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How Citrus Fruits Became an Ancient Status Symbol

Lemons were a sign of privilege and wealth in ancient Rome.

Did you know lemons were a sign of privilege and wealth in ancient Rome?

Even though citrus fruits are quite common in the Mediterranean and United States today, they actually originated in Southeast Asia. A new study led by Dr. Dafna Langgut, an Archaeobotanist at the Institute of Archeology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, has tracked the long migratory patterns of citrus fruits.

Langgut was prompted to begin her study after finding the earliest surviving evidence of citrus (dating back some 2,500 years) in the remains of a royal garden in Jerusalem, which was part of a Persian province at the time. She examined ancient texts, art, artifacts, seeds and coins, as well as the botanical remains of fossil pollen grains, charcoals, seeds and other fruit remnants to track the migration patterns.

Citrus fruit crops in Sicily, Italy. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Citrus fruit crops in Sicily, Italy. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The first citrus to arrive in the Mediterranean was the citron, which followed a path of westward migration, starting in Persia before traveling through the Middle East, arriving in the Mediterranean region around the 4th or 5th century B.C. Lemons arrived next, around four centuries later, with the earliest lemon remains found in the legendary Roman Forum. “This means for more than a millennium, citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean Basin,” Langgut said.

Since the citron was the first to reach the Mediterranean, the whole group of fruits (citrus fruits) is named after it. As both of these early fruits were incredibly rare, they were coveted by the ancient elite, who boasted of their healing and cleaning powers and their pleasant smell. The fruits even took on a religious significance in some early civilizations.

“While citron and lemon arrived in the Mediterranean as elite products, all other citrus fruit most probably spread for economic reasons,” the study noted. And they arrived much later. It wasn’t until the 10th century A.D. that other citruses such as the sour orange, lime and pummelo were introduced to the Mediterranean Basin by invading Muslims, and sweet oranges and mandarins didn’t arrive until even later still (in the 1400s and 1800s, respectively, as part of lucrative new trade routes). The lemon and the citron remained ancient Rome’s main squeeze for centuries.

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