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Ancient Olive Oil Dealers

Sep. 25, 2013

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A tem­ple of Hercules Olivarius (“Hercules of the Olive Merchants”) is men­tioned in the Regionary Catalogue near the Temple of Portunus, and an inscrip­tion on a statue-base con­tain­ing the word Olivarius and the sculp­tor’s name was found near the Round Temple, lead­ing some to con­clude that the Hercules Victor wor­shiped here was more com­monly con­sid­ered a spe­cial patron of the olive-oil mer­chants. As such, it would be a tem­ple not financed by the mil­i­tary booty of the polit­i­cal elite, but by busi­ness peo­ple, in keep­ing with the char­ac­ter of this region of the city. (Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004)

During the Roman Empire, pro­duc­tion and sub­se­quent sales of olive oil rep­re­sented one of the most com­mon modes of sur­vival. In fact, we are aware of the exis­tence of var­i­ous pro­fes­sional cen­ters asso­ci­ated with this ances­tral food­stuff. Almost all of them, were in the geo­graphic area around Corduba (Córdoba) and Hispalis (Seville), which log­i­cally included main­te­nance of the nav­i­ga­bil­ity of the rivers (par­tic­u­larly, el Baetis, now known as the Guadalquivir, and the Salsum, now known as the Genil, which could be sailed as far as Cordova and Écija, respec­tively, which is why they imme­di­ately became Hispanic cap­i­tals of the oil trade, as they dom­i­nated the main prod­uct depar­ture points from the Mediterranean).

The major­ity of these entre­pre­neurs and traders were doc­u­mented in epi­graphic sup­ports from the sec­ond half of the II Century A.D. (times of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius), when the boom in Andalusian oil exports to the Urbs took place.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

Mercatores olei Hispani

This is the case of L. Marius Phoebus, mer­ca­tor olei Hispani ex provin­cia Baetica, known from an inscrip­tion that appeared in Rome itself (C.I.L. ‑Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum- VI, 1935) and the tit­uli picti of the Testaccio (C.I.L. XV, 3943 – 3959). A new epi­graph of Cordovese ori­gin, dated from the sec­ond half of the II Century AD (C.I.L. II/7, 544) also appears to allude to him, in a doc­u­ment of enor­mous inter­est for the under­stand­ing of the scope of the fam­ily and eco­nomic rela­tions of these pow­er­ful traders. This is what J. Remesal calls the micro­his­tory of Baetican oil”. In the opin­ion of this researcher, who has stud­ied this and many other texts in detail, he was a freed­man mar­ried to a freed­woman (ingenua), with whom he also had two freed chil­dren, all four men­tioned in the tit­u­lus.

Navicularii and nego­tia­tores

Although the terms nav­ic­u­lar­ius, nego­tia­tor, mer­ca­tor or dif­fu­sor all appear to be syn­ony­mous, or at least they were occa­sion­ally used to mean the same thing, the peo­ple of the period must have per­fectly under­stood the dif­fer­ences between them, mean­ing that their func­tions must have been dif­fer­ent.

It would not appear to be log­i­cal to invent new names for an office that already had one; and even less so in the same region. Thus, nav­ic­u­lar­ius must have been respon­si­ble for trans­port­ing the oil per­tain­ing to the State des­tined for the Annona, in exchange for a cor­re­spond­ing stipend. On the con­trary, the nego­tia­tores, which facil­i­tated the task of those sup­ply­ing their own pro­duc­tion or that of oth­ers, did not receive any money for it. In exchange for their labour, they received prebends, tax advan­tages and dif­fer­ent types of ben­e­fits.

Occasionally, judg­ing by the epi­graph, they shared this func­tion with the mer­ca­tores, which makes the def­i­n­i­tion of their respec­tive func­tions dif­fi­cult.


They were doc­u­mented both in Rome and in Baetica, even when the major­ity of them were based in Astigi (Écija). They were highly mobile inter­me­di­aries, and they would put the great pro­duc­ers in touch with the oil traders, work­ing in the ser­vice of the State and get­ting the best and most com­plete sup­ply pos­si­ble for Rome. Possibly, they did their work from some offi­cial head­quar­ters located pre­cisely in the Astigi cap­i­tal.

Quite often, these posts were occu­pied by freed­men (gen­er­ally, they bore no rela­tion­ship what­so­ever to the pro­duc­ers) and, as shown by the epi­graphic tes­ti­mony, they fell to the same fam­ily over var­i­ous gen­er­a­tions.

Procurator Baetis (or ad ripam Baetis)

This post appears in an inscrip­tion pre­served at the base of the Giralda, ded­i­cated to the equi­tes (gen­tle­man) Sextus Iulius Possesor, son of Iulius, of the Quirina tribe and native of Mactar, in Africa, for the cor­po­ra­tions of boat­men of Seville (scapharii his­palenses).

The epi­graph in ques­tion gives a pre­cise account of the cur­sus ono­rum accu­mu­lated by Iulius Possesor over a life­time replete with posi­tions and respon­si­bil­i­ties. In fact, he was the prefect’s assis­tant of the Annona dur­ing the third third of the II Century AD. He was respon­si­ble for export­ing African and Andalusian oil to Rome for dis­tri­b­u­tion to the plebe and the army, as well as for pay­ing the nav­ic­u­larii and incen­tivis­ing the oil col­lec­tion.

These func­tions included that of procu­ra­tor augus­to­rum ad ripam Baetis (com­mis­sioned by the emper­ors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, around 169 A.D.); or, in other words, respon­si­ble for reg­u­lat­ing and main­tain­ing the pub­lic course of the river (through dykes, ports and chan­nels) as a fun­da­men­tal path­way for expor­ta­tion, pay­ment of the boat­men and con­trol of the same. Oddly, they ded­i­cated the homage to him for the hon­our he showed in his post.

Olivarama arti­cles also appear in Olivarama mag­a­zine and are not edited by Olive Oil Times.

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