In its many varieties, oil was an important staple in ancient Greeks' lives and evidence for the use of oil, and olive oil in particular, is found even in the earliest writings in Greece, Linear B tablets, which describe the uses of olive oil in Mycenaean Greece (c. 1,600 to 1,100 B.C.E.). Throughout ancient Greek history, olive and other types of oil performed a variety of functions. It was perfumed and worn on special occasions, including while attending a symposium. It was used in cooking or consumed as a part of a meal. A Roman-period author and traveler named Pausanias (8.42.11) described the use of oil in the practices of religion and it was also used as a source of fuel for lamps. Finally, oil had a prominent place in ancient Greek funerary rituals, as it was used to anoint bodies before they were buried. Painted scenes on ancient Greek vases are one of the many ways that archaeologists can determine how oil was used in the course of wining, dining, and dying in antiquity.
The most common and well-known type of oil in ancient Greece was olive oil. The olive was probably domesticated in the Near East or the eastern Mediterranean around 6,000 years ago and spread to the western Mediteranean by the Early Bronze Age (about 4,500 years ago). Historically, olives have been the most important crop in the region and today there are more than 2,000 different cultivars of the fruit in the Mediterranean basin alone. The fruit of the olive tree, the olive, can be processed for food or pressed for oil, and the wood of the tree burns even when wet, making the entire tree an attractive investment.
The olive tree is a highly resilient plant that can survive in a variety of environmental conditions. Despite its abundance in the region, however, the olive presented significant challenges for ancient farmers becuase it crops only once every other year. What is more, ancient Greeks believed that high quality oil came from green olives, those picked before they fully ripened, even though ripe olives produce much more oil. The olive and its olive, therefore, were expensive and highly sought-after, and the oil from green olives was even more valuable and considered a luxury among the Greeks. The highest quality olive oils were exported in transport vessels called amphorae. The export of fine olive oil in the ancient Mediterranean can be equated with modern day trade in wine, with emphases on places of origin and varietals.
A special type of vase, the Panathenaic prize amphora, was awarded to winners in the Panathenaic Games, which were held as part of an Athenian festival honoring the city's patron goddess Athena. This type of amphora demonstrates the importance of olive oil in the ancient Greek world because winners were awarded not just the vessels, but a large quantity of olive oil stored in them. The winner of the boy's 200-meter sprint, for example, was awarded 500 gallons of olive oil and the men's winner 1,000 gallons. This oil was usually re-sold by the winners for roughly 12 drachmas per 10-gallon vessel. To get a sense of the value: if a carpenter collected approximately 1 drachma per day, a figure drawn from inscriptions excavated on the Acropolis in Athens, that means that an athlete could potentially earn up to three years' worth of wages in a single competition. These figures provide a vivid example of the social and economic value of olive oil in ancient Greece.
In addition to olive oil, ancient Greeks made extensive use of vegetable, sesame, and fish oils. All three of these types essentially supplemented wheat and barley ingredients to make meals that were rich in fat and carbohydrates. The consumption of butter and, in fact, most milk products was considered barbaric in antiquity and was not a regular component of the ancient Greek (or Roman) diet. Vegetable oils were often used in addition to animal fats in ancient Greek medicine, as well as for cosmetic and aromatic purposes. These oils were often seen as less expensive replacements for more expensive imports, including frankincense and cinnamon, from Egypt or the Arabian peninsula.
Several vessels in the CU Art Museum's collection are identified as containers for olive oil. The earliest vessels include a Late Helladic IIIA stirrup jar, a two-handled squat jar dating to the Late Helladic I period, and a three-handled squat jar dating to the Late Helladic IIIA period. Two lekythoi, including a 5th century B.C.E. black-figure example and a late 5th or early 4th century B.C.E. red-figure example, both contain figural decoration. Several alabastra may have held oil, including an Early Corinthian alabastron showing an image of a Sphinx, a 6th century B.C.E. stone alabastron from the Eastern Mediterranean, and a 4th century B.C.E. stone alabastron from Macedonia. Finally, an early 6th century B.C.E. Corinthian aryballos with a frieze of mythological creatures may have held oil.
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- John Boardman, Athenian Black-Figure Vases (London: Thames & Hudson, 1974): 167-170.
- Andrew Clark, Understanding Greek Vases, A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002).
- John Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1993): 316-321.
- Nigel Spivey, "Greek vases in Etruria" in eds. Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 1991): 131-150.
- A.D. Trendel, "Farce and Tragedy in South Italian Vase-Painting" in eds. Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991): 151-182.
- The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949)