The Waste Hill of the Ancient Roman Oil Boom

Monte Testaccio is a park in Rome, a 35 metres high hill that’s over a kilometre wide. It’s an artificial hill, created during the Imperial period by dumping all the used amphorae (clay jars) used to contain olive oil, which was used for food, cooking, heating and light in ancient Rome.

It’s estimated to hold the remnants of over 53 million such amphorae (which generally could only be used once due to the clay turning the oil rancid.) From this we can calculate the olive oil use of Rome at around 6 BILLION litres of oil throughout the late Republic and Imperial eras.

A city of over one million people for hundreds of years used so much oil that the used up containers are now a manmade hill a kilometre wide.

Today, by contrast, we use up 15 billion litres of crude oil. But where Rome used up their 6 billion litres during the entire classical period, our 15 billion litres of crude is EVERY DAY.
Just imagine, every single day, we use up 2.5 times as much oil as ancient Rome, the biggest city on Earth before the Middle Ages, did during its entire history. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Furthermore, since the Roman oil was ‘grown’, it was also essentially carbon neutral, though obviously it led to localised pollution in the capital. Ancient Rome, in other words, would have smelt smoky, greasy and rancid. But it wasn’t enough pollution to affect the climate.

To achieve that, we’ve had to take the entire Roman oil use and waste multiples of the equivalent DAILY, for decades on end. It has to stop. We need renewable energy sources to become easy and ubiquitous as quickly as possible.

The world is still dealing with the trash and effects of ancient Rome’s oil use two millennia on. The problems we are creating now will still affect our descendants for unimaginable periods of time, assuming our species survives our own wastefulness and short-term thinking.

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