Tyrian Purple
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Basic Information

Tyrian Purple was a dye extracted from carnivorous sea snails of the murex family.
The name comes from the Levantine sea-port of Tyre which was a centre of the murex fishery in the ancient world.

In life the dye serves as a defensive secretion which is used to coat the snail's eggs or sprayed out like octopus or squid ink - harvesting is conducted either by annoying the snail (a tiresome process with low yields) or by crushing it (quicker, but only slightly higher yielding)1.

The exact colour yielded by the dye depends on a number of factors, including the exact species of murex from which it came, how the dye was stored, the cloth to which it was applied and various details of the dying process, including the mordants employed, dye concentration and exposure time. The net effect in most cases seems to have been closer to what we would call burgundy rather than modern ideas of purple, but there is some suggestion that bluer shades could be acheived in some cases. The colour, once achieved, was also said to be very stable and fade resistant.

Details aside, tyrian purple was an extremely expensive dyestuff - allegedly several thousand snails are required to yield a few grammes of material (less if you refrain from squashing them) - and purple cloth was therefore the mark of royalty (or at least high office, given that the extremely non-royal Roman senate used a purple stripe as their mark of distinction). This was initially re-inforced by cost, and then by sumptuary laws2. Unusually, the murex industry wasn't finished off by overfishing (unlike, say, silphium), but by the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent chaos. Subsequently murex was overtaken by indigo based purples and thereafter by modern synthetic dyes.

In the Bible, the Book of Acts mentions Lydia, woman Paul meets in Philippi, who is described as "a seller of purple", the dyed purple cloth imported from Tyre.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Obviously this stuff makes for good treasure - and your PCs had better have taken appropriate knowledge skills or they're likely to discard the jars of foul smelling fishy gunk.
  • The vast wealth and the piles of rotting shellfish make for a nice contrast.
    • Actually, come to think of it, someone was missing a trick in not using the masses of dead snails to raise pigs - or trying to ferment them into garum - but neither would likely fit with the Semitic food taboos of the region.
  • A good industry to give character to somewhere in your campaign … it needn't necessarily be sea-snails after all (after all the carmine industry is based around squishing insects instead).
  • Modern players may need to be reminded that, historically, all colours were not the same price.
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