It’s Lovely, But Stinks: The History Of Purple

Why purple is a color equated with majesty

Erik Brown
Jan 9 · 6 min read
Photo by Paweł Furman on Unsplash

I have a quick riddle for you. What stinks like a dead fish, but is tightly gripped by the powerful? What’s produced free by nature, but is worth its weight in gold? What is as common as sand, but is incredibly rare?

Stumped? The answer is purple.

Purple is a color easily associated with royalty. Every king or queen on the planet, from the Burger King, to the Queen of England is covered in this particular shade. But, why that particular color?

After all, what’s so special about purple? You find garments of that color everywhere. Every box of crayons has a stick of purple in it. If it’s so common, why is it associated with royalty?

The answer to that question is that it’s common now. At one time the effort to create purple fabric was stretching the bounds of human ability. It would be impossible to even guess how many man hours went into one tiny bit of purple dye.

This process would require fishing boats, large amounts of people to crush sea snails, another group to boil the remnants, and then another group to physically dye the cloth. It would be painstaking and slow work. The output would result in fabric that would be worth more than gold. Actually, one pound of dye would be worth 3 pounds of gold to be more specific.

That’s not even the good part of the story.

The royal color would come from the lowliest source you could imagine. The bottom of bottom-feeders would produce this ethereal color. The right of kings may have been thought to be divine, but their kingly color came from the foulest of Neptune’s creatures.

The Creation Of Purple

Purple With Sea Snail Of Origin— Museum of Natural History in Vienna Picture By U.Name.Me / Wikipedia Creative Commons

“To make Tyrian purple, marine snails were collected by the thousands. They were then boiled for days in giant lead vats, producing a terrible odor. The snails, though, aren’t purple to begin with. The craftsmen were harvesting chemical precursors from the snails that, through heat and light, were transformed into the valuable dye. The compounds that turn purple in this process serve a defensive role in the snail — they protect the egg masses from bacterial infection.”

— Casey Dunn, New York Times

The oldest examples of purple dye found come from the city of Tyre in the Bronze Age, which was situated in present day Lebanon. This city was founded by the sea-faring people known as the Phoenicians. Some say the name of this people is derived from Greek words for the color purple.

These weren’t the only people who created the color, but they created the most famous royal purples civilization would know. The dye would adopt the name of their city and be known as Tyrian purple.

Sea snails would be gathered by hundreds of thousands. Aristotle in his “History Of Animals” would briefly explain that rotted fish would be used as bait to catch the creatures in traps connected to floats. The snails, being predatory creatures, could be lured in this way and captured.

The secretion generated by these snails could be harvested by one of two ways. It could be milked by agitating the snail, but that could take forever. The preferable way would be to crush the snail and remove the hypobranchial glands.

These shellfish would be left to bake in the sun for days and decay. The smell was reported to be overwhelming for most. Imagine the worst smell of rotting fish ever, now multiply that by an industrial magnitude.

“Twelve thousand snails of Murex bandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to color only the trim of a single garment. The color of silks dyed with murex purple was far from uniform, and various shades were obtained depending on the dyeing process.”

— David Jacoby. “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West.”

As I mentioned previously, no one has an exact total of the man hours taken to produce enough purple dye to create a single garment. But from the description given above, it must have been an astronomical number. It was no wonder why only the rich and powerful could afford this color.

It could be imagined that the garment would have to absorb some of that smell of rotted fish as well. In fact, the Roman poet Martial references this in one of his works. I couldn’t find any explanation of how that awful smell was dealt with. Perhaps it was just accepted as the price of the royal color.

The royalty who wore these garments would understand where the base creators of purple came from. The idea of the lowly birth of the royal purple entered the world of philosophy as well.

The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations would refer to the purple on his robes as something less than regal:

“…And this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish.”

The creator of stoicism, Zeno of Citium, was originally a wealthy merchant who carried the color dyes to market on ships. The loss of his cargo in a shipwreck started him on the path of philosophy. He’d go on to say:

“My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”.

Only Certain People By Law Could Wear Purple

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in Tyrian purple, 6th-century mosaic at Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, ItalyWikimedia Commons

Sumptuary law: any law designed to restrict excessive personal expenditures in the interest of preventing extravagance and luxury… A system of sumptuary laws was extensively developed in ancient Rome; a series of laws beginning in 215 BC governed the materials of which garments could be made and the number of guests at entertainments and forbade the consumption of certain foods.

— Definition of sumptuary law, Encyclopedia Britannica

In addition to purple being the color of royalty, it also became a controlled commodity. Only certain members of Roman society could wear this prized color. The wrong person wearing this royal color could result in death.

In fact, the Roman Emperor Caligula ordered the death of Ptolemy of Mauretania, a client king of the Roman Empire for the brilliance of his purple robe.

“Suetonius says that Caligula invited Ptolemy to his presence and received him with honour, but suddenly had him executed for the simple reason that, when he was presenting a show, he noticed that Ptolemy, on entering the theatre, attracted general attention by the splendour of his purple cloak.”

Caligula: The Corruption of Power by Anthony A. Barrett, pg. 117

Only Roman senators of renown would be allowed to wear a garment with a purple stripe. An entire cloak would be something reserved for an emperor. The later Byzantine Empire would keep restrictions on purple as well.

Purple Is No Ordinary Color

In your day to day travels, you may not even notice the color purple. But, this common everyday shade was something to be noticed in ancient times. It was even once something to kill for.

Keep this in mind as you go about your daily labors. The random shades of purple you encounter were once a divine luxury, heavily regulated by the powerful. That piece of fabric you nonchalantly toss into the wash would at one time be worth more than its weight in gold. Remember gold is currently near $1500 per ounce. That’s one pricey hoody right there.

Purple was also considered so wonderful that no one really cared it stunk like a dead fish. Its visual regalness overpowered the funk of a sea side dumpster. If one color can do all this, it is no ordinary color — it’s the shade of royalty and opulence.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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