Purple in the ancient world was very expensive. Why did this dye become so desired?

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5 min readNov 19, 2023

In Rome, purple fabrics were reserved for emperors. Purple became synonymous with power. The Phoenicians were the first to produce purple during the Bronze Age.

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What is Phoenician purple?

The Phoenicians specialized in purple production during the Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE. The dye came from marine snails found on the coasts of the Levant. Two crucial species were the Murex trunculus and the Purpura haemastoma, also known as the purple dye murex. They secreted a chemical compound called dibromoindigo, which gave purple its precious, luminous shade.

According to Phoenician mythology, the discovery of purple is attributed to a dog of the lover of the god Melqart, later identified with Heracles by the Greeks. The dog was said to stroll along the beach and bite a marine snail. The fur of the dog was then stained with the snail’s secretion, which, when exposed to light, turned it purple.

Murex trunculus — [Photo: H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

How did the Phoenicians make purple?

The process of obtaining the pigment does not seem to be complicated, but it was very costly. It took 10,000 snails to produce just one gram of pigment. This was enough to dye only a small piece of fabric noticeably.

First, the liquid dye was obtained by boiling salted purple snails. The most precious fabrics were first soaked in the cooled extract from Murex trunculus, and then in the extract from purple dye murex.

Ancient purple is called Tyrian purple, named after the main trading port of this dye. Tyre was, in its heyday, the largest port city in the Mediterranean. The Greek name for the country also comes from Tyrian purple. Phoenicia means “land of purple.”

Who used Phoenician purple in the ancient world?

The Phoenicians traded throughout the Mediterranean, extending beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. The most powerful were interested in the precious purple. Etruscan dignitaries could already wear purple tunics.