Vital Update on the Asparagus Fleet

If you know, you know.

Thanks to an update from a mysterious figure in the shadows, I was prompted to start searching again for the true origins of the Asparagus Fleet myth (or is it a myth? Maybe it’s real! No classicist I’ve told the story to believes it’s real, but we could all be missing the secret wisdom! Who knows!?). And I have an update. I still don’t believe I have pinpointed the genesis of this elite squadron of vegetable-toting Augustan ships and/or chariots, but I have an earlier source for it, which exonerates Pam Brunning of the International Wine and Food Society of the crime of inventing it. That source is an article, now available online but apparently first published in print as early as April 1999 (more than 10 years before Brunning’s magazine article, which was cited by Wikipedia and probably spread from there to the rest of the asparagus fandom), in the Deseret News, a Mormon newspaper based in Salt Lake City. Said article can be found here. The author’s name, unfortunately, is not listed online and I might have to track down a print copy to get that information [EDIT: one week later, the article now does have a byline. I don’t know why it didn’t before, or what has changed since then. The original writer was apparently food editor Jean Williams, who has unfortunately died in the 23 years since the article’s publication, meaning I cannot pursue her for answers.]. The article also doesn’t say where the asparagus fleet came from. Newspaper articles don’t cite their sources, because by convention the article is the source; whatever the journalist writes is assumed to carry the authority of the paper’s reputation and editorial standards. This works (…up to a point) when a journalist is reporting on current events. When they dip their toes into history… not so much.

Let’s look at the text of the relevant section of the article (a feature on asparagus with a couple of asparagus recipes, just like the dozens of more recent articles that have also picked up the myth):

Asparagus . . . what a weird word! It must have made sense two thousand years ago when the giver of names borrowed the ancient Greek meaning for “sprout” or “shoot.”

The Romans feasted on the tender spears in season and learned to preserve them by freezing. The method wasn’t convenient, but with chariots and runners, asparagus could be plucked from the banks of the Tiber River and quickly taken to the snowy Alps. There it was kept for six months, until the highlight of gluttony — the Feast of Epicurus. Emperors maintained a special “asparagus fleet” to gather and carry the best spears (veggies, not weapons) back to their forum kitchens.

Asparagus and its preparation were so familiar that Caesar Augustus described the meaning of “haste” to his underlings as being “faster than you can cook asparagus . . . ” — which should be a hint to cooks who steam the life out of the vegetable. Asparagus should be bright green when finished — NOT brown.

And here, again, is what Pam Brunning says about the Romans and asparagus.

It was the Greeks and Romans who used the Persian word ‘asparagi’ which translates to signify “the first sprig or sprout of every plant, especially when it be tender”

The Romans were the first to preserve it by freezing, as early as the 1st Century AD, when fast chariots would take the fresh asparagus from the Tiber River area to the Alps, where it kept for six months until the Feast of Epicurus. Pliny, Julius Caesar and Augustus were so enamoured of it that they kept special boats, known as the ‘Asparagus Fleet’ for its transport.

[In a separate text box] Emperor Caesar Augustus coined the phrase ‘Velocius quam asparagi conquantur’ meaning ‘As quick as cooking asparagus’: Something accomplished rapidly.

So these accounts have several things in common and some important differences.

Both mention freezing asparagus in the Alps, as well as this notion of a chariot relay which has absolutely no historical precedent that I’m aware of (chariots are not freight vehicles). The Romans may have been able to store fresh food for a few months in shafts packed with snow, but that’s very much a local solution for people actually living in or very near the Alps. The Alps are a hell of a long way from the city of Rome and the Tiber river, and land transport is ruinously slow and expensive in the pre-industrial world – if you can’t get it there by boat, it’s probably not worth it (the idea of an asparagus fleet, while ludicrously over-specialised, is at least more practical than transporting asparagus between Rome and the Swiss Alps by chariot). Now, from Ravenna, where Pliny the Elder actually says asparagus was grown in his time, that’s slightly more believable, but it’s still quite a long way, and frankly Ravenna is not the claim, Rome is the claim. This reminds me of another story, the claim that some Roman emperors enjoyed a rudimentary form of sorbet made from fruit juice and mountain snow, which is also repeated all over the internet. I attempted to research it a while ago and found no primary sources whatsoever; the Greeks and Romans probably did store snow somehow and use it for cooling drinks (see Pliny the Elder, NH 31.23, on Nero doing this, and also the Classical Greek vase shape known as the psykter that was probably used for something similar) but as far as I can tell they never flavoured it. As with the asparagus fleet, if an actual ancient Roman tells me they were making sorbet, I’ll be surprised and intrigued but probably believe it… but so far I haven’t seen any such evidence.

We also see the mention of the Feast of Epicurus in both articles. The Feast of Epicurus is a real thing, and it’s a fun story – supposedly the philosopher Epicurus left a pile of money in his will so that his followers could have a big party every year on his birthday, which was the 10th day of the Athenian month of Gamelion (because the Attic calendar, like most Greek calendars, is lunar and not solar, the 10th of Gamelion doesn’t correspond neatly to any particular day in our Roman-derived calendar, but it’s roughly at the end of January or beginning of February). But, as far as I know, our only ancient source for this celebration is Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (10.18), which makes no mention of asparagus. The fact that the Deseret News article calls this feast “the highlight of gluttony” also seems like a very modern touch; today, the word “epicurean” tends to be associated with material pleasures, indulgence and sensuality, but the ancient Epicureans were more about moderation, balance and measured enjoyment. The really strange thing here is that the timeline doesn’t work. Both Deseret and Brunning say fresh asparagus was stored for six months until the Feast of Epicurus – which was at the end of January (again, the exact date in our terms would vary from year to year). The asparagus season in the northern hemisphere is from late February to early June, and is at its peak in April and May (and on this subject I am not an expert; I’m just going on what Google tells me, but I suspect that the timing of the asparagus season is probably not an open question in the gardening community – you can’t debate your asparagus into being ready in October). If you want fine asparagus for the Feast of Epicurus, you’ll have to store it for about eight months, not six (and two months’ difference matters, because in that article I linked to before, about the snow-shafts in Basel, the archaeologists being quoted could not demonstrate that they would stay cool all summer, only for a couple of months). It’s a weird detail to include if you aren’t even able to get it right.

So on those counts it seems likely that the Deseret article was Brunning’s source, possibly through an intermediary that isn’t online. But there are also some odd discrepancies.

Both mention the “quicker than cooking asparagus” line, which is real, or at least it’s real that a Roman primary source said that; it’s from Suetonius’ Life of Augustus (ch. 87). But Brunning also gives the Latin “velocius quam asparagi conquantur” – which is wrong. That phrasing is all over the internet, and for one thing it’s misspelled (it should be coquantur, not conquantur), so you can tell which sites have taken it directly from Brunning, but for another the actual Latin text of Suetonius says “celerius quam asparagi cocuntur.” It means the same thing, it’s just that Brunning’s version isn’t how Suetonius actually said it (or at least, not in the public domain texts I’m looking at, or the online Loeb – I don’t know the manuscript tradition for Suetonius and it may be that this is a genuine variation; if you happen to have a Latin edition of the Lives, please do fact-check me on this). Which makes it seem like maybe Brunning, or someone else she was reading, only had the English and translated it back into Latin herself.

The two articles also give different derivations for the word “asparagus” – Deseret thinks it’s from the Greek meaning “sprout” or “shoot,” which is sort of true (the word is used more broadly in Classical Greek than for just the vegetable we call asparagus), while Brunning claims it’s a Persian word meaning “the first sprig or sprout of every plant, especially when it be tender.” The fact that she put it in quotation marks, together with the archaic phrasing “when it be tender,” had to mean she took this verbatim from an earlier source, and Google fortunately had an answer for this one: searching for this exact phrasing turns up’s pdf copy of The Book of the Garden, written in 1853 by one Charles McIntosh. McIntosh, on page 133, quotes an even earlier writer, John Gerard, who wrote The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597, and this appears to be the original source for Brunning’s derivation of the word “asparagus.” From page 955: “for this Latine word Asparagus doth properly signifie the first spring or sprout of every plant, especially when it is tender, and before it do grow into an harde stalke” (note that he says “spring,” not “sprig,” and “when it is tender,” not “when it be tender” – this could be a change from a later edition of Gerard’s book, or it could be a mistake on McIntosh’s part, which would prove that Brunning, directly or indirectly, got the quote from McIntosh). BUT! Not only do neither McIntosh nor Gerard make any mention of the asparagus fleet (McIntosh only briefly mentions anecdotes that I’ve been able to corroborate elsewhere, like Augustus being cited in Suetonius as “fond” of asparagus and Pliny saying that asparagus was grown in Ravenna – and that tracks, because the author of the Deseret article clearly hasn’t read Gerard or McIntosh, so there must be another source for the fleet), they also don’t say that the word is Persian. This is either a bizarre mistake on Brunning’s part or a trace of an additional source (but probably not the original asparagus fleet source, since this detail isn’t in Deseret News).

The last noticeable discrepancy, a smaller one, is the Deseret piece’s mention of “forum kitchens,” a bizarre line. Roman fora are public spaces, and the kitchens of the imperial household would have been in the emperors’ private residences. However, I can understand that as just a silly flourish from a features writer who is aware that the Romans had a forum but doesn’t really know what it was for.

One final clue for now – which was suggested by that mysterious stranger in the shadows, the commenter known as Kit, but to be honest seems like it might end up being just a red herring – is that there is another old book, Samuel Griswold Goodrich’s 1834 Third Book of History (this one is on Google Books). And this one, on page 78, mentions Pompey and Caesar sending their fleets to Asparagus. You might notice that I have capitalised Asparagus here, and that is because Asparagus, as Goodrich’s footnotes make clear, is the name of a small Greek town in what is now Albania (modern texts normally spell it “Asparagium”), and this passage is referring to a minor skirmish of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Now, is it possible that a 20th century reader in a hurry might have skimmed this and saw only that “Caesar sent a fleet to asparagus”? Well… it’s a stretch? I think you’d really have to be reading quite carelessly to be confused that way, especially before 1999 – I can see how someone looking for the word “asparagus” in a searchable pdf might make that mistake, but not someone who was actually reading the physical book. And even then it takes a few steps to get from there to “Augustus created the asparagus fleet to bring him the best asparagus from around the empire.”

So, to sum up the evidence as it stands:

  • We’ve traced one of Brunning’s sources, the Gerard/McIntosh derivation of “asparagus,” but we still don’t know why on earth she thinks it’s a Persian word, and the asparagus fleet doesn’t appear in these books.
  • We have an earlier source for the asparagus fleet itself, purporting to date to 1999, which could easily have been another of Brunning’s sources and is a good candidate for where she found the asparagus fleet. However, we don’t know where Deseret News got the idea from, which means that – for the moment, at least – Deseret News is Patient Zero for this myth.
  • Brunning has taken her Suetonius quote from somewhere unusual. It is possible that she knew the English and translated it back into Latin herself, or had someone else translate it, rather than finding the actual Latin quote.
  • The original source for the asparagus fleet – the source being drawn on by Deseret News – may have also linked the vegetable with the Feast of Epicurus.
  • I am steadily going mad. This fact is not attested in any of the sources I have so far discovered, but is proven beyond serious question by the fact that I’m still trying to research this mythical fµ¢£ing asparagus fleet.

[ADDENDUM: Some further information on the Feast of Epicurus, since some of what I’ve said here contradicts what you might get from a Google search. Diogenes Laertius quotes the following from Epicurus’ will:

…from the revenues made over by me to Amynomachus and Timocrates let them to the best of their power in consultation with Hermarchus make separate provision (1) for the funeral offerings to my father, mother, and brothers, and (2) for the customary celebration of my birthday on the tenth day of Gamelion in each year, and for the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force.

Diogenes also says elsewhere (10.14) that Epicurus’ birthday was actually on the 7th of Gamelion, but doesn’t comment on the apparent discrepancy with the date given in Epicurus’ will.

Some modern neopagans and Epicureans observe the monthly celebration on the 20th, and this is what you’ll see if you Google “Feast of Epicurus.” In the context of what Brunning and Deseret News are saying, though, it seems like they have to mean the annual celebration on the 10th of Gamelion – because a monthly celebration will never be six months away.]

9 thoughts on “Vital Update on the Asparagus Fleet

      1. seriously, I would bet it could be a note in the JRS or something, and it’s certainly instructive for “why it’s pretty important not to use the general internet for classics [or really any scholarly] research” – I will certainly be assigning my future Intro to the Romans students this mini-series!

        Liked by 3 people

  1. 1) Respectable sources which I shall not disclose have recently discovered solid evidence that the “asparagus fleet” may in fact refer to a Roman cocktail popular among the landed classes. The only known recipe was sadly contained in the library of Alexandria, but a charred fragment reveals that it was composed of some sort of sweet cordial, rendered fizzy through fermentation, topped with a scoop of alpine snow mixed with honey and asparagus juice. Science has been unable to replicate the exact honey-snow-asparagus juice ratios.
    2) After the decline of chariot warfare, Rome got a cheap deal on old chariots from both Egypt and Assyria; repurposing them for asparagus transportation was in fact a lot cheaper than constructing brand-new freight wagons (are they called wagons? rolling thingies). [citation not needed]

    Liked by 2 people

    1. (Lest I lose all credibility, I should correct myself: the “asparagus fleet” of course refers to several such cocktails, according to the respectable sources. Several cocktails were sent to the city in what is now Albania during the conflict.)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The mystery of the asparagus fleet deepens! I love informational rabbit holes like this and you put so much time into tracing the origins of this weird fake story. Goes to show how much people don’t know about Roman history, I guess. (Including me…)

    Liked by 1 person

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