Major crops included grapes, olives, figs, pears, apples, peaches, cherries, plums and walnuts. Romans grafted apple trees and spread apple cultivation throughout their empire. Grain was grown on vast North African estates nourished with irrigated water from small dammed reservoirs and worked by slaves. But as as time went on the productivity of Africa declined. One writer wrote: "North Africa's rich granaries that once fed the Roman Empire have vanished. Tunisia has lost perhaps half its arable land. Algeria is planting a green belt of trees to keep the desert away, and there has been talk or ringing most of the Sahara with such a living Maginot line.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Roman farmer understood something of seed selection and practiced rotation of crops. He followed wheat with rye, barley, or oats. The second or fourth year beans or peas might be planted, sometimes to be plowed under green as stated above, or alfalfa was put in. Alfalfa (medica) was well established in Italy before the beginning of our era; according to Pliny the Elder, it was brought from Greece, having come there from Asia. In other cases the land was left fallow every second or third year. Sometimes it was left fallow the year before wheat was planted. It was then plowed in the spring and summer as well as in the fall. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Cato lists farm crops in the order of their importance in his time. First he puts the vineyard, then the vegetable garden, willow copse, olive grove, meadow, grain fields, wood lot, orchard, and oak grove. It is to be noted that he puts grain in the sixth place. The transportation problem was also a factor here, for, as moving grain overland was difficult and expensive, it was cheaper to import it from the provinces by sea. Vine-growing has been discussed in detail, as have the growing of the olive and processes pertaining to it. |+|

“The vegetables grown by the Romans and their importance in the diet have been mentioned . The farm garden contained the commonest of these for home consumption, with herbs for seasoning and for the home remedies, bee plants, and garland flowers. These last were not for garlands at banquets, unless the farm lay near a town and they were grown for sale, but for garlands to deck the hearth in honor of the household gods on festival days. Near the towns market-gardening was profitable, and vegetables, fruits, and flowers were grown. In early days a garden had lain behind each house, and the excavations at Pompeii show occasional traces of small gardens even behind large town houses. |+|

“Wheat was sown in the fall and cultivated by hand with the hoe in the spring. At harvest time it was generally cut by hand. Sometimes the reapers cut close to the ground, and after the sheaves were piled in shocks cut off the heads for the threshing. Sometimes they cut the heads first and the standing straw later. There was a simple form of a header pushed by an ox, but this could be used only where the ground was level. Threshing was done by hand on the threshing floor, or the grain was trodden out by cattle, or beaten out by a simple machine. It was winnowed by hand, by the process of tossing it in baskets, or by shovels so that the chaff flew out or away. |+|

“Reeds and willows were planted in damp places. Willows were useful for baskets, ties for vines, and other farm purposes. The wood made a quick, hot fire in the kitchen. Vergil knew the willow as a hedge plant, whose early blossoms were loved by the bees. The word arbustum, translated by the word “orchard,” does not refer to an orchard as we understand the term, but to regular rows of trees, elm, poplar, fig, or mulberry, planted for the training of vines, with grass, alfalfa, or vegetables between.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Common Foods in the Roman Empire

ancient roman pigeon house

Among other things Romans ate doves, chickens, figs, dates, olives, grapes, white almonds, truffles and fois gras and cooked fowl in clay pots. There were no tomatoes, potatoes, spaghetti, risotto, or corn. Romans often turned up their noses at the food from outside Rome. On the food in Greece a character in a satire commented: “They give weeds to their guests, as though they were cattle. And they flavor their weeds with other weeds."

The Romans consumed dairy products such as milk, cream, curds, whey, and cheese. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ They drank the milk of sheep and goats as well as that of cows, and made cheese of the three kinds of milk. The cheese from ewes’ milk was thought more digestible, though less palatable, than that made from cows’ milk, while cheese from goats’ milk was more palatable but less digestible. It is remarkable that they had no knowledge of butter except as a plaster for wounds. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Honey took the place of sugar on the table and in cooking, for the Romans had only a botanical knowledge of the sugar cane. Salt was at first obtained by the evaporation of sea water, but was afterwards mined, Its manufacture was a monopoly of the government, and care was taken always to keep the price low. It was used not only for seasoning, but also as a preservative agent. Vinegar was made from grapes. Among the articles of food unknown to the Romans were tea and coffee, along with the orange, tomato, potato, butter, and sugar.” |+|

Grains and Cereals in Ancient Rome

Grain was the main commodity in ancient Rome. It was used to make bread and porridge, the staples of the Roman diet. Poor people subsisted on a gruel-like soup of mush made from grain. The Roman grain goddess Ceres gave birth to the word "cereal." Chickpeas, emmer wheat and lentils were all eaten. Rice was imported from India and used as a medicine.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The word frumentum was a general term applied to any of the many sorts of grain that were grown for food. The word frumentum occurs fifty-five times in Caesar’s Gallic War, meaning any kind of grain that happened to be grown for food in the country in which Caesar was campaigning at the time. Of those now in use barley, oats, rye, and wheat were known to the Romans, though rye was not cultivated, and oats served only as feed for cattle. Barley was not much used, for it was thought to lack nutriment, and therefore to be unfit for laborers. In very ancient times another grain, spelt (far), a very hardy kind of wheat, had been grown extensively, but it had gradually gone out of use except for the sacrificial cake that had given its name to the confarreate ceremony of marriage. In classical times wheat was the staple grain grown for food, not differing much from that which we have today. It was usually planted in the fall, though on some soils it would mature as a spring wheat. After grain ceased to be much grown in Central Italy and the land was diverted to other purposes, wheat had to be imported from the provinces, first from Sicily, then from Africa and Egypt, as the home supply became inadequate to the needs of the teeming population. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Preparation of the Grain. In the earliest times the grain (far) had not been ground, but had been merely pounded in a mortar. The meal was then mixed with water and made into a sort of porridge (puls, whence our word “poultice”), which long remained the national dish something like the oatmeal of Scotland. Plautus (died 184 B.C.) jestingly refers to his countrymen as “pulse-eaters.” The persons who crushed the grain were called pinsitores, or pistores, whence the cognomen Piso, as was said above, was derived; in later times the bakers were also called pistores, because they ground the grain as well as baked the bread. In the ruins of bakeries we find mills as regularly as ovens. |+|

“In such mills the grain was ground into regular flour. The mill (mola) consisted of three parts, the lower millstone (meta), the upper stone (catillus), and the framework that surrounded and supported the latter and furnished the means to turn it upon the meta. The meta was, as the name suggests, a cone shaped stone (A) resting on a bed of masonry (B) with a raised rim, between which and the lower edge of the meta the flour was collected. In the upper part of the meta a beam (C) was mortised, ending above in an iron pin or pivot (D), on which hung and turned the framework that supported the catillus. The catillus (E) itself was shaped something like an hourglass, or two funnels joined at their necks. The upper funnel served as a hopper into which the grain was poured; the lower funnel fitted closely over the meta. From a relief in the Vatican Museum, Rome.The distance between the lower funnel and the meta was regulated by the length of the pin, mentioned above, according to the fineness of the flour desired. |+|

“The framework was very strong and massive on account of the heavy weight that was suspended from it. The beams used for turning the mill were fitted into holes in the narrow part of the catillus. The power required to do the grinding was furnished by horses or mules pulling the beams, or by slaves pushing against them. This last method was often used as a punishment, as we have seen. Of the same form but much smaller were the hand mills used by soldiers for grinding the frumentum furnished them as rations. Under the Empire, water mils were introduced, but they are rarely mentioned in literature.” |+|

Fruits in the Roman Empire

The Greco-Romans grew and ate tangerines, oranges, lemons, olives, figs, grapes, pears, apples, often in poor soils. Romans grafted apple trees and spread apple cultivation throughout their empire. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The apple, pear, plum, and quince were either native to Italy or, like the olive and the grape, were introduced into Italy long before history begins. Careful attention had long been given to their cultivation, and by Cicero’s time Italy was covered with orchards. All these fruits were abundant and cheap in their seasons, and were used by all sorts and conditions of men. By Cicero’s time, too, had begun the introduction of new fruits from foreign lands and the improvement of native varieties. Great statesmen and generals gave their names to new and better sorts of apples and pears, and vied with one another in producing fruits out of season by hothouse culture. Every fresh extension of Roman territory brought new fruits and nuts into Italy. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Among the fruits the peach (malum Persicum), the apricot (malum Armeniacum), the pomegranate (malum Punicum or granatum), the cherry (cerasus, brought by Lucullus from the town Cerasus in Pontus), and the lemon (citrus, not grown in Italy until the third century of our era). Similarly, the fruits, grains, and vegetables known at home were carried out through the provinces wherever the Romans established themselves. Cherries, for instance, are said to have been grown in Britain in 47 A.D., four years after its conquest. Besides the introduction of fruits for culture, large quantities, either dried or otherwise preserved, were imported for food. The orange, however, strange as this seems to us, was not grown by the Romans. Fresh vegetables, and fresh fruits could not be brought from great distances.” |+|

Apples were mentioned in the Bible, Greek myths and the Viking sagas. The earliest apples were versions of crab apples. Pictures of apples have been found in caves used by prehistoric men. All trees which produce eating apples are believed to originate from the Malus sieversii tree, which grows in the high altitude forests of Kazakhstan. Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, means “father of apples." Apple tree orchards are found in and around Almaty. “Aport” is a famous variety of apple with links to ancient apples. [Source: Natural History, October 2001]

Scientists believe that Malus sieversii was hybridized with crab apples native to Central Asia. Most likely these hybrids, not Malus sieversii itself, became the ancestors of the apples that people eat today. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were being cultivated over a wide area around the Tien Shan. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were commonplace around the Mediterranean. The Romans spread apple cultivation throughout their empire.

Melons are one the earliest cultivated crops along with wheat, barley, grapes, and dates. Native to Iran, Turkey and western Asia, they are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting dated to 2400 B.C. Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. refer to them. Pliny the Elder described them in the 1st century A.D. in his multi-volume Natural History.

Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of the University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannas, but it has seeds you can roast up and eat." The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.

Pomegranates are ancient fruit. They are mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Odyssey. According to one of the most famous Greek myths, Persephone spends six months in the underworld because she ate six pomegranate seeds while held there by Hades. The Assyrians made necklaces of gold pomegranates. Pomegranates are thought have originated in Southeast Asia. They were found in much of the ancient world and are thought to have been introduced to several places by the Phoenicians. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used the fruit in their medicines.

Figs have been around since ancient times, when they were associated with magic and medicine. The Egyptians buried entire basketfuls with the dead and valued them as a digestive aid. The Greeks called them “the most useful of all the fruits which grow on trees." In the Middle Ages, fig syrup was a popular sweetener.

Lemons and citron — the first cirtris fruits- introduced to Rome — were highly valued and only enjoyed by the rich in Ancient Rome: “Laura Geggel wrote in Live Science: “Lemons were the acai bowls of the ancient Romans — prized by the privileged because they were rare, and treasured for their healing powers. The upper crust of society likely viewed the citron and the lemon as prized commodities, likely “due to [their] healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odor and its rarity,” as well as their culinary qualities, Langgut said. [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, July 21, 2017]

Spread of Citrus Fruits from Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean


Lemons and the citron were the only citrus fruits known in the ancient Mediterranean. Other fruits in the same group, oranges, limes and pomelos, arrived centuries later from their native Southeast Asia, a study led by Dafna Langgut, an archaeobotanist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, revealed. “All other citrus fruits most probably spread more than a millennium later, and for economic reasons,” Langgut, told Live Science. The study was published in the June 2017 issue of the journal HortScience. [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, July 21, 2017 ~]

Laura Geggel of Live Science wrote: “Studying the ancient citrus trade took a lot of work. Langgut examined ancient texts, art and artifacts, such as murals and coins. She also dug into previous studies to learn about the identities and locations of fossil pollen grains, charcoals, seeds and other fruit remains. “Gathering this information “enabled me to reveal the spread of citrus from Southeast Asia into the Mediterranean,” Langgut said. ~

“The citron (Citrus medica)was the first citrus fruit to reach the Mediterranean, “which is why the whole group of fruits is named after one of its less economically important members,” she said. The citron spread west, likely through Persia (remains of a citron were found in a 2,500-year-old Persian garden near Jerusalem)and the Southern Levant, which today includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, southern Syria and Cyprus. Later, during the third and second centuries B.C., it spread to the western Mediterranean, Langgut found. The earliest lemon remains found in Rome were discovered in the Roman Forum, and date to between the late first century B.C. and the early first century A.D., she said. Citron seeds and pollen were also found in gardens owned by the wealthy in the Mount Vesuvius area and Rome, she added. ~

“It took another 400 years for the lemon (Citruslimon) to reach the Mediterranean area. Lemons, too, were owned by the elite class. “This means that for more than a millennium, citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean basin,” Langgut said. The citrus fruits that followed were more likely grown as cash crops, she said. At the beginning of the 10th century A.D., the sour orange (Citrus aurantium), lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and pomelo (Citrus maxima) made it to the Mediterranean. These fruits were likely spread by Muslims through Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, Langgut said. ~

““The Muslims played a crucial role in the dispersal of cultivated citrus in Northern Africa and Southern Europe, as evident also from the common names of many of the citrus types which were derived from Arabic,” she said. “This was possible because they controlled extensive territory and commerce routes reaching from India to the Mediterranean.” The sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) traveled west even later — during the 15th century A.D. — likely via a trade route established by people from Genoa, Italy; the Portuguese established such a route during the 16th century, Langgut said. Lastly, the mandarin (Citrus reticulata) made it to the Mediterranean in the 19th century, about 2,200 years after the citron first spread west, she said.” ~

Vegetables and Nuts in the Roman Era

Hazelnut sauce

The Greco-Romans grew and ate cabbage, leeks, onions, chick peas, beans and turnips, often in poor soils. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The garden did not yield to the orchard in the abundance and variety of its contributions to the supply of food. We read of artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, chicory, cucumbers, garlic, lentils, melons, onions, peas, the poppy, pumpkins, radishes, and turnips, to mention only those whose names are familiar to us all. It will be noticed, however, that the vegetables perhaps most prized by us, the potato and the tomato, were not known to the Romans. Of those mentioned the oldest seem to have been the bean and the onion, as shown by the names Fabius and Caepio already mentioned, but the latter came gradually to be looked upon as unrefined and the former to be considered too heavy a food except for persons engaged in the hardest toil. Cato pronounced the cabbage the finest vegetable known, and the turnip figures in the well-known anecdote of Manius Curius. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. Lemons, apricots and cherries were introduced to Rome around the A.D. 1st century.

Cabbage is the world's most widely consumed vegetable and one of the first to be harvested. Native to the Mediterranean, it was eaten by Achilles in the Iliad and is believed to have been introduced to Europe and other parts of the world by the Romans. Asparagus was a favorite of the Romans. It was used mostly as a medicine in the Middle Ages before it became a popular food in the 17th century.

Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions the way oaths are sworn on the Bible in modern times. Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions and garlic by laborers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs, and Ovid wrote of them in the same way. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt. In a popular epigram the poet Martial wrote, "If your wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty."

Among the nuts were the walnut, hazelnut, filbert, almond (after Cato’s time), and the pistachio (not introduced until the time of Tiberius). Almonds are one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. The ancient Mesopotamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Almonds have been found in the Minoan palace in Knossos and were a favorite dessert food of the Greeks. Almonds and pistachios are the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.


Olive press in Pompeii
Olives and olive oil were staples in ancient Greece and Rome. Olives were used as food and fuel as well as a trade commodity. Sophocles called olives "our sweet silvered wet nurse." Olives were valued more as a source of fuel for oil lamps than as a food. They were also used to make soap. Olives were regarded as so precious that killing an olive tree was sometimes punished by death.

Olives are fruit that comes from a gnarled tree and are still a staple of the Mediterranean diet. People eat them for meals and snacks, and use olive oil for cooking and to dip bread in. Olives come in a host of colors and textures: salty, wrinkled and black, oily and green, and even massive and purple. Italy alone is home to 60 different types of olive tree. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian; Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1999]

Through the ages, olives and olive oil have been used as food, fuel, a light source, lubricants, to make soap, medications, weapons and sacred oil. Among the historical figures who ate olives were Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Columbus and Galileo.

A food critic who divided Europe into regions favoring butter, lard and olive oil concluded the most passionate people lived in regions dominated by olive oil. It is also the lifeblood of regions that have difficulty producing other crops. "The olive tree looks like death, but to countries where it grows, it sometimes literally means life. The olive is as much a savior of man in semi-arid areas of poor soil as the date is for oases in the desert."

The olive is a drupe, or stone fruit, like a plum or cherry. Olives start out green and very bitter and turn black when they mature. Eating a bitter olive raw off a tree is like eating "an unplucked chicken or an uncooked potato." Different varieties of olives are usually picked at different points in the development of the fruit. Green olives generally have more Vitamin E and less oil than black olives, which have a stronger flavor and more oil. Most green olives are eaten whole rather than made into oil. Only 10 percent of the olive crop is eaten as food. Most olives are made into oil.

Book: “Olives, the Life and Love of a Noble Fruit” by Mort Rosenblum (North Point/ Farrar Straus Giroux).

History of Olives

Greek jug showing olive harvesting
Olives were one of the first processed foods. At a Stone Age site in Spain, 8000-year-old olive seeds were found and archaeologists speculate that the olives had to have been processed somehow, otherwise they would have been too bitter to eat.

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C., spread to Syria and Turkey and reached ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptians were using olives purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.

The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and as a base for perfumes and treatments for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it on the altars of their gods. When they worked out and competed, Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots.

Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift to humanity from Athena and Olympic champions were rewarded with a crown of olives. Zeus decreed that the city that would become Athens would be given to the god who produced the most useful thing for mankind. Poseidon gave them a horse. Athena struck the ground with a spear: an olive tree sprang up. The city was named after Athena. The olive branch became a symbol of peace.

Jesus was anointed with olive oil (Christ means the "anointed one") and olive trees that date back to early Christian times can still be found in Israel. Olives were also important to Muslims. Islam's oldest university in Tunisia is named al-Zitouna, “The Olive Tree”.

Attica fell to Sparta after the Spartans uprooted their rivals’ olive trees.

Olives in the Roman Era

In the Roman Empire olive oil was a major cash crop. Consumption by individuals rose to as much as 50 liters a year and some families grew quite rich trading it. In many ways olive oil was valued as much in ancient times as petroleum is today, with governments going to great lengths to make sure there was a steady supply. Some emperors gave it out free to the masses as part of their bread and circuses policy. The main pieces of farm machinery were olive oil presses.

a typical Roman meal: moretum, bread and olives

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Olive. Next in importance to the wheat came the olive. From a fresco in the Museo Nazionale, NaplesIt was introduced into Italy from Greece, and from Italy has spread through all the Mediterranean countries; but in ancient times the best olives were those of Italy, even as today the best olives come from Italy. The olive was an important article of food merely as a fruit. It was eaten both fresh and preserved in various ways, but it found its significant place in the domestic economy of the Romans in the form of the olive oil with which we are familiar. It is the value of the oil that has caused the cultivation of the olive to become so general in southern Europe. Many varieties of the olive were known to the Romans; they required different climates and soils and to were adapted to different uses. In general it may be said that the larger fruit were better suited for eating than for oil. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The olive was eaten fresh as it ripened and was also preserved in various ways. The ripe olives were sprinkled with salt and left untouched for five days; the salt was then shaken off, and the olives dried in the sun. They were also preserve sweet without salt in boiled must. Half-ripe olives were picked with their stems and covered over in jars with the best quality of oil; in this way they are said to have retained for more than a year the flavor of the fresh fruit. Green olives were preserved whole in strong brine, the form in which we know them now, or were beaten into a mass and preserved with spices and vinegar. The preparation called epityrum was made by taking the fruit in any of the three stages, removing the stones, chopping up the pulp, seasoning it with vinegar, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel, and mint, and covering the mixture in jars with oil enough to exclude the air. The result was a salad that was eaten with cheese.” |+|

Olive Oil

olive oil storage

Olive oil is a fruit juice (the only edible oil made from a fruit). It is prized for its rich flavor, purity and lack of greasiness. The oil content of an olive varies from 8 percent to more than 20 percent of the olive's weight, including the pit. Oil-rich varieties are generally used for making oil while less-rich strains are used for eating.

Most olives are made into olive oil. Oil-grade olives are usually 20 to 40 percent oil, not including the pit. The best grades of olive oil — virgin, sublime or first expressed oil — come from the pulp of olives picked in the brief time after they are ripened but before they turn black.

Olive oil is used to make salad dressings or to dip bread in and can even be consumed by itself. Olive oil changes little at high temperatures, which makes it ideal for cooking. It is also an excellent preservative, used for keeping fish, cheese and even wine for years. Olive oil soaps don't produce much lather but they leave the skin feeling luxuriously smooth. Olive oil is also used in cosmetics as a lubricant, to comb wool and to polish diamonds.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Olive oil was used for several purposes. It was employed at first to anoint the body after bathing, especially by athletes; it was used as a vehicle for perfumes (the Romans knew nothing of distillation by means of alcohol); it was burned in lamps; it was an indispensable article of food. As a food it was employed in its natural state as butter is now in cooking, or in relishes, or dressings. The olive when subjected to pressure yields two fluids. The first to flow (amurca) is dark and bitter, having the consistency of water. It was largely used as a fertilizer, but not as a food. The second, which flows after greater pressure, is the oil (oleum, oleum olivum). The best oil was made from olives not fully ripe, but the largest quantities was yielded by the ripened fruit.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

Olive Agriculture and Tree Cultivation

olive picking

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The olives were picked from the tree; those that fell of their own accord were thought inferior and were spread upon sloping platforms in order that a part of the amurca might flow away by itself. Here the fruit remained until a slight fermentation took place. It was then subjected to the action of a machine that bruised and pressed it to separate the pulp from the stones. The pulp was then crushed in a press. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Gnarled olive trees survive well in places with dry climates, particularly in the Mediterranean Some olive trees take 15 years to bear fruit. There is old saying that farmers would grow a vineyard for their sons and an olive tree grove for their grandsons. But once they start producing, they can keep producing for centuries. These day varieties of olive of tree are available that begin producing fruit after tree or four years.

Olives need sandy soil and at least 180 mm of rain fall. They are pruned and fertilized. The olive fly is the the primary olive pest. Olives are vulnerable to killing frosts — an ice storm in January 1985 killed hundred of thousands of olive trees One farmer in Tuscany lost all but 79 of his 2,800 trees — but overall are incredible survivors. Even if the central trunk is eaten away by disease, the tree manages to survive.

The carefully-pruned and tended trees of small scale olive producers reportedly produce better olive oil than the full-foliage trees in Spain and the massive plantations in Greece. A relatively small farm with 600 trees yield about two tons of olives a year. Even today most of the work is done by hand by the owner and his family.

Harvesting and Preparing Olives

Harvesting methods vary according to the type of olive and the time and money that is at stake. Olives are generally harvested by people who climb into the trees using ladders and bring the olives down by shaking the branches, beating the branches with long sticks or combing them with wooden or plastic rake-like contraptions with seven tines. The olives are collected sheets of plastic or cloth or fine netting laid on the ground. After the olives are collected they are placed in blankets.

olive press

Harvesting is generally done in the fall. In southern Italy the harvesting season begins in October. Olives used to make olive oil are harvested at the moment of the invaiatura , when they begin to turn from green to black. Ideally, they are picked by hand and milled within hours to minimize oxidation and enzyme reaction, which leave unpleasant tastes and odors in the oil.

Green olives are generally picked in September or October and are too bitter and hard to eat. They are treated with an alkali solution to remove the bitterness, washed and then soaked in salt water. The olives are then dried in the sun on large cloth sheets and soaked in water, lye, oil or brine. The substance they are submerged in, and the length of time they are soaked, usually determines the color, texture and cost of the olives.

Black olives are ripe olives. They are harvested in December or January. No alkali bath in necessary for them. They are either pickled in a bath of brine or rubbed in oil. The biggest problem at harvest time is rain. Wet harvested olive can ferment and fermenting ruins the flavor.

Olive Oil Production

Olive oil is expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming to make. Most oils are extracted in a refineries from seeds or nuts, using solvents, heat and intense pressure. The best olive oil is made using a simple hydraulic press. Tom Mueller wrote in the New Yorker, “they are more like fresh-squeezed orange juice than industrial fats. Oil is usually dark green after it is us pressed and turns a golden color over time as it ages and settles.

Olive oil is made from olives that are picked by hand from November to January, then washed in cold water and crushed pit and all into a gooey paste under granite wheels. The paste is spread over bags or mats made from rush, grass or hemp. These mats are the stacked in piles and pressed, producing the oil. It takes about five kilograms of olives to produce one liter of oil. The oil is then placed into vats or jars.

20120221-olive press -Volubilis1.2.JPG
Roman olive press
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The oil that flowed out” of the love presses “was caught in a jar and from it ladled into a receptacle (labrum fictile), where it was allowed to settle; the amurca and other impurities went to the bottom. The oil was then skimmed off into another like receptacle and again allowed to settle; the process was repeated (as often as thirty times if necessary) until all impurities had been left behind. The best oil was made by subjecting the olives at first to a gentle pressure only. The bruised pulp was then taken out, separated from the stones or pits, and pressed a second or even a third time, the quality becoming poorer each time. The oil was kept in jars which were glazed on the inside with wax or gum to prevent absorption; the covers were carefully secured and the jars stored away in vaults. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

In the old days the presses were powered by donkeys, camels, cattle and mules and later steam. Today they are mainly driven by electricity. In Tunisia olive oil is still made from camel-driven presses.

Grapes, Vineyards and Viticulture in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Grapes were eaten fresh from the vines and were also dried in the sun and kept as raisins, but they owed their real importance in Italy as elsewhere to the wine made from them. It is believed that the grapevine was not native to Italy, but was introduced, probably from Greece, in very early times. The first name for Italy known to the Greeks was Oenotria, a name which may mean “the land of the vine”; very ancient legends ascribe to Numa restrictions upon the use of wine. It is probable that up to the time of the Gracchi wine was rare and expensive. The quantity produced gradually increased as the cultivation of cereals declined, but the quality long remained inferior; all the choice wines were imported from Greece and the East. By Cicero’s time, however, attention was being given to viticulture and to the scientific making of wines, and by the time of Augustus vintages were produced that vied with the best brought from abroad. Pliny the Elder says that of the eighty really choice wines then known to the Romans two-thirds were produced in Italy; and Arrian, about the same time, says that Italian wines were famous as far away as India. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Grapes could be grown almost anywhere in Italy, but the best wines were made south of Rome within the confines of Latium and Campania. The cities of Praeneste, Velitrae, and Formiae were famous for the wine grown on the sunny slopes of the Alban hills. A little farther south, near Terracina, was the ager Caecubus, where was produced the Caecuban wine, pronounced by Augustus the noblest of all. Then came Mt. Massicus with the ager Falernus on its southern side, producing the Falernian wines, even more famous than the Caecuban. Upon and around Vesuvius, too, fine wines were grown, especially near Naples, Pompeii, Cumae, and Surrentum. Good wines, but less noted than these, were produced in the extreme south, near Beneventum, Aulon, and Tarentum. Of like quality were those grown east and north of Rome, near Spoletium, Caesena, Ravenna, Hadria, and Ancona. Those of the north and west, in Etruria and Gaul, were not so good. |+|

“The sunny side of a hill was the best place for a vineyard. The vines were supported by poles or trellises in the modern fashion, or were planted at the foot of trees up which they were allowed to climb. For this purpose the elm (ulmus) was preferred, because it flourished everywhere, could be closely trimmed without endangering its life, and had leaves that made good food for cattle when they were plucked off to admit the sunshine to the vines. Vergil speaks of “marrying the vine to the elm,” and Horace calls the plane tree a bachelor (platanus caelebs), because its dense foliage made it unfit for the vineyard. Before the gathering of the grapes the chief work lay in keeping the ground clear; it was spaded over once each month in the year. One man could properly care for about four acres.” |+|

In 2012, Nancy Thomson de Grummond of Florida State University announced that she had discovered some 150 waterlogged grape seeds in a well in Cetamura del Chianti Italy and probably date to about the A.D. 1st century. There is possibility the seeds’ DNA can analyzed. The seeds could provide “a real breakthrough” in the understanding of the history of Chianti vineyards in the area, de Grummond said. “We don’t know a lot about what grapes were grown at that time in the Chianti region.“Studying the grape seeds is important to understanding the evolution of the landscape in Chianti. There’s been lots of research in other vineyards but nothing in Chianti.” [Source: Elizabeth Bettendorf,, December 6, 2012]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.