Archaeological evidence dates the first use of purple dye to approximately 1600 B.C. Legend attributes the discovering of this colour to Heracles, whose dog’s mouth was stained purple from eating rotten shellfish along the Levantine coast. It is then said that Heracles gave a piece of purple cloth as a gift to the King of Phoenix who declared it to be the royal color. This rich purple color became known as tyrian or imperial purple.
Since then, purple has been associated with royalty in Egypt, Persia and Rome. The Roman Emperors, however, took this color used to an extreme. Public displays of status in Ancient Rome were important as it offered an opportunity for the wealthy and powerful to flaunt their position. As men all wore the same style toga, knee length tunic and cloak, for Emperors stand out he would wear a trabea or toga entirely purple. The Roman Sumptuary Laws, which date back to the Roman Republic, were put in place to curb the money spent on food, entertainment and clothing. These laws stated that only the Emperor was allowed to wear the purple clothes. The penalties for failing to comply included fines, property loss and sometimes even death. The only other people permitted to wear purple, as a strip along the hems of their togas, were the lesser dignitaries including senators and their sons.
There were two main reasons why purple clothing was limited to Emperors only. The first was because purple was also used to decorate statues of the gods to indicate the Emperors relationship with them. (It was Julius Caesar (100 BC–44 BC) who first claimed that as the Emperor he was related to the gods.) The second was the rarity of purple dye. For thousands of years, purple dye was worth its weight in silver. It could take up to ten thousand mollusks to made enough dye for one toga. For Tyrian purple dye to be extracted from the mollusk the shellfish had to be collected, then crushed and left the in sun to decay. The secretion, oozing from the rotting shellfish was then collected and used to dye fabric. The smell was so bad that areas along the coast were reserved for the production of dye away from other settlements.
With the decline of the Roman Empire came the decline of tyrian purple dye, especially with the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in A.D. 1453. It was not until 1856 that a new source of dye was found that also produced the deep purple color. This was the first aniline dye to be discovered and is called mauveine or aniline purple. It was discovered by William Perkin (1838–1907) while he was searching for a cure for malaria. He was only 18 at the time. (Nowadays aniline is used to make dyes, plastics, drugs and photographic chemicals.) This was the first time in history that purple became accessible to the masses.
image 1 - Roman Painting - Villa dei Misteri Pompeii - examples of the Royal Color Purple
image 2 - This mosaic, from the Basilica of San Vitale in Italy, showing the Emperor Justinian of Byzantine (AD 483–565) wearing a tyrian purple cloak.
About the Author
Charlotte Gardner, a guest blog writer, is currently studying archaeology at the Australian National University. In her spare time she likes to read and write about eccentric historical moments. Her love of old buildings and older stories was sparked when she visited Italy. One of Charlotte’s greatest wishes is that in a few thousand years her skeleton will be dug up by an archaeological investigation team and put on display in a national museum. You may contact Charlotte via email at: email@example.com.
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