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A textured purple floor

Majestic as a Sea Snail (or a History of Purple)


In antiquity, Tyrian purple was the color of the royalty. The still dazzling tincture bears the secret history of a snail in the Mediterranean.

A man caresses a dog by the sea. The animal, playing with a snail, lifts its snout now dyed purple. This painting, titled Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye, was painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1636. But the mythology of the color was recorded much earlier, in the second century CE. The legend is from the Onomasticon of Julio Pollux, a historian from Alexandria, who tells that the tincture was indeed discovered by Hercules, or rather, by his dog. One day when chewing up snails along the coast of the Levant, the dog ended up accidentally staining himself with one of the most beautiful colors in the world. Inspired, the hero made a cloak as a gift to the king of the region. Upon receiving it, the monarch renamed Phoenicia “the land of purple,” initiating the tradition of one of the most valuable dyes in the ancient world, a symbol of power and nobility.

Paint of a man and his dog

Tyrian red, Phoenician purple, royal or imperial purple, and imperial dye are some of the names for a natural pigment, extracted from the secretion of two species of mollusks of the genus Murex, inhabitants of the Mediterranean Sea. It was probably during the days of ancient Phoenicia (some experts date the practice to much earlier, during the flourishing of Cretan civilizations) when the dye began to be used. Its value is due not only to the complicated method of its extraction but to the fact that it doesn’t fade. Its color only intensifies with time and sunlight. (This also gives it a strange luminescence.) There were purples of varying shades, but it was the darkest (a shade similar to blood) the one considered most valuable. Textiles dyed purple became exclusive to the upper classes and to royalty, and the use of the dye was regulated and intended exclusively for imperial courts, during the Phoenician civilization, and later in the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires. In the year 79 CE, Pliny the Elder in his book Naturalis Historia described Tyrian purple as a tone resembling coagulated blood and which, despite appearing dark, gained a particular brightness in the light of the sun.

The suggestive name, Tyrian purple, draws an association with a port, among the most important of Phoenician cities, in the south of present-day Lebanon. The oldest records of the dye’s extraction come precisely from this area and date from about 1900 BCE. The method of extracting the purple is also known to have been practiced by the civilizations of ancient Mexico using a very similar process.

In antiquity, it took about 8,500 snails to produce one gram of Tyrian purple, and in ancient Rome, the dye is said to have cost three times its weight in gold. In Homer’s Odyssey, Trojan knights rode mounts stained in purple (a sign of the majesty and power of the doomed kingdom). Clothes dyed in the pigment were worn by Cleopatra, by Julius Caesar, Emperor Caligula, and King Solomon. Purple is so valuable even today that an ancient sample of the pigment is preserved as a rare treasure within the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, the most complete collection of rare colors in the world. Today, a Swiss company uses a synthetic method to manufacture the pigment. They charge €2,439.50 per gram, making it still the most expensive pigment in the world.

conch shell

The extraction of purple from marine snails provided a recipe for power in antiquity, and it still holds a fascinating mystery. It remains curious that colors, as intangible as ideas, hold this special place in the human imagination. Bearers of such power, it’s one that survives even to this day, among the most seductive in the world.


Images: 1) Public domain 2) Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple, Peter Paul Rubens – Public domain 3) Creative Commons

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