More lemons, more power.

By Jillian Kramer
Updated August 21, 2017
roman history of citrus
Credit: lucagavagna / Getty Images

The status symbols of 2017 might be anything from the latest iPhone to a Yeezys. But back in the day—as in, ancient times—status symbols were a little simpler. For the ancient Romans—people who conquered nations and murdered Julius Caesar—they were lemons.

Yes, lemons.

According to new research from Tel Aviv University, lemons (and other citrons) were how the Roman ruling elite showed off their superior status. Why? Lemons were extremely rare in the ancient Mediterranean. In fact, citrons wouldn't become commonplace until the 19th century, according to the texts, art, artifacts, and archaeobotanical remains, including fossil pollen grains, charcoals, seeds, and other fruit remnants, scientists analyzed for the study.

Lemons' rarity made them expensive, which meant only the powerful and rich owned them.

"The first remains of the earliest lemon, found in the Roman Forum, date to right around the time of Jesus Christ, the end of the first century B.C. and early first century A.D.," said Dafna Langgut, Ph.D., who led the study. "It appears that the citron was considered a valuable commodity due to its healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odor, and rarity. Only the rich could have afforded it. Its spread therefore was helped more by its high social status, its significance in religion, and its unique features, rather than its culinary qualities."

Lemons and other citrus fruits came to the Roman Empire from Southeast Asia, according to the research, arriving from what is now Israel in the 4th or 5th centuries B.C. From there, citrons spread to other locations throughout the Mediterranean. And by the 10th century A.D., limes, sour oranges, and pomelos had arrived from Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula.

But it was really "Muslim traders [who] played a crucial role in the dispersal of cultivated citrus in Northern Africa and Southern Europe," Langgut explained. "It's also evident because the common names of many of the citrus types were derived from Arabic. Muslims controlled extensive territory and commerce routes from India to the Mediterranean."

The sweet orange was the second-to-last to arrive on the European scene—it arrived in the 15th century, just as the Bysantine Empire was falling. Lastly, the sticky-sweet mandarin was introduced to the Mediterranean only in the beginning of the 19th century, research shows.

And, "by the time mandarins appeared in the 19th century, citrus fruits were considered commonplace," said Langgut. In other words, they were no longer a status symbol.