Category Archives: history

Olive Oil in Spain: the Romans started it…

The Romans started it? Really?

olive trees from 13th century with olive grove behind

A pair of 13th century olive trees, Medinat Al-Zahara, Spain

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

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

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.

olive oil with Italian label

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

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…Roman cookery of Apicius

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.

good luck Roman phallic oil lamps from PompeiiBut 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.)

strigiles and oil container, Roman

By MatthiasKabel CC BY 2.5, Link

When you went to the baths, what did you use to clean your skin?

Olive oil.

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.

female toilet implements, Roman Roman bronze mirror

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).

Roman glass ointment vessels Roman glass


wine amphora

wine amphora

oil amphora

oil amphora

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.)

how oil amphorae carried in ship's hold

oil amphorae stacked in ship’s hold

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.

Seville, las setas (the mushrooms) from ground level

Seville, las setas (the mushrooms), from ground level

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!

Seville, excavated garum pits beneath las setas amphorae for garum, Seville, las setas

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!

Rome, Monte Testaccio, made of broken oil amphorae

Rome, Monte Testaccio, made of broken oil amphorae

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.

Rome, terraces of Monte Testaccio

Rome, terraces of Monte Testaccio

Why no wine amphorae at Monte Testaccio? Or garum amphorae?

why no recycling? ideas…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?

Used disposable plastic bottles

Discarded plastic bottles by Roman Milert

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 😉

Joanna Maitland author

Joanna, history nut!

Armistice Day 2023

red poppiesArmistice Day 2023 falls on a Saturday. Five years ago I wrote a piece for this blog about the evolution of remembrance ceremonies since the end of World War 1.

Armistice Day was the first – on Tuesday 11th November 1919, in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It specifically commemorated the signing of the document which  ceased hostilities on the Western Front. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.


Big Ben, silent since 1914, chimed again in London. The next morning, Tuesday 12th November, the front page of The Daily Mirror showed photographs of jubilant people, some in uniform, waving flags and cheering.

But it was a pause, rather than the end

It took another 7 months before the (arguably disastrous) Treaty of Versailles ended the war between the European Powers. And it was yet another 4 years until the Treaty of Lausanne ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and an alliance of Britain. France, Italy, Greece, Romania and Japan.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “armistice” as “an agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce.” Continue reading

Hughenden, Disraeli, and World War 2 secrets

Hughenden Manor, home of Benjamin Disraeli

Hughenden Manor by Paul

Hughenden Manor  (near High Wycombe) is known as the home of Benjamin Disraeli, later Earl of Beaconsfield, who was one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers. And reportedly her favourite, even more so than Lord Melbourne.

But Hughenden had a more recent, and secret, role for the British state.
Of which, more later. Continue reading

Italica, the first city of Roman Spain: with geology problems

Roman Italica, Spain, panoramaLast week, I was visiting sites in Roman Spain (and sites from other periods too, but those are for another blog). The first Roman site was Italica, near Seville.

Italica was the birthplace of Trajan (he of the column, Emperor 98-117 AD) and also Hadrian (he of the wall, Emperor 117-138 AD). That reminded me, vividly, that not all Roman Emperors came from Rome.

Bust of Sulla now believed to be Scipio Africanus

Scipio Africanus (previously believed to be bust of Sulla)

Italica was founded long before either of those famous emperors, though. It dates back to the Second Punic War, the one with Hannibal and the elephants.  (You may remember learning about Rome’s decades of wars with Carthage and the latter’s eventual total destruction in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War. Carthago delenda est and all that, regularly declaimed by Cato the Elder?)

The Roman victor in the Second Punic War was Publius Cornelius Scipio whose victory in 206 BC at the battle of Ilipa (near modern Seville) ended the Carthaginians’ presence in Iberia. Scipio—later given the epithet Africanus for his final victory over Carthage—founded Italica for his wounded soldiers.
Well, he couldn’t easily send them back to Italy, could he?

Italica: old city and new city

There isn’t much sign of the old city, the vetus urbs founded by Scipio, as it now lies under the modern town of Santiponce. But Emperor Hadrian favoured Italica and gave it a lot of money to build a new, more splendid city. Much of that has been excavated and can be visited. EU citizens get in free. (Brits, sadly, don’t. Dontcha lurve Brexit?) Continue reading

The Hanseatic League (Hanse): zenith and decline

Hanseatic League stall with spices and exotic fruits

Replica of Hanseatic League (Hanse) stall selling spices and exotic fruits

Hanse trade was vast

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the rise of the Hanseatic League or Hanse. It became very powerful—and extremely rich—simply by working really hard and trading very cleverly. To give you an idea of how extensive Hanse trade was, take a look at this graphic from the Hansemuseum of all the items traded through Bruges (click to enlarge to read):

Hanseatic League imports and exports through Bruges Kontor

imports: cloth at the top, metals, foodstuffs, weapons, exotic animals, luxury goods and more 
Exports: jewels, pearls, carpets, parchment, sugar, weapons, furs, sponges, dyes and more

Clearly, if you were wealthy enough, you could buy practically anything known at the time. At the top of the blog, I’ve repeated last week’s image of a replica spice stall. But there are more. Continue reading

The Hanseatic League (Hanse): origins and growth

Hanseatic League trading range 16th c.

Hanseatic League trading range in the 16th century and key trading partners

Who in Britain has heard of the Hanseatic League (in German, die Hanse)? And yet the Hanseatic League was probably the most powerful trading network in northern Europe for centuries, from its inception around the 12th century until its demise in the 17th.

What’s more, one of the Hanse’s prime locations—you may be surprised to learn—was London. In 1176, King Henry II granted merchants from Cologne the privilege of establishing their own trading post in London. And from then on, their business flourished.

I recently visited Hanseatic League cities and towns in Germany, from Berlin to Lübeck. Continue reading

A Brief Encounter with Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott by H Raeburn

Sir Walter Scott by H Raeburn

To quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica:-

“Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, (born August 15, 1771, Edinburgh, Scotland – died September 21, 1832, Abbotsford, Roxburgh, Scotland), Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer who is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.”

So why do I know so little about Scott?

I confess I have only read one of his books (Ivanhoe).

Roger Moore who played Scott's Ivanhoe

Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I suspect that was because I’d had a girlish crush on Roger Moore, who played the Eponymous hero in a long-ago TV series.

Scott’s Scottish tales use a lot of old Scots dialect, which can be baffling (nay, impenetrable) to many readers.

But that’s changed and now I know more about Scott

A couple of weeks back, I came pretty close to the man himself. Well, to his tomb. And his books. Continue reading

Frederick the Great and Sans Souci, plus a strange comma

Frederick the Great by Warhol

Frederick the Great by Warhol

Frederick the Great? Who he?
(A question asked by Brits, perhaps, but probably not by Germans.)

Not many monarchs get to be called “the Great”. Here, in England, we had Alfred.
In Russia, they had Peter and, later, Catherine (though she was a German, not a Russian).
In Prussia, there was Frederick. So what made him Great?

I mentioned in the blog about my passport woes that I really wanted to visit Sans Souci, Frederick the Great’s summer palace, south-west of Berlin. Well, now I have. And it was fascinating in ways I hadn’t expected at all. Continue reading

Novelist, Ornithologist and War

This blog is about the unexpected confluence of three crucial strands of my life: a novelist, an ornithologist and War.

It is in one way, pure serendipity. In another it feels as if it has been waiting for me for a long time. It is sobering, yet at the same time it has brought me deep joy. The latter in particular is not at all easy, in this time of terrible news at home and abroad and I am sincerely grateful for it.

And to me it feels like a sign that I am, creatively speaking, in the right place and will find a good path.

See if you agree with me.

An Ornithologist Starts It

The triangle started to come together on 6th June. I was horrified by the wilful destruction of the Nova Kharkova Dam in Ukraine, a short sighted brutality that has caused not only great human suffering but is an ecological atrocity that will run and run.

To divert me, a friend I was visiting pointed out a robin visiting his garden. The bird seemed to have a twig in its beak.

So OK, I couldn’t just sit there for ever, radiating despair over the human condition. I aimed for a sensible question: wasn’t it a bit late for nest building?


We began to talk robins. And pretty soon my host was bringing out a small, slightly worn hardback book. It had a plain parchment coloured cover with a crimson rectangle on the front bearing the title and author’s name: The Life of the Robin by David Lack. It was published in 1943 by H F and G Witherby and cost 7/6.

“It’s wonderful,” he said, patting the little book like an old friend. “Still stands up brilliantly. And it’s very readable, too. Fantastic that the publishers were allowed the paper to print it in wartime.”

I got the message. Civilisation will creep through the cracks, even in wartime. I really did begin to feel a little better. So who was he, this inspiriting author I’d never heard of? Continue reading

Superstitious? Who me? Nah (touch wood)

Botswana, fish eagle in bare tree ©JoannaMaitland2019Earlier on this week, I caught myself saying “Touch wood” and started to wonder where the expression came from. Was it me being superstitious? Or was it just a cultural thing, like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes, or “Goodbye” (= God be with you) when we leave them?

As is the way of such things, it started me down a whole warren of research rabbit holes. What’s not to like? At least for a blogger like me, rooting around for something to write about.

Where does “touch wood” come from?

I assumed that “touch wood” must be ancient, perhaps dating from pre-Christian times when sacred groves of trees were venerated.

Shades of the wonderful Asterix and his Druid, Getafix. (That’s a classic example of the humour of Asterix’s brilliant English translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The original French name was Panoramix which isn’t nearly as clever, I don’t think.)

According to Wikipedia, I was sort of right about the Celtic history of touching wood (or knocking on wood) as a kind of protective magic to turn away misfortune. The proper term is, apparently, apotropaic. (No, me neither.) However, there’s a later Christian explanation, relating to the wood of the cross. And an even more modern derivation, from a game of tag called “Tiggy Touchwood”.

Personally, I prefer to stick with the Celtic origin theory. “Touch wood” or “Knock on wood” seems to be in common use in loads of countries which might suggest that it is very old.

I rest my case 😉

Superstitious, moi?

Continue reading