The history of olive oil and olive growing is deeply linked to the history of Rome and the entire regional territory. The link that has always united the production of Lazio olive groves with the city of Rome is easily deduced from the importance that this product has had and still has, not only from an economic point of view, but also from a cultural and social one.
A millennial plant, in ancient times the olive tree was covered by an aura of sacredness; according to the Roman myth, it was Hercules who introduced the olive tree from North Africa, while the goddess Minerva would have taught men the art of cultivation and oil extraction.
Numerous archaeological finds testify to the presence of the olive tree in Lazio as early as the 7th century BC, such as, for example, vases of different sizes intended for the preservation of olive oil for food use. The first forms of evolution in olive growing, such as the development of rudimentary olive production techniques, can instead be traced back to the Etruscan and Sabine population settled in the Lazio territories.
However, it was the Romans who spread the olive tree in all the conquered territories and who refined the techniques of cultivation, harvesting and production of olives.
In numerous treatises on agronomy of the time, the olive tree was the subject of studies and observations.
In the 1st century AD, in his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder listed as many as 22 different varieties and qualities of olive trees, describing their cultivation techniques and production systems.
The Romans were the first one to introduce an olive oil classification system. Based on the olive harvest period, the oil was divided into three categories:
- Oleum acerbum or aestivum, the oil deriving from the pressing of the olives fallen in the summer.
- Oleum omphacium, the oil obtained from olives harvested between November and December.
- Cibarium or maturum or romanicum, the oil obtained from olives harvested late between January and March.
In addition to olive oil classification, the Romans had thought of an ad hoc label guaranteeing its traceability: the amphorae found on Monte dei Cocci in Rome carried a stamp that specified the origin, quantity and quality of the olive oil placed on the market. From an estimate made on the number of oil amphorae found on Monte dei Cocci - a real open-air dump where the fragments of exhausted amphorae were piled up - it has been calculated that on average every citizen consumed about two liters of oil per month, quantities that testify how much the famous "green gold" was an indispensable food on Roman tables.
Agriculture provided 70% of income and 80% of employment, of this percentage both olive oil and wine industries were one of the main sources of income for Rome. In order to store the large quantities of olive oil produced, the city had to organise itself with real warehouses for the preservation of the product, called olive oil cells. There were also other types of warehouses, the horrea, in which it was possible to store foodstuffs of various kinds, including olive oil. To better manage its trade, the city had also equipped itself with an olive oil ark, a place assigned to the negotiation and sale of olive oil that was managed by negotiaroes oleari, proper stockbrokers. There were so many citizens involved in the various stages of the olive oil supply chain, that many of them had organised themselves into different types of associations: the wholesale olive oil merchants had formed a league, while the workers in the oil mills had created corporations. There are no doubts that olive oil represented a conspicuous source of income both for professionals and for ordinary citizens: according to Cato, among the various tasks of the pater familias there was that of keeping an account of the olive oil (Cat. agr.II).
As further evidence of the role played by the olive tree in the economy of the time, it is enough to think that its cultivation was recognised by all as a morally worthy activity, vested with a symbolic value, an expression of the Empire's wealth and opulence.
Although very widespread, quality olive oil, such as the one originating from the Sabina that Orazio himself compared to the noble oil extracted from olives harvested in the Venafro area, was still expensive. We have evidence of this from the writings of Virgil and Pliny who, describing recipes in use at the time, such as "garlicky" (a sort of dip made with garlic vinegar and a "few" drops of oil) recommended its sparing use.
The barbarian invasions in the Fifth century decreed the beginning of a long crisis which did not spare even the agricultural world, subject to devastation and general abandonment of cultivated lands. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire and numerous adversities, the expansion of the olive tree did not stop completely; on the contrary, starting from the end of the Fourth century, the olive tree experienced a new period of splendour; it established itself as a specialised crop in areas with a high olive-growing vocation, Sabina, Tivoli and more generally in upper Lazio.
Still in the 19th century, olive growing represented a source of income and trade of great importance for the State of the Church, numerous actions were promoted by the State to implement the surface destined for the specialised cultivation of the olive tree. Due to the frosts that between the early Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries caused serious damage to Lazio olive growing, the papal government issued a motu proprio in which Pope Pius VI granted a prize of one paolo (a pontificial coin) for each planted olive tree. The French administration, following the establishment of its government in 1809 by seizing the economic value of the production of olive oil, in addition to confirming the choices of the papal state, made further efforts to raise awareness of farmers by allocating as much as 12,000 francs.
After the capture of Rome on 20 September 1870, the olive tree was cultivated in 179 out of 227 municipalities.
At the end of the 19th century, most of the olive oil production in Lazio was obtained in oil mills where the grinding of the olives was performed with vertical stone millstones pushed by horses, while rudimentary wooden presses were used for its extraction.
Only later modern oil mills were built, capable of producing superior quality olive oils due to their structural characteristics; the most renowned ones were the Borghese mill in Frascati and the Fumaroli mill in Tivoli.
The history of the olive tree in Lazio today bears witness to its widespread diffusion over a large part of the agricultural landscape; this region with the city of Rome not only represented the origins of modern culture and civilization, but was the harbinger of what is now one of the great Italian treasures, extra virgin olive oil.