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A Linguistic and Cultural History of Ancient Colors

Colors always held an intrinsic cultural importance, functioning as eloquent messengers of societal values, spiritual beliefs, and identity within ancient civilizations. The use of colors in various aspects of life, from religious practices to daily rituals, marked them as powerful symbols laden with cultural significance. In the ancient world, colors were not merely visual catalysts but rather extensive expressions embedded in the fabric of society.

Across ancient cultures, certain hues carried distinct meanings, shaping the way individuals perceived the world and interacted with their surroundings. For example, in ancient Egypt, the color green, often associated with rebirth and fertility, played a pivotal role in religious ceremonies and artistic depictions. The Nile Delta, an agricultural lifeline, further emphasized the cultural importance of green, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and the divine connection to the land.

Figure 1: Color Wheel (Goethe, 1810).

Furthermore, the naming of colors in ancient languages often reflected cultural nuances, offering insight into the ways civilizations categorized and interpreted their environment. In Ancient Greece, the distinction between different shades of blue was minimal, as evidenced by the shared term "kyaneos." This linguistic choice mirrors the Greeks' nuanced perception of the sea and the sky, where the boundary between the two was less defined compared to modern Western languages.

Religious symbolism in ancient cultures was deeply intertwined with the use of colors. In Mesopotamia, the color blue held sacred connotations, representing the heavens and divinity. Blue-glazed tiles adorned the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, reflecting not only the grandeur of the city but also the spiritual significance attributed to the color. Similarly, in ancient Hinduism, the use of red in religious rituals signified auspiciousness and devotion, with devotees adorning themselves and their surroundings with this vibrant hue (Pastoreau, 2001 and 2016).

A Culture of Colors

Culturally, many colors have held diverse meanings and associations. Their presence in rituals, ceremonies, and artistic expressions speaks to their role as a symbol deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of civilizations. This article seeks to illuminate the cultural contexts that have bestowed colors with layers of significance, shedding light on the nuanced ways it has been employed and interpreted.

In dissecting the historical and cultural importance of colors, one not only uncovers the chromatic palette of the past but also gains insights into the societal values, power dynamics, and spiritual underpinnings that have colored human existence. As individuals immerse themselves in hues, there is an opportunity to navigate the historical labyrinth where this color transcends pigment, becoming a vector for understanding the complex interplay between societies and the colors that adorn their narratives. Colors in ancient times were embedded in mythological narratives, adding layers of meaning to their cultural significance. 

Figure 2: Iris, the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow, carrying the waters of the River Styx to Olympus (Head, 1772-1800).

During the 1960s two scientists called Berlin and Kay made a crucial discovery about the history of colors. In their work Basic Color Terms (1969)  they index the stages of entry of colors in Cultures. The first distinction must be between dark and light, so black and white, subsequently red will appear, and then either green or yellow. Languages typically progress through a hierarchical order in their development of color terms. They identified seven color categories, represented by unique basic color terms, that cultures acquire in a specific sequence. The reason why this research is relevant for this article is because it will analyze these hues in Ancient Western civilizations, gathering together information on their symbolical meaning. According to their research, there are specific stages through which color terms evolve, and these stages provide insights into the historical and cultural significance of colors.

Black and White: Dark and Light 

In Ancient Western cultures, black and white held profound symbolic significance, each color weaving a complex narrative that resonated across religious, philosophical, and cultural realms. Black, often shrouded in mystery and linked with the unknown, bore diverse connotations in different civilizations. In ancient Egypt, black found a connection with the fertile soil brought by the annual flooding of the Nile, symbolizing not just darkness but also regeneration and rebirth (Baines, 1998). This duality of meaning showcased the nuanced nature of black, embodying both the ominous and the transformative.

Conversely, ancient Greece unveiled a more somber facet of black, associating it predominantly with mourning and sorrow. This was palpable in the attire worn during funeral ceremonies, where black garments symbolized the grief of loss (Schneider, 1978). The Greek perspective added layers to the symbolism of black, emphasizing its emotional depth and its role in expressing the human experience of loss and remembrance.

The philosophical and moral connotations of blackness unfolded prominently in ancient Rome, particularly in the Stoic philosophy espoused by thinkers like Seneca. Black became a symbol of resilience and steadfastness in the face of adversity, an emblem of the stoic ethos that advocated enduring challenges with fortitude. As Stoicism gained prominence, the color black became infused with a moral resilience that transcended its visual appearance.

Figure 3: Black Square on a White Ground (Malevich, 1915).

Moving into the medieval period, Christianity embraced black with additional meanings, using it to signify humility and penance. The clergy and religious figures adorned themselves in black attire, aligning with the virtues of humility and devotion (Pastoureau, 2001). This adaptation of black's symbolism showcased its versatility, seamlessly integrating into the evolving cultural and religious narratives of different epochs.

In stark contrast, white, the counterpart in this duality, held a spectrum of symbolic meanings in ancient Western cultures. Associated with purity and divine qualities, white played a central role in religious ceremonies and rituals. In ancient Rome, priests donned white garments to symbolize their purity and divine connection. White, in this context, emerged as a conduit for spiritual significance, embodying the sacred and the transcendent.

The use of white in religious practices persisted through the medieval period, where it continued to represent holiness and virtue. The symbolic weight of white expanded beyond the religious sphere, finding resonance in the sporting arenas of ancient Greece. Athletes participating in the Olympic Games adorned themselves in white clothing, signifying honor and victory. This association of white with triumph endured into the Roman era, where triumphant generals paraded through the city in white togas as a manifestation of their victorious achievements (Treggiari, 1969). The narrative of white as a symbol of purity, divinity, and triumph highlighted its dynamic role in diverse aspects of ancient Western cultures, enriching the cultural tapestry with its multifaceted meanings.

Figure 4: Veiled Virgin (Strazza, ca. 1850).

In addition to its religious and triumphal connotations, white in ancient Western cultures extended its symbolism into the realm of morality and social norms. The Roman use of white evolved beyond the religious sphere, permeating societal ideals. White became emblematic of the virtuous and honorable, reflecting a moral standard that transcended religious contexts. The pristine hue of white togas came to symbolize not only victory in battle but also a moral victory—an adherence to the values and principles esteemed by Roman society.

Furthermore, the symbolic significance of white intertwined with cultural practices and artistic expressions. In ancient Greece, the purity and brilliance of white marble were harnessed by sculptors to craft iconic statues, such as the renowned sculptures of gods and goddesses. The Parthenon in Athens, adorned with white marble, stood not just as a physical structure but as a testament to the aesthetic and cultural ideals of the time. White, in this context, transcended its tangible form to become a symbol of artistic excellence and cultural refinement.

The duality of these colors mirrored the complexity of human experience, offering a nuanced language through which ancient cultures conveyed their beliefs, emotions, and aspirations. These colors provided a symbolic language through which people could communicate their beliefs, emotions, and aspirations. Understanding that colors were a much more immediate vessel of significance rather than words, especially in a society where reading and writing were a prerogative of elites, is fundamental. The nuanced meanings associated with black and white allowed for a rich and diverse expression of cultural, religious, and philosophical ideas, contributing to the complexity and depth of ancient Western civilizations. Chromatism served as a visual and symbolic reflection of the multifaceted nature of the human journey, capturing the essence of human life.

Red, the Duality of a Color

Red, with its dual valence, not only adorned surfaces but permeated rituals, art, cosmetics, and societal perceptions. Its enduring significance transcends time and space, illustrating the rich and complex tapestry of human cultures through the vibrant hue of this remarkable color. The intertwining of linguistic, symbolic, and practical aspects of red underscores its profound influence on the cultural landscapes of antiquity.

The term rufus, meaning one of the shades of red, carried a denigratory connotation, echoing through the early Middle Ages as an insult (Pastoreau, 2016). Remarkably, the negativity associated with red hair resonated not only within the cultural milieu of ancient Rome but also found an intriguing parallel in the ancient Egyptian context, where it mirrored the disdain associated with the cult of the god Seth (Baines, 1998). This dual valence of red, oscillating between positive and negative associations, reveals a nuanced interplay of cultural perceptions spanning diverse civilizations.

Figure 5: A fresco depicting the cult of Dionysus in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii (ca. 60 BC).

In both ancient Egypt and Rome, red emerged as a color with strong cultural symbolism. The multifaceted role of red extended far beyond its aesthetic appeal, permeating diverse aspects of societal life. The linguistic connection between red and coloratus in Latin, where the term denoted something of the color red, is perpetuated through derived languages such as Spanish with "tinto" and "colorado." Similarly, in Slavic languages like Russian, "krasnyi" and "krasivj" are rooted in the same linguistic origins attested to the nature of red (Falcinelli, 2017).

In the ancient Egyptian civilization, the symbolic complexity of red surpassed mere representation; it became a vector for expressing contrasting concepts of life, strength, energy, death, violence, and destruction. Red pigments derived from cinnabar and realgar, natural sulfides of mercury and arsenic, painted a canvas of intricate beliefs. The dual valence of red found expression in rituals, with red serving as a protective force in funerary rites, symbolizing aid for the deceased in the afterlife.

The Romans, in stark contrast to their Egyptian counterparts, embraced red with fervor, elevating it to a cherished status within their austere color palette. The dual valence persisted in Roman culture, where red symbolized benevolence, vitality, and salvation alongside its connection to death. This dualism manifested vividly in the use of various red pigments, ranging from hematite to the famous rubrica. The Romans ingeniously incorporated dyeing knowledge from other Mediterranean cultures, notably from the Egyptians, further enriching the cultural tapestry of red.

The cultural importance of red transcended the realms of language and symbolism, extending into the practicalities of daily life. In the Roman matron's toiletry, the trinity of colors—white, black, and red—assumed significance. White, derived from chalk, sought to impart paleness, while black, obtained from ash, and charcoals, defined features. Red adorned lips and cheeks, illustrating the integral role of red in the aesthetic pursuits of personal grooming.

Figure 6: Mary and Child Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (Foquet, 1452-1458).

The realm of adornment further emphasized the cultural significance of red. Jewelry, amulets, and pendants featuring red hues were worn by Roman matrons, believed to bring good luck. This tradition extended into late antiquity, with men discreetly incorporating red talismans beneath their clothing. The coral, a red-hued marine treasure, held a protective significance against lightning for sailors, exemplifying how red transcended aesthetics to become intertwined with beliefs and superstitions.

Yet, despite its auspicious connotations, red harbored a persistent negative association in Greco-Roman and medieval European cultures, particularly concerning red hair. The Roman theater depicted characters with red hair as embodiments of buffoonery, cruelty, vice, falsehood, and cunning. This negative portrayal extended beyond the stage, with red-haired individuals, both men and women, facing societal suspicions of dissoluteness or possible barbarian ancestry (Pastoreau, 2016).

Yellow and His Shades

Yellow held considerable esteem as one of the austere colors in Ancient Rome. In Latin, various adjectives qualify yellow, such as luteus and aureus indicating a range of yellows leaning towards orange. However, what stands out is the absence of a stable and recurrent basic term for yellow. In contrast, the Greek language is more definitive, with the term xanthós usually indicating bright and luminous yellows. Other Greek words for yellow, include ochrós (ochre yellow), chlorós (yellow-green), chrysos (golden yellow), mélinos (honey yellow), and krókinos (saffron yellow).

It is essential to note that in ancient languages, these words provide more of a sense of color rather than precise chromatic notions. The most frequent Latin adjective for yellow is flavus, primarily identifying the yellows found in nature (sand, fruits, flowers, honey, grain, and animal coats). Interestingly, it is also associated with the color of hair, but notably only for Greeks or Romans or characters viewed positively. Latin uses different terms like luridus, and pallidus to qualify the blond hair of Celtic or Germanic peoples.

Figure 7: Fragmentary head of a Queen, from the 18th Dynasty (Egypt).

Flavus appears rarely in relation to fabrics or artifacts. In many cases, flavus has a meaning more akin to the Greek glaukos, a term signifying paleness or a low concentration of color—encapsulating shades of green and blue. The etymology of the term flavus remains highly debated. It might derive from flos or florus, words indicating both flowers and beauty, blondness, and richness. Alternatively, it could come from blavos, a Gallic word for yellow, meaning wheat. However, this hypothesis seems somewhat weak.

The term aureus, while also indicating yellow tones, predominantly denotes the material rather than the color. Its meaning is "gilded," "golden," or "covered in gold." By extension, it came to denote bright yellows, often assuming a more metaphorical sense than a denotative or descriptive one. Its direct opposite is luridus, an impure, dirty, grayish yellow. It mainly denotes the color of the skin of the sick, withered plants, low-quality fabrics, and occasionally the Moon. A distinctive term is galbinus, indicating a visually unpleasant yellow—a fitting translation would be "yellow in the Germanic manner." The Germans obtained this pigment from plants like broom, and other shrubs, imparting a muted and faded tone to fabrics (De Azevedo, 1954).

The origin of galbinus undoubtedly traces back to the Germanic word gelb (yellow). Despite the term indicating color and only being introduced in the 1st century, in Latin, it extends beyond fabrics or clothing. The poet Martial uses galbinus mores (literally "yellow behaviors") in his writings (I, 96 4-9) to signify inappropriate and immoral conduct. Yellow was perhaps the most used and beloved color among Roman women, symbolizing joy, fertility, and prosperity (Casartelli, 1998).

Figure 8: Lugh, Celtic God, as a child (Gonne, 1909).

During the Republic era, the wedding ceremony dictated that the bride and groom enter a room painted yellow, symbolizing joy, prosperity, and fertility. Confirmation of the association of yellow garments with the feminine world is found in Cicero's writings. Moreover, yellow was also the color of women consecrated to Artemis. The prominence of yellow in the female world is well-documented in mosaics and frescoes from late antiquity. However, yellow was not exclusively a color for women. Even haruspices, in Republican Rome, wore saffron-colored togas, for instance.

However, In the late ancient period, especially in the 4th century, Roman soldiers wore cloaks ranging from ochre to yellow—Diocletian in his Edict on Prices referred to the color for these cloaks as "color leone," evidently indicating a broad spectrum of pigments. In clothing, yellow had an overall positive significance—in contrast to the medieval and Renaissance periods when wearing yellow clothes identified prostitutes (De Azevedo, 1954).

Green and the Contrasting Visions

There is a vast terminology to express green in the Greek language, often extending to other colors such as blue. Among these terms are kyáneos, generally denoting a dark color; glaukós, signifying paleness or a low concentration of color, often encompassing pigments like yellow, green, brown, or blue; chlorós, a hue between yellow and green. For Greeks and Romans, green seemed colorless, lacking particular significance, at least until the 3rd-2nd century BC (Falcinelli, 2017).

The only noteworthy colors were considered artificial ones, crafted by humans, while green represented the omnipresent color of nature par excellence. In contrast to other cultures in the Mediterranean basin, for the Greeks and Romans, green held no social role in human activities, nor did it possess any religious or symbolic imaginary significance.

Figure 9: Osiris in the Tasnakht Papyrus (17th-16th Cen. BC).

Conversely, in ancient Egypt, green was considered a beneficial and sought-after color, even protected. The Egyptians envisioned the crocodile as green, and harming this animal was prohibited. They believed green could ward off evil spirits and aid the deceased in their afterlife journey. Notably, this was the color of the face of the god Osiris, the deity of the afterlife, vegetation, and consequently a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and resurrection. In Pharaonic Egypt, this beloved pigment was obtained by filing copper with the addition of sand and potash. The hieroglyph for green was a papyrus stem, another positive symbol (Baines, 1998).

Among the Romans, green was called "viridis," a term whose etymology links to other positive words like life, ver (spring), vis (strength) and vir (man), emphasizing its vitality. In the 1st century BC, Varro wrote, "viride est id quod habet vires," meaning "green is that which has strength." Virens, a present participle of the verb vivere, with the same significance as viridis, conveys ardor, courage, and youth.

Despite possessing an extensive vocabulary to describe green, generally conveying a positive connotation, it did not necessarily imply that this color lacked negative meanings or enjoyed the same practical use, especially in clothing. In this regard, it was much more favored by Celtic and Germanic peoples, who, unlike the Romans, knew they could achieve it by combining yellow with blue. These populations were also acquainted with techniques to effectively fix it onto fabric fibers, as well as a variety of dye plants (Pastoreau, 2001; Rinaldi, 2011).

Contrarily, Romans disliked green on their attire. It was deemed not only challenging to fix but also unstable and not very bright. In the Republican period, this color might have been used only by lower classes, and even slaves preferred clothing in brown or generally dark colors. In the Imperial era, under Tiberius, women began wearing green due to new oriental trends. However, this new attire caused some scandal; from the Republican era, green was considered an inappropriate and barbaric color. Women who dressed in green were consequently seen as flashy and eccentric, avoiding its use in formal events where yellow was more appropriate (Casartelli, 1998).

Figure 10: Detail of the Villa Livia Fresco (40-20 BC).

Only between 56 and 68 CE did green gain some popularity among certain authors who extolled its eccentricity, especially during Nero's reign. Nero, enamored with emeralds believed to possess strong magical properties, received praise from Latin authors like Pliny for their beneficial effects, particularly on vision. Embedding an emerald or preparing ointments and balms from this stone would relax the eyes and improve eyesight, a practice even observed by medieval monks in monasteries. The green color of our pharmacy signs derives from the beneficial properties attributed to this precious stone.

Despite this, prejudices against green persisted. Martial, for instance, asserted that being born with green eyes was a sign of perverse and dissolute nature. In late antiquity, from the 3rd century onwards, green began to appear more frequently in men's clothing, although it remained a color used very rarely. Green, however, retained some of its original positive attributes; infants were often wrapped in green fabrics as a wish for a long life (Treggiari, 1969).

In the symphony of ancient colors, each hue plays a unique note, resonating through history. The etymology of color terms, the symbolic, cultural, and historical significance attached to each hue. Furthermore, the practical considerations of dyeing and attire all contribute to a harmonious narrative of human civilization.

It is clear that colors, in their linguistic nuances and cultural depths, transcend the visual spectrum. They become vessels carrying the essence of beliefs, emotions, and societal values. The ancient world, painted in hues of symbolic richness, leaves an indelible mark on our understanding of the intricate relationship between color and culture. In the mosaic of human history, colors persist as eloquent messengers, telling tales that stretch across time and space, inviting us to unravel the vibrant threads of our shared heritage.

Bibliographical References

Baines, J. (1998). Color Terminology and Color Classification: Ancient Egyptian Color Terminology and Polychromy. In Color Categories in Thought and Language, Cambridge University Press.

Berlin P. and Kay B. (1969). Basic Color Theory. University of California Press.

Casartelli, A. (1998). La Funzione Distintiva del Colore nell'Abbigliamento Romano della prima Età Imperiale. Aevum, 72(1), 109–125

De Azevedo, M. C. (1954). Il colore nell'Antichità. Aevum, 28(2), 151–167.

Falcinelli, R. (2017). Cromorama. Einaudi.

Miller, S. G. (2006). Ancient Greek Athletics. Yale University Press.

Pastoureau, M. (2001). Blue: The History of a Color. Princeton University Press.

Pastoureau, M. (2016). Rosso. Storia di un colore. Ponte alle Grazie.

Rinaldi, S. (2011). Storia tecnica dell’Arte. Materiali e Tecniche della Pittura e della Scultura (sec. V-XIX). Carocci.

Schneider, J. (1978). Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colors. American Enthologist, 5(3), 413-447.

Treggiari, S. (1969). Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian. Oxford University Press.

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Alessandra Cipolloni

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