previous next


It is not with olive oil as it is with wine, for by age it acquires a bad flavour,1 and at the end of a year it is already old. This, if rightly understood, is a wise provision on the part of Nature: wine, which is only produced for the drunkard, she has seen no necessity for us to use when new; indeed, by the fine flavour which it acquires with age, she rather invites us to keep it; but, on the other hand, she has not willed that we should be thus sparing of oil, and so has rendered its use common and universal by the very necessity there is of using it while fresh.

In the production of this blessing as well,2 Italy holds the highest rank among all countries,3 and more particularly the territory of Venafrum,4 that part of it in especial which produces the Licinian oil; the qualities of which have conferred upon the Licinian olive the very highest renown. It is our unguents which have brought this oil into such great esteem, the peculiar odour of it adapting itself so well to the full developement of their qualities; at the same time its delicate flavour equally enlists the palate in its behalf. In addition to this, birds will never touch the berry of the Licinian olive.

Next to Italy, the contest is maintained, and on very equal terms, between the territories of Istria and of Bætica. The next rank for excellence is claimed by the other provinces of our Empire, with the exception of Africa,5 the soil of which is better adapted for grain. That country Nature has given exclusively to the cereals; of oil and wine she has all but deprived it, securing it a sufficient share of renown by its abundant harvests. As to the remaining particulars connected with the olive, they are replete with erroneous notions, and I shall have occasion to show that there is no part of our agricultural economy upon which people have been more generally mistaken.

(3.) The olive is composed of a stone, oil, flesh, and amurca:6 the last being a bitter liquid, principally composed of water; hence it is that in seasons of drought it is less plentiful, and more abundant when rains7 have prevailed. The oil is a juice peculiar to the olive, a fact more particularly stated in reference to its unripe state, as we have already mentioned when speaking of omphacium.8 This oil continues on the increase up to the rising of Arcturus,9 or in other words, the sixteenth day before the calends of October;10 after which the increase is in the stone and the flesh. When drought has been followed by abundant rains, the oil is spoilt, and turns to amurca. It is the colour of this amurca that makes the olive turn black; hence, when the berry is just beginning to turn that colour, there is but little amurca in it, and before that period none at all. It is an error then, on the part of persons, to suppose that that is the commencement of maturity, which is in reality only the near approach of corruption. A second error, too, is the supposition that the oil increases proportionably to the flesh of the berry, it being the fact that the oil is all the time undergoing a change into flesh, and the stone is growing larger and larger within. It is for this reason more particularly, that care is taken to water the tree at this period; the real result of all this care and attention, as well as of the fall of copious rains, being, that the oil in reality is absorbed as the berry increases in size, unless fine dry weather should happen to set in, which naturally tends to contract the volume of the fruit. According to Theophrastus,11 heat is the sole primary cause of the oleaginous principle; for which reason it is, that in the presses,12 and in the cellars even, great fires are lighted to improve the quality of the oil.

A third error arises from misplaced economy: to spare the expense of gathering, people are in the habit of waiting till the berry falls from the tree. Others, again, who wish to follow a middle course in this respect, beat the fruit off with poles, and so inflict injury on the tree and ensure loss in the succeeding year; indeed, there was a very ancient regulation in existence relative to the gathering of the olive-" Neither pull nor beat the olive-tree."13 Those who would observe a still greater degree of precaution, strike the branches lightly with a reed on one side of them; but even then the tree is reduced to bearing fruit but once in two years,14 in consequence of the injury done to the buds. Not less injurious, however, are the results of waiting till the berries fall from the tree; for, by remaining on it beyond the proper time, they deprive the crop that is coming on of its due share of nutriment, by occupying its place: a clear proof of which is, that if they are not gathered before the west winds prevail, they are found to have acquired renewed strength, and are all the later before they fall.

1 By absorbing the oxygen of the air. It may be preserved two or three years even, in vessels hermetically closed. The oil of France keeps better than any other.

2 As well as the grape.

3 In consequence of the faulty mode of manufacture, the oil of Italy is now inferior to that of France. The oil of Aix is particularly esteemed.

4 In Campania. See B. xvii. c. 3. Horace and Martial speak in praise of the Venafran olive. Hardouin suggests that Licinius Crassus may have introduced the Licinian olive.

5 The heat of Africa is unfavourable to the olive.

6 The fæces, marc, or lees. This is a crude juice contained in the cellular tissue of the fruit, known as viridine or chlorophylle.

7 This is owing, Fée says, to a sort of fermentation, which alters the tissue of the cells containing the oil, displaces the constituent elements, and forms others, such as mucus, sugar, acetic acid, ammoniac, &c. When ripe, the olive contains four oils; that of the skin, the flesh, the stone, and the kernel.

8 In B. xii. c. 60.

9 See B. xviii. c. 74.

10 16th of September.

11 De Causis, B. i. c. 23.

12 This cannot possibly increase the oil, but it would render it more fluid, and thereby facilitate its escape from the cells of the berry.

13 But Cato, Re Rust. c. 144, adds the very significant words, "injussu domini aut custodis." "Without the leave of the owner or the keeper."

14 It is found that the olive, after an abundant season, will not bear in the following year; probably the result of exhaustion.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Latin (Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff, 1906)
hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (3):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), O´LEA
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), AUGUSTA EME´RITA
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), PICE´NUM
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: