The Olive Tree in Ancient Greece

The Olive Tree in Ancient Greece
Experts say that very little (around 20%) of the ancient Greek land was
suitable for agriculture. This was due to the tall mountains, rocky islands, steep valleys, and rough terrain. While field crops were generally unsuitable, olive trees and grapevines did well.

The date of olive’s introduction to Greece is uncertain as sources disagree when and how this occurred. The olive tree could have been brought to the Ionian coast and Rhodes by the Phoenicians and others.

Some credit ancient caravans from the Middle East with bringing the first olive trees to Greece around 3000 B.C., while other sources say trees were brought from Crete to Greece. A National Geographic article indicated that the olive was first cultivated around 1500 B.C. in Greece. In addition to being planted, olive trees were also growing wild in Greece.

Greeks have been using olives and olive oil for four thousand years. The tree has played a major economic role in Greece since the eighth century B.C. The Greek mainland began to produce olive oil around the first millennium B.C. By 400 B.C., Greece exported the oil to the Mediterranean region, including Spain, France, and Italy.

The plant came to be considered the national tree of ancient Greece. Some ancient Greeks referred to it as the “tree of life.” Sophocles dubbed the olive as “our sweet silvered wet nurse,” and also characterized it as “the tree that feeds the children.” To Greeks, the tree stood for courage, honor, victory, holiness, and purification.

Records indicate that the olive was apparently first planted in Attica on the limestone hills. Over time, it became very common in ancient Greece. Solon (559 B.C.), an Athenian lawgiver, regulated its cultivation. He forbade people from harming olive trees. For uprooting several trees, a person could be sentenced to death.

By the time Homer wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad around 700 B.C., Greece had been growing olives for at least a thousand years. He mentioned the olive in his writings. He referred to olive oil as “liquid gold.” To his heroes, olive oil was seen as representing not only strength but eternal life. According to Homer, Odysseus used a spear made from an olive branch to blind the cyclop. Odysseus described a walled garden owned by Alcinous that featured various fruit trees and the “luxuriant olive.” Hercules also used a club made of olive wood.

The Greek olive oil presses were located in both rural and urban areas. One of the earliest rotary presses was discovered at an archaeological site in Olyntha.

At one point in ancient Greek history, the export of olive oil from the country was banned. This occurred in the sixth century B.C. When the Greeks didn’t produce enough domestically, they imported the oil.

The ancient Greeks played a crucial rule in spreading the cultivation of the olive tree to other parts of the world wherever they settled, including Spain, France, and Italy.

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