The olive was of significant material and symbolic value in Ancient Greece, particularly in Athens. Olive oil, wheat and wine together constituted the “Mediterranean Triad”, namely the three staples of the Ancient Mediterranean diet.
Olive oil was one of the few products with a multifaceted use and of high luxury value; not only was it used in food preparation and for fuel in oil lamps, but also as a body cleanser and as a base ingredient for luxury perfumes and scented oils. Its association with Athena and its deep-seated cultural ties with Athens also served to cement its status as a precious commodity, and for these reasons, it was able to fetch a high price and attract a varied market across the Mediterranean world.
The connection between Athens and the olive hearks back to the famous competition between Athena and her uncle Poseidon. The city was to be named after the deity who offered the most useful gift to its citizens. Poseidon struck his trident into the rock of the Acropolis, creating a salt-water spring, whilst Athena planted an olive tree. The citizens chose Athena’s gift and named their city Athens. Even today, an olive tree stands on the Acropolis and the Erechtheion stands on the spot struck by Poseidon’s trident.
Certain wild olive trees or stumps were regarded as sacred in Athens and across the surrounding countryside of Attica. If anyone damaged or removed one of these, the punishment was death. Later, in the fourth century BC, the punishment was diluted to exile and loss of possessions, as Lysias’ oration “Defence in the matter of an Olive Stump” (Lys. 7) clearly shows. The wild olive (kotinos) was distinguished from the cultivated variety (elaia) and, as Theophrastus the fourth century philosopher tells us (Inquiry into Plants, iv.13.2), was used to fashion the olive wreath awarded to victorious athletes at the Olympic Games. The olive wreath thus became a symbol of success and achievement.
Olive oil was an integral part of the economy of Attica, where the terrain lent itself to oleiculture and viticulture, since olive trees and vines could easily be planted in terraced plots on steep hillsides. There is, however, little evidence for the large-scale specialized production of olive oil in Attica or of the trade in olive oil during the fifth to fourth centuries in the extant Athenian sources on agricultural practices. Theophrastus, for example, gives a systematic and comprehensive account of viticulture but does not enlarge to such an extent on olive husbandry. Perhaps the omission is because the cultivation of the olive was something that everyone knew about already.
According to the biographer Plutarch, a law passed by the sixth century law-giver, Solon, forbade the export of all agricultural produce from Attica, with the sole exception of olive oil. If anyone contravened this legislation, he would have curses piled upon him and be subject to a fine of 100 drachmae. This attests the importance of the olive as a key Athenian export.
The olive wreath is also found on many Athenian tetradrachmae of the sixth and fifth centuries BC encircling the owl of Athena, marrying the olive’s cultural and economic significance.
Under the Roman Empire, the olive was seen as an attribute of the goddess Eirene (Peace) and appears on coins depicting Mars Pacifer, the Bringer of Peace. Early Christian imagery also assumed the symbol of the dove carrying an olive branch as a symbol of peace and, today, the expression “to hold out an olive branch” is still used as a metaphor for offering reconciliation.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger
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