Color is cultural.
In modern America, we are taught that color is light. Seven basic colors of the rainbow make up visible light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. These are also the terms we use to describe the colors of our surroundings.
Romans living in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE learned that color itself was a physical component of all things. Colors therefore often shared their names with materials of the same color. For example, the Latin word sanguineus is both a shade of red and the word to describe something bloody, and the Latin word ferreus could be something made of iron or something the color of iron — a dark, gloomy blue.
For the Romans, every color had a place on a scale of brightness, where white was complete lightness and black complete darkness. Gold was a very bright color and is described as having a lot of light in it. The deep reddish-purple of wine was thought to have more darkness and less brilliance. This does not mean that the Romans could only see in black and white or recognized only a few colors, as several scholars of the 19th and early 20th century once argued. Ancient Roman eyes saw colors with the same variety of abilities as our eyes do today, but they chose to describe them in a different way.
Just like us, the Romans held many different opinions about colors and their meanings. Choose your favorite color below to learn its significance in Roman world, and discover what Roman scholars like Pliny the Elder, Livy, and Vitruvius, and Roman poets like Virgil and Ovid, wrote about colors and their place in Roman culture.