Purple became the color of royalty because the dye was so expensive.

  • Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great
Science History Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

In the 16th century BCE, a precious treasure emerged from the Mediterranean Sea: Murex brandaris, a type of sea snail. During the Bronze Age in the Phoenician city of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon), the sea snails were used to make Tyrian purple dye, also known as “Royal” or “Imperial” purple. To create the dye, a yellow fluid was extracted from the snails and exposed to light until it turned a brilliant shade of purple. The fabric dye became fashionable across Phoenicia because it was more vibrant and longer-lasting than existing dyes. However, it was also much more expensive to make. It took up to 12,000 mollusks to produce just 1 gram of dye, and Murex snails became worth their weight in gold.

At the time, 1 pound of Tyrian purple wool cost more than what most people made in a year, so the only members of society who could afford the color were nobility and royalty. Because of this, the hue became associated with wealth. It was later adopted by Persian rulers such as Cyrus the Great, as well as most of the ancient Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar, who donned a purple toga. In the Byzantine Empire, not only did rulers wear purple, but they also signed their documents with purple ink. It’s believed that the saying “born in the purple” (to denote a noble birth) originated in Byzantium, where children of high-ranking citizens wore purple. Although the color’s popularity dwindled after the fall of the Byzantine Empire (in 1453), it never entirely went out of style. Purple finally became widely available after British chemist William Henry Perkin invented the world’s first commercial synthetic dye in 1856, called “aniline purple,” later named “mauve.”

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