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Olea
Fruit and Nuts
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The olive tree on the Acropolis

[This text is from: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,  eds. William Smith, LLD, William Wayte and G. E. Marindin, Albemarle Street, London. John Murray. 1890.]

If I am to base my calculations on the accounts of the Greeks in fixing the relative ages of such trees as are still preserved and flourish, the oldest of them is the withy growing in the Samian sanctuary of Hera, after which come the oak in Dodona, the olive on the Acropolis and the olive in Delos.

Olea, Oliva (elaa, or, in older Attic and Trag., elaia); Oleum, Olivum (elaion); Oletum, Olivetum (elaion).

That the cultivation of the olive, and the use of its oil for anointing, for light, and for food, belonged to the earliest recorded life in the south of Western Asia, is clear from mention of it in all parts of the Bible; but there is considerable ground for thinking (1) that it was not cultivated among the Greeks in the earliest times of which we have record, and (2) that after its cultivation began its oil was used at first neither for light nor food, but only for anointing the body. The wood of the olive is used in Homer, as a hard wood readily taking a polish, for axe-handles, clubs, &c. (Il. xiii. 612; Od. ix. 320), which of course does not prove cultivation: it is used for anointing frequently in the Odyssey, but from the way in which it is spoken of (e.g. Od. vi. 79) it seems to be even then somewhat rare and costly, and there is still more indication of its being reserved for gods and heroes in the mention of it in Il. xiv. 171, xviii. 350, xxiii. 186 (the commoner use in the Doloneia, II. x. 577, belongs to what is now generally considered the latest part of the Iliad): the same perhaps may be said of its being taken to express the sheen of garments in, the idealised pictures of the divinely wrought shield (Il. xviii. 596), whereas the commoner animal fat suffices to supply the usual Homeric epithets for bright (sigaloeis, liparos), as also in apostilbontes aleiphatos (Od. iii. 408): and the elaion is hugron in contrast with the thick sleiphar. On the whole, there is nothing to exclude Hehn's theory, that in the earliest Homeric period oil was an imported luxury, used as an unguent by the rich instead of the ordinary aleiphar of fat. The question when the cultivation of the olive began among the Greeks is affected by the sense given to pholie in Od. v. 476. If that is a wild olive (oleaster), it follows that the elaie of the Odyssey is a cultivated olea Europaea. Hehn thinks it is not, and conjectures, without good reason, that it means a myrtle. It is true that Hesychius himself is uncertain, and suggests three trees; but we should find it hard to oppose the direct statement of Eustathius (Dios. i. 138) that it was the older name for wild olive, afterwards called kotinos and agrielaios, with which Pausan. ii. 32, 10 agrees: it is an unsatisfactory comment of Hehn's that this opinion may be based solely on the Homeric line. But the evidence of cultivation in the Odyssey does not depend on that passage; we have the olive as a garden tree in Od. vii. 16. The simile in Il. xvii. 55 may at first sight seem to claim the cultivated olive for the earliest Homeric poem; but, apart from the question whether the simile is a later introduction, the mention of a solitary tree does not suggest cultivated olive-yards for oil-making, and it is noticed for its beauty and its flower, not for its fruit. On the whole, the reasonable conclusion is that in the time of the earliest Homeric writings the cultivation of the olive had not reached the shores of Asia Minor or Greece, and olive-oil is rare and imported: in the later part of the Iliad and the Odyssey the cultivation is just beginning, and oil is more widely used for anointing, though not for light or food (that the berry however was eaten, is implied by the description of Tantalus). In Northern Greece it was certainly later than the time of Hesiod, who does not mention the tree at all (Plin. xv. 3 is not sufficient evidence to the contrary), though he describes the treatment of vines. When it took so firm a root in Attica, it is impossible to say, but probably not much later than 700 B.C.; for, though Chrysostom says that Peisistratus first introduced it at Athens, the statement of Plutarch (Sol. 24), that Solon excepted oil when he prohibited export of Attic produce, postulates a much earlier date for the beginning of the industry. We shall, however, no doubt rightly believe that the wise measures of Peisistratus encouraged and extended the cultivation of the olive in Attica. Attica was possibly its earliest home in Greece, though not, as the tradition in Herodotus v. 82 implies, the earliest in the world. When it became identified with the goddess Athena is equally open to question, but the legends were probably in consequence of the olive becoming a source of wealth in Attica. The epithet hiera, applied to the olive in the Odyssey, may perhaps imply that it was becoming known as a benefactor, but there is nowhere in Homer a connexion of the tree with Athene. That the Greek colonists brought the cultivation of the olive to Magna Graecia and Massilia, and that it spread thence over Italy and Provence, is probable: we have mention in Amphis (4th cent. B.C.) of the oil of Thurii as famous. Pliny (H. N. xv. 1) cites the authority of Fenestella for the tradition that there was no olive-tree in Italy until the time of Tarquinius Priscus, which may very well mean that it came in with the Greek colonists about the year 600, and was introduced into Latium from the Campanian Greeks in the time of the Tarquins.

Moriae (moriai elaiai or moriai).

Besides the ldiai elaiai, which were private property, there were other olives, growing both on public and private lands, which were the property of the state. From these came the oil which was used for prizes in special jars (Phot. s. v.; see Panathenaea). They were called moriai from the tradition that they had been propagated (memoremenai) from the sacred olive of Athene in the Acropolis: they thus acquired a sacred character, and were placed under the control of the Areiopagus, whence monthly inspectors (epimeletai) and annual commissioners (gnomones) were sent to visit them. Anyone who destroyed a moria was punishable with banishment and confiscation. The moria, or stump of one which had been cut, was guarded by a fence (sekos), which word sometimes includes the tree itself or the stump, as well as the fence (Lys. peri sekou, Or. 7).

Varieties.

The Olea Europaea 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. Orchitis s. Orchita s. Orchas; 4. Radius; 5. Licinia. s. Liciniana; 6. Sergia s. Sergiana. Of these the berry of the Pausia, according to Columella, was the most pleasant in flavour (jucundissima), but only while it is green, for vetustate corrumpitur: hence perhaps the apparent contradiction in Virgil, amara Pausia bacca ; that of the Regia was the finest; 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, in the Venafrum district, yielded the finest oil; the Sergia, the chief olive of the Sabine district, the greatest quantity.

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, and Columella, followed by Palladius, speaks of creta figuli quam argillam vocant as unsuitable, the poet declares:

     Difficiles primum terrae collesque maligni,
     Tennis ubi argilla et dumosis calculus arvis,
     Palladia gaudent silva vivacis olivae. (Georg. ii. 179)

They may, however, be speaking of different varieties, since Cato (approved by Varro, i. 24) says that ager crassus et calidus suits most olives, but the Liciniana may be planted in ground which is frigidior et macrior.

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. The Sergia liked a colder exposure than most olives. 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 (Strabo, iii.). 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 there is no doubt that the shores of the Mediterranean best suit it, but the shores of the Lago di Garda must be mentioned as an exception to the rule. If the olives of Italy held the first place, and especially those of Venafrum, Baetica and Istria came next. The partiality of Martial (xii. 63) alters the order:

     Uncto Corduba laetior Venafro Histra nec minus absoluta testa.

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 ployed for the same purpose, and in the heat of summer water was regularly supplied. 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 where 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 corn 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 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. Evey year, the soil around 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, and amurca poured in at the roots was said to be useful for destroying worms; every eighth year the trees were 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, 5). 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.

3. A third method is indicated by Virgil in the lines:

Qun et caudicibus sectis, mirabile dictu, Truditur e sicco radix oleagina ligno, (Georg. il. 30,)

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, are 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.

Olive-Gathering (Oleitas, Olivitas).

The olive usually comes to maturity, in Italy, about the middle or 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.

Different uses.

The chronological order in the uses of the olive appears to have been:

1. For anointing (from the Homeric age onwards; see the beginning of this article), and in this use frequently as the vehicle of perfumes.

2. For burning in lamps (post-Homeric).

3. For food: (a) as a fruit, either fresh or preserved--the eating of the fresh fruit is implied in Od. xi. 588; (b) oil as food or for cooking purposes seems to have been absolutely unknown in Homeric times, though afterwards a staff of life in Greece and Italy. On this subject see Hehn, who thinks that wine and oil have long been slowly and gradually spreading from South to North; that, though the use of the vine and olive belonged to the civilised parts of the Roman empire, it was not always so, but that oil had in Italy and Greece supplanted animal fat alike for unguents and for food, just as still (in his opinion) the uses of wine and oil are gradually extending northwards into the countries of beer and butter: and it may be remarked here that butter,. though used by the Greeks only for medical purposes, was known not only as boutupon, but as elaion ek galaktos.

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, in which case the olives were preserved sweet, 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.

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 amorge 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 omphakinon: the quantity given out was however small, and hence the remark of Cato, Quam acerbissima olea oleum facies tam oleum optimum erit: domino de matura olea oleum fieri maxime expediet.

  A distinction is made by Columella between the oil obtained from 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 farmhouse, 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 took place (ut ibi mediocriter fracescat), 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 (copulator), 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 olectria), 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 pulp (sampsa) was taken out of the bags, separated from the kernel, mixed with a little salt, replaced and subjected to the action of the press a second, and again a third time. The oil first obtained (oleum primae pressurae) was the finest; and in proportion as additional force was applied 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.

(Appendix). We learn from Ath. Pol. 60 that the state management of the moriai described in the article was earlier than the date of the treatise Ath. pol., and that the penalty in those older times for damaging one of the trees was death (at an earlier date probably than the oration of Lysias). In the writer's own time the owner of the land where the moriai grew was obliged to render to the archon 1 1/2 cotylae of oil for each tree, and (since the registers of the trees doubtless remained, so that their destruction entailed no loss of oil upon the state) the state penalty became obsolete. The archon had to hand over the oil so received to the tamiai at the end of his year of office. The tamiai stored it in the Acropolis till the Panathenaea, when they delivered it to the athlothetae.

Sources:

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