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Born in the purple: Τhe Ιmperial color of the Roman Empire

Purple, in the context of the Roman Empire, was not merely a color; it was a symbol of power, nobility, and divine sanction.

Born in the purple: Τhe Ιmperial color of the Roman Empire
Emperor Augustus in a trabea, engaged in conversation with a Roman general within his palace. Illustration: DALL-E

Throughout history, one color alone, has held symbolic power and mystery: purple. Particularly in the context of the Roman Empire, purple was not merely a color; it was a symbol of power, nobility, and divine sanction.

The Origins of Purple

The story of purple begins with its creation, a process that was as laborious as it was expensive. Contrary to modern times where colors are synthetically produced, the ancient method of producing purple, specifically Tyrian purple, involved the use of sea snails. This method was discovered by the Phoenicians, a civilization renowned for their skills in dyeing and trading.

Two shells of Bolinus brandaris, the spiny dye-murex, a source of the dye
Two shells of Bolinus brandaris, the spiny dye-murex, a source of the dye. Credits: M.Violante CC BY 2.5 DEED

How Was Purple Made?

Tyrian purple, named after the city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon, was produced from the mucus of the Murex brandaris snail. The process was exceedingly demanding; it required thousands of snails to produce just a gram of dye, which explains the exorbitant cost associated with purple garments. Workers would crack the shells, extract the gland, and then expose the substance to sunlight, transforming it into the vibrant purple dye known as Tyrian purple.

Bolinus brandaris, initially named Murex brandaris by Linnaeus (a Swedish biologist and physician who formalized binomial nomenclature, the modern system of naming organisms.) and also referred to as Haustellum brandaris, commonly known as the purple dye murex or the spiny dye-murex, belongs to a species of medium-sized predatory sea snail.

Workers producing Tyrian purple dye
Workers producing Tyrian purple dye. Illustration:DALL-E

Initially, it was necessary to collect these sea snails. Pliny the Elder, noted that it took thousands of snails to create just one ounce of this dye. Following their collection, the snails' glands were removed and placed into a lead container filled with saltwater. This container was then heated gradually over approximately ten days until the mixture achieved a reddish-purple hue. This process was notably lengthy and emitted a strong odor. Consequently, the production sites for Tyrian purple dye were typically situated away from towns and cities to mitigate the smell.

The Phoenicians, around the 16th century BCE, were the first to manufacture and trade Tyrian purple dye, leveraging their maritime prowess to distribute this coveted dye across the Mediterranean. Their monopoly on the production meant that they were the primary suppliers to the Roman Empire, where the demand for purple was insatiable among the upper echelons of society.

A legend noted by Greek scholar Julius Pollux in the 2nd century CE tells of its discovery by the Phoenician god Melqart. The story goes that Melqart, while strolling on the beach with his dog and the nymph Tyros, found the dye when his dog bit into a sea snail, turning its mouth purple. Melqart then used the dye extracted from the snail in the dog's mouth to dye a gown for Tyros.

The Symbolism of Purple in Rome

In Rome, purple was more than a color; it was a marker of imperial authority and divine favor. The Roman Senate restricted the use of purple to the emperors and members of the imperial family, a law that underscored the color's association with power and prestige. This exclusivity was reinforced by the prohibitive cost of purple garments, ensuring that only the most powerful or wealthy could afford them.

Tyrian purple's main use was for dyeing textiles, particularly a high-quality cloth known as Dibapha, which underwent double dipping in the purple dye. The elaborate and time-intensive production process, the need for numerous shells, and the vibrant hues of the finished textiles made these items highly luxurious.

Consequently, Tyrian purple emerged as a powerful symbol of wealth, authority, and distinction. Roman emperors enforced strict regulations against wearing purple garments among the citizenry, with violations potentially leading to the death penalty. Purple clothing was an ostentatious display of wealth and served to clearly separate the elite from the rest, even more distinctly than gold. The cost of purple-dyed textiles was so prohibitive that a pound of purple wool was valued higher than a pound of gold, and a pound of the dye itself was worth three times as much as gold.

A higher-ranking official, wearing a toga praetexta and walking through the Roman Forum
A higher-ranking official, wearing a toga praetexta and walking through the Roman Forum. Illustration: DALL-E

Moreover, the value and uniqueness of the purple dye were enhanced by its ability to become brighter and more vibrant with each wash, unlike other dyes that would fade over time. Imperial purple was adopted by Rome, where high-ranking officials wore the toga praetexta, a white toga with a distinctive purple stripe. Emperors often wore togas "trabea" entirely dyed in purple, while generals and victorious commanders might be granted the right to wear a special purple, Toga Picta as a sign of honor and triumph.

Subsequently, purple became closely associated with the emperor and his closest aides. The restriction of purple to emperors and VIPs was a deliberate strategy to visually demarcate the social hierarchy within the Roman Empire.

Over the centuries, the Roman state took extraordinary measures to monopolize the production of purple dye, dedicating its use exclusively to the emperor. In the Byzantine Empire, purple signified imperial monopoly. It was also used for important imperial documents, marking those adorned with it as high-ranking officials or bishops. A mere spot of purple on one’s clothing signified a direct connection to imperial power or the church hierarchy.

The phrase "born in the purple" came to denote those of noble birth, specifically those born in the imperial family, highlighting the color's deep ties to power and lineage.

The Legacy of Purple

The legacy of Tyrian purple extends beyond the Roman Empire, influencing the fashion and politics of subsequent civilizations. Despite the fall of Rome, the allure of purple continued, with the color remaining a symbol of status and authority in many societies.

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