E. The Inalterability of the Purple Dye

The durability of purple dye is almost proverbial. In all the works dealing with ancient purple which I have read I have seen this stated as something universally acknowledged, the only exception being made in the case of the red dye of the buccinum on the authority mainly of Pliny. Yet in ransacking the classics I have come across a certain passage which has furnished food for thought on the point. “Thou knowest that the dyers, when they wish to dye wool so as to give it the colour called alourges chose first among wool of different colours that which is white: then they prepare it with very great care so that it may imbibe as much of the dye as possible: after that they dye it. Thus prepared, the dye never passes off, and the fabric, whether washed with or without corrosives preserves its colour in its full strength. But if wool of another coloration is used instead, or even the white wool without proper preparation, thou knowest what the result is? Yes, a fugitive colour and an unpleasant one.”

“(Praecipue vero liberat eo malo phycos)  Thalassion id est fucus marinus lactucae similis, qui conchyliis substernitur etc.”1   The sovereign remedy, however, for this complaint is phycos thalassion, or seaweed, which is like lettuce, and is used as a ground-colour for the purple of the murex; it is sovereign etc.


“”Qui conchyliis, hoc est cujus colore lana primum imbuitur cum vestis conchyliatae tinctura praeparatur.”3 This shell, that is, the color of which wool is first saturated, is prepared with the dye of scarlet cloth.



Pliny indeed makes mention of the cleansing of the wool prior to immersion into the bath, but that is all (“Vellus elutriatum” [Fleece] 4). He nowhere hints that this was indispensable for the durability and fastness of the colour. Modern experimenters say nothing of the kind. The language of Plato would seem to imply, I think, more than mere cleansing of the wool.

Does not this rather refer instead to the treating of the wool with certain mordants or styptics for binding the dye to the fibre? But does the purple dye require mordants?

May not Plato be referring here to Murex trunculus whose dye applied by itself is a

fugitive one? May not purple dyeing in Greece in Plato’s time have been mainly confined to Murex trunculus?

Of modern experimenters William Cole states with regard to the flower or dye secretion of Purpura lapillus that it is fast to washing though it be ever so many times repeated, but he is careful to add that nevertheless the first washing “somewhat allayed” the colour (ib.).

Note: Plato’s statement that only white wool is fit for purple may perhaps throw light on a difficult point. The epithet purpureus often taxes the ingenuity of commentators. But the following are veritable erreis interpretum (Veritable, but erroneous, interpreters): ( 1 ) Pedo Albinoramus, Eleg. ad Mareen. Gl: 

“(I am mindful (and I remember art) so I draw wands, purple arms brighter than snow)” “sum memor (et arte memini) sic ducere thyrsos Brachia purpurea candidiora nix.” (2)

 Horaee C. IV. 1. IV.: 

Flying with purple swans, you will more seasonably revel in the house of Paulus Maximus. “Tempestirius in domum Pauli purpureis alis oloribus conmisolata Mationis.” 

There never was such a thing as white purple, purplish snow! purplish swans! I should take purpureus in these instances in the sense of fit for purple. Nix is poetic for snow-white wool (Cf. Plato, cf. Pliny vellus ellutriatum): “whiter than snow-like wool, fit to be dyed with purple.”5 Similarly for the swans.



  1. Harduin, Jean, Caii Plinii Secundi Historae Naturalis, Paris (1723), v.II, p. 406.
  2. See https://www.loebclassics.com/view/pliny_elder-natural_history/1938/pb_LCL393.343.xml

  3. Beckmann, Beitrage zur Jachinthe. Leipzig (1786), v.I, p. 336.
  4. Pliny, ibid.
  5. I scarcely need emphasize the purely hypothetical character of this explanation. I know in reality of no modern attempt to dye with the purple juice absolutely raw wool unwashed and uncleansed. The following passage appearing in L. Lartet’s “La Syrie d’aujourd’hui,” p. 127, should also be taken into account: “Les murex à pourpre sont très comuns non seulement sur toute la côte, mais dans le port même. Les gamins de Tyre savent encore aujourd’hui teindre des chiffons de pourpre en fixant la couleur, du mollusque avec un peu de carbonate de soude et de jus de citron. Ces guenilles colorées en pourpre, leur /pouvent/ de drapeaux lorsqu’ils jouent au soldat comme font les enfants de nos jours.” Which “mollusque” is here spoken of? Murex trunculus?