There are numerous ways to display one’s wealth today. You can purchase a yacht. Perhaps, wear diamond rings on all your fingers. Or maybe, use Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani as your bathwater. However, in ancient Rome, their way of showing off was by wearing purple, as in color.

Purple-producing mollusks

Bolinus brandaris (Linnaeus, 1758) – purple dye murex snail. James St. JohnCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s fairly easy to produce dye nowadays. We have abundant sources for both natural and artificial dyes of any color that our hearts desire. That wasn’t the case in ancient times. All colors were gathered from natural sources like flowers, plants, minerals, even animals. During that time, the only source of purple dye was from Murex. It is a predatory rock snail with a secretion that produces a Tyrian purple color. However, extracting the color from these snails required hard labor. Thousands of these snails had to be collected in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and then their shells would be crushed to extract the purple-producing mucus and exposed to the sunlight to steep for three days. After that, they will be boiled in vessels for ten days or even longer. The impurities will then be removed before trying and making sure that the color is right. Two hundred fifty thousand of these snails could only produce an ounce of dye. So, a huge number of these mollusks had to be collected to produce enough dye for robes and other clothing items.

The Color of Wealth

This long labor resulted in a vibrant, long-lasting purple color that gets beautiful as the dyed cloth ages. And, of course, producing a color as rare and complex as this process would demand a price that only royals could afford. The dye became worth its weight in gold. For instance, a pound of purple wool would cost what an average worker earned for a year at that time. Naturally, it became a status symbol. “Born with a silver spoon” today meant someone was born rich. However, during that era, the children of the royals were described as being “born in the purple.”

For centuries, the trade for purple dye was centered in the Phoenician city of Tyre, where Murex was abundant.

Rome’s Love For Purple

Rome became an avid fan of the color in their imitation of nearly all things Greek. In fact, Alexander the Great wore the color to symbolize royal authority. The most senior Roman magistrates wore a white toga with a stripe of Tyrian purple called toga praetexta. There was also toga picta, a solid Tyrian purple with a gold stripe that generals wore whenever they were celebrating triumphs. Important imperial documents were also of this color. Even just a splash of the color on one’s clothing indicated that one is an important person.

Toga picta in a wall painting from the François Tomb at Vulci.

By the fourth century, laws forbade citizens to wear Tyrian purple, and only the Roman emperor was allowed. The succeeding Byzantine Empire restricted the use of Tyrian dye to imperial silks, too. According to historians, Caligula, a Roman emperor, once sentenced a Roman client-king to death for wearing purple.

Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor. Axel Mauruszat via Wikimedia Commons

The craze went on until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. Today in the Roman or Catholic Church purple robes are still worn by the clergy during Lent or the Advent representing penance, preparation, and sacrifice. When synthetic dyes became available in the 1850s, purple was more widely available, just like the other colors and it fell into disuse as being reserved for royalty.