Pottery Shards in Croatia Reveal Roman Olive Oil and Military History

When describing what is now modern-day Croatia, Cassius Dio said the people cultivated nearly no olives produced no wine. Today, Croatia excels in both, thanks largely to the Roman occupation.

Jun. 24, 2021
By Kenaz Filan

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In 2008 archae­ol­o­gists in Osijek, east­ern Croatia, exca­vated Mursa, an early Roman set­tle­ment. More than a decade later, schol­ars con­tinue to glean infor­ma­tion from the arti­facts they uncov­ered.

Recent papers exam­in­ing shards of imported olive oil amphorae, large ceramic ves­sels, pro­vide new insights into olive oil’s impor­tance to Rome – and Rome’s impor­tance to Croatia’s olive oil indus­try.

When describ­ing Octavian’s 31 BCE con­quest of Pannonia (mod­ern-day Croatia), the Roman states­man and his­to­rian Cassius Dio said the peo­ple cul­ti­vated no olives and pro­duced no wine except to a very slight extent and a wretched qual­ity at that.” Today, Croatia excels in both, thanks mainly to the Roman occu­pa­tion.

See Also: Discovery of 9th Century Soap Factory in Israel Sheds Light on Ancient Trade

The Great Illyrian Revolt (6 to 9 CE) soon chal­lenged Octavian’s con­quest of Pannonia. At one point, the rebels reached within 10 days march of Rome. Alarmed by their suc­cess, the Romans sta­tioned one of their largest provin­cial armies in Pannonia after paci­fy­ing the region.

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Tamás Bezeczky

Rome’s occu­py­ing army helped keep Pannonia in order. It also defended the Danube, which marked the Empire’s north­ern bor­der against the ever-rest­less Germanic tribes. But armies need sup­plies. And for Roman sup­ply offi­cers, few items were more impor­tant than olive oil.

In the days before soap, sol­diers cleaned them­selves by cov­er­ing their bod­ies with oil and then scrap­ing it off along with oil-sol­u­ble grime. While many aux­il­iary sol­diers came from cul­tures that used ani­mal fats, Roman units tra­di­tion­ally req­ui­si­tioned olive oil for cook­ing. But pot­tery shards show that first-cen­tury Roman sol­diers were import­ing their olive oil.

The Roman Army used oper­a­tional bases with reli­able access to water­ways to gather and ship sup­plies to sol­diers in the field. The bases were equipped with ports, docks and ware­houses. Located on the Drava River, Mursa was well suited to receive ship­ments.

Mursa received dried dates and figs from Spain and North Africa. They received amphorae full of garum and fer­mented fish sauce. But the large num­ber of amphorae shaped in what archae­ol­o­gists call the Dressel 6B style shows that their olive oil came from Roman estates on the Istrian penin­sula.

Today Istria is divided between Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, but was a region within the Roman Province of Italia in the first cen­tury. Rome had occu­pied the penin­sula for cen­turies and planted many olive groves that were now well-estab­lished.

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Cres (Croatia)

Noblemen with close ties to the impe­r­ial fam­ily owned many of these groves, and so it is not sur­pris­ing that Istria cor­nered the olive oil mar­ket dur­ing the period. But while those noble­men lined their pock­ets dur­ing the early occu­pa­tion, they were left out in the cold when Nero was over­thrown, and Vespasian took over their olive estates in the name of impe­r­ial secu­rity.

The ear­li­est Dressel 6B shards are found only south of the Drava since, at that time, Mursa marked the Pannonian fron­tier. Shards dated from the mid-first cen­tury appear at Roman sites up to the Danube, show­ing Roman con­sol­i­da­tion of power in the region.

Istria was not always able to keep up with legionary demands. From the sec­ond cen­tury onward, archae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered many amphorae shards that orig­i­nated not in Istria but the south­ern Spanish province of Baetia. To meet that demand, Roman sup­ply offi­cials planted olive groves in the area of Pannonia they called Dalmatia.

They did not intro­duce olives – late Bronze Age Croatian digs have revealed olive pits in sev­eral loca­tions, and a 2,500-year-old olive tree on the Island of Hvar pre­dates Roman occu­pa­tion by sev­eral cen­turies. But they intro­duced wide-scale olive pro­duc­tion, and today Dalmatia com­petes with Istria in the pro­duc­tion of some of the world’s high­est qual­ity olive oils.





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