Ancient Color

Ancient Color

Creating Using Investigating

Using Red

Wall painting from the house of Vettii at Pompeii
Wall painting from the House of the Vettii at Pompeii

How did the Romans describe it?

  • rubeo or 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 the sprang bag shown below. 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.


The main roads leading to many towns in Roman Italy were lined with graves of all sizes, including tombstones like this one. Their inscriptions were painted red to make them easier for those passing by to read them. Even Roman cemeteries were colorful!

  • Funerary inscription
  • Wall painting fragment
  • Basket with traces of red
  • Bag