The word ‘purple’ comes from the Old English word purpul which derives from the Latin purpura, in turn from the Greek πορφύρα (porphura),4 name of the Tyrian purple dye manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail.56
The first recorded use of the word ‘purple’ in English was in the year AD 975.
Purple was one of the first colors used in prehistoric art. The artists of Pech Merle cave other Neolithic sites in France used sticks of manganese and hematite powder to draw and paint animals and the outlines of their own hands on the walls of their caves. These works have been dated to between 16,000 and 25,000 B.C.13
Beginning in about 1500 B.C., the citizens of Sidon and Tyre, the citizens of two cities on the coast of Ancient Phoenicia, (present day Lebanon), began to exploit a remarkable new source of purple; a sea snail called the spiny dye-murex. This deep, rich purple dye made from this snail became known as Tyrian purple, or imperial purple.14
The process of making the dye was long, difficult and expensive. Thousands of the tiny snails had to be found, their shells cracked, the snail removed. Mountains of empty shells have been found at the ancient sites of Sidon and Tyre. The snails were left to soak, then a tiny gland was removed and the juice extracted and put in a basin, which was placed in the sunlight. There a remarkable transformation took place. In the sunlight the juice turned white, then yellow-green, then green, then violet, then a red which turned darker and darker. The process had to be stopped at exactly the right time to obtain the desired color, which could range from a bright crimson to a dark purple, the color of dried blood. Then either wool, linen or silk would be dyed. The exact hue varied betweewwn crimson and violet, but it was always rich, bright and lasting.15
Tyrian purple became the color of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates all around the Mediterranean. It was mentioned in the Old Testament; In the Book of Exodus, God instructs Moses to have the Israelites bring him an offering including cloth “of blue, and purple, and scarlet.”.16 The term used for purple in the 4th century Latin Vulgate version of the Bible passage is purpura or Tyrian purple.17 In the Iliad of Homer, the belt of Ajax is purple, and the tails of the horses of Trojan warriors are dipped in purple. In the Odyssey, the blankets on the wedding bed of Odysseus are purple. In the poems of Sappho (6th century B.C.) she celebrates the skill of the dyers of the Greek kingdom of Lydia who made purple footware, and in the play of Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.), Queen Clytemnestra welcomes back her husband Agamemnon by decorating the palace with purple carpets. In the Bible, it was described the color worn by the priests of Yahweh. In 950 B.C., King Solomon was reported to have to have brought artisans from Tyre to provide purple fabrics to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem.18
Alexander the Great (when giving imperial audiences as the Emperor of the Macedonian Empire), the emperor of the Seleucid Empire, and the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt all wore Tyrian purple.
The Roman custom of wearing purple togas may have come from the Etruscans; An Etruscan tomb painting from the 4th century B.C. shows a nobleman wearing a deep purple and embroidered toga.
In Ancient Rome, the Toga praetexta was an ordinary white toga with a broad purple stripe on its border. It was worn by freeborn Roman boys who had not yet come of age,19 curule magistrates,2021 certain categories of priests,22 and a few other categories of citizens.Read more