Where olives were grown, Italian civilization was born

Long live the olive trees of Lazio! Partly because they have a long story to tell. Olive-growing arrived here at the time of the Etruscans, who very probably encountered the culture thanks to their close trading links with what were then the foremost civilizations in the Mediterranean area: the Phoenicians and Greeks. But it was with the Romans that olive-cultivation became really widespread, not only in Lazio but also in all the provinces of the empire, as it needed to meet the huge demand for oil from the Caput Mundi. Our forefathers put the oil to many different uses: indeed, it was used not only for food, but also for therapeutic, cosmetic and energy purposes. For example, it served as a balm for burns or skin irritations, was used to treat disorders of the stomach or to soothe joint pain, or was applied as an ointment to loosen the muscles or combat the cold. It was the Romans who organised the methods of cultivation in order to improve production: many writings by famous Roman authors, such as Cato, Pliny and Columella, include accounts of olive-growing and agronomic techniques and describe the machinery to produce oil. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent widespread depopulation of the cities and countryside, there was also a decline in agriculture and olive-growing. Nevertheless, the monks undertook to keep this important tradition alive. The Abbey of Farfa in Sabina, for example, managed to preserve the farming methods and to maintain intensive olive cultivation, which was also important to them because of the use of olive oil in the Christian liturgy. At the end of the mediaeval period, olive cultivation experienced a revival. This led to the planting of trees throughout the Viterbo area and southern Lazio, especially in the territories of Itri and Gaeta, which became important centres of production. But olive-growing also spread beyond the optimum altitude, becoming an integral part of the Lazio landscape, as indeed it is throughout most of Italy.

Exploring the history of Lazio olive oil

  • The “Tomb of the Olives” at the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri dates back to around 570 BC. Inside there is a sort of furnace full of olive pits, testifying to the importance of olive trees to the Etruscan economy, its agriculture and cooking.
  • In the Vatican gardens there is an olive tree that is more singular than rare: it is one of the special Calabrian trees, which produces the white olives once used to make the oil for the Sacraments.
  • In Sabina, you can find the Canneto Sabino olive, known as the Big Tree, which has seen thousands of years of history pass beneath its branches. It seems that this tree, which is still vigorous and strong, dates back to the time of Numa Pompilius, King of Rome from 715 BC to 673 BC.