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.