The Romans started it? Really?
My post title is a bit of an exaggeration, I admit. Southern Spain had been growing olives and making olive oil long before the Romans arrived. (I posted about the first Roman city in Spain in a recent blog.)
But the Romans turned olive oil into an enormous industry. It’s an industry that still continues today. Drive through Andalucia and you will see mile after mile of olive trees. Nothing but olives. Mostly not nearly as old as the ones in my picture here, though olive trees can live for millennia.
Olives as monoculture
It’s a monoculture. With all the risks that monoculture brings. Of course, it can bring great prosperity if the product is in demand—there was huge demand for olive oil in the Roman Empire and there still is, worldwide—but that monoculture is vulnerable to weather, to disease, and to pests.
Remember what happened to French wine as a result of phylloxera in the mid-19th century? Growers wonder whether the same, or worse, will happen as a result of new diseases, especially Olive Quick Decline Syndrome spread by insects. OQDS has been in Italy for the last 10 years or so and has recently been detected in Spain and Greece. Those 3 countries plus Portugal produce about two-thirds of the world’s olive oil. Spain is by far the biggest producer, with between a third and half the total.
As a cynical aside, I was told that in the USA, people don’t buy Spanish olive oil. They buy Italian oil. (All those Italian immigrants?) So a very large amount of Spanish olive oil is shipped in bulk to Italy for bottling. It is then sold as “olive oil bottled in Italy” or “imported from Italy” which allows buyers to assume they are buying olive oil grown in Italy. Looking at the figures, I can well believe it, since Spain produces 4 or 5 times as much as Italy does.
Romans needed olive oil for…?
The monoculture was started by the Romans. Or so I was told by the experts during my recent visit to southern Spain. They needed vast amounts of olive oil. Spain provided ideal growing conditions and a larger land area for doing it than southern Italy.
It became a huge industry and many locals in Spain made large fortunes from it. Think how many trades were involved—the growers, sure, but also the people who owned and ran the presses, those who made the amphorae, those who transported the amphorae from where the oil was pressed to where it was shipped, the ship-owners who transported the amphorae to Rome, all the middlemen along the way…
Olive oil was used in so many ways in Rome. The three most obvious uses are well known. For cooking, of course. You’ll find it’s in almost every recipe of Apicius.
But it was also used for lighting in all those little oil lamps. (The ones shown here are from the gabinetto segreto, the secret cabinet, in the Naples museum. I hope you’re not offended by this image. The Romans believed phallic lamps brought good luck.)
When you went to the baths, what did you use to clean your skin?
You took your strigil (or a pair, as shown here) with your olive oil container. And that’s what you used to remove the sweat and dirt from your skin.
Olive oil was also a constituent of cosmetics which were important for women in the Roman Empire. For wealthy women, at least, getting prepared to meet the world was a big deal and could take hours. The image shows some of the kind of implements they used, made of blown glass, metal, and bone. And they could see the results (though not all that well) in their polished bronze mirrors.
There were ivory combs for their hair, as well as hairgrips of bronze and long bone needles for securing their elaborate hairstyles, like the one shown in the image on the front of the Apicius cookbook. The shorter needles could be used for applying eye make-up which could have been mixed or kept in one of those beautiful glass vessels. The Romans were really good at glass, as you can see. They even used window glass (though they didn’t have clear glass).
Oil was transported in amphorae. But not just any old clay vessel. There were standards and distinct shapes for different contents. Wine was transported in an elegant narrow amphora.
Olive oil used a much more bulbous container that held a lot more and was designed to be transported in the belly of a ship which did not, of course, have a flat base in its hold. And you can see the point of the point, too 😉 (Also useful on sand, before loading.)
And garum, the renowned (infamous?) smelly fish sauce that the Romans put on almost everything? The best garum came from southern Spain (Baetica). Garum was transported in amphorae whose design was somewhere between the other two.
Garum pits were recently discovered and excavated in Seville while they were building the enormous wooden mushrooms (las setas), shown below. The archaeological remains are preserved in the basement under las setas and are available to visit.
Behind the excavated pits, you may be able to make out a couple of garum amphorae, ready for filling. The second image shows them in close-up. Not as fat as amphorae for oil. Not as elegant as amphorae for wine. But probably functional. And easy to distinguish from the other commodities.
Though you could probably do so by smell alone!
What happened to used amphorae?
That’s a very interesting question.
Basically, it depended on the kind of amphora.
When I next visit Rome, a definite must-see is Monte Testaccio, an enormous and carefully organised spoil heap composed almost entirely of broken olive oil amphorae. Estimates suggest it contains the remains of 53 million amphorae, mostly of the standard bulbous shape which contained about 70 litres.
Try doing the maths on that!
Experts judge, from the remains at Monte Testaccio, that, in the 2nd century AD, Rome was importing at least 7.5 million litres of olive oil A YEAR. No wonder there was a monoculture in Baetica. And no wonder fortunes were being made.
Why no wine amphorae at Monte Testaccio? Or garum amphorae?
There are theories about that. They suggest that non-oil amphorae could be fairly easily reused, but oil amphorae couldn’t. Possibly because the very large and rounded shape of the oil amphorae made it difficult to reuse broken pieces. Possibly because of the effects of oil on any future uses, including as a constituent of concrete.
My theory is that they couldn’t be reused because that would entail sending them back, empty, to Spain to be refilled. Why bother, if there was plenty of clay available in Spain to make more? Especially if, at the end of the voyage to Spain, the amphorae would smell rancid and ruin the new oil. Easier to take them to Monte Testuccio, cart them to the top on a donkey, break them there and make the carefully structured hill just a little bigger.
What did the Romans ever do for us?
So we thought that dealing with heaps of disposable containers for liquids was a modern problem? As with so many things, the Roman were there before us 😉