By Imogen Hunt
Throughout the history of clothing in the Roman Empire, colour was of great importance. It signalled prestige and power. In a world before cheap synthetic dyes, colour conveyed many messages. It demonstrated wealth and status due to both the high price of textiles coloured with dyes imported from exotic outposts of the Empire as well as the sumptuary laws that regulated and restricted dress based on rank and class.
The most famous example of this is the law that restricted purple-coloured clothing exclusively to the Imperial family. Although this law did not exist for the entirety of the Roman Empire, it is the one that is most prevalent in our sources. Suetonius writes that the Emperor Nero (R. 54-68) – infamous for his cruelty and the legend that he fiddled as Rome went up in flames in the fire of 70AD, although fiddles weren’t actually invented until Medieval times – restricted the use of purple clothing only to the imperial family, and, on noticing a women wearing it, had her “stripped on the spot, not only of her garment but also of her property”. This may seem a tad exaggerated, and most likely was, but it shows the importance of the colour purple as a symbol of power in maintaining the idea of the imperial cult. The Emperor Julian (r. 361-363) was a little more relaxed. According to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, when a citizen wrote to Julian requesting permission to wear a purple robe, the Emperor sent them a pair of purple sandals to match! But Julian was always rather an odd one…
But why did the colour purple command such power? For the most part, it appears that the cost of the dye contributed greatly to its status. Many sources record the huge expense of purple dye of all qualities. Particularly costly were bright tones, which required dyeing more than once. The most expensive of the purple dyes was Tyrian purple, which, as the name suggests, was made in Tyre on the coast of Lebanon. The cost of importing such dyes would have certainly inflated prices but the complex production of the dye and the fact it was colour-fast were the most significant reasons for its high cost. The creation of Tyrian purple required thousands of shellfish from a particular species. The pigment was produced from the rotting shellfish, which, according to contemporary sources, caused the dyed cloth to take on a rather unpleasant odour. Ten thousand shellfish were required to make enough dye (1 gram) to simply colour the trim of a garment! In 301AD, in the midst of an economic crisis, Emperor Diocletian issued an edict that detailed the maximum price that could be charged for all goods and labour. The edict reveals the incredibly high price of purple-dyed textiles; a pound of the best purple imperial cloth cost 50,000 denarii, whilst a farm labourer earned only 25 denarii a day. This comparison documents both the economic and social significance deeply embedded within the weave of a coloured fabric.
Ammianus Marcellinus (1986) The Later Roman Empire. Translated by Walter Hamilton. London:
Croom, A.T (2000) Roman Clothing and Fashion. Stroud : Tempus.
Pharr, Clyde (2001) The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. New Jersey:
Lawbook Exchange Ltd.