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Greater Phoenicia

6. Royal Purple

The purple dye, which was produced and traded by the Phoenicians, is of great historical significance.  This is particularly demonstrated by the fact that the name of the Phoenicians comes from the Greek word phoinix, which means ‘purple’, and from their name is derived the Latin word ‘Punic’ for their descendents the Carthaginians.   The dye was made from the murex sea shell, which was found along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.  It was produced using a very laborious method of production.  Huge piles of shells are found outside ancient cities as remains of the industrial activity to produce it.  These production centres were situated there because of the smell given off in the course of manufacture.  Source: Moscati, 8, 96-7. This dye, on account of being hard to produce and very valuable, and indelible, came to be used for colouring clothes of important people, such as kings, and hence it was known as ‘royal purple’.  In the Roman period, the Emperor Nero restricted its use to the emperor alone by law.  Source: Markoe, 164.

The Phoenicians and Carthaginians traded it with the Romans, who used it for the clothes of their leading magistrates.  From the Roman magistrates, the early Christian church inherited the practice for the clothes of their leading bishops, which is the reason why cardinals, archbishops and bishops wear it today.  Source: Markoe, 163-4.


We have expressions in English and other languages which refer to royal purple.   ‘Raised to the purple’ means to be appointed to the position of cardinal or bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, since cardinals and bishops wear purple coloured clothes, for the reason just given.  The expression can colloquially be used to mean to be appointed to any position of authority.  ‘Born in the purple’ is used to describe the children of royal families or prominent people.  Since purple was a royal colour derived from the dye, the purple coloured stone porphyry marble also had royal associations.  It was used in the Byzantine Empire (AD 306-1453) to decorate the Porphyra or purple chamber of the Imperial Palace.  Thus, Porphyrogenitos, which means 'born in the purple', very specifically meant being born in this chamber.  Source: Oxford English Dictionary sv. Purple; Nicholas Hardwick