Olive in Etrusca and Rome

Olive in Etrusca and Rome
Olive Trees in Etruscan Italy

Prior to the arrival of olive trees in Rome, the Etruscan people grew these plants in various regions of Italy. The origins of the ancient Etruscan people remain a mystery although some experts believe they could have been from the Near East. Tuscany, which was named for them, was originally their Italian base. This civilization was at its height around the ninth century B.C. They seem to have been influenced by the Greeks, particularly with respect to their art and writing system.

Rather than forming a single state, the Etruscans lived in a group of independent kingdoms based in at least a dozen cities, which formed a loose federation. Originally based in central and northern Italy prior to the rise of Rome, they expanded to the Po Valley and western Italy. Their economy was based on agriculture, which included olive trees, as well as various industries, such as metal production.

The Etruscans were also traders. They shipped goods they produced, such as olive oil, as far as the Aegean. The Etruscans used olive oil in the Etruscan centers, particularly in the south. In addition to the oil, they also ate table olives. Archaeologists have found brined olives in Etruscan amphorae from a shipwreck called Giglio that dates to around 600 B.C. Historians believe the olives were part of the ship’s provisions for the crew.

One famous Etruscan tomb is called the Tomb of the Olives. Located in Caere, it dates to approximately 575-550 B.C. Olives were apparently placed in the tomb, possibly as an offering for the dead.

Olive Cultivation in the Roman Empire

Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.), who wrote the first Roman prose text in 175 B.C. called “On Agriculture,” urged estate owners to sell their olive oil when the price was high. He was a commander in the Roman army and served in Spain, and was appointed governor of Sardinia.

In his book, he devoted more space to the olive than to any other topic. According to him, there were nine varieties in Rome. Cato’s slaves were given olives as part of their diet until the crop was gone.

Various Roman sources described how they grew olive trees, including Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.). The Romans dug holes four feet deep when planting olive trees. Once the hole was dug, they placed a layer of small stones in the bottom of it. Next, they topped that with several inches of soil. Then, they placed the root ball of the tree in the hole and covered it with additional soil as needed. Finally, a layer of manure was placed around the tree.

Columella, a Roman citizen who lived in Spain, served in the Roman legion and retired to his agricultural estate. He wrote a book on farming about 119 A.D. This included information on growing olives. He described a system of propagating olive plants that sounds pretty much like layering, although he didn’t use that term. He placed the end of a shoot into a pot of soil. After the shoot grew in the pot for some time and was well rooted, it was cut from the mother plant and planted.

He described the proper method of planting olives. He recommended digging the tree with the root ball intact and carrying it in a basket to the new spot.

Pliny the Elder noted that the trees tended to be less healthy and more disease prone on rich soils. He also reminded people to never expose the root ball to cold, wind, or to allow it to dry out when the tree was being moved and planted.

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