Roses are red, sheep are purple, honey is green, and nothing is blue?

Surely, when one studies the classics throughout one’s life, and is affronted with innumerable differences between one’s own society and those of the ancients, there should be the comfort of knowing that some things never do change. One such notion is that of color. Obviously, throughout all the ages of man, color has remained the same- after all, it is what it is, no one can actively change it. 

But this is not the case. In fact, I am surprised that more people hadn’t noticed these drastic differences. But how can we tell? Why when studying the expressive texts of the ancients of course. One only has to look within the pages of Virgil, or Homer, or even Ovid to see it. These poets describe their world as they saw it, and color not only is sparse in its description, but to many modern readers, it would appear completely wrong. 

William Gladstone was the first to compile evidence of the many bizarre color epithets in the Iliad and the Odyssey. No, but seriously, here is a list of some of these, to us at least, strange adjectives. 

oinops= wine-looking, and is used to describe the sea in the Odyssey. But not just that. He uses the same adjective to describe oxen. I know rowan cows exist… I guess purple cows were a popular breed in ancient Greece.

ioeis= violet, and is used for sheep, iron, and even Odysseus’ hair. His flowing locks must really have been luscious… but purple? 

chloros= green, and is used for honey, twigs, and faces pale with fear. I think we’re beginning to see quite the pattern of inanity. 

Maybe Homer really was blind? But he couldn’t have been, at least not all his life, as he is quite adept at describing his world around him in beautiful, striking, visual passages, that have much to do with light, but little with color. 

There is a book, which I highly recommend, entitled Through the Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher, which describes all of these examples, and in greater detail. He is a linguist, and his argument is for the shaping of language on culture (a controversial claim, albeit a correct one). 

His argument for the lack of vibrant color description, random assignment of colors that are described, and their inconsistencies, and the fact that black and white are far more used than any other color, is that the ancients couldn’t manipulate natural colors as well as we can. They couldn’t separate an object from its color, because dyes were rare, expensive, and difficult to make. The sky is never described as blue, because how often would one see “blue”, as a concept, free, and unattached to things like, the sea, or the sky? (There are people alive today in remote places that say the sky is black) We take colors for granted. 

Romans were guilty of this cultural discrepancy too. Ovid and his raunchy, hilarious, disgustingly clever poetry is rife with odd descriptions of color, as is Virgil’s the Aeneid. 

Ovid, as many other elegiac poets of their day, loved using the word purpereus, which we would translate as purple, to describe someone in a state of blushing. So… ancient Romans had blue blood? Well… some of them did, but that’s beside the point if you’ll excuse my puns. I’m not funny. 

Anyway, there is a line from Ovid’s Amores 1.4 21-22: 

“cum tibi succurret Veneris lascīvia nostrae,purpureās tenerō pollice tange genās”

When the thoughts of our passionate lovemaking arise to you, stroke your thumb across your blushing cheek.

And, in the end, it’s more likely that Guy Deutscher is right. Romans (and Greeks) didn’t care about colors in our abstract sense. They didn’t have Benjamin Moore’s paint stores with ten billion color swatches to compare. Purpureas, oinops, and ioeis probably meant more something like “A dark shade… something lighter than black but darker than red, with a softer hue to it, as opposed to a rusted or brown color that lies at the same place on the light/dark spectrum”. 

So, what does this mean? I don’t know, what do you want it to mean? To, me, it means that nothing is safe in classics. There is no magical immovable force that has remained the same throughout the sands of time. Because these people were not the same as we are. They were incredibly similar in many respects, but if we are to believe men like Guy Deutscher (which we should, seriously read his books), their culture and languages, which are intrinsically intertwined and which influence and shape each other, are not modern English, in an anglo-saxon protestant culture. There are so many aspects that we can’t appreciate about them fully, and color turns out to just be another one of those.

If you’re interested in learning more (which you should be, as boring as color research sounds… cry me a river), I found another source. Well, not a source, source, but a source nonetheless. It’s a review of another book dealing with classical colors, going into tremendous depths- including the Aeneid. (why would bright dazzling blue-ish be a good disguise, is a question that is raised).

I’ll link y’all to it. 

It’s from Cambridge, so it must be good. But it is also in French, so either speak French or have a handy translation tool (Google chrome works well for that).



4 thoughts on “Roses are red, sheep are purple, honey is green, and nothing is blue?

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Another interesting thing about color is that’s how chariot races were run. Each charioteer had a specific color and if the green team won, then green doves were released into the air so that all the fans (gamblers) could see throughout the city, who had won.


  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    This really makes you think if the colours have changed throughout the years. Maybe their colour for purple was not our colour for purple. If you think about it, we have so many names for the different colours, shades, and mixes that how can we be sure what colour is what. Some people say it’s purple, some say it’s violet, then there is lilic and magenta. If we have all of these colours, whose to day the colours haven’t changed. A.C.C

  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    This was really interesting to read. Since the Romans’ eyes presumably functioned the same way as ours and were able to see the same range of colors, one would think they would perceive color as we do today. But I never realized how limited their perception of color was. I’ve always known that purple was a rare & expensive color in the ancient world, but now that I think about it, most of the reds, yellows, blues, and other colors I’ve seen in ancient Roman frescoes are relatively dull & lack variety. It makes sense that they’d lack the knowledge of vibrant neon colors that are prevalent in tropical areas, but I didn’t realize that the rarity of dyes would make it difficult for them to create abstract colors on their own. Really interesting post!


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