Color Hisotry Moment: Tyrian Purple

Do you ever wonder why purple is the color of royalty?  Its a tradition that stems all the way back to 1570 BC when the ancient Phoneticians discovered that snails could be used to create a purple hued dye which became known as Tyrian purple.  The color has also been called tyrian red, royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye. The dye was so important to the empire that their very name, Phonetician, meant "land of the blood-red" a reference to one of the many shades of tyrian.

An image of the powdered dye and cloth that has been dyed with it.


The dye itself was very difficult to manufacture due to the high quantity of rock snails needed to produce the dye--around 60,000 snails were required to manufacture one pound of dye.  Different species of rock snails would yield different shades of purple dye ranging from red to purple.  The most prized of these was what was known as a "deep blackish blood color" which modern color theorists have guessed was the deep purple hue that in modern times we've come to associate with the royal purple hue.

Murex (tyrian purple) dye leaking out of a rock snail on the beach.


The difficulty in producing the dye made it very expensive and as such was at its inception, limited to use by the very wealthy.  The 4th century historian Theopompus (c. 380 BC – c. 315 BC) once wrote that Tyrian purple would "fetch its weight in silver."  Because of its preciousness it became subject to something known as sumptuary laws, which were laws that restricted luxury or extravagance.  These laws were said to keep people from "over-spending" but in reality they were a way for the upper-class to keep certain items to themselves.  A poor person, even one who had saved up the money to buy a garment dyed with Tyrian purple, would not be allowed to do so.  As the color became more prized, it became more strongly controlled until in Byzantium it because the exclusive color of the monarchy.

The fascinating thing about this particular dye was that is was sun-reactive.  Rather than fading, it would deepen and intensify in color the more it was exposed to sun.  Because of this, items dyed tyrian purple are very well preserved and don't disintegrate from sun exposure the way other dyes do. 

A fragment of the burial shroud of the Emperor of Charlemagne; dyed using gold and purple.  The tyrian purple dye is still quite strong despite having been created in 800 BC. 

The use of the dye spread into the Roman empire as well and was considered a favorite color for ceremonial robes--which is where we first start seeing the deep reddish hue being used in religious rites.  A practice which began in the pagan religions but eventually carried over to Christianity; cardinals originally wore tyrian Red and not what we think of cardinal Red.

An image showing the Emperor Charlemagne's coronation by the Pope in 800: His robes were the deep tyrian purple, while the Cardinal's robes are tryian Red.

The color fell out of favor in 1204 when Constantinople was sacked and the empire lost the ability to manufacture and distribute the color. The discovery of a tablet containing the recipe led to repeated attempts to recreate the dye but it wasn't until the mid=1900's that archeologists put together accounts of the "smell of rotting fish" that was recorded as the hallmark of the those that made the dye, with the recipe that had been discovered and realized that for the process to work the snails first needed to be allowed to rot to intensify the color.  

This Cuneiform tablet is the only recorded recipe for tyrian dye.

Modern tyrian purple fermentation bath which allows the dye to intensify and seals the horrible smell in.

Once the formulation for the dye was figured out, it started being used again by textile artists for the dying of fibers. 

The color has seen something of a renaissance in the last few years--I believe in part to Game of Thrones, a book/tv series which has a primary character named Tyrian.  I've found the name fitting since he is both of the monarchy and a dwarf, so the purple/snail reference is spot on. 

Tyrian purple's hex code normally falls around #66023.

Image courtesy of

But as I said previously, it can fall within a large range of reds and purples and will intensify as it is exposed to sunlight.

Image courtesy of

People often are surprised when they see tyrian purple in real life, as its much redder than we've come to think of most purples.  What about you?  Is this the color you imagine it to be, or does your brain conjure something completely different?