I was wondering how olive oil made recently, and curiosity led me to contrast methods of production over the past two thousand years:

An olive press from Biblical times:

An old-fashioned olive oil mill (unclear how old it really is though):

Large scale modern olive oil production, including a bizarre machine that shakes olives off the trees:

Just like every other manufacturing process, olive oil production seems to have gotten much more efficient in the last two thousand years.

So, how much cheaper is a liter of extra virgin olive oil today when compared to Ancient Greece?

Well here's a very unscientific estimation:

  1. Cost of olive oil in ancient greece = 10 gallons for 12 drachmae (source) = 3.75 litres for 1 drachma = 0.27 drachmas per litre.
  2. 1 Ancient Greek drachma (5-6 century BC) = 72 GBP; because a day labourer in ancient greece would get ~1 drachma for 1 day of work (source), equivalent in the UK today would be minimum wage for an 8 hour-day = 9 GBP per hour * 8 hours = 72 GBP.
  3. So 0.26 drachmae per litre in Ancient Greece translates to 0.27 * 72 = 19.4 GBP per litre in the UK today.
  4. An equivalent quality extra virgin olive oil seems to retail for 4.25 GBP / litre today (source) when bought in bulk (10 litres).
  5. So olive oil in the UK today costs 4.5x less than olive oil in Ancient Greece.

A 4.5x price drop across almost 2500 years doesn't seem all that impressive, but these calculations are ridiculously rough so I wouldn't take this anaysis very seriously. One particular problem in the math is using 1 day of manual labour as a constant for inflation adjustment. But I suspect maual labour today is very different from manual labor two thousand years ago: shorter working hours, safer, and less taxing on the body.

Still, at the very least we can feel comfortable saying that olive oil is considerably cheaper, and likely of much higher quality, than it was thousands of years ago.