B. The Particular Species Used in the Manufacture of Purple

The question which most readily suggests itself is: which species were anciently employed in purple dyeing? Our chief authorities are Aristotle and Pliny. Unfortunately the statements of both authors leave much to be desired in point of particularisation.

In Aristotle’s History of the Animals reference is often made to a genus of marine snails bearing the name of Purpura. In the fifth book, chapter 15, we are informed that it is that genus which furnishes the pigment for the dyeing of purple.1

“There are, indeed, numerous kinds of Purpurae. Some are big, as those about the cape of Sigeum and Lectum (The coast of Troade at the entry of the Hellespont.) ; others are small, as those of the Euripus and about the coasts of Coria. Those who are found in harbours are big and rough, and for the greater part have their flower of a black colour, but some have it red and small. Of those that are big some attain the weight of a mina. Those which are upon the shores and in the proximity of promontories are small in size but have their flower red, at least in far the greater part. The Purpurae are caught in spring tide at the time when they make their wax. In the dog days they are not caught for then they do not feed but they hide and squat. Their flower is placed between the micon and the neck. The connection of these two parts is thick; the colour is like that of a white membrane which can be removed; on being squeezed it taints and colours the hand. There is something like a vein crossing it. It is this which is regarded as the flower, the remainder being like alum. The flower of the Purpurae is worst when they make their wax. The small Purpurae are crushed together with their shells, for it would be hard to detach their flower. From the bigger ones, on the other hand, the flower is separated after the shell has been removed. In this way the neck becomes separated from the micon; for the flower being placed between the two, over that which is called the stomach, its (i.e., the flower’s) removal necessarily separates the two. Care is taken to crush the Purpurae while they are alive, for if the Purpura dies before that operation it ejects and vomits its flower. For this reason also, they are kept in nets until a sufficient quantity of them has been collected to allow of their being expeditiously bruised.

The ancients placed no nets beneath the baits with the result that the Purpura would often drop into the water after it had been caught up, but the moderns arrange matters in such a manner that even if the Purpura drops off, it does not get lost.

They most readily drop off when they are full but even when they are empty they are not easily drawn up.

These are the particulars relating to the Purpurae. The buccinae are born in the same way and at the same season. The buccinae and the Purpurae both have their opercula placed in the same manner and have it since their birth like all other turbinatae. They feed by drawing out what is called their tongue beneath their operculum. This tongue of the Purpura is bigger than a finger. The animal makes use of it for feeding and for piercing the shells of other conchylia and even its own shell. The Purpura and the buccina both live very long. The Purpura lives about six years, and its growth can be annually watched on the intervals formed upon its helix.”2

In chapter IV Aristotle says that the Purpurae belong to that class of conchylia which have their bodies completely hidden by the shell with the exception of the head, that they have a trunk doing service for a tongue which is so strong that they can pierce shells with it.3

It is absolutely certain that Purpura in Aristotle’s nomenclature embraces the genus bearing that name in modern conchology. But it is really more comprehensive. When he says that “several species are distinguished by reason of their size and by the prickles with which they are furnished,” Aristotle is plainly referring to species of the genus Murex.4

All the species belonging to the genera termed Purpura and Murex by the modern systematists furnish in varying quantities a colouring matter.5 This is contained in a kind of bandelet situated at the lower face of the mantle between the intestine and the respiratory organ. On being removed from this gland, the purpuric liquid is of a whitish hue. Submitted to the action of light, it becomes first of a puslike colour, turning next into greenish and then passing through a succession of tints; it finally settles into what is termed its definite tone which varies according to the species, climate, weather and other circumstances, but all these different tones may be roughly described as representing a range of colours varying between red and blue as their extremes. While the colour is developing, the matter emits a strong garlic-like smell.

We should, however, be naturally led to think, even in the absence of direct evidence, that out of this great number of possibilities, the ancients would fix upon a definite number of species as the better adapted for dyeing purposes, and that such would not be indiscriminately employed.

Aristotle, however, leaves us in the dark on this vital point. Here Pliny fills the gap but only to a limited extent.

“Concharum ad Purpuras et concylia… duo sunt genera: buccinum minor concha ad similitudinem ejus quae buccini sonus editur unde et causa nomini, rotunditate oris in margine incisa: alterum Purpura vocatur canaliculato procurrente rostro et canaliculi latere introrsus tubulato, qua proseratur lingua. Praeterea clavatum est ad turbinem usque, aculeis in orbem septenis fere, qui nonsunt bucino…”6 There are two kinds of shells in relation to Purpuras and shellfish… one is a smaller shell similar in appearance to that which produces the sound of a trumpet, from which also comes the reason for the name, having a roundness with the edge of the opening notched: the other is called Purpura, having a protruding beaked channel and the side of the channel inwardly tubular, through which the tongue is extended. Moreover, it is studded with spines in a whirl up to the top, almost seven in a circle, which are not found on the trumpet shell.

The description of the buccinum leaves no doubt that the Roman naturalist designates by that name the genus Purpura of modern conchology, but there is nothing in the text which might lead to the identification of the particular species. We are placed in a more advantageous position with regard to Purpura. “Not only,”  “Non seulement,” says the great French conchologist Lacaze-Duthiers, 

“The channel description for the passage which he mistakenly calls by the language is in general, a character of the Murex, but still, the points he describes prove that Pliny certainly had the Murex Brandaris in his mind…” (Memory on the Purple, Ann. des Sciences naturelles, 4th Série Zoologie, tome 1., Paris 1859.) “La description du canal pour le passage de ce qu’il appelle à tort la langue est un caractère des murex en général, mais encore les points qu’il décrit prouvent que Pline avait certainement en vue le Murex brandaris…”7 (Mémoire sur la Pourpre. Ann. des Sciences naturelles, 4ème Série Zoologie, tome 1., Paris 1859.)


The Purpura of Pliny corresponds to Murex brandaris. With regard to the several varieties of Purpura (murex in modern nomenclature) enumerated by Pliny (limonensis, algensis, calculensis, dialutensis, etc.), Lacaze-Duthiers confesses his inability to refer them to their corresponding appellations in modern conchology.8 Dr. D.L. Germain, of the National Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, informs me that this is as impossible to the zoologists of today as it was to Lacaze-Duthiers in 1859.1 doubt whether these varieties are all sub-species of Murex brandaris. Pliny’s description of Purpura seems indeed to apply especially to the latter species, but it is difficult to tell how far Pliny may be trusted with regard to even major details, or to what extent his generalisations are meant to have a delimiting force.

In the literature of the subject of ancient purple dyeing the reader will often meet with the collocation of Buccinum of Pliny with Kerux of Aristotle. I forebear giving many references, but it is sufficient to instance W. Adolf Schmidt, op. cit. p. 107 par. 13. This author is a model of painstaking exactness, at least in his work on ancient purple, and in the correctness of his references to the classics yields, I think, to none of the authors I have come across in my study of the subject. The meaning of the respective terms is indeed the same in Greek and in Latin: Buccinum and Kerux trumpet, i.e., trumpet-like shell. Yet I cannot refrain from giving expression on my part to the suspicion that the Kerux of Aristotle is not identical with the Buccinum of Pliny. I have not been able to discover a single explicit reference in Aristotle to the Kerux being employed in purple dyeing, though it is generally associated with the Porphyra in that author. In the desire of learning the view of a specialist I consulted Dr. L. Germain on the Kerux or Buccinum of Aristotle. Here is the reply of the learned keeper at the Department of Malacologie, of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle:

“Buccinum. Aristotle defines them by saying, ‘Buccines have rough shells.'(Hist. Anim. lib. IV. cap.IV.) It’s as you see it as vague. But given that, on the one hand, the Buccinum as we understand them today (Type: Buccinum undatum Linnaeus) are animals living in the English Channel and the Ocean, and that, on the other hand, Aristotle knew only the Mediterranean animals, I believe that we must consider under the name of Buccinum of Aristotle the great Ravella and Tritonium. “ “Buccinum. Aristote les définit en disant:’Les Buccines ont des coquilles raboteuses.’ (Hist. Anim. lib. IV. cap.IV.) C’est comme vous voyez bien vague. Mais étant donné, d’une part que les Buccinum tels que nous les comprenons aujourd’hui (Type: Buccinum undatum Linné) sont des animaux vivant dans le Manche et l’Océan, et que, d’autre part, Aristote n’a guère connu que les animaux Méditerranéens, je crois qu’il faut considerer sous le nom de Buccinum d’Aristote les grands Ravella et Tritonium.”

The Buccinum (Kerux) of Aristotle is thus quite different from the Buccinum of Pliny. The Buccinum of the latter which answers to the species of the Purpura of the moderns is comprised by Aristotle in his Purpura (Porphyra). But though there is no express statement in Aristotle about the use of the Buccinum (Kerux) in purple dyeing, it must not be concluded on that account that it was not really so employed. The sole inference that this silence warrants is that it did not occupy that prominent position in the craft that would have to be attributed to it on the assumption of its identity with Pliny’s Buccinum; for, in the latter’s account, the Buccinum is the counterpart of the Purpura (duo sunt genera, etc.).

Aristotle states that some of the Purpurae are big and weigh a mina, i.e. about 12 1/2 ounces.9 Dr. L. Germain, in reply to a question I addressed to him with regard to the possibility of identifying these, says:

“Obviously, here is a question of the large Mediterranean shells belonging to the genera Tritonium (Trit. Nodiferum of Lamarck, An s / vertebras, 1822, VII. P. 129) and Ranella (Ran. Gigantea of Lam. Id. 1822, VII, p. 150) which, living in the Mediterranean (corraloum zone, rather great depth) are picked up from time to time by the fishermen and they also secrete a purple liquor.” “Il s’agit évidemment ici des grandes coquilles Méditerranéennes appartenant aux genres Tritonium (Trit. nodiferum de Lamarck, An s/ vertèbres, 1822, VII. p. 129) et Ranella (Ran. gigantea de Lam. id. 1822, VII, p. 150) qui, vivant dans la Méditerranée (zone corraloum, profondeur assez grande) sont ramassées de temps à autre part les pêcheurs et secrétent également une liqueur pourprée.”


Now, the Tritonium and the Ranella being identical, according to Dr. L. Germain with Aristotle’s buccinum, it would thus appear that the buccina, though generally held distinct by Aristotle from the Purpurae, have been confounded with the latter in the passage dealing with the Purpurae as productive of pigment. The sentence, however, forming the transition from the Purpurae to the buccina,10 would rather seem to imply that the buccinum has not so far been included. Pliny, in fact, makes it clear that there are two different genera bearing the name of buccinum.


The whelk is a smaller shell resembling the one that gives out the sound of a trumpet (Pliny; Natural History Book IX; LXI. 132) “Buccinum minor concha ad similitudinem ejus qui buccini sonus editur.”


The ancients used as trumpets shells of molluscs of huge size belonging to the genera Tritonium and Ranella of modern conchology. The genus which played such a foremost part in purple dyeing resembled the latter in shape but was of much smaller size “minor concha” by the way, would seem to have been incorrectly interpreted by even Lacaze-Duthiers:


“The smallest is the whelk”. “Le plus petit est le buccin”11. 


“Minor concha” should, I think, be taken with the following “ad similitudinem ejus etc.,” the buccinum employed in purple dyeing is a smaller shellsnail than the genus from which it (the purple buccinum) derives its name on account of resemblance of shape.

In F. de Mély’s edition of the Cyranides, a magico-medical work, Variants et Additions, p. 271, one reads: “The main Purpura, also called conchylia, is smaller than the buccinum.”12 How is this to be reconciled with the current construe of Pliny’s “minorconcha” as meaning that the buccinum is smaller than the Purpura? Has Porphyra in this text the same signification as, according to Dr. Germain, it has in Aristotle, designating the big sized Ranella and Tritonium?

have found no information regarding the intrinsic quality of the colouring liquid secreted by the big Ranella and Tritonia whether it yields a fugitive or a fast dye. Should it, however, on experiment, turn out to be the former, as I indeed anticipate, our gain will have been a twofold one. We shall first have been afforded light on a very obscure point in Pliny, and, what is not less important, we shall have been placed in a position to assert with a higher degree of confidence that at least certain species belonging to the above genera, though not among the more prominent varieties, figured among the molluscs anciently used for dyeing purposes.

Pliny says of the buccinum that it yields a fugitive dye: “buccinum per se damnatur quoniam focum remittit.” Now the dye furnished by the genus Purpura which is the buccinum Pliny is characterized by its fastness. Though unsupported by textual evidence, Lacaze-Duthiers in his Mémoires sur la Pourpre hazarded the suggestion that the species now called Purpura haemastoma whose dye is particularly durable largely corresponds to Pliny’s buccinum.13Lacaze-Duthiers could not, of course, help charging Pliny with ignorance. The French naturalist was not really the first to have pointed out the error. Edward Bancroft had done so long before.14 Pliny is certainly wrong, but it would nevertheless be of some interest to trace the source of his blunder. If the dye furnished by the Ranella and Tritonium is, as I expect, not durable, Pliny will have erroneously transferred this information he had got about the quality of the dye secretion of a larger buccinum to that of the smaller Purpura of the moderns. Incidentally, we would learn that the former was also exploited for the dyeing industry.



  1. Aristotle, Aristotelis De Animalibus Historiae, L. Dittmeyer ed., Leipzig (1907), p. 175.
  2. Idem, p. 175.
  3. Idem, p. 175.
  4. Idem, p. 176.
  5. See especially Linnaeus, Systema naturae, Wien (1767), 13th ed., No. 1202, 12141216- and cf. LacazeDuthiers, “Memoire sur la Pourpre,״ Ann. des Sciences Naturelles, 4eme series, Zoologie, tome 1, Paris (1859). (Separate reprint Lille 1860, Paris.)
  6. Pliny C., C. Plini Secundi naturalis Historiae. C. Mayhofifed. 5 vols. Leipzig ( 1909). V.II, pp. 199-200.
  7. Lacaze-Duthiers, Felix Henri de, “Memoire sur la Pourpre,״ Ann. des Sciences Naturelles, 4eme series, Zoologie, tome I, Paris, 1859,
  8. Idem, p. 77.
  9. Aristotle, ibid., p. 175.
  10. Aristotle, ibid., p. 176.
  11. Lacaze-Duthiers, ibid., p. 21.
  12. Mely, Fernand de, Histoire des Sciences. Paris (18963 .(1902 – vols. V. Ill “Lapidaires Grecs,״ p. 271.

    By the way, the reader may note it., p. 34, No. 4.

    On p. 57 de Mely is wrongly translated as: “Il est semblable à une coquille.״ The correct reading is, I think, “they are alike in shell,״ or, the Purpura resembles the buccinum in respect of its shell.

  13. “Quant à l’espèce même, il est très probable que la Purpura haemastoma qui a la réputation de donner une couleur indélibile devait jouer un grand rôle dans la teinture.” (Lacaze-Duthier, ibid., p. 76)
  14. Bancroft, Edward, Experimental Researches Concerning the Philosophy of Permanent Colours. London (1813), 2 vols., 2nd ed., v.I, pp. 7, 120 sequ.