White square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • albus: dead, dull, pale, good fortune
  • candidus: shining, dazzling, clear, moral goodness, pure, brilliant
  • canus: foamy, frothy, aged, hoary
  • niveus: snowy
  • cerussa: lead white
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Undyed linen or wool cloth was described as "white," but there was no dye to make cloth white. Instead, the cloth could be bleached using urine and exposure to the sun. The toga candida worn by men running for political office was coated in white chalk to make it a “shining toga.” This is where we get the English word “candidate.”
  • Wealthy women whitened their skin using white lead and chalk pigments to show they did not have to work in the sun all day. Because of this, white eventually became associated with vanity.
  • Art: White pigments were used to decorate terracotta figurines, pottery, and walls. In wall painting it was often used for highlighting, as on the panel from the Villa of the Mysteries.
Fun Facts
  • It was known as early as the 4th century BCE that white lead was poisonous, but this knowledge did not stop people from using it as a cosmetic.
  • White and red together were associated with death in Roman literature. You can find examples of this in the works of the Roman poets Ovid and Virgil, and the Roman historian Livy. For example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the goddess Persephone (Proserpina in Latin) gathers red and white flowers just before Pluto, god of the Underworld, kidnaps her to be his bride. As the Roman Empire grew, so did anxiety about the growing influence of foreign cultures from lands that were conquered by the Romans. In reaction to the colorful fashion trends coming from the provinces, some Romans began to wear only undyed “white” cloth, perhaps leading to the color white’s association with tradition.


Red square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • ruber: ruddy, colored by blood, blushing, shame
  • rufus: red-headed
  • puniceus: the color of Phoenician (or Tyrian) dye
  • rutilus: shining, golden, glittering
  • sanguineus or haematinus: blood, bloody, blood-colored
  • flammeus: fiery, flame-colored, glowing
  • minium: red lead
  • sinope: red ochre
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Soldiers often wore red-dyed tunics. Civilians wove red decorations into items of clothing, like this sprang bag. Roman women liked to apply red pigment to their cheeks and lips to enhance their beauty.
  • Art: Red decorated building exteriors, sculptures, terracotta figurines, and interior walls. The red background of the Villa of the Mysteries wall painting is made from cinnabar, also known as vermilion, one of the most desired pigments in the 1st-century Roman world.
Fun Facts
  • Despite cinnabar/vermilion’s popularity, this mercury-based pigment is highly toxic.
  • In Roman literature, red symbolizes strength, energy, victory, and power. Red and white together were associated with death. In Book 5 of Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas leaves red wine, white milk, red blood from a sacrificed animal, and red flowers on the grave of his father (Book 5.91–99).
  • Red was connected with the gods. Red lead was smeared on the faces of statues of Jupiter in Rome and on the bodies of his worshippers during festivals in his honor.
  • Jewelry with red elements such as coral, stones, or glass was worn to protect against disease, bring good luck, and keep scorpions and snakes away. Coral in particular was believed to prevent lightning strikes and was placed at the top of ship masts.


Yellow square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • flavus or flavens: golden, flax-colored, blond, shining
  • luteus: a type of yellow plant, yolk of an egg, mud, muddy, dirty, vile, worthless
  • fulvus: tawny, golden
  • luridus: pale, sallow, wan, ghastly, lurid
  • aureus: golden, beautiful, splendid
  • croceus: saffron, saffron-color
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Yellow was the color of traditional Roman women’s clothing. Saffron yellow in particular was the color worn by brides (see the painting from the Villa of the Mysteries).
  • Art: Yellow was used to decorate statues, figurines, and architecture. At Pompeii it was a popular color for backgrounds and for skin tones in wall paintings.
Fun Facts
  • Some Romans thought orpiment contained real gold. The emperor Caligula tried to have gold extracted from orpiment. He was unsuccessful, and his attempt probably harmed a lot of people as orpiment is highly toxic.
  • Yellow was the color of prosperity and fertility. It was associated with gold as well as wheat ready for harvesting.
  • In Roman literature, yellow was sometimes associated with modesty.


Green square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • viridis: youthful, blooming, fresh, vigorous, clear, lively, green vegetation
  • prasinus: leek-color
  • herbeus: grass-color
  • vitreus: light, bright, glassy
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: By the 1st century CE, cloth dyers had figured out how to achieve green and it became a fashionable color for women’s clothing. This caused scandal among older Romans who preferred traditional undyed “white” cloth. It was not a stable color, however, and faded quickly.
  • Art: Under the empire, Romans used green pigments to paint garden scenes on the walls of their houses. It was also a popular color for painting architecture and sculpture.
Fun Facts
  • The two most popular chariot racing teams in imperial Rome were the Greens (the people’s team) and the Blues (the aristocrats’ team). Their fans showed their support by wearing these colors.
  • Green was associated with barbarians. Many conservative Romans were scandalized when it became popular in the 1st century CE.
  • The emperor Nero was especially fond of the color green. Pliny the Elder reports that he viewed gladiator battles through a green gemstone, possibly an emerald.


Blue square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • caeruleus: dark, heavy, moving water, cloudy, gloomy
  • caesius: gray-eye color
  • cyaneus: dark, sea-colored
  • lividus: livid, leaden, black and blue
  • venetus: color of the sea
  • aerius: airy
  • ferreus: iron-like
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Indigo dye was used for some clothing, probably for mourning attire.
  • Art: Blue pigments, in particular Egyptian blue, were used in wall paintings, often in the background to represent the sky or water.
Fun Facts
  • Indigo dye was costly (20 denarii per pound, or a tenth of a Roman soldier’s annual pay). Knockoff dyes made from pigeon dung were available, but these faded quickly.
  • Blue in Roman literature was a color of mourning and misfortune. Looking at the Latin words above, you can see it was described as a dark, moody color.
  • Blue eyes were common among their enemies from northern Europe, Celts and Germans. As a result, Romans felt people with blue eyes were unstable and untrustworthy. In addition, these northern peoples used blue woad to paint their faces and hair and to dye their clothing, so the Romans associated blue with barbarians.


Purple square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • puniceus: Phoenician (Tyrian) dye
  • purpura: purple from fish or berries, lofty, imperial
  • ostrum: blood (excretion) of the sea snails
  • conchylium: shellfish
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Throughout Roman history a wide purple band, or clavus, on a tunic was the distinguishing mark of a senator. Roman generals were allowed to wear a purple toga when they celebrated a military victory. By the 4th century CE, wearing purple was the exclusive right of the emperor and his family and associates. Though it was illegal for the general population to wear purple, they could still have purple linens, curtains, carpets, and other furnishings.
  • Art: Clothing of painted and sculpted figures was often colored purple, such as the dress of the woman in the Fayum portrait and this terracotta figurine.
Fun Facts
  • In the 1st centuries BCE and CE purple was a very fashionable color among the Roman population. Emperors and politicians, however, discouraged the wearing of purple since it was the traditional color of foreign tyrants and kings.
  • The exact color of Tyrian purple is unknown. Pliny the Elder states that the highest-quality dye was the color of clotted blood tinged with black, but poor-quality dye was closer to red. Recent archaeological research shows that it could also be blue.
  • The word purpura is also used in Roman poetry to describe the natural phenomenon of a rainbow. Perhaps this is because Tyrian purple dye created such a variety of colors, from red to purple to blue.


Brown square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • fuscus: dark, swarthy, dusky, tawny
  • fulvus: tawny, golden
  • spadix: date- or nut-colored
  • hepatitis: liver-colored
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Brown cloth does survive, but this seems to be the natural color of the fabric and not necessarily the result of dying.
  • Art: In wall paintings, brown pigments were used for shading and for sketching the design before applying paint.
Fun Facts
  • Brown is not discussed much in Roman literature, probably because it was too common for comment.


Black square
How did the Romans describe it?
  • ater: dark, dull, sable, coal, gloomy, sad, bad fortune
  • niger: shining, glistening, dark, dusky, death, wicked
  • lividus: livid, leaden, black and blue
Where was it used?
  • Fashion: Black is a difficult color to capture using natural dyes. In ancient Rome, cloth that was dyed black was more of a dingy brownish-gray or a bluish color. Black dye, like blue dye, was used for mourning clothing.
  • Art: Black is used in Roman wall painting for shading, outlines, and details.
Fun Facts
  • Black had both positive and negative meanings to the Romans. They associated it with fertile soil, which gives new life, but also with gloom, sadness, impurity, cruelty, and death.
  • Black lambs, sheep, and cows were sacrificed to gods of fertility and the underworld (Cybele, Ceres, Hecate, Isis).
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