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The Many Uses of Olive Oil in Ancient Rome

Updated on January 24, 2018
An ancient Roman fresco portraying foods, a cup of olives among them
An ancient Roman fresco portraying foods, a cup of olives among them | Source

Olive oil in the ancient Mediterranean was often referred to as “liquid gold,” and was one of the most prized goods in the entire region. Everyone, from the richest to poorest, youngest to oldest, need olive oil and praised it as something that you couldn’t live without. Even today it has its many uses, from food to beauty products. But in Roman times it was even more essential, and the amount of things the people did with olive oil could be surprising.

Olive flask and strigil, tools used for bathing in ancient Rome
Olive flask and strigil, tools used for bathing in ancient Rome | Source

Washing

Soaps were not around in the times of the Roman Empire. Yes, in our modern day there are soaps where olive oil is a prime ingredient, but the Romans did not have such a luxury. In fact they looked down upon other people for using it. Instead when they went to bathe they rubbed oil all over their bodies and then scraped it off, carrying away all the dirt and grime with it and leaving the skin silky and moisturized; this method was actually healthier than the crude soaps of the time.

In richer patrician households the oil was often scented like a perfume, which would leave behind a sweet smell after it was gone. Like in the modern day they would even pour some of the oil into their private baths to relax in them, to soften their skin and relax with some good aromatherapy.

Galen
Galen | Source

Medicine

The medicinal uses of olive oil has been well-known for centuries and is still touted today, but in Rome it was used for nearly everything in relation to their health. Roman medicine takes heavily from Greek doctors, who influenced European medicine for centuries, and Hippocrates writes about over 60 different conditions or ailments that can be treated with olive oil which include—but are not limited to—skin problems (naturally), burns and wounds, ear infections, gynecological problems, healing surgical scars, and much more. Many of these uses are still valid and are used as home remedies today.

The Roman doctor Galen, who was born in Greece, was also credited with the invention of cold cream, using olive oil as his base for in instead of the modern day mineral oil. It has been in used for over a thousand years for soothing skin and relieving sunburns.

Soranus, another Greco-Roman doctor who wrote revolutionary works on pregnancy and childbirth, even suggested using a little olive oil to wash the newborn’s eyes from any moisture that might have been in them.

Alternatively when medicine failed and the patient died, their body was washed in anointed in scented oil before being laid to rest. This practiced was mirrored in Egypt and was part of the intricate process of mummification. Friends and relatives who would come to their grave later to give gifts as an offering to their soul would include olive oil as one of the classic items, along with wine and honey.

Mosaics portraying athletes from Baths of Caracalla
Mosaics portraying athletes from Baths of Caracalla | Source

Athleticism

This practice arose from Greeks as well, but the Romans and Greeks traded a lot of their culture with each other so it’s fairly safe to say that this applies to Rome, too. Especially since it has been mentioned many times when citizens going to the thermae to wash themselves exercise first. While working out, and in official competitions, athletes would rub oil all over their skin to make it more slick and smooth. Not only was this healthy but it also stopped them from being impeded by any sweaty and sticky skin that inevitably came after long and strenuous exercise; essentially it evened out the playing field so someone would have to win by skill and not luck or exploiting an advantage. One could also imagine how pleasing this look was to the crowd’s eye in an age where physical perfection of the body was praised and immortalized in statues: a well-muscled and fit man all shiny from the oil that showed off every one of their muscles.

Oil lamp with gladiator decoration on it
Oil lamp with gladiator decoration on it | Source

Lighting

No electricity in the world and with candles in their infancy, light had to come from different sources. Oil lamps were the most common thing of all and even the poorest of people had at least one in their house somewhere. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t be decorated, as some lamps were extremely beautiful and covered with decorations, like scenes depicting gladiators fighting or laps that were carved to look like flowers holding an oil and wick inside their petals. Of course this wasn’t the expensive high-quality oil that Romans would put on their food or use for cooking, but a lower quality that still had a pleasant smell and could be burned in large amounts without being wasteful. All types and qualities of olive oil were used in every bit of the Roman life, as it always had a use.

Gallo-Roman harvesting machine
Gallo-Roman harvesting machine | Source

Machinery

Very crude or rotten oil that was seen as unfit for consumption (either that or whatever wasn’t sold off to the slaves and ignorant foreigners) would be used for oiling Roman machinery. These weren’t the metal, elaborate machines that we have today, but either way they still needed lubrication as any machine should.

Fertilizer

Not quite a use for the oil itself, but the crushed olives that were left behind after the oil-making process were useless. They lost their taste and couldn’t be eaten, and many just threw the mash away, but the Romans found a different use for them. They mixed it with their fertilizers and put it in the fields, and sometimes they mixed it with animal feed for their livestock. Olives are healthy for animals as well as humans and they made the soil excellent for farming.

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