The 630,000 acres of land in Attica, the region in which Athens was located, were rocky and unproductive. In fact, one-third of it was not suitable for any kind of farming. Even with careful land management and irrigation, the region only produced 675,000 bushels of grain per year—hardly enough to supply a quarter of its population. Without imported food, Athens would have starved.
Although the terrain of Attica was not well suited for growing grain, it was well-suited for olives. An olive tree took 16 years of growing to produce use-able olives and 40 years to reach full productivity. Olive trees were so valuable in Athens that cutting one down was a crime punishable by exile or death.
While the olive tree and its leaves became symbols of peace, wisdom, and victory, it was olive oil that was the source of Athens’ wealth. Olive oil was considered liquid gold, and Greek olive oil was considered the finest in the ancient world.
The oil had many uses: as a food and in cooking, in religious ceremonies, as lamp fuel for lighting homes, as a skin conditioner and a cleanser instead of soap, and as a medicine. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, referred to it as “the great therapeutic” with more than 60 uses as a medicine. Olive oil was applied to the skin of Olympic athletes before competitions.
Olive oil was as valuable to the ancient world as petroleum oil is to the modern world. In Greek mythology, olives and olive oil were considered gifts from the goddess Athena to the Athenian people. Because of her gift of olives, one myth says, Athena was selected as the city’s patron saint over Poseidon (god of the sea).