Colour and Meaning in the Ancient World

Page 1

Colour and Meaning in the Ancient World Mark Bradley, University of Nottingham

Fig. A. Reconstruction of the polychrome finish of a temple in the Doric order.

'Red, orange, yellow, blue and green, Indigo and violet the prettiest I've seen'; 'Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain'; French 'Vous Inventez Bien, Vous, Jeune Oisif Ridicule'; Italian 'RoAranGiVerTurInVio'; Russian 'каждый охотник желает знать где сидит фазан'. For the schools of the modern world, there is no shortage of mnemonics and nursery rhymes to remind young learners that there are seven colours in the rainbow. And yet, most of us know that this is nonsense: we know that colours blend into each other in an infinite array of shades and hues and (if push comes to shove) we might be able to discern two, three, maybe four or five colours (see fig. 1). But we are still persuaded to look for seven colours, so influential was Newton’s proposal at the end of the seventeenth century that this was the number of basic colours into which the spectrum can be divided. History, however, tells a different story: the polymath Goethe, driven by artistic principles, objected vehemently to the seven‐colour system that Newton had proposed; in fact, Newton himself divided it into as many as eleven colours, and as few as five, before finally settling on seven. The ancient Greeks and Romans were even more puzzled by the rainbow: Homer discerned just one colour (porphureos or ‘purple’), Aristotle distinguished three (or four, depending on how pedantic he was feeling), later Greeks and Romans four, five or six – or a thousand, if you were a poet.

Fig. 1. Rainbow at Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Wing‐Chi Poon. Source:

Colour is more than just lightwaves hitting the retina. It is in the mind. And it matters a great deal how many colours you see, what you call them, and how you talk about them. The nomadic Dinka tribe of the Southern Sudan, traditionally thought to have dozens and dozens of terms for the colours yellow/orange/brown (like eskimoes with their snowflakes – they live in a desert, after all), in fact name most of their colours after the shades and patterns of the cows they value so highly in their lives: bovine chromatography abounds all around them. And it has been shown in all sorts of communities that groups and individuals identify and distinguish the colours that are most important to them: even primates have been shown to distinguish principally between yellow, green and red, corresponding to ripe, unripe and poisonous fruits. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising to find the Romans of late antiquity, with their complex political hierarchies and sophisticated court iconography, distinguishing dozens of terms for what to us looks like ‘purple’. However, classical antiquity has for hundreds of years been involved in a heated debate surrounding their use and discrimination of colours. In the nineteenth century, some scholars argued that the ancients had such an unusual and impoverished colour vocabulary that they may en masse have suffered from a form of colour‐blindness (a phenomenon that was just coming to the fore in Victorian science). Others argued that the Greeks and Romans were simply several stages behind modern western civilisation, and this manifested itself in the poverty of their colour discrimination. Perhaps the most important scholarly contribution to these ideas was made by William Gladstone, four times British Prime Minister in the late nineteenth century and proficient scholar of the poet Homer (see fig. 2): after careful scrutiny of the Iliad and the Odyssey, he argued that Homer’s colour system was founded exclusively upon light and darkness, and that the organ of vision ‘was but partially developed among the Greeks’. He had gone through Homer’s poems, which were considered the foundations of western literature, in painstaking detail: brilliant though they were in so many ways ‐ human emotions, characterization, imagery, plot, tragedy and so on – they fell down in one important matter: they appeared to use a tiny fraction of the colour terms that we use in English, and where they are used they are deployed in extremely odd ways. Greek ‘violet’ is used to describe the sea, sheep and iron, and Greek ‘green’ describes foliage, fresh twigs and honey; Homer’s sky is starry, broad or great, but never blue!; ‘black’ and ‘white’ are used hundreds of times, but ‘red’ is used only 13 times, ‘yellow’ just 10 times, ‘violet’ just 6 times, and so on; and colours that we take for granted, like ‘blue’, are missing altogether. Then there are odd colour labels, like the curious ‘wine‐dark sea’, which scholars have never got their heads around. Gladstone wasn’t alone: Goethe (who had made such a fuss about Newton’s seven‐colour rainbow) had argued that ancient art with its simple paintings and uniformly white sculpture was also deficient in colour, and others

drew attention to the material poverty of colour in the ancient Mediterranean – so the scarcity of things like dyes, paints and flower varieties, as well as the relative uniformity of ancient body colours (dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin). In the nineteenth century, this idea that ancient colour vision was light years behind colour vision in the modern west chimed well with some of Darwin’s ideas about human evolution and the development of civilization. Gladstone himself argued for the ‘progressive education of the human organ’ – the eye – and suggested that cultures start out by distinguishing white and black, and then gradually add red, yellow, green and blue and so on in that order: in fact, Gladstone surmised that the Greeks had about the same capacity for colours as a modern infant. These ideas caught on, and as late as the 1960s the sociologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay were setting out to measure the stage of civilisation of communities all around the world – past and present – by counting the number of basic colours in their vocabulary. The Greeks of Homer’s day were set at the modest stage IIIb, whereas English, Russian and Japanese reached the dizzy heights of stage VII. The exercise was inherently flawed, however: one key problem centred on what was defined as a ‘basic’ colour, and how you translate it. Curiously, the cow‐loving Dinka nomads, with their rich array of bovine colours, were exalted all the way up to stage VII.

Fig. 2. William Ewart Gladstone (1809‐1898). Source:‐e.‐ gladstone.jpg.

Scholars arguing that ancient colour vision was deficient have been matched tooth and claw by scholars setting out to demonstrate that the ancients in fact employed a highly sophisticated colour system. This system operated, the typical argument goes, along rather different parameters from our own: rather than hue, the ancients were sensitive primarily to such things as luminosity, saturation and texture, or even less obvious variables such as smell, agitation and liquidity – so colour is not so much about light waves as a whole range of visual cues. It is well‐known that even today different cultures can discriminate and describe colours differently, and there are many examples of languages that employ unusual patterns of colour usage: Russian has two distinct terms for our colour blue; the Japanese category ao cuts across our blue and green; various African and South American communities employ what are to us very strange systems of colour usage. In a splendid little article in 1985 called ‘How culture conditions the colours we see’, Umberto Eco discussed how differently various cultures used colour. He illustrated his point by comparing English, Latin and the language of the Hanunóo, a set of communities in a region of the Philippines. Fig. 3 shows light wave estimates on the far left, with neatly corresponding English colour terms in the second column, then four haphazard Latin colour terms, and finally the Hanunóo using a complex system of colour terms that not only overlap and incorporate qualities of moisture, texture and shine, but also operate at two distinct levels depending on the type of communication being used. If we believe this model, it is difficult to deny that colour across different cultures can tap into very different sets of aesthetics.

Fig. 3. A comparative diagram of colour categories in English, Latin and Hanunóo, with lightwave estimates (after Eco (1985), discussed in Bradley (2009) 25)

In fact, even what counts as a ‘colour’ can be extraordinarily different depending on where you look. Greek thinkers themselves defined ‘colour’ not as hue or shade, but as ‘what is visible’ of an object, its surface or outer layer, and some believe that objects shed a kind of coloured skin which made its way through the air to the eyes: according to this interpretation, every colour was intimately

attached to a particular object – yellow was attached to blond hair, green to plants, blue to sea, and so on. Homer’s elusive ‘wine‐dark sea’, then, was as much about the sea being deep, intense, dangerous and captivating like wine as it was about looking the same ‘colour’ as wine; the island of Crete wasn’t ‘blue’ so much as surrounded by sea; Romans could talk about the ‘green’ taste of olives because of their verdant freshness. For the ancients, colour was an object‐centred experience, a tool for accurately identifying and classifying the world around them. And, pace Gladstone and Berlin & Kay, they knew only too well how important colour could be: Greek and Roman philosophers, elegists, epic writers, historians and satirists missed no opportunity to exploit colour as a sophisticated medium for approaching, discussing and debating contemporary society, politics and morality. From the colours of the sky, sea and heavens to the exotic colourful gems and marbles discovered in far‐flung regions of the world, to the multi‐coloured faces of cosmopolitan Rome with its racial varieties and painted ladies, and the complex and competitive clothing of social climbers and court officials – colour was a fundamental, versatile and vibrant tool for understanding and appreciating the ancient world. And Goethe too was wrong about the colourlessness of classical art: recent findings have confronted us with the stark reality that ancient sculpture was far from the pure, unadulterated uniform white marble that we have come to associate with the classical world, but was in fact originally garishly painted and tinted with a full array of decorations and accoutrements that made these figures look they were about to spring to life (compare figs 4a and 4b) – a world of statues that was reminiscent not of a trip to the British Museum today but rather of a colourful, interactive, hands‐on visit to Madame Tussauds. Colour changes everything.

Fig. 4a. The Prima Porta statue of Augustus, c. A.D. 15, as it appears today, Vatican Museums, inv. 2290. Source:,_inv._2290,_02.JPG.

Fig. 4b. Detail of the painted Prima Porta statue of Augustus. Photo: Wolfram Martini. Munich Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek.

Further reading Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969) Basic color terms (Berkeley) Bradley, M. (2009) Colour and meaning in ancient Rome (Cambridge) Deutscher, G. (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World looks different in other Languages (London), chapters 1 and 2. Eco, U. (1985) 'How culture conditions the colours we see', in M. Blonsky (ed.), On signs. Oxford: 157‐75.