor poems, collected in the Appendix Vergiliana, are sometimes attributed to him, but they are likely not authentic.

Virgil is traditionally ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets. His Aeneid has been deemed the national epic of ancient Rome from the time of its composition to the present day. It was modeled after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, following the Trojan refugee Aeneas as he struggles to fulfill his destiny and arrive on the shores of Italy where he founded Rome. Virgil’s work has had wide and deep influence on Western literature, most notably the Divine Comedy of Dante, in which Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.


Virgil’s biographical tradition is thought to depend on a lost biography by Varius, Virgil’s editor, which was incorporated into the biography by Suetonius and the commentaries of Servius and Donatus, the two great commentators on Virgil’s poetry. Although the commentaries no doubt record much factual information about Virgil, some of their evidence can be shown to rely on inferences made from his poetry and allegorizing; thus, Virgil’s biographical tradition remains problematic.

The tradition holds that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. Scholars suggest Etruscan, Umbrian, or even Celtic descent by examining the linguistic or ethnic markers of the region. Analysis of his name has led to beliefs that he descended from earlier Roman colonists. Modern speculation ultimately is not supported by narrative evidence either from his own writings or his later biographers. Macrobius says that Virgil’s father was of a humble background; however, scholars generally believe that Virgil was from an equestrian landowning family which could afford to give him an education. He attended schools in Cremona, Mediolanum, Rome and Naples. After considering briefly a career in rhetoric and law, the young Virgil turned his talents to poetry.


According to the commentators, Virgil received his first education when he was five years old and he later went to Cremona, Milan, and finally Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy. From Virgil’s admiring references to the neoteric (new poets) writers Pollio and Cinna, it has been inferred that he was, for a time, associated with Catullus’ neoteric circle. However schoolmates considered Virgil extremely shy and reserved, according to Servius, and he was nicknamed “Parthenias” or “maiden” because of his social aloofness. Virgil seems to have suffered bad health throughout his life and in some ways lived the life of an invalid. According to the Catalepton, while in the Epicurean school of Siro the Epicurean at Naples, he began to write poetry. A group of small works attributed to the youthful Virgil by the commentators survive collected under the title Appendix Vergiliana, but are largely considered spurious by scholars. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems, some of which may be Virgil’s, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (“The Gnat”), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century CE.

Much has been written about the Aeneid, but I am going to pass over it in favor of the Georgics. I studied both in Latin in school, and without hesitation I will assert that I find the Aeneid dull for several reasons. To begin with it pales in comparison with Homer in my estimation. The imagery is forced and leaden where Homer is bright and spontaneous. Second, its obvious fawning admiration for the emperor Augustus and the attempt to link his glory with the founding of Rome leaves me cold. By contrast I find the Georgics fascinating in large part because of their insights into Roman agriculture and husbandry (perfectly pertinent for a foodie blog).


After the publication of the Eclogues (probably before 37 BCE), Virgil became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian’s capable agent d’affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian’s side. Virgil seems to have made connexions with many of the other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace, in whose poetry he is often mentioned, and Varius Rufus, who later helped finish the Aeneid.

At Maecenas’ insistence (according to the tradition) Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BC) on the longer didactic hexameter poem called the Georgics (from Greek, “On Working the Earth”) which he dedicated to Maecenas. The ostensible theme of the Georgics is instruction in the methods of running a farm. In handling this theme, Virgil follows in the didactic (instructive) tradition of the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days and several works of the later Hellenistic poets.


The four books of the Georgics focus respectively on raising crops and trees (1 and 2), livestock and horses (3), and beekeeping and the qualities of bees (4). Significant passages include the beloved Laus Italiae of Book 2, the prologue description of the temple in Book 3, and the description of the plague at the end of Book 3. Book 4 concludes with a long mythological narrative, in the form of an epyllion, a short discrete narrative within a longer work, which describes vividly the discovery of beekeeping by Aristaeus and the story of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld. Ancient scholars, such as Servius, conjectured that the Aristaeus episode replaced a long section in praise of Virgil’s friend, the poet Gallus, who was disgraced by Augustus and committed suicide in 26 BC. Augustus is supposed to have ordered the section to be replaced.

A major critical issue in considering the Georgics is the assessment of tone; Virgil seems to waver between optimism and pessimism, sparking a great deal of debate on the poem’s intentions. With the Georgics Virgil is credited with laying the foundations for later didactic poetry. The biographical tradition says that Virgil and Maecenas took turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.


Book One

Virgil begins his poem with a summary of the four books, followed by a prayer to various agricultural deities as well as Augustus himself. It takes as its model the work on farming by Varro, but differs from it in important ways. Numerous technical passages fill out the first half of Book 1; of particular interest are lines 160–175, where Virgil describes the plough. In the succession of ages, whose model is ultimately Hesiod, the age of Jupiter and its relation to the golden age and the current age of man are crafted with deliberate tension. Of chief importance is the contribution of labor to the success or failure of mankind’s endeavors, agricultural or otherwise. The book comes to one climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311–50, which brings all of man’s efforts to naught. After detailing various weather-signs, Virgil ends with an enumeration of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and civil war; only Octavian offers any hope of salvation.

Book Two

Prominent themes of the second book include agriculture as mankind’s struggle against a hostile natural world, often described in violent terms, and the ages of Saturn and Jupiter Like the first book, it begins with a poem addressing the divinities associated with the matters about to be discussed: viticulture, trees, and the olive. In the next hundred lines Virgil treats forest and fruit trees. Their propagation and growth are described in detail, with a contrast drawn between methods that are natural and those that require human intervention. Three sections on grafting are of particular interest: presented as marvels of man’s alteration of nature, many of the examples Virgil gives are unlikely or impossible. Also included is a catalogue of the world’s trees, set forth in rapid succession, and other products of various lands. Perhaps the most famous passage of the poem, the Laudes Italiae or Praises of Italy, is introduced by way of a comparison with foreign marvels: despite all of those, no land is as praiseworthy as Italy. A point of cultural interest is a reference to Ascra in line 176, which an ancient reader would have known as the hometown of Hesiod. Next comes the care of vines, culminating in a vivid scene of their destruction by fire; then advice on when to plant vines, and therein the other famous passage of the second book, the Praises of Spring. These depict the growth and beauty that accompany spring’s arrival. The poet then returns to didactic narrative with yet more on vines, emphasizing their fragility and intensive care. A warning about animal damage provides occasion for an explanation of why goats are sacrificed to Bacchus. The olive tree is then presented in contrast to the vine: it requires little effort on the part of the farmer. The next subject, at last turning away from the vine, is other kinds of trees: those that produce fruit and those that have useful wood. Then Virgil again returns to grapevines, recalling the myth of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in a passage known as the Vituperation of Vines. The remainder of the book is devoted to extolling the simple country life over the corruptness of the city.

Book Three

The third book is chiefly and ostensibly concerned with animal husbandry. It consists of two principal parts, the first half is devoted to the selection of breed stock and the breeding of horses and cattle. It concludes with a description of the furor induced in all animals by sexual desire. The second half of the book is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their byproducts. It concludes with a description of the havoc and devastation caused by a plague in Noricum. Both halves begin with a short prologue called a proem. The poems invoke Greek and Italian gods and address such issues as Virgil’s intention to honor both Caesar and his patron Maecenas, as well as his lofty poetic aspirations and the difficulty of the material to follow. Many have observed the parallels between the dramatic endings of each half of this book and the irresistible power of their respective themes of love and death.

Book Four

Book four, a tonal counterpart to Book two, is divided approximately in half; the first half (1–280) is didactic and deals with the life and habits of bees, supposedly a model for human society. Bees resemble humans in that they labor, are devoted to a leader, and give their lives for the sake of the community, but they lack the arts and love. In spite of their labor the bees perish and the entire colony dies. The restoration of the bees is accomplished by bugonia, spontaneous rebirth from the carcass of an ox. This process is described twice in the second half (281–568) and frames the Aristaeus epyllion beginning at line 315. The tone of the book changes from didactic to epic and elegiac in this epyllion, which contains within it the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Aristaeus, after losing his bees, descends to the home of his mother, the nymph Cyrene, where he is given instructions on how to restore his colonies. He must capture the seer, Proteus, and force him to reveal which divine spirit he angered and how to restore his bee colonies. After binding Proteus (who changes into many forms to no avail), Aristaeus is told by the seer that he angered the nymphs by causing the death of the nymph Eurydice, wife of Orpheus. Proteus describes the descent of Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, the backward look that caused her return to Tartarus, and at last Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Ciconian women. Book four concludes with an eight-line sphragis or seal in which Virgil contrasts his life of poetry with that of Octavian the general.


To celebrate Virgil I give you a recipe from Apicius, the late 4th century Roman cook book that I have used before. Apicius is a text to be used in the kitchen. In the earliest printed editions, it was most usually given the overall title De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”) and attributed to an otherwise unknown Caelius Apicius, an invention based on the fact that one of the two manuscripts is headed with the words “API CAE”.

The foods described in the book are useful for reconstructing the dietary habits of the ancient world around the Mediterranean Basin, since many of the foods identified with that region today—tomatoes, pasta—were not available in antiquity. But the recipes are geared for the wealthiest classes, and a few contain what were exotic ingredients at that time (e.g., flamingo).

Here is a recipe for lamb or goat stew incorporating ingredients whose cultivation and husbandry are described in Georgics:

ALITER HAEDINAM SIVE AGNINAM EXCALDATAM: mittes in caccabum copadia. cepam, coriandrum minutatim succides, teres piper, ligusticum, cuminum, liquamen, oleum, vinum. coques, exinanies in patina, amulo obligas. [Aliter haedinam sive agninam excaldatam] <agnina> a crudo trituram mortario accipere debet, caprina autem cum coquitur accipit trituram.

HOT KID OR LAMB STEW. Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop an onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, liquamen, oil, and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with wheat starch. If you take lamb you should add the contents of the mortar while the meat is still raw, if kid, add it while it is cooking.


Not having a kitchen at the moment I cannot make an effort to recreate this dish, but it looks fairly straightforward. Cut the meat into bite sized chunks. Make a marinade of onion, cilantro, peppercorns, lovage, cumin, liquamen substitute (1 tablespoon of Asian fermented fish sauce in a cup of water), extra virgin olive oil, and Italian red wine in a blender, and marinate the meat overnight in the refrigerator (see “marinating” under my Hints tab). I’m not sure why Apicius suggests this for lamb but not for kid. If you want to be authentic you can omit this step for kid. Bring the meat and marinade to a slow simmer and skim off any scum at the outset. Simmer covered for about 2 hours, or until the meat is fully tender. Thicken the sauce with a slurry of flour and water if necessary. Serve with your choice of Old World vegetables and crusty Italian bread. You will find my Roman recipe for broad beans here: