Along with grain and wine, olives were one of the basic foods of the peoples of the Mediterranean region. Because olive trees generally yield a crop every other year, farmers usually grew olive trees along with other tree crops, or they combined olive growing with sheepherding. Cultivation of olives in Greece dates from the Bronze Age. By 600 B.C. the olive was well established in Italy.
Olives are native to the dry, warm regions of Greece, Italy, Spain, France, the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, northern Africa, and the countries of the eastern Mediterranean region. Because olives do not grow from seeds, the ancients developed many techniques for cultivating olive trees. These techniques included planting cuttings from mature trees to make new trees and grafting* one kind of tree onto another.
Olives are harvested in autumn and winter and are used both as table food and for their oil. The ancients thought green olives produced the best olive oil. These olives were harvested early for crushing and pressing. Ripe, black olives contain more oil than green olives. The ancients also packed olives in salt for future use, cured them in wine or vinegar, cooked them with other foods, and ground them into a mash.
The ancient peoples had many uses for olive oil other than for cooking and eating. It was used as medication—it was believed to cure an earache when poured into the affected ear. Olive oil was also used as fuel for lighting, as a base for perfumes and cosmetics, and as a lubricant for the body. Wrestlers coated themselves with olive oil before a wrestling match. The finest olive oil was offered as a gift during religious festivals or awarded to an outstanding athlete. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Bread; Food and Drink.)
* graft to insert a shoot or bud from one kind of tree into a slit in a closely related tree so that it will grow there