Purple Prose

Purple was the most rare color of ancient times. There’s a beautiful thing — the words of which I can’t remember perfectly or find this morning to share — in which Marcus Aurelius makes the point that his friend can go get wrapped up in affairs of the day, the debates, the contention but he is resolved to “be the purple” the colored band that distinguishes the white garment of the senator. He wants to stand apart as the color does rather than getting embroiled in things that will distract him from what is important. I try to remind myself of that all the time. It’s not easy to “be the purple” in these days, but maybe it never was.

I always wondered what was the big deal about purple as a color. I mean, all you do is mix red and blue. Simple enough but when I started to learn about the historical sources for colors I learned first that the red and blue that can make our idea of purple were hard to find and the purple of ancient times itself? It was produced from marine snails. It was no small chore, either.

The most prized and expensive dye was called Tyrian purple, which came from small mollusks called murex snails. The natural historian Pliny remarked on the rather unpleasant smell of the murex conchylium — one of the marine gastropods often used to produce the prized purplish-red dye. A number of mollusks in fact contained hypo-branchial glands whose secretions could be used to turn fabrics various shades of purple. Pliny and Aristotle note that it wasn’t until the snails died that it was secreted. Consequently, for the production of the pigment, we should imagine thousands of rotting shellfish laid out in purple dye workshops along the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Early twentieth century experimentations in trying to recreate the purple dye in fact led to the conclusion that eight thousand mollusks produced a single gram of the substance.


Their purple — which I’ve tried to recreate above — isn’t exactly my idea of purple, but it worked for the Romans. Apparently,

“True Tyrian purple, like most high-chroma pigments, cannot be accurately rendered on a standard RGB computer monitor. Ancient reports are also not entirely consistent, but these swatches give a rough indication of the likely range in which it appeared.”

You can learn more here — good, very detailed article in Wikipedia and a fascinating article here. The featured photo came from the article in the in the Jerusalem post.

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