Assuming (aka Wearing) the Purple: Revisited

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If this is your premiere visit with us, we wish you the heartiest of thanks for deciding to join us. If we have been fortunate enough to have you journey with us previously, we cherish your loyalty to Rome.

While recently we have recently been fortunate enough to find some spare time to put out brand-new articles, this just happens to not be one of those days. Aside from working full-time, I am in the midst of taking my teaching certification courses which leaves me little time for writing.

So today we are heading back to 10 March 2015, as we revisit Assuming the Purple!

In Ancient Rome purple clothing was exclusively reserved for Emperors and Magistrates.

Purple was an original color used in prehistoric art shown in several drawings and paintings of animals and the outlines of their own hands on the walls of their caves. These Neolithic sites in France were done using sticks of manganese and hematite powder, and have been dated between 16,000 and 25,000 BC.

Manganese pigments were used in the neolithic paintings in the Lascaux cave, France.

As early as the 15th Century BC the citizens of Sidon and Tyre, 2 cities on the coast of Ancient Phoenicia were producing purple dye from a sea snail called the spiny dye-murex. Clothing colored with the Tyrian dye was mentioned in both the Iliad of Homer and the Aeneid of Virgil.

The deep, rich purple dye made from this snail became known as Tyrian purple. The process of making said dye was long, difficult and expensive, which is a reason only the rich & powerful wore it.

A shell of Bolinus brandaris aka spiny dye-murex.

Thousands of the tiny medium-sized predatory sea snails had to be found, their shells cracked, and the snail removed. The most favorable season for harvesting the sea snails is after the rising of the Dog Star, or else before spring.

The dye can be collected either by “milking” the snails, which is more labor-intensive but is a renewable resource, or by collecting and crushing the snails completely, which is destructive. Once they have discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency. This fact was unknown in the dyers’ workshops.

Snail to Purple
Milking from snail to purple.

In either event, the “milk” or the entire snails were left to soak, put in a basin, and then placed in sun. There, in the sunlit basins, a remarkable transformation took place.

The sunlight made the juice turn many colors in the following order: white, yellow-green, green, violet, and then a red which turned darker and darker. The process had to be stopped at exactly the right time to obtain the desired color for which to then dye the appropriate fabric.

The exact hue varied between crimson and violet, but it was always rich, bright and, most important, lasting.

The ancient Egyptian Papyrus of Anastasi laments: “The hands of the dyer reek like rotting fish…So awfully strong was this stench that the Talmud specifically granted women the right to divorce any husband who became a dyer after marrying”.

Cloth Dyed with Tyrian Purple
Cloth dyed with Tyrian Purple.

Mountains of empty shells have been found at the ancient sites of Sidon and Tyre. Here, archaeological data indicates that the snails were collected in large vats and left to decompose.

This produced a hideous stench that was actually mentioned by ancient authors. It took about 12,000 snails to yield 1.4 g of pure dye or less, or about enough dye to color the trim of a single garment.

The actual color of Tyrian purple seems to have varied from reddish to a bluish purple. According to 1st Century BC Roman writer Vitruvius, the Murex coming from northern waters produced a more bluish color than those of the south.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I clad in Tyrian purple, 6th-Century mosaic (Basilica of San Vitale).

The most valued shades were said to be those closer to the color of dried blood, as seen in the mosaics of the robes of the Emperor Justinian in Ravenna. The chemical composition of the dye from the Murex is close to that of the dye from indigo, and indigo was sometimes used to make a counterfeit Tyrian purple, a crime which was severely punished.

The color is not what mattered about Tyrian purple. It was all about its luster, richness, resistance to weather and light, and its high price.

The color-fast dye was an item of luxury trade, prized by Romans, who used it to color ceremonial robes. It is believed that the intensity of the purple hue improved rather than faded as the dyed cloth aged.

Re-imagined view of the curtains of the Tabernacle.

Tyrian purple became the color of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates all around the Mediterranean. It was mentioned in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus.

God instructs Moses to have the Israelites bring him an offering including cloth “of blue, and purple, and scarlet” to be used in the curtains of the Tabernacle and the garments of priests.

In the 2nd Century BC, myth has it that the purple dye was originally discovered by Hercules, or his dog, whose mouth was stained purple from chewing on snails along the coast of the Levant.

Hector battles Ajax in the Iliad.

In the Iliad, the belt of Ajax is purple and the tails of the horses of Trojan warriors are dipped in purple. In the Odyssey, the blankets on the wedding bed of Odysseus are purple.

In 950 BC, King Solomon was reported to have brought artisans from Tyre to provide purple fabrics to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem. Alexander the Great, when giving imperial audiences, wore Tyrian purple.

Jesus, in the hours leading up to his crucifixion, was dressed in purple by the Roman garrison to mock his claim to be ‘King of the Jews’.

Toga Praetexta
Painting from a lararium in Pompeii depicts both the Tunica Laticlavia and Toga Praetexta.

The Roman custom of wearing purple togas may have come from an Etruscan tomb painting from the 4th Century BC showing a nobleman wearing a deep purple, embroidered toga. In Ancient Rome, the Toga Praetexta was an ordinary white toga with a broad purple stripe on its border.

It was worn by freeborn Roman boys who had not yet come of age, magistrates, certain categories of priests, and a few other categories of citizens.

Toga Picta
Painting of a man wearing an all-purple Toga Picta, from an Etruscan tomb (about 350 BC).

The Toga Picta was solid purple, embroidered with gold. During the Roman Republic, it was worn by Generals in their triumphus and by the Praetor Urbanus when he rode in the chariot of the gods into the circus at the Ludi Apollinares.

During the Empire, the Toga Picta was worn by Magistrates giving public gladiatorial games, and by the Consuls. The Emperor was wore the Toga Picta on special occasions.

Roman Sumptuary Laws (Sumptuariae Leges) were imposed by the rulers of Ancient Rome to curb the expenditure of the people in relation to food, entertainment and clothing. The Sumptuary Laws of Ancient Rome dictated that only the Emperor could wear a purple toga.

An immediate way of distinguishing the elite of Ancient Rome, along with identifying rank and privilege, was through clothing. The best example would be only the Roman Emperor was permitted to wear a purple toga.

Statue of Emperor Augusts in the Toga Picta (when painted it would have shown the purple with gold trim).

The penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh: fines, the loss of property, title or even life. The Roman Sumptuary Laws ensured that their class structure was fully maintained regardless of the wealth of a person.

Purple also came to represent spirituality and holiness because the ancient emperors, kings and queens that wore the color were often thought of as gods or descendants of the gods.

However, during the Roman Empire, purple was more and more associated exclusively with the Emperors and their officers. The Emperor Caligula had the King of Mauritania murdered for wearing a purple mantle better than his own.

Emperor Nero

Nero made it punishable by death for anyone else to wear the color. Sometimes, however, the dye was too expensive even for royalty. Third-century Emperor Aurelian famously wouldn’t allow his wife to buy a shawl made from Tyrian purple silk because it literally cost its weight in gold!

In antiquity, as is still true today, different statuses are associated with specific colors. At a funeral in the West, mourners expect the widow to wear black or some other dark, somber hue.

In Republican Rome, freed slaves had red Phrygian caps. After a great military victory a general’s troops might proclaim the leader Imperator, and help him to receive a triumph from the Senate.

The title Imperator came to be used for the one-man ruler or Princeps, aka Emperor. The cloak that identified the Imperator was purple.

Emperor Constantine, founder of the Byzantine Empire.

Through the early Christian era, the rulers of the Byzantine Empire continued the use of purple as the imperial color. Byzantines also used purple for diplomatic gifts, as well as for imperial documents and the pages of the Bible.

Gospel manuscripts were written in gold lettering on parchment that was colored Tyrian purple.

Empresses gave birth in the Purple Chamber, and the Emperors born there were known as “born to the purple”. This separated them from Emperors who won or seized the title through political intrigue or military force.

Bishops of the Byzantine church wore white robes with stripes of purple, while government officials wore squares of purple fabric to show their rank.

The production of murex purple for the Byzantine court came to an abrupt end with the sack of Constantinople in 1204 AD, the critical episode of the Fourth Crusade. Murex fishing and dyeing with genuine purple are attested for Egypt in the 10th to 13th centuries.

Crusader-King Charlemagne

In Western Europe, the Emperor Charlemagne was crowned in 800 AD wearing a mantle of Tyrian purple. Charlemagne was buried in 814 AD wearing a shroud of the same color, which still exists today.

However, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD, the color lost its imperial status. The great dye works of Constantinople were destroyed, and gradually scarlet, made with dye from the cochineal insect, became the royal color in Europe.

In 1998, through a lengthy trial and error process, an English engineer named John Edmonds rediscovered a process for dyeing with Tyrian purple. He researched recipes and observations of dyers from the 15th to the 18th Century.

After studying an incomplete ancient recipe for Tyrian purple recorded by Pliny the Elder and then collaborating with a chemist, Edmonds hypothesized that an alkaline fermenting vat was necessary. By altering the percentage of sea salt in the dye vat and adding potash, he was able to successfully dye wool a deep purple color.

Dye bath of Tyrian purple

Tyrian purple was also recreated, at great expense, when the German chemist Paul Friedander tried to recreate it in 2008. Friedander needed 12,000 mollusks to create 1.4 ounces of dye.

It was enough to color a handkerchief. In the year 2000 a gram of Tyrian purple made from 10,000 mollusks, according to the original formula, cost 2,000 euro.

Throughout the years purple has been adopted by various groups or people. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there was a decrease in usage among Church clergy and royalty, but professors of many of Europe’s new universities began to wear purple.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, purple regained its status among British royalty and was used more among the leading painters of the time. In the 20th and 21st centuries purple was used in the Women’s Suffrage movement in America, worn by Nazi German prisoners, assimilated with the counterculture of America’s youth in the 60’s and 70’s, used by American musician Prince from the 80’s onward, and worldwide amongst business leaders in neckties from the 21st century forth.

Prince in Purple Rain

Purple is a color of history. Purple is a color of stature.

Purple is a color of revolution. Purple is a color of fashion.

Throughout everything, though, purple has been a color to take notice of.

Here at Rome Across Europe, we hope that if purple is not your thing you at least Don’t Stop Rome-ing!