D. Data Supplied by Pliny Concerning the Varieties of Purple Fabric in as far as These Have a Bearing Upon the Determination of the Colour of Tekhelet.

Pliny is our chief source of information on the ancient purple and its varieties. We naturally turn to him for light on hyacinthus. In the 9th book that author gives a scarcely full account of purple dyeing. He names only two sorts of purple, Purpura Tyria or dibapha and Purpura amethystina, describing the latter as “color eximius ille.” In another passage he divides purple into three varieties. Commenting upon the imitation of the colours of flowers by means of certain pigments he says:


Enough  has  been  said  about  scented  flowers. In  this  sphere  luxury,  glad  to  have  conquered  nature with  its  unguents,  has  with  its  dyed  fabrics  gone  on to  challenge  those  flowers  that  are  commended  for their  colour.  I  note  that  the  principal  colours  are the  three  following  :  (1)  red,  as  of  the  kermes-insect, which,  from  the  loveliness  of  the  dark  rose,  shades,  if you  look  up  at  it  in  a  bright  light,*  into  Tyrian purple,  double-dyed  purple  and  Laconian  purple ; (2)  amethyst,  which  from  violet  itself  passes  into purple,  and  which  I  have  called  ianthine.  I  am  dis- cussing  general  types  of  colour,  which  shade  off  into many  kinds.  (3)  The  third  belongs  properly  to  the purple  of  the  murex,  but  includes  many  kindred shades.  One  is  the  colour  of  the  heliotrope,  some- times  of  a  light,  though  usually  of  a  deeper,  tint ; another  is  that  of  the  mallow,  shading  into  a  purple ; vet  a  third,  seen  in  the  late  violet,  is  the  most  vivid  of the  murex  tints.  “Et de odoratis floribus satis dictum: in quibus unguento ricisse naturam gaudens luxuria, vestibus quoque purocarit eos flores qui colore commendantur. Has animadverto tres esse principales. Rubentem, in coco: qui a rosis migrante gratia idem trahitur suspectu, et in Purpuras Tyrias, dibaphasque a c. Laconicas. Alium in amethysto, quia viola, et ipse in purpureum, quemque ianthinum appellarimus. Genera enim tractamus in species mutas sese spargentia. Tertium est qui proprie conchylii intelligitur, multis modis, alius in heliotropio, ad Purpuram inclinans: alius in viola serotina conchyliorum vegetissimus.” 1


In the same book Pliny in dealing with a certain species of Viola which he qualifies as “purplish” (purpurea) he remarks “ab his ianthina vestis (from these Janthina clothes).” 2 The species in question has been identified with the Viola odorata Linné. Nature has thus preserved for us an illustration of the colour of the Purpura ianthina. W. Adolf Schmidt3 comes to the conclusion that amethystina, ianthina, and hyacinthina are synonyms denoting one and the same purple-variety. The identification of ianthina with amethystina is based upon Pliny 21, 8, just quoted (“et ipse in purpurum quemque ianthinum appelarimus”). The equation of hyacinth with the two is founded upon the following reasoning: Pliny and Vergil emphasize the blackness or darkness of shade of the violet purple (Purpura violacea). Philo qualifies the hyacinth purple as black or dark: Purpura hyacinthina is the same as P. amesthystina or ianthina. Another argument is derived from the fact that the Purpura violacea is classed as Purpura blatta or pure purple unmixed with other materials. Now the Lex Valentina4 divides Purpura blatta into two classes (a) oxyblatta; and (b) hyacinthina. Oxyblatta, as is shown by Schmidt being identical with the Purpura Tyria, hyacinthina must be identical with the Purpura violacea, ergo, etc. … Dr. Dedekind accepts these equations. Tekhelet would thus be violet purple of the colour of the Viola odorata L. Dr. Dedekind, however, in subscribing on the one hand to the equations established by Schmidt and in maintaining on the other that the species furnishing Tekhelet must be identified with Murex trunculus is somewhat inconsistent. The amethyst or ianthina colour as described by Pliny, was the result of a mixture in certain proportions of the dyestuffs obtained from two different species, the one furnishing black and the other red pigment. It is precisely this fact which at once cuts away the ground from under the attempted identification of Tekhelet as handed down by Talmudic tradition with Pliny’s Purpura amesthystina or ianthina. Tekhelet according to the Talmud was dyed with the pigment of one particular species of which a description is given Menahot 44a. Schmidt being unacquainted with the Talmud was not aware of this fatal objection. On quite different grounds, however, Schmidt reaches a certain conclusion which if applied here might save his position. Having learnt from Bochart that according to Maimonides the colour of Tekhelet was sky-blue, (not violet or amethyst-like) he draws a distinction between the Tekhelet of the LXX, and Philo and that of Maimonides.

After the promulgation of the imperial decrees placing heavy restrictions upon the manufacture and use of both the Purpura Tyria and Purpura amethystina, the Jews, so Schmidt thinks, had perforce to replace the traditional Tekhelet by a variety of the Purpura conchyliata, the latter not falling within the scope of the imperial legislation respecting purple. He accordingly identifies Maimonides’ Tekhelet with the heliotrope variety of conchylium. Now, as the Purpura conchyliata, according to Pliny, was dyed with only black purple pigment Schmidt might have met the argument from the Talmudic description of the Tekhelet hillazon by the assumption that already in early Talmudic times Tekhelet was a kind of Purpura conchyliata. It is, however, rather unlikely that such an important change in the manufacture of ritual Tekhelet took place in Tanaitic times. If that were the case would not Talmudic tradition have preserved some reminiscence of an alteration made in the ritual under the force of imperial persecution?

In view of Schmidt’s identification of Iakinthos (Hyacinth purple) with Purpura amethystina and ianthina it strikes one as very strange that the Greek versions never render Tekhelet by any of these latter terms but always Iakinthos. Pliny on the other hand never mentions Purpura hyacinthina. This too is a fact which is hardly without significance. Was the hyacinth purple only one out of several species comprised in the designation Purpura amethystina or ianthina: 


I  am  discussing  general  types  of  colour,  which  shade  off  into many  kinds.  “Genera enim tractamus in species multas sese spargentia.” 


I should remark in the first place that ianthina does not seem to me synonymous with amethystina. Amethystina is the generic name denoting varieties of purple more or less reproducing the colour of the amethyst gem. Compare Pliny: 


India Amethysts … all shine through violet colors… The Indian amethyst has the perfect shade of Tyrian purple at its best, and it is this stone that the dye-factories aspire to emulate.  “amethysti Indicae … pelucent omnes violaceo colore … Indicae absolutum felicis Purpurae colorem habent, ad hancque tingentium officinae dirigent vota.”5


Ianthina, on the other hand, is the designation of a certain species of P. amethystina. This is, I think, what Pliny means when he says: 


Amethyst, which from violet itself passes into purple, and which I have called ianthine. I am discussing general types of colour, which shade off into many kinds.  “et ipse in purpureum, quemque ianthinum appelarimus. Genera enim tractamus in species multas sese spargentia.”


Purpura amethystina, it may also be noted, occurs far more frequently than ianthina.

That Iakinthos (hyacinth purple) was not synonymous with ianthina (ianthina purple) in Ephesian usage, can be shown to be so earlier than Diogenes Laertus can, I think, by an argument amounting to proof. Athenaeus quotes from Democritus Ephesius6 certain observations upon the extravagance of the Ephesians in matters of dress: 

 “Καὶ καλασίρεις Κορινθιουργεῖς· εἰσὶ δὲ αἱ μὲν πορφυραῖ τούτων, αἱ δὲ ἰοβαφεῖς, αἱ δὲ ὑακίνθιναι”. “Kai kalasires kalinthiourgeis eisi de ai mén porphyrai touton ai de iobareis ai de iakinthinai.”7  “And then there are Corinthian garments. Some of them are purple, some of them are violet coloured and some of them are hyacinthine”.


 Ianthina and hyacinthina are plainly distinguished. Amethystina as the name of a coloured fabric, so far as I know, nowhere occurs in Greek literature.

Aquilas8 again may be cited as testifying that ianthinos and hyacinthios were held distinct at least in Asiatic Greek usage about 100 C E. עורות תחשים (orot-tehashim) which is rendered in the LXX by D. iakinthina is translated by Aquilas D. ianthina. The reason for this departure from the old version is quite unknown but it shows clearly that there was a difference between ianthinos and iakintos.

The colour of the ianthina is sometimes described as black which indicates a deep dark hue; it is also sometimes likened to that of the sea.9 Now as the colour of the hyacinth fabric (Tekhelet) is, as will be seen later, similarly described on the one hand as black and on the other as resembling the colour of the sea, it would appear that the resemblance was greater than the difference between the two varieties of purple. Hieronymus in fact states that both ianthina and hyacinthus resembled the dark blue of the sky. 


 “Calceavi te hyacintho vel ut alii janthina… quod utrumque aerii et κυανέου coloris est”. Calceavite hyacintho vel ut alii janthina … quod utrumque aerii et kuxneon coloris est, etc … “10  “I provided you shoes of hyacinth, or of janthine, as others call it… for it is both of bluish and dark blue color”.


 The difference must have consisted, I should think, in the greater blueness of the hyacinth variety, or what amounts to the same, in its being closer than the ianthina purple to the deep dark blue of the serene Asiatic sky or of the Mediterranean along the Syrian and Palestinian coasts.11

It would appear that, while in the preparation of ianthina the black purple-pigment was mixed in a certain proportion with the red dye of the buccinum, in the manufacture of hyacinthus black dye alone (from the Purpura or pelagia) was employed. It is to this that the difference may have been due. This is sustained by the Talmudic tradition which knows only of one species of mollusc as used in the dyeing of Tekhelet.



  1. Pliny, ibid.. Bk. XXI, ch. 8.
  2. Idem, ch. 6.
  3. Schmidt, ibid., p. 28.
  4. Lex Valentina, c. 3, 4. 40: “Quae tes venite.”
  5. Pliny, ibid.. Bk. XXXVII, ch. 9.
  6. Democritus Ephesius is the author of a book on the temple of Diana. All that is known of him is that he lived before Diogenes Laertus by whom he is cited.
  7. Athenaeus, Dipnosophistarum, Bk. XII, ch. 29.
  8. Aquilas, Exodus, ch. 25, v.6.: .ד יהודה אומר: ״עורות תחשים טיינון לשם צובעו נקרא״ ירושלמי, שבת טיינון) probably corrupt for ינטינון).
  9. Winckelmann, Johann Joachim, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Wien ( 1776). p. 394.1 state this upon the authority of the well-known classical archaeologist Winckelmann, who gives the following references, which I have not verified: “Excerpt Polyle L. 31, p. 177, 15-; Conf. Hadr. ium Animadv. L.2.e.2.; Bochart, Hieros, T.I, p. 730.”
  10. Winckelmann, Johann Joachim, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Wien ( 1776). p. 394.1 state this upon the authority of the well-known classical archaeologist Winckelmann, who gives the following references, which I have not verified: “Excerpt Polyle L. 31, p. 177, 15-; Conf. Hadr. ium Animadv. L.2.e.2.; Bochart, Hieros, T.I, p. 730.”
  11. Theocritus, 10c. cit.