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Only the Roman Elite Could Wear Tyrian Purple to Keep the Peasants in Their Place

Only the Roman Elite Could Wear Tyrian Purple to Keep the Peasants in Their Place

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Throughout history, the rich and powerful have attempted to control access to items considered luxurious or status symbols. Today, this is done through marketing and price setting (a prominent example is the strict control of the number of diamonds allowed to enter the global market). In previous eras, however, consumption could be directly regulated through the passage of sumptuary laws. These laws forbade ordinary citizens from obtaining food, clothing, or goods made of a particular material in order to reinforce social hierarchies. Sumptuary laws were also passed by religious institutions in order to prevent temptation and ensure moral behavior. Laws that regulate consumption have been passed throughout human civilization and continue to exist in the modern world (even in the United States).

The Law on Tyrian Purple

The classic example of a sumptuary law is the ancient Roman prohibition on wearing clothing that was Tyrian purple. The vibrant color could only be made from a dye extracted from shellfish and was incredibly difficult to manufacture. Tyrian purple dye was made by the Phoenicians, particularly those of Carthage. The two shellfish that produced the color (the  Purpura pelagia  or Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris  as well as the  Purfura lapillus  or Buccinum lapillus ) were native to the eastern Mediterranean shores of the Phoenician empire, in what is modern day Lebanon. The Buccinum species lived on the rocks of relatively shallow water while the bigger Murex lived in deep water and had to be dredged up from as low as 25 fathoms. A great deal of these shellfish would have to be obtained – “Twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 grams of pure dye, enough to color only the trim of single garment” (Jacoby quoted in Little Art Talks, 2015). Yet, the struggle was worth it. The dye produced a striking color, ranging from lush purple to deep crimson, and would not fade in the sunlight.  More importantly, it was worth more than its weight in gold.

The Giant Eastern Murex with its vibrant purple color

The Giant Eastern Murex with its vibrant purple color ( Ryan Somman / Flickr )

Due to the high cost and intensive production, Rome passed a sumptuary law that declared only the elite of the Roman Empire could wear a garment of so decedent a color. Indeed, the symbol of a position in office was a Tyrian purple robe trimmed with gold thread. Esteemed Roman senators would be allowed to wear a Tyrian purple stripe on their toga. The fad for Tyrian purple ended abruptly with the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. As David Jacoby writes, “no Byzantine emperor nor any Latin ruler in former Byzantine territories could muster the financial resources required for the pursuit of murex purple production” (Jacoby quoted in Little Art Talks, 2015).

A fragment of the shroud in which the Emperor Charlemagne was buried in 814. It was made of gold and Tyrian purple from Constantinople.

A fragment of the shroud in which the Emperor Charlemagne was buried in 814. It was made of gold and Tyrian purple from Constantinople. ( public domain )

There are many other examples of sumptuary laws. For example, the Islamic teachings of the Quran and Hadith forbid men from wearing clothes made of silk or jewelry made of gold, as this would indicate vanity and excessive pride (note these rules did not apply to women). For similar reasons, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony ruled that only people of great personal wealth (at least £200) could wear lace, silver or gold thread, embroidered clothes, ruffles, or capes.

In Medieval England, strict laws were passed in order to reign in the “outrageous and excessive multitude of meats and dishes which the great men of the Kingdom had used, and still used, in their castles” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The law demanded gentlemen and merchants only eat one meal of fish or flesh per day. In Scotland, regulations went even further and regulated the type and amount of meat that could be used in a meat pie for those who held the rank of baron or higher (presumably because those below the rank of baron could not afford to eat that much meat anyways).

In Medieval England, a sumptuary law banned decedent feasts involving an overconsumption of meat. ‘Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster’, 1648

In Medieval England, a sumptuary law banned decedent feasts involving an overconsumption of meat. ‘Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster’, 1648 ( public domain )

The rise of factory manufacturing and the spread of liberal governments has helped to abolish most of the sumptuary laws, however, some still exist even in Western societies. The United States has a number of laws that regulate the type or quality of clothing worn in public. Many concern public decency, such as having to cover certain body parts or not exhibiting curse words. It is also forbidden to wear the clothing of a police officer or military personnel if you are not part of such an organization. Many US states also forbid the wearing of large white hoods (reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan). While food and clothing are the most common form of sumptuary law, any sort of prohibitive consumption is considered sumptuary. This includes smoking bans, alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition, and animal fights such as cockfights and dog fights.

Top image: A robe in Tyrian Purple ( Facweb.cs

By Kerry Sullivan

References

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Sumptuary Law."  Encyclopedia Britannica Online . Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016. Web. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sumptuary-law.

Saudi Aramco World. "Tyrian Purple."  Saudi Aramco World  11.7 (1960): 20-21.  Aramco World . Saudi Aramco World. Web. http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/196007/tyrian.purple.htm.

Tyrian Purple | History of Colors . Dir. Little Art Talks.  Tyrian Purple | History of Colors . Patreon, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLCO11LF4i8.

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