Roman Citizens Could Be Punished with Exile for Wearing Purple
The ancient Roman Empire was not only a marvel of architecture, politics, and warfare but also a hub of societal regulations and fashion statements. One might believe that the color of a garment would hardly be a matter of state concern, but in Rome, wearing purple was more than just a sartorial choice - it was a political statement.
The Price of Purple in Rome
Tyrian purple, a vibrant hue sourced from the murex sea snail, was one of the most sought-after and expensive dyes in the ancient world. Requiring thousands of snails for a mere ounce of purple dye, garments dyed in this shade were exorbitantly priced. As a result, purple became a symbol of power, prestige, and wealth in Roman society. Emperors and high-ranking officials draped themselves in purple togas, emphasizing their exclusive status and setting themselves apart from the common masses.
However, the Romans, known for their structured societal hierarchy, didn't just leave the wearing of purple to personal discretion. As per the Roman sumptuary laws, regulations were imposed on the display of luxury, which included wearing garments of this exclusive hue. These laws, which were periodically issued and adjusted, aimed at preserving the moral fabric of society by preventing excessive indulgence in luxuries and maintaining clear distinctions between the social classes.
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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 )
Punishments for Purple Pretenders
Roman citizens faced consequences if they overstepped this color boundary. Violators, when caught flaunting their unauthorized purple garments, were likely subjected to fines. Such a penalty, while financial in nature, also served as a public humiliation, acting as a deterrent for others who might be tempted to defy the societal norms.
In cases where the flaunting of purple was seen as a direct challenge to the emperor or the state, repercussions could be more severe. These might include the confiscation of property or, in extreme cases, exile. Such stringent measures underscored the significance of color in Roman society, and the lengths the state would go to maintain the established hierarchies.
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).
Top image: A Roman wearing Tyrian purple. Source: AI generated.