Olive Trees in Ancient Italy

Olive Trees in Ancient Italy
Near Livorno, Italy the fossilized remains of olive relatives were found that date back to 20 million years ago. Fossilized olive leaves found at Montgardino, Italy date back to 5.33-2.58 million years ago.

Sources seem to disagree as to whether the Greeks or the Phoenicians were the first to bring olive trees to Italy. Some say the tree was first introduced around 2500 years, while others say it could have been either 572 or 300 B.C.

Olive Tree’s Role in the Roman Empire

Under the Roman Empire, the whole Mediterranean basin grew olive trees with both olives and the oil being staples in the diet of ancient Romans. By 100 A.D., Romans had developed different grades of olive oil for cooking. An Italian proverb says that in order to leave your grandchildren with an inheritance you should plant an olive tree.

The oil came to be a very critical source of revenue for the Roman Empire. This was shipped to many parts of the Old World as well as various areas of the empire in specially marked amphorae.

Olive oil revenue paid for many building projects throughout the empire. An example was in an ancient Roman outpost that was located in present day Tunisia at El-Djem. This very small Roman town with a limited population built a Roman amphitheater that would have held 60,000 people. In Roman times, experts say this region would have been filled with olive groves.

With the rise of the Roman Empire, the cultivation of olive trees spread to other parts of the empire, including Spain, Roman Gaul, and North Africa. Much later in the empire’s history, these areas began to produce their own oil rather than importing oil from Rome, which later would become one of the causes for declines in the Roman economy due to loss of revenue from the oil.

Wherever the Roman soldiers went, they took Roman customs with them, which included olive oil as part of their diet. Pliny claimed that the very best olive oil was from the Mediterranean region.

Two particular areas in the empire were known for their premium quality olive oil, including Dalmatia and Venafrus. In some regions within the empire, the trees were planted but failed to survive, which was likely due to the cold winters. According to Pliny, the trees were carried over the Alps to Spain and Gaul where a dozen varieties were being grown by the first century A.D. According to historical sources, the tree was grown in Spain and two Gallic provinces by this period.

Olive trees as well as other fruit trees were grown in Pompeii not only for their shade but also their fruits. These were planted in the small gardens and courtyards of Pompeii.

Both Pompeii and the surrounding area were widely known for their olive groves and fine quality olive oil. According to Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.), author of “On Agriculture,” the best olive oil sold in Rome was pressed in Nola and Pompeii.

The Pompeiians had extensive facilities for pressing the oil. Usually, the oil presses were located outside the city of Pompeii. After this was pressed, the oil was delivered to Pompeii and sold in the shops and produce markets. Once of the main markets in Pompeii was called The Marcellum and was found on one side of the forum. Experts believe that olive oil was sold in the building known as the Granary in Pompeii. The markets in Pompeii also sold cured olives.

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