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The Manufacturing and Codification of Purple

Powerfully symbolic of divinity and power in antiquity, the manufacturing and use of purple dye were of the highest esteem and splendor. It embodied the concepts of light, life, and divinity, though the nature of its production remains, at large, a mystery. The most prestigious and desired was Tyrian purple, a dye produced from the murex molluscs found on the shores of the Mediterranean that were used as a coloring agent for textiles. Its invention is attributed to the Phoenicians, particularly in the city of Tyre, who produced a dye of high quality and set a precedent for future manufacturers and users of purple dye. The production of the dye was an intense and laborious process that involved the communal effort of murex harvesters and manufacturers alike, and as a result proved quite costly. As the color was held in such high esteem it was in great demand throughout the Mediterranean, and by the end of the fourth century B.C., it was worth its weight in gold. The production and use of purple dye were adopted by the Roman Empire, which utilized the color as a representation of social status that was largely limited to the ruling and noble classes.


The Phoenician coastline harbored a myriad of murex snail species, all from the family Muricidae, that were used in the manufacturing of purple dye (Cooksey, 2013). They were able to create a variety of shades, primarily obtained from three species in particular. Found chiefly near the shores of Tyre was a predominant species known commonly as purple dye murex, or bolinus murex brandaris (Jensen, 1963). This species generally features golden, elongated shells and a rounded body whorl. They inhabit sandy, silty, or muddy habitats at depths of 33 to 492 feet off the coast of the Mediterranean (Ziderman, 1990). The Murex brandaris produced a red-purple color dye that was known as Tyrian purple, taking its name from the city in which it was principally produced. In Tyre, there was one deposit occupied solely by this species of murex, and its predominance established the city as the leading manufacturer of the renowned Tyrian purple dye (Ziderman, 1990). It had been described on several occasions by Pliny the Elder that this red-purple was the finest of its time, and it made the city both prosperous and famous (Natural History, 9.60.127). Also prevalent in the waters and essential to the production of purple dye was the Banded dye murex, or Murex trunculus (Jensen, 1968). This species lived in the shallow shore waters of the sea from depths of five to 39 feet, on rocky bottoms or coarse sands covered with pebbles. This species was rough in appearance as the shell characteristically featured blunt spikes, but like the murex brandaris, it had a rounded body whorl (Ziderman, 1990). The Murex trunculus was used to make a blue-purple dye and was also found abundantly near Tyre.

Figure 1: Illustration of the Murex Species (n.d.).

A third species of murex was utilized in the making of purple dye, though it was merely an additional ingredient, and not used for a color of its own (Fragie-Jolie, 2016). Thais haemastoma, known by the ancient Romans as buccinium, were found within depths of 5 feet, both in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a round shell with a serrated edge that is red in color. The murex of this species did not produce enough dye alone and was instead used as an admixture with other murex species to make the purple dye (Ziderman, 1990). An exorbitant amount of murex were needed to produce the dye, as each one could only produce a few drops of it. To produce just 1.4 grams of dye, twelve thousand Murex brandaris were needed, which was only enough to color the trim of a garment (Fragie-Jolie, 2016). To yield an ounce of dye, minute quantities were extracted drop by drop from at least 250,000 murex snails (Elliott, 2008). There are written records of the collection of such quantities in the ancient Mediterranean, most notably by Pliny the Elder, however archaeological remains of the methods they used are limited, as the fishing gear was made of perishable material (Oliver, 2015).


The harvesting of murexes took place in the early spring during the reproductive period, just before the snail began laying its eggs. This was critical as the eggs contained precious substances of the dye. In particular, there were the mature egg capsules, harboring a great deal of the red needed for the dye and could be lost if not harvested soon enough (Jensen, 1963). Many murexes near the shallow areas of the sea could be gathered by hand, while divers and specific basket-like devices were often utilized to bait and capture the snails. Pliny the Elder noted a sort of basket called a nassae, that was baited with mussels, gastropods, dead fish, and the like (Oliver, 2015). These nassae were lowered and left in the sea to attract the murexes, and when the basket was full, it was hauled up to begin immediate extraction. The smaller murexes were crushed with their shells, but the dye-bearing portions of the larger ones were taken out by hand (Jensen, 1963). When disturbed, the larger live murexes would often release a drop or so of fluids, though they were often cracked open for easier extraction. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder speaks of a white vein or gland that contains the bit of liquid used to create the sought-after dye. (Sherwood et. al., 2020). The process that followed was one of the most complex and expensive practices of antiquity, even if there is limited knowledge as the trade secrets of the dye production were carefully guarded.


Large-scale, commercial production of purple dye required many thousand shellfish. The secretions from the white vein that Pliny speaks of is the hypobranchial gland, which contains the primal leuco-base (Zidermnan, 1990). It is a colorless dye-precursor that varied greatly in size in the species of murexes. The collected liquid was then boiled in salted water to create the dye, with different techniques producing different hues of purple. There are many incomplete records throughout history that allude to the processing, and while they are very similar, none is entirely in agreement with one another. The only surviving recipe is recorded by Pliny the Elder. He states that in order to dye 1,000 pounds of wool, it was necessary to use some 200 lbs of Thais haemastoma flesh, as well as 111 pounds of murex. The tissues and extracted juices from the murex were then boiled in salted water, and steeped for 3 days in a stone or lead vat. The entire mass was simmered by a pipe from a furnace far removed and was strained over the following days to remove any coagulated proteins (Natural History, 9.125-141). The dye mixture, after about ten days of simmering and exposure to sunlight, had turned purple. The highest praise of colors was one “likened to congealed blood, blackish at first glance but glistening when held up” (Natural History, 9.125-141). Washed wool was then dipped into the dye fluid for testing of its saturation, hue, and penetration of the fabric. If it was ready for use, the textiles were placed in the dye for hours to absorb the coloring and were repeatedly submerged in order to ensure the cloth was completely dyed. It was then boiled and dried on the ocean banks for the sea air to oxidize and fix the color. The summer sunlight of the Mediterranean coast was vital in the manufacturing of dye, both in the process of manufacturing and in the reflection of the final results (Steiglitz, 1994). Variations of shade could be made by adjusting light conditions or by reducing agents. Purples with red and blue undertones were prized colors, and Tyrian dipped purple textiles of the most importance as they remained bright even after many washings. The manufacturing process involved the intense labor of many people and was highly expensive as a result, but the manufacturing prowess of the ancient Mediterranean remains unparalleled.


Figure 2: "Manufacturing Tyrian Purple in Ancient Phoenicia" (Dudley, 1915).

Purple was utilized primarily to color garments of privileged nationals in the ancient world as it was representative of power and social standing, and by the sixth century B.C., the symbolic power of purple was channeled in a specific direction (Elliott, 2008). The Persian King of that time, Cyrus, did not want the color purple to be free for everyone. Instead, he intended for purple to be part of the royal attire only, claiming the white-striped purple tunic of his royal wear as his exclusive royal symbol (Reinhold, 1970). Legal restrictions were put in place which allowed only Cyrus and his royal court to wear the striped purple tunic and the royal violet-sleeve robe. From this point to the end of antiquity, purple was understood as an official insignia of nobility. In the third century B.C., purple “dawns again in the Roman affluence of the third century B.C. where ‘mad lust’ for purple emerges —and stays— until the death of the Republic (Elliott, 2008, p. 180). Purple became culturally and socially significant when Alexander the Great adopted the purple dress of the Persians after conquering them in 334 B.C. He found in the royal treasury of Susa and Persepolis hundreds of talents worth of Tyrian purple-dyed textiles, which Alexander appropriated the royal costume, and went on to employ purple as adornments in his pavilion (Jensen, 1963). The limited availability and costly production of the dye made the color a status symbol of the wealthy who could afford it, driven by the desire to assert individuality and social standing. By the time of the Roman empire, the Phoenicians were well established in the trade and production of textiles in the Mediterranean, though purple wearing in the second century was highly evolved and of great significance. Romans viewed “clothing as esteemed costumes draped in meaning, symbolizing the character of the individual” (Elliott, 2008, p. 181), and utilized Tyrian purple in their clothing.


It is important to establish the concept of ‘purple’ in antiquity does not align with the modern association of the color. Writers of the Hellenistic and Roman eras understood ‘purple’ as an umbrella for a variety of reds, violets, and blues; initially, it referred to a crimson color but could include others such as deep sea blue, rose, magenta, heliotrope, or even shades of green. (Jensen, 1963). Tyrian dye of the Murex bandaris produced a color that was more reddish-purple, while the Murex trunculus produced a color more in line with the modern understanding of the color purple (Frangie-Joly, 2016). The dyes produced could yield colors that ranged from a host of reds to blues, depending on the process that was used for its production. Tyrian purple, indeed, was most valued and hallowed by the Romans for its rich symbolism and luster. The Romans wore togas throughout the entire Empire, and though simple dress wear, was a significant social symbol (Elliott, 2008). The color purple was more symbolic than the toga itself, utilized only for those of high social ranking. Color and cloth distinguished the average citizen from nobility and nobility from royalty.


Figure 3: "The Family of Darius before Alexander" (Veronese, 1565-7).

The toga was the traditional costume of the Romans during the Republic and Imperial periods, which consisted of a large piece of textile material that was draped around the body. In the second century B.C., togas portrayed different forms of colored decoration. The garment was a powerful medium used to physically communicate multiple visual expressions and meanings of individuality and social status (Elliott, 2008). Senators and magistrates wore the toga praetexta, which was white with a purple hem and red sleeves. The shades of purple were a mark of honor on its wearer and thus were considered sacred, a reflection of the value of the purple dye and the individual wearing it (Brons, 2017). The toga picta was another decorated type of toga that was significantly more ornamented in appearance (Elliott, 2008). It was dyed mostly in purple and embroidered with gold, reserved to be worn only by the higher ranks such as triumphant generals, emperors, or on occasion deities. Military officers wrapped a purple cloak—a paludamentum around their shoulders, while soldiers followed behind wearing a shade of crimson (Brons 2017). The king or emperor alone had worn the tunica palmata— made of purple and adorned with embroidered gold leaves that was worn with the toga picta in celebration of triumph (Elliott, 2008). In a similar fashion, the Toga purpurea was seemingly entirely dyed purple, worn by early kings, and adopted by some emperors. The proud display of purple after triumph was tradition, and a critical element in the ritual of celebration (Brons, 2017). Through the physical representation of purple garments in their various forms, the ancient observer was trained to connect the purple dye with high social standing.


The use of purple was essential to the construction of the toga and changed to adapt to cultural ideologies that had shifted during the Roman Empire’s progression. As a result, the “toga changed over time; not only with regards to its physical appearance, but also in the minds of the people inhabiting the vast Empire” (Brons, 2017, p. 55). The regal symbolism of purple deepened in the third and second century B.C., becoming increasingly representative of royalty and official status. There was a significant effort among rulers to limit the use of purple to only those of high social ranking. During his dictatorship, Caesar had legally codified and regulated the use of purple in regard to its symbolism in the Roman toga. He sought to make purple a legitimized symbol of power and the elite, and thus imposed the sumptuary laws that reserved toga with purple edges to be worn solely by senators (Elliott, 2008). Purple was also forbidden to be worn with the exception of a few particular days in the year. Nero wanted the dye to be used solely for the royal court and further regulated the use of purple during his reign, prohibiting sales and the use of such fine purples, though they were once again manufactured and sold upon his death (Jensen, 1963). In the third century C.E. Emperor Diocletian claimed the purple workshops, particularly that of Tyrian, as imperial property. Like Nero, he wanted to use the finest quality of dye only for his royal court (Elliott, 2008). Beginning in the third century as well, there is written documentation of the existence of an imperial Roman dyeing industry in Tyre (Frangie-Joly, 2017). Restrictions began to lift in the fourth century C.E., as private citizens or officials could wear purple stripes on clothing, even though duplication of royal wear was prohibited by the emperor Constantine (Elliott, 2008). Purple was still considered the color of royalty and power, and typically only the wealthy could afford to purchase a garment of such enormous cost, while it was greatly desired by ancients of all classes throughout the Roman Empire. After its collapse, and the rise of the Byzantine Empire, the manufacturing and use of purple dye had been regulated to meet new social, political, and religious values.


Figure 4: "The Death of Julius Caesar" (Camuccini, c. 1825-29).

The making of purple dye was of the most complex industrial practices of antiquity, and archeological evidence of its manufacturing can be found throughout the coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea. Among the most precious treasures of antiquity, Tyrian purple involved laborious productions that required the skills of many individuals, though the precise techniques which were used remain, in large, a mystery. The Phoenicians excelled over others in the making of the dye, marking the beginning of a singular feature of ancient and classical culture. Tryian purple was of the highest esteem, admired by royalty and those of high ranking throughout the Mediterranean. By virtue of the manufacturing process, purple rose to royalty and became the official symbol of power and a communicator of prestige.


Bibliographical References

Brøns, C., Skovmøller, A., & Gisler, J.-R. (2017). Colour-Coding the Roman Tofa: The Materiality of Textiles Represented in Ancient Sculpture. Antike Kunst, 60, 55–79. Retrieved August 10th, 2023 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26663658


Cooksey, C. (2013). Tyrian Purple: The first four thousand years. Science Progress, 96(2), 171–186. DOI:10.3184/003685013X13680345111425


Elliott, C. (2008). Purple Pasts: Color Codification in the Ancient World. Law & Social Inquiry, 33(1), 173–194. DOI:10.1111/j.1747-4469.2008.00097.x


Frangié-Joly, D. (2016). Perfumes, Aromatics, and Purple Dye: Phoenician trade and production in the Greco-Roman period. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies, 4(1), 36–56. DOI:10.5325/jeasmedarcherstu.4.1.0036


Jensen, L. B. (1963). Royal Purple of Tyre. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 22(2), 104–118. DOI:10.1086/371717


Pliny the Elder (2020). Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts. (Sherwood et al, Trans.). Routledge. (Original work published in Venice by Johannes de Spira, 1469).


Sherwood, A. N., Nikolic, M., Oleson, J. P., & Humphrey, J. W. (2020). Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts. Routledge.


Stieglitz, R. R. (1994). The Minoan origin of Tyrian Purple. The Biblical Archaeologist, 57(1), 46–54. DOI:10.2307/3210395


Valenzuela, A. (2015). An ancient fishery of Banded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus): zooarchaeological evidence from the Roman city of Pollentia (Mallorca, Western Mediterranean). Journal of Archaeological Science, 54, 1–7. DOI:10.1016/j.jas.2014.11.026


Ziderman, I. I. (1990). “BA” Guide to Artifacts: Seashells and Ancient Purple Dyeing. The Biblical Archaeologist, 53(2), 98–101. DOI:10.2307/3210101

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