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 p823  Olea, Oleum​a

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp823‑826 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

O′LEA, OLI′VA (ἐλαία); O′LEUM, OLI′VUM (ἔλαιον); OLE′TUM, OLIVE′TUM (ἐλαίων).

The importance of the olive was recognised from the most remote period of antiquity, in all civilised countries where the temperature admitted of its cultivation; and it was widely adopted as an  p824 emblem of industry and peace. While it yields a large supply of palatable and highly nutritious food, it requires less outlay and less attention than almost any other fruit tree, is subject to few casualties, and, even if altogether neglected, does not suffer serious injury, but may be quickly restored to fertility by moderate care. Hence, the honour paid to it at Athens, and hence the title of "prima omnium arbor" bestowed upon it by Columella.

Varieties. The Olea Europea is the only species of the natural family of Oleaceae, which yields the highly valued olive oil, but many varieties are produced by different modes of culture, and by peculiarities of soil and climate. Columella enumerates ten, and this number may be considerably increased from the works of other ancient writers. The following seem to have been the most important:— 1. Pausia s. Posea; 2. Regia; 3. Orchis s. Orchitis s. Orchita s. Orchas; 4. Radius; 5. Licinis s. Liciniana; 6. Sergia s. Sergiana. Of these the Pausia, according to Columella, was the most pleasant in flavour (jucundissimus), although upon this point he is apparently contradicted very Virgil (amara Pausia bacca); the Regia was the handsomest in appearance; while both of these together with the Orchis and the Radius, and in general, all the larger varieties, were better suited for eating than for oil. The Licinia, on the other hand, yielded the finest oil, the Sergia, the greatest quantity (Cat. R. R. 7; Varr. R. R. I.24;º Columell. V.8, de Arbor. 17; Plin. H. N. XV.6).

[image ALT: Two sheep grazing under an olive tree.]
Near Perugia (Umbria).
Soil and Climate. The soil considered most congenial was a rich tenacious clay, or a mixture of clay and sand, a gravelly subsoil being essential in either case to carry off the water. Deep fat mould was found to be not unsuitable, but any land which retained moisture was avoided, and also light, stony ground, for, although the trees did not die in the latter, they never became vigorous. Here again, however, Columella and Virgil are at variance, for while the former observes "inimicus est ager sabulo macer et nuda glarea," the poet declares
Difficiles primum terrae collesque maligni,
Tenuis ubi argilla et dumosis calculus arvis
Palladia gaudent silva vivacis olivae.

The olive is very impatient of frost, and scarcely any of the varieties known to the ancients would flourish in very hot or very cold situations. In hot localities, it was expedient to form the plantations on the side of a hill facing the north, in cold localities upon a southern slope. Neither a very lofty nor a very low position was appropriate, but gentle rolling eminences such as characterised the country of the Sabines in Italy, and the district of Baetica in Spain. Under ordinary circumstances, a western exposure lying well open to the sun was preferred. It is asserted by several classical authors that the olive will not live, or, at least, not prove fruitful at a distance from the sea coast greater than from thirty to fifty miles, and although exceptions did and do exist to this rule it will be found to accord with general experience (Cat. R. R. 7; Varr. I.24; Columella, V.8; Plin. H. N. XVII.3;º Pallad. III.18; Theophr. π. φ. α. II.5; Geopon. IX.4).

Propagation and Culture. Previous to the formation of an olive yard (oletum, olivetum) it was necessary to lay out a nursery (seminarium) for the reception of the young plants. A piece of ground was selected for this purpose, freely exposed to the sun and air, and in which the soil was a rich black mould. It was the practice to trench (pastinare) this to the depth of three feet, and then to leave it to crumble down under the influence of the atmosphere.

The propagation of the olive was effected in various ways.

1. The method generally adopted was to fix upon the most productive trees, and to select from these long, young, healthy branches (ramos novellos) of such a thickness as to be easily embraced by the hand. The branches immediately after being detached from the parent stem, were sawed into lengths of a foot and a half each, great care being taken not to injure the bark; these segments, which were called taleae or clavolae or trunci, were then tapered to a point at each end with a knife, the two extremities were smeared with dung and ashes, they were buried upright in the ground, so that the tops were a few fingers' breadth below the surface, and each talea was placed as nearly as possible in the same position, both vertically and laterally, as the branch had occupied upon the tree. During the first year, the ground was frequently loosened by the sarculum; when the young roots (radiculae seminum) had taken a firm hold, heavy hand-rakes (rastra) were employed for the same purpose, and in the heat of summer water was regularly applied. For two years no pruning was resorted to, but in the third year the whole of the shoots (ramuli), with the exception of two, were lopped off; in the fourth year, the weaker of the remaining two was detached, and in the fifth year the young trees (arbusculae) were fit for being transplanted (habiles translationi). This latter operation was best performed in autumn when the ground to which they were conveyed was dry, but if it was moist and rich, in spring, a short time before the buds were formed. In the field which they were to occupy permanently, pits (scrobes) four feet every way were prepared, if practicable, a year beforehand, so that the earth might be thoroughly pulverised; small stones and gravel mixed with mould were placed at the bottom to the depth of a few inches, and some grains of barley were scattered over all. The young tree was lifted with as large a ball of earth as possible attached to the roots, placed in the pit surrounded with a little manure, and planted so as to occupy precisely the same position, in relation to the cardinal points, as in the nursery. In rich cornº land, the space left between each row was at least sixty feet, and between each tree in the row forty feet, in order that the branches and roots might have full space to spread, but in poorer soil twenty-five feet, each way, were considered sufficient. The rows were arranged so as to run from east to west, in order that the cool breezes might sweep freely down the open spaces in the summer. After the trees had become firmly fixed, and had been pruned up into a proper shape, that is, into a single stem kept without branches to the height of the tallest ox, the labour attending upon an olive yard was comparatively trifling. Every year, the soil surrounding the roots was loosened with hoes (bidens, or with the plough, the roots themselves laid bare (ablaqueare, ablaqueatio), the young suckers cut away, and the lichens scraped from the bark; every third year, in autumn, manure was thrown in; every eighth year the trees were  p825 pruned. The system of culture here indicated was followed so generally that it had become embodied in a proverb "Veteris proverbii meminisse convenit, eum qui aret olivetum, rogare fructum; qui stercoret, exorare; qui caedat, cogere." (Columell. V.9 §15.) Besides this, the whole surface of the ground was regularly ploughed at the usual seasons, and cropped in alternate years, the manure applied for these crops being altogether independent of that supplied to the trees specially. Moreover, since olives bore fruit, in abundance at least, only once in two years, matters were so arranged that the land should yield a crop in those years when the trees were unproductive.

2. A second method of propagation was to cut the roots of wild olives into small pieces in such a manner that each should contain an eye or rudiment of a lateral fibre (radicum oculis silvestrium olearum hortulos excolere), and these pieces were treated precisely in the same manner as the taleae described above.

A third method is indicated by Virgil in the lines

Quin et caudicibus sectis, mirabile dictu,
Traditur e sicco radix oleagina ligno,

and is still pursued in some parts of Italy, where, as we are told, "an old tree is hewn down and the stock cut into pieces of nearly the size and shape of a mushroom, and which from that circumstance are called novoli; care at the same time is taken that a small portion of bark shall belong to each novolo. These, after having been dipped in manure, and put into the earth, soon throw up shoots, are transplanted at the end of one year, and in three years are fit to form an olive yard."

Grafting or budding (inserere, insitio, oculos inserere) were also resorted to for the purpose of introducing fine varieties or of rendering barren trees fruitful. (Cat. R. R. 40, 42, 43, 45; Varr. R. R. I.40; Columell. V.9, De Arbor. 17; Plin. H. N. XVIII.18 s30;º Pallad. III.8, 18, X.1, XI.8; Geopon. IX.5, 6, &c.; Blunt's Vestiges of Ancient Manners, &c., in Italy, p215).​b

Olive gathering (Oleitas, Olivitas). The olive usually comes to maturity, in Italy, about the middle or the latter end of December, but, according to the views of the proprietors, it was gathered in various stages of its progress, either while yet green (alba), or when changing colour (varia), or when fully ripe (nigra), but it was considered highly desirable that it should never be allowed to remain so long as to fall of its own accord. The fruit was picked as far as possible with the bare hand, but such as could not be reached from the ground or by the aid of ladders was beaten down with long reeds, which were preferred to sticks as less likely to injure the bark of the branches and the young bearers, a want of attention to this precaution on the part of the gatherers (leguli) being in the opinion of Varro the cause why olive trees so seldom yielded a full crop for two years consecutively (Varr. R. R. I.55; Plin. H. N. XV.3 s6; Geopon. IX.7).

Different uses. The fruit (bacca) of the olive was for the most part employed for one of two purposes.

1. It was eaten as a fruit, either fresh, pickled, or preserved in various ways.

2. It was pressed so as to yield the oil and other juices which it contained. And again, the oil was employed for a variety of purposes, but chiefly

α. As an article of food.
β. For anointing the body, and in this case was frequently made a vehicle for perfumes (unguenta).
γ. For burning in lamps.

Preserving Olives (Condere oleas, olivarum conditura, conditio).

Olives might be preserved in various ways, either when unripe (albae, acerbae), or ripe (nigrae), or half-ripe (variae, fuscae).

Green olives, the Pausia being used principally for this purpose, were preserved in strong brine (muria), according to the modern practice, or they were beaten together into a mass, steeped in water which was frequently changed, then pressed and thrown with salt into a jar of vinegar, to which various spices or flavouring condiments were added, especially the seeds of the Pistachia Lentiscus, or Gum Mastich tree, and fennel. Sometimes, instead of vinegar, inspissated must (sapa, defrutum, or sweet wine (passum) or honey were employed, and sometimes salt pickle, vinegar, must and oil, seem to have been all mixed together.

Half-ripe olives (and here again the Pausia was the favourite) were picked with their stalks and covered over in a jar with the best oil. In this manner they retained the flavour of the fresh fruit for more than a year.

Ripe olives, especially the orchitis, were sprinkled with salt, and left untouched for five days, the salt was then shaken off, and they were dried in the sun. Or they were preserved sweet in defrutum without salt.

The peculiar preparation called Epityrum was made by taking olives in any of the three stages, extracting the stones, chopping up the pulp and throwing the fragments into a jar with oil, vinegar, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel, rue and mint, the quantity of oil being sufficient to cover up the compound and exclude the air. In fact, it was an olive salad, and, as the name imports, eaten with cheese (Cat. R. R. 117, 118, 119; Varr. R. R. I.60; Columell. XII.49; Geopon. IX.3, 32).

Oil making (Oleum conficere). The fruit of the olive tree consists of two parts, the pulpy pericarp (caro), and the stone (nucleus).

The caro or pulp yielded two fluids: one of these of a watery consistence, dark in colour, bitter to the taste, flowed from the olive upon very slight pressure; it was called ἀμόργη by the Greeks, Amurca by the Latins, and was extensively used as a manure and for a great number of purposes connected with domestic economy. The other fluid which flowed from the pulp, when subjected to more forcible pressure, was the oil (oleum, olivum), mingled however to a certain extent with amurca and other impurities (fraces, faeces), and this was of different qualities, according to the state of the fruit, and the amount of pressure. The finest oil was made from the fruit before it was fully ripe, and from this circumstance, or from its greenish colour, was termed Oleum viride, and by the Greeks ὀμφάκινον: the quantity given out was however small, and hence the remark of Cato, Quam acerbissimus olea oleum facies tam oleum optimum erit: domino de matura olea oleum fieri maxima expediet.

A distinction is made by Columella, between the  p826 oil obtained by the fruit when green (oleum acerbum s. aestivum), when half ripe (oleum viride), and when fully ripe (oleum maturum), and while he considers the manufacture of the first as inexpedient, in consequence of the scanty produce, he strongly recommends the proprietor to make as much as possible of the second, because the quantity yielded was considerable, and the price so high, as almost to double his receipts.

Under ordinary circumstances, the ripe fruit when gathered was carefully cleaned, and conveyed in baskets to the farm house, where it was placed in heaps upon sloping wooden floors (in tabulato), in order that a portion of the amurca might flow out, and a slight fermentation takes place (ut ibi mediocriter fracesceat), which rendered them more tender and more productive, and exactly the same system is pursued for the same reason in modern times. The gatherings of each day (coactura uniuscujusque diei) were kept separate, and great care was taken to leave them in this state for a very limited period, for if the masses heated, the oil soon became rancid (Olea lecta si nimium diu fuit in acervis, caldore fracescit, et oleum foetidum fit). If, therefore, circumstances did not allow of the oil being made soon after the fruit was gathered, the olives were spread out and exposed to the air so as to check any tendency towards decomposition. It is the neglect of these rules and precautions which renders the oil now made in Spain so offensive, for there the olives are frequently allowed to remain in cellars for months before they are used. Although both ancient and modern experience are upon the whole in favour of a slight fermentation, Cato, whose great practical knowledge entitles him to respect, strongly recommends that it should be altogether dispensed with, and affirms that the oil would be both more abundant in quantity and superior in quality: "Quam citissime conficies maxime expediet".

The olives when considered to be in a proper state were placed in bags or flexible baskets (fiscis), and were then subjected to the action of a machine consisting partly of a bruising and partly of a squeezing apparatus, which was constructed in various ways, and designated by various names: Trapetum, Mola olearia, Canalis et Solea, Torcular, Prelum, Tudicula. The oil as it issued forth was received in a leaden pot (cortina plumbea), placed in the cistern (lacus) below the press. From the cortina it was ladled out by an assistant (capulator), with a large flat spoon (concha), first into one vat (labrum fictile), and then into another, thirty being placed in a row for this purpose. It was allowed to rest for a while in each, and the operation was repeated again and again (oleum frequenter capiant) until the amurca and all impurities had been completely removed. In cold weather when the oil remained in union with the amurca notwithstanding these transferences, the separation was effected by mixing a little parched salt with the combined fluids, but when the cold was very intense, dry carbonate of soda (nitrum) was found to answer better. The oil was finally poured into jars (dolia olearia), which had been previously thoroughly cleaned and seasoned, and glazed with wax or gum to prevent absorption, the lids (opercula) were carefully secured, and they were then delivered to the overseer (custos) by whom they were stored up in the vault reserved for their reception (cella olearia).

After a moderate force had been applied to the press, and a considerable quantity of oil had flowed forth, the bruised cake (sampsa) was taken out of the bags, mixed with a little salt, replaced and subjected to the action of the press a second, and a third time. The oil first obtained (oleum primae pressurae) was the finest, and in proportion as additional force was applies by the press-men (factores, torcularii), the quality became gradually worse (longe melioris saporis quod minore vi preli quasi lixivium defluxerit). Hence, the product of each pressing was kept distinct, the marketable value of each being very different (plurimum refert non miscere iterationes multoque minus tertiationem cum prima pressura). The lowest quality of all (oleum cibarium) was made from olives which had been partially damaged by vermin, or which had fallen from the trees in bad weather into the mud, so that it became necessary to wash them in warm water before they could be used.

The quantity of fruit thrown at one time into the press varied from 120 to 160 modii, according to the capacity of the vessels; this quantity was termed Factus, the amount of oil obtained from one factus was called Hostus, but these words are not unfrequently confounded. (Cat. R. R. 7, 64, 65, 66; Varr. R. R. I.24, 55; Columell. XII.52; Plin. H. N. XV.3, 6, 7; Geopon. IX.17).

Thayer's Notes:

a Some things don't change much, and this is one of them. Other than peripheral technical advances — chemical fertilizers, refrigerated tanks, modern transportation, and the use of steam and chemicals to extract the bottom grades of oil — the olive is still grown and processed pretty much the way it was 2000 years ago, and the article is essentially current.

b Among the Romans, grafting eventually became something of a gentleman's sport, wealthy hobbyists vying to produce the most outlandish multiple graftings. For further details and references from a modern botanical standpoint, see A. S. Pease, Notes on Ancient Grafting (TAPA 64:66‑76).

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