Tyrian Purple

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes,
Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte's eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

Robert Browning (1855)

Pliny described the manufacture of purple from Murex (shellfish). He wrote,

"it brightens [illuminat] every garment."

He distinguished between the two shellfish yielding the dyestuff, explaining,

"the bucccine dye is considered unsuitable for use by itself, for it does not give a fast colour, but is perfectly fixed by the pelagian [purpurata] and it leads to the blue hue of the latter severity [austeritatem] and crimson-like sheen which is in fashion [nitoremque qui quaeritur cocci]."

Aristotle included an account of the extraction process in his Historia Animalium,

"The 'bloom' of the animal is situated between the quasi-liver and the neck, and the co-attachment of these is an intimate one. In colour it looks like a white membrane, and this is what people extract; and if it be removed and squeezed it stains your hands with the colour of the bloom... Small specimens they break in pieces, shells and all, for it is no easy matter to extract the organ; but in dealing with the larger ones they first strip off the shell and then abstract the bloom."

The approximate matching colour of tyrian purple (imperial purple) in hexidecimal code for computer display is #66023C. Famous examples of tyrian purple in a historical context can be seen at the popular tourist sites:

  • Fresco - Villa dei Misteri at Pompeii.
  • Mosaic on the left apse wall - from the Basilica of San Vitale showing the Emperor Justinian of Byzantine (AD 483–565) wearing a tyrian purple cloak (Empress Theodora wears a cloak on the right apse wall).
Villa dei Misteri I
The Emperor  with Maximianus
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Amazon Books
Image of Robert Browning (Routledge Guides to Literature)
Author: Stefan Hawlin
Publisher: Routledge (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
Image of The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
Author: Mary Beard
Publisher: Belknap Press (2008)
Binding: Hardcover, 360 pages