Food & Drink

The History Of Olive Oil

by David Vega February 26, 2010
ReadThe History Of Olive Oil

Olive oil has long been considered one of the greatest natural assets of the ancient world (and sometimes worth its weight in gold). It has consistently offered humanity the gifts of health and wealth, and is as complex and delicious as wine. Since antiquity, olive branches have been a symbol of peace – perhaps because olive trees were an agricultural offering bestowed to the colonies after they were subjugated in battle. Wherever disseminated, olive trees were lauded for their myriad everyday uses, from the culinary to the corporal.


According to legend, the olive tree was a gift from Athena, the wise warrior-deity who also recognized the power of peace. Gray-eyed Athena competed with Poseidon for the affections of the Greeks, and had offered the versatile olive in response to the sea god’s gift of a saltwater well. The olive proved the better gift, offering refuge from the harsh sun, crowning the heads of champions, anointing warriors and athletes with its splendid golden tone.

Athena Holding And Olive Branch

To the Greeks, this was no mere tale to tell small children. When athletes rubbed it over their bodies before competition, it protected their skin from abrasions and the elements. According to Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, olive oil could heal numerous ailments, among them mental illness, and what Hippocrates charmingly referred to as “the diseases of women”. It offered light when burned and was used by priests to consecrate the dead. The trees were so sacred that those who cut one down were condemned to death.

Oil Vendor from Portugal

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of man’s relationship with the pitted fruit, popular use most likely began in the southwest Mediterranean. Olive pits and wood fragments have been found in tombs throughout this area, some dating as far back as 5000 years.

Olive Branch


Brought to Southern Italy by the Greeks, the Romans aped their predecessors in admiration for the oil. The Roman Empire’s prodigious growth and colonial expansion brought trees to Spain and other colonies in the Iberian Peninsula, and was already in use by the Berber of North Africa when the Romans arrived. Today, Italy and Spain remain the epicenter of olive oil production and appreciation.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, olive cultivation declined for a thousand years. Olive oil steadily regained its role in the Middle Ages, however, when the Roman Catholic Church used it in rituals and anointings, namely the Oil of the Catechumens and Oil of the Sick, and to consecrate priests. The name Christ comes from the Greek word Kristos — the anointed one.

Roman Gold Coin from 36 AD with Olive Branch

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers and missionaries introduced the olive to the New World, planting trees in Mexico, Argentina, and California, where it continues to grow today. Its real success in the New World, however, has been in Americans’ consumption of olive oil, which has increased dramatically in the past decades and made America the second largest market outside of Europe. Nearly all the olive oil consumed is imported from Europe, as America only produces 0.5% of world olive oil demands. The industry in America is gaining more attention, with California growing particularly delicious and complex varieties.

Cheap Oil: Olive Oil Extraction with Hexane. Thanks Shell!


“Like other sources of edible oils and fats, olives now play in “the Majors”. Every drop of olive oil is in demand. How many drops can an olive produce? That chemical symbol making the put-out represents a Hexane – which extracts more oil from the olive. When Shell scientists first got Hexane from petroleum, there was little reason to think that as an “extraction solvent” it might add directly to the food supply… But that day has arrived. Shell is principal supplier of Hexanes for olive oil extraction. (…)”


Tom Mueller. “Slippery Business: The trade in adulterated olive oil”, The New Yorker, August 18, 2007.

Peter Garnsey. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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