`Testaccio and Olive Oil Labelling - Olive Oil Times

Testaccio and Olive Oil Labelling

Feb. 19, 2013

Recent News

Glauco Dattini

In real­ity, Testaccio is an indus­trial dump­ing site, an arti­fi­cial hill cre­ated by the planned pil­ing up of dis­carded oil amphorae, fun­da­men­tally from Baetica. Many of these amphorae are labelled” in the shape of seals, graphite and painted data (tit­uli picti) that pro­vide an enor­mous and priv­i­leged wealth of infor­ma­tion about the estates, the pro­duc­tion sys­tems, the prod­uct qual­ity and the tax con­trols of the period, mean­ing that essen­tially, these labels were not all that dif­fer­ent to those cur­rently in use by pro­duc­ers and pack­ag­ing enti­ties, and they are of vital inter­est for the social and eco­nomic his­tory of the Roman Empire.

Monte Testaccio was an indus­trial dump­ing site for amphorae, the vast major­ity of which came from ancient Baetica (nowa­days, Andalusia), to its role as an his­toric archive of deci­sive impor­tance to under­stand how the world of the olive worked back then. Given the level of inter­est in the sub­ject, we will now delve a lit­tle deeper, ana­lyz­ing its par­tic­u­lar con­di­tion as an eco­log­i­cal dump and what it rep­re­sents with a view to under­stand­ing the true size of olive oil pro­duc­tion and sale in Ancient Rome.

An eco­log­i­cal dump

On reach­ing Ostia from the major Hispanic-Baetica estates, the amphorae were unloaded to be directly trans­ported by whole­salers to their respec­tive ware­houses: emp­tied into hor­rea filled with enor­mous dolia located in the port itself, from which the oil would sub­se­quently be sold to retail­ers, or sent to Rome where it would undergo a sim­i­lar process.

In both cases, the empty amphorae rep­re­sented a real prob­lem: they could not be reused for any­thing else, nor was it prof­itable to send them back to their place of ori­gin. Moreover, if they were stored they quickly became sites of bad smells and infec­tion due to the rot­ting of the oil residues that impreg­nated the walls of these con­tain­ers.

And so an effec­tive solu­tion needed to be found. This is where the extra­or­di­nar­ily prac­ti­cal nature of the Romans quickly sprang into action to find one. Thus, a con­trolled dump aimed exclu­sively at the with­drawal from cir­cu­la­tion of these recip­i­ents was cre­ated.

This is how Mount Testaccio was born, located within the Aurelian Walls, to the south­east of Rome, at the foot of the Aventine Hill and on the right bank of the Tiber. A small hill of around 50 meters over the sur­round­ing land, with a perime­ter of slightly more than 1500 meters and a sur­face area of roughly 2 hectares that spread over an area of ware­houses and port instal­la­tions –such as the hor­rea Seiana, pos­si­bly used to store oil with a view to con­trol­ling its dis­tri­b­u­tion and pos­si­ble mar­ket oscil­la­tions.

Google Maps

A leg­end steeped in olive oil

The hill is not only impreg­nated with amphorae, but all sorts of his­toric leg­ends and dif­fi­cul­ties, as it played a very impor­tant role in the city’s life. Carnivals, orgies and pop­u­lar feasts asso­ci­ated with the wine har­vest were cel­e­brated here until just last year; the sides of the hill were used to build caves in which to age wine, and the mount became the head­quar­ters of one of the most tra­di­tional Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) in Rome, as proven by the enor­mous cross that crowns the top of the hill.

Only some of the oil amphorae from Baetica reached Testaccio, which has been the object of study of a Spanish archae­o­log­i­cal mis­sion for years now, directed by José Mª Blázquez and José Remesal (fur­ther infor­ma­tion can be found first-hand on the web­site http://ceipac.gh.ub.es/, which is also man­aged by the lat­ter), and these were con­stantly plun­dered until the 18th cen­tury, or par­tially destroyed by the Vatican artillery, which used the east­ern side of the mount for tar­get prac­tice. Many other amphorae had dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tions or were sim­ply scat­tered along the way, used per­haps as build­ing mate­ri­als. According to E. Rodíguez Almeida, over 13 mil­lion recip­i­ents were lost, and should this be true, the Baetica oil sales fig­ures would shoot up to a vol­ume that is hard to com­pre­hend, even in our mod­ern times.

To cre­ate the dump, built in var­i­ous phases, the Romans came up with a per­fectly ratio­nal pil­ing sys­tem which with time would allow for the organic growth of the site. The amphorae (raised up on the backs of the cav­alry, as the mount grew higher) were staved in, stacked on their sides in a stepped for­ma­tion and the insides were filled with frag­ments of other already bro­ken recip­i­ents. It was then all cov­ered with quick­lime to seal in bad smells, insects and any other harm­ful effect for the pop­u­la­tion.

Highly prac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion

Thanks to their good state of con­ser­va­tion, many of the amphorae accu­mu­lated in the belly of Mount Testaccio still have the figli­nae seals of ori­gin on their outer sur­faces, some graphites and, above all, numer­ous details painted at the time of pack­ag­ing and later (tit­uli picti), which as a gen­eral rule, include essen­tial infor­ma­tion with a view to get­ting to know the major pro­duc­tion estates and the prod­uct tax­a­tion or, quite sim­ply, the name of the nav­ic­u­larii (ship­pers) or mer­ca­tores (busi­ness­men) respon­si­ble for trans­port­ing the prod­uct to the gates of Rome.

There they had a spe­cific tem­ple ded­i­cated to their patron: Hercules Victor Olivarius, located in the Forum Boarium, right beside the Tiber and not too far from the Testaccio. This cir­cu­lar tem­ple has been iden­ti­fied as the Temple of Vesta, built around the mid­dle of the I cen­tury B.C. At present, it is one of the clas­sic images of the archae­o­log­i­cal land­scape that made up the ancient Urbs, located beside the Circus Maximus, in front of the famous church of Santa María in Cosmedin, that holds the Mouth of Truth on its por­tico.

Precursors of the mod­ern-day labels

An amphora with its com­plete tit­uli picti, painted on its neck and shoul­ders, with either a reed or a brush, and black or red paint, can pro­vide us with the fol­low­ing infor­ma­tion:

  • Consular date: that is, the ref­er­ence to the con­suls that gov­erned Rome at the time, describ­ing the exact year in which the trans­ac­tion took place, thus giv­ing us a chronol­ogy of an absolute nature that is very hard to achieve in archae­ol­ogy.
  • Weight in pounds: a full amphora usu­ally weighed around 100 kilo­grams (30 the recip­i­ent and 70 the con­tent)
  • Name of the exporter, which may have been the owner of the oil pro­duc­tion estate or an inter­me­di­ary; and of the con­signee
  • City or fun­dus (estate) of ori­gin; s well as the place of embarka­tion of the cargo
  • Name of the nav­ic­u­larii (ship­pers)


Tax con­trols, includ­ing the names of the respec­tive con­trollers. Nowadays we know that the Roman tax sys­tem (at least, when it came to the expor­ta­tion of Baetica olive oil) was well-organ­ised at the begin­ning of the II cen­tury A.D., even when the con­trols had to be quite rudi­men­tary and fraud was com­mon.

One way or another, these tit­uli picti could be con­sid­ered pre­cur­sors of the mod­ern-day labelling sys­tem. The infor­ma­tion con­tained was nec­es­sary, extremely com­plete and vital for the Roman olive oil trade.

Olivarama arti­cles are pre­sented in their entirety and are unedited by Olive Oil Times.

Related News

Feedback / Suggestions