Purple is a shade of violet-red, a little closer to red than to ultraviolet, but not as red as magenta. But both purple and violet are extremely rare and until the synthesis of these colors was found – they were reserved only for the very rich.

In the ancient Middle East, and later in ancient Greece and Rome, purple was a symbol of prestige because this color was terribly difficult to obtain. Precisely because this color was not abundant, no flags were made with this color, even when it began to be obtained synthetically (as indigo) in the 19th century. “Tyrian purple” (after the Phoenician port of Tyre) was never synthetically created from snails.

The most senior Roman magistrates wore the toga praetexta, a white toga trimmed with a stripe of Tyrrhenian purple. An even more luxurious pict, all purple with a golden stripe, was worn by generals celebrating a triumph, like Julius Caesar. By the 4th century AD, the laws in Rome had become so strict that only the Roman emperor was allowed to wear Tyrrhenian purple.

The sons of the emperor were given the epithet porphyrogenet, which would mean “born in purple”. It was the color of the ruling class – in fact, only rulers were allowed to wear it. It was considered to bring bad luck to those who would wear it without permission. Even selling the purple pigment to those for whom this color was not intended was punishable by death.

There is also a myth about purple as a color that brings bad luck, it is often used in Hollywood movies where movie makers put it on villains – remember Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Yzma from The Emperor’s New Temper. Sometimes in movies it is also used to announce the imminent death or evil fate of a certain character. The myth probably has its origins in the story of how Clytemnestra welcomed her husband Agamemnon on a purple carpet that was brought out in honor of his return from Troy, and then killed him while he was bathing.

Purple was reserved for the aristocracy, and later for the clergy, especially the Pope.

To produce this “royal” dye, people had to collect and break up sea snails to obtain their bodily fluids. Priests and kings, including Kings David and Solomon, are often described in the Bible wearing clothes dyed with these extracts. These are snails: Murex trunculus (Hexaplex trunculus) and Murex brandaris (Bolinus brandaris).

These snails produce a dye that was once used to dye fabrics royal purple. A blue-purple shade was obtained from M. trunculus , and a red-purple shade from M. brandaris. In nature, snails secrete a purple juice that they use to sedate their prey, but this secretion also serves as an antimicrobial substrate on the egg masses. These snails also secrete a colored substance when attacked or poked by humans.

Snail purple is 6.6′ dibromindigo and only a small amount of pigment is needed to color the fabric beautifully. This was the color of those ancient purple royal fabrics:

TeKaBe – wikimedia commons


Now archaeologists have excavated the oldest example of this color ever found across the southern Levant, dating back to 1000 BC Fragments of dyed wool were found in an ancient copper mine in the Timna Valley in southern Israel from the time of King David, the scientists write in a paper in PLOS One titled “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel)“.



    Chemical analyzes revealed that the color came from sea snails in the Mediterranean, more than 300 kilometers away from the discovery site. The discovery opens a new window into the fashion trends and trade connections of the elite in the region during the Early Iron Age.



    Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.