How Did They Make Purple in Ancient Times?

The color purple has been coveted for centuries, and it has a long history of being associated with royalty and luxury. But have you ever wondered how our ancestors were able to make this regal hue without the use of modern dyes? Let’s take a closer look at how they made purple in ancient times.

What is Purple?

Purple is a secondary color that is created by mixing red and blue. However, creating purple pigment from natural sources is not as straightforward as mixing paint. In fact, it was a difficult and expensive process that required a lot of time and effort.

The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were some of the first people to create purple dye. They obtained the dye from murex sea snails that were found in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The process of making the dye was complicated and time-consuming. First, the snails had to be collected and then crushed to extract their blood, which was then left in the sun to ferment for several days. The resulting liquid was then boiled for hours until it thickened into a dark paste.

Why Was Purple So Expensive?

Purple dye was so expensive because of the amount of work that went into making it. It took thousands of snails to produce just a small amount of dye, which made it only affordable for wealthy people like royalty or high-ranking officials.

The Romans

The Romans also valued purple as a symbol of wealth and power. They acquired their purple dye from an entirely different source – the glandular secretions of sea snails called Bolinus brandaris or spiny dye-murex.

The Process

To obtain this purple pigment, the snails were first caught alive and then crushed to extract their glandular secretions, which were then mixed with saltwater in large vats. The mixture was then left to ferment for several days, which allowed the dye to develop. The liquid was filtered and mixed with an acidic substance, which turned the dye from green to purple.


In conclusion, the process of creating purple in ancient times was a complicated and expensive endeavor that required a lot of time and effort. From the Phoenicians to the Romans, various cultures had their methods of creating this coveted color. Today, we have easy access to synthetic dyes that can produce any hue imaginable, but it’s essential to appreciate the hard work that our ancestors put into creating such a beautiful color.