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 stock.adobe.com

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!

7 thoughts on “Olive Oil in Spain: the Romans started it…

  1. Allen Hilton

    When we were in Rome a few years ago with Andante tours, we were allowed onto Monte Testaccio, where a group os Spanish archaeologists were excavating. They were looking specifically for the impressed seals on the amphorae to determine where the oil came from, and who produced it. They had lots of material to go on. We were told that the reason for the non-return of amphorae was that the oil seeped into the body of the amphora and could not be removed, so it eventually went rancid. It also meant that the amphorae could not be used as a constituent of cement as the other constituents would not stick to the oily bits.
    On the top of the Monte is the remains of a WW2 anti-aircraft gun site.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you Allen and welcome to Liberta. You’re ahead of me on visiting Monte Testaccio. I mentioned rancid oil in the blog and ditto concrete. Apparently, oil reacts badly with the lime in concrete. According to Wikipedia:

      “Another reason for not re-cycling olive oil amphorae into concrete of the opus signinum type may have been that the fragments were too fatty due to residual oil. Also, oil happens to react chemically with lime (a major component of concrete) and the product of this chemical reaction is soap; the resulting concrete would have had unsatisfactory quality. Wheat amphorae and wine amphorae on the other hand were certainly “clean” enough to be recycled into concrete.”

      Didn’t know about the AA gun site but it makes sense. Am hoping to see all this on my visit to Rome next year.

  2. Liz Fielding

    A really interesting blog, Joanna. I learned about Monte Testaccio when I researching a book set in Rome – Testaccio is the hub of Rome’s night life. And I saw – on a travel programme I think – the tragic damage being done to ancient trees in the Italian olive groves by OQDS. With so much money involved I’m sure big brains are working on it.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Aha, more for my visit. Hub of nightlife eh? I’ll look forward to that. I hope that OQDS can be beaten, as you say, but it’s not looking hopeful right now. The bacterium is spread by insects, seemingly by more than one type so difficult to combat.

  3. Alice Mathewson

    Very interesting and to think that not that long ago, olive oil was only available in the UK in small bottles from the chemist. Thank heavens for Elizabeth David and Terrance Conran. I have to admit I try and buy British grown cold pressed rapeseed oil, rather than olive oil.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome Alice. Yes, I remember the olive oil from the chemist, too. I too use home-grown rapeseed oil but for some things only real olive oil will do (in our house, anyway).

Comments are closed.