Colours in Antiquity

The ancient world is a thing of the past and that has its advantages. A classicist who once taught me said that Latin was such a great language because no more literature could be added to what we already have. I’ve been hoping for the past thirty years that he’d be proven wrong, but so far it doesn’t seem like it will happen.

But the fact that the past is gone naturally has its disadvantages. We have no idea, not even the beginning of an idea, what it must have been like to have lived in an ancient city. When I wrote a book (in Dutch) about life in ancient Rome, I expected to be able to find texts that mentioned the stink eminating from the tanners’ workshops, but there were fewer of those than one had hoped. (A poem by Martial that cannot be cited here I have been unable to forget, despite the best of my efforts.) Perhaps the ancient Romans had a different conception of what smelled bad than us, but we’ll never really understand the difference.

Then there’s the issue of ancient mentalities. It’s impossible to estimate the distance that separates us from the ancient world. Our texts typically deal only with that one percent of the population who were incredibly wealthy; only few sources inform us about what migth have gone on among farmers or craftsmen. But those people formed the majority of the population. They were poor, they knew what it felt like to go hungry, and they lacked the means to educate themselves. For us, living in the wealthiest societies of all time, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine what that would have been like. It’s even more difficult to imagine what it would be like to essentially have no rights, and what effect this has on large swathes of the population. And yet, these were everyday realities for most people in the ancient past.

We’re on much firmer ground when it comes to material realities of the past. We’re able to reconstruct ancient houses: plans have been excavated and thanks to sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia we also know what the superstructure must have looked like. We have figurative scenes that tell us about the clothing that people wore. Skeletal remains and DNA give us clues as regards ancient people’s physical appearance.

In your favourite periodical about the ancient world, Ancient History Magazine (to which you are undoubtedly subscribed), we include illustrations created specifically for us by our talented stable of artists that give you an idea of what the past may have looked like. When I communicate with the arists, I generally leave them to decide which colours to use. They have their own styles and their own colours. I never really saw a problem in that until someone pointed out to me which colours could have been created using natural dyes:

The bizarre thing is that I never really thought about this, despite the fact that – to name just one thing off the top of my head – I have a Persian tapestry in my living room and I know full well that the makers had to have used natural colours, like indigo, madder, elder, walnut, woad, broom, and saffron. How odd that, despite the bits of information you do possess, within the context of your living room, you are not able to transfer that knowledge to a different context, such as ancient clothes.

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