Purple: You are striding through the Roman forum, a citizen of ancient Rome, and, though you have a very standard Roman physiognomy, even strangers know exactly who you are. Citizens are staring at you and calling out, "Hail Triumphator!" This is your day and everyone knows it. Now boys are running up to you and asking for your autograph or for some token to remember the day when they saw you in the forum. You reach into the sinus of your toga and extract a few small coins and start handing them out. You can easily afford munificence -- your share of the spoils was immense.

It's your toga, of course, that makes you so easily recognizable. Only Generals celebrating triumphs get to wear this "toga picta" (bright purple with gold embroidery -- it's the embroidery that makes it "picta"). In later days, emperors -- even beardless boy-emperors who have never fought a battle -- will arrogate to themselves this sumptuous style, and everyone except their toadies will laugh behind their hands. But today it's yours and you deserve it.

Senators, magistrates, and priests mob around you, and they, too, have purple in their garments, but only stripes. Senators and some magistrates have a single hand-width purple band on one edge of their togas. Lesser magistrates get only a finger-width and the priests have yellow or red stripes interspersed with their purple stripes. The boys also have purple stripes, but they will have to put their "togae praetextae" aside when they reach manhood.

Purple was a symbol of power, and, above all, wealth. An ounce of good purple dye would cost many times more than a pound of gold. The Phoenicians had long ago given up their secret of how to make "Tryian Purple", but that didn't lower the cost: it still took more than ten thousand Murex mollusks to make one raw wool toga into a purple "toga picta". Someone had to know where the right varieties of Murex were found and had to dredge the spiny shellfish from the sea, and then they had beat and break them with iron bars -- also dangerous work in the days before safety goggles. Then, after the slimy mess sat in the sun for several hours to let the color mature, someone had to wade into the now stinking mess to sop up the ooze and then dry it out.

The whole process was almost as smelly as the two related industries of tanning and dying, both of which used the Tyrian dye -- purple (actually almost red) leather was needed for patrician shoes and purple cloth for garments. Slaves, of course, did most of the odoriferous work, but there was an expensive real-estate investment that had to be factored into the cost of the dye. Sections of shoreline were "reserved" for its extraction just as sections of towns were "reserved" for tanneries and dying industries. Of course, "reserved" simply meant that nobody in his or her right mind would buy property anywhere near these stinking places.

The Romans new of other ways to make purple colors -- mostly from plants -- but they correctly judged that the vegetable dyes were not as brilliant as the Murex purple nor were they as durable. Besides, the whole "purple" thing was about ostentatious expenditure -- you wanted everyone to know you could afford real Tyrian Purple, not some cheap substitute made from roots or lichen.

By the end of the Empire, many varieties of Mediterranean Murex, even the inferior ones from colder waters, were in danger of extinction. Sumptuary laws, which determined who could wear what, weren't being enforced and there was just too much money. Everyone who had money wore too many purple clothes. Just in time, the empire crumbled, with consequent economic depression, and the Murex were saved. Eastern Emperors could still afford it, but, as time went on, purple became more and more the color of Popes and Patriarchs (think of the "red" robes worn by cardinals -- their current color is "cochineal red", but the reason they are that color is that it offered a brighter range of "purple"). Imperial purple returned in the courts of the "Holy Roman" Emperors (they were neither holy nor Roman), and passed from them to European royal families. New sumptuary laws were enforced by the monarchs. It was a long time before us poor folks would get to wear purple.

Finally, in the spring of 1856, Sir William Henry Perkin, then a brilliant English barely-18-year-old chemistry student, fortuitously isolated the first aniline dye, which just happened to be purple. By June of 1857, the Perkin family had opened its dye factory in Greenford Green near London to exploit young Henry's patent, and six months later the new colorant, then designated "mauve" but now known as "Tyrian purple" in the trade, was in use in a London dyehouse.

Queen Victoria wore a silk gown dyed with the new dye to the Royal Exhibition of 1862, uncharacteristically putting off the black garments she almost always wore after the death of Albert in 1861. But it was Napoleon III's Empress, Eugenie, whose gowns set off the "mauve madness" that swept Europe in the 1860s and then America after the Civil War. Even during the war, Mary Todd Lincoln bought French purple ("solferino") china for the White House. The press and Lincoln's many political enemies carped that she thought she was royalty, even though the color was also very popular among other fashionable hostesses of her day.

Purple quickly spread to the masses and became a fashion color staple. "Mauve madness" still reappears every few years on women's couture runways. For the latest, go to http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20010416/mauve.html. Click on the little plus sign at the lower right corner for a closer view.

Other Purple Internet links:

"See Rome and Dye": http://www.hmforum.com/hmforum/articles/mikethomas/romantextiles/romantextiles.htm

Ancient Dyes: http://www.fotw.ca/flags/flag-dye.html

Carthaginian Purple: http://srs.dl.ac.uk/arch/ssrl/binous/housam-binous-ssrl-talk.htm

Dye Chemistry: http://www.gsu.edu/~mstnrhx/edsc84/dye.htm

Dying History: http://inst.augie.edu/~srmoeckl/vis.htm

Tyrian Purple: http://www.chriscooksey.demon.co.uk/tyrian/ and: http://www.middlebury.edu/~harris/Classics/purple.html

Vitruvius on the color purple. (Scroll down to chapter 13): http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/7.html

Murex Bolinus Branderis Longispinosus, picture of the dye murex: http://www.geocities.com/~sangioul/murex6/brandaris_long_3s708.html

Mary Todd's crockery -- get some of your own: http://www.woodmerechina.com/whitehouse/al_main.htmhttp://www.woodmerechina.com/whitehouse/al_main.htm

P.S.:  In the days, weeks, sometimes months between the time when you returned to Rome after beating down the barbarians (those bearded babblers outside the empire) and the magic day when you finally reached the peak of your military career and celebrated your "Triumph", you would be greeted with "Hail Victor!"  A victor was a conqueror while  a "Triumphator" was someone who had actually been honored with a ceremonial Triumph.  The Latin word for "triumph" was "triumphus" (in the earliest days written "triumbus"), and it comes either directly or through Etruscan from the Greek word "thriambo", which was an exclamatory hymn sung in festive processions honoring Bacchus (Dionysus).
Page colors: Ancient world purple usually had more red in it than what we identify as purple  today.   We know this because scientists have been working on duplicateing formulas of ancient pigments and dyes based on surviving samples.  Colors on this page  (aside from the yellow of the text) represent the range from the rich and almost brownish (haematic or bloody) imperial purple to later, lighter, more fashionable hues.

More articles on other "Roman" Subjects are at

Links above were active as of January 2003