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date: 23 April 2024

colour, ancient perception offree

colour, ancient perception offree

  • Ashley Clements


  • Philosophy

W. E. Gladstone's 19th-cent. philological studies of Greek colour terms led him to conclude that the Greeks suffered from defective vision (1858). More recently, in the wake of Berlin and Kay (1969), ancient colour perception has been a locus for debating cross-cultural universals and cultural relativism.

Ancient concepts of colour were in fact contested and negotiable even amongst ancient theorists. The Greeks could certainly distinguish hues (pace Gladstone), and the etymology of the Greek chrōma implies that Greek conceptions of colour were closely related to skin, bodily complexion (chrōs, chroia), and to the surface of the body as an index of what is subjectively felt or lies within. But Greek colour terms do not organize visual experience primarily according to hue as does the modern English lexicon, but, rather, luminosity, texture, contrast, and further properties of the objects or phenomena they qualify.

Ancient colour vocabulary, then, must be approached with the awareness that ‘colour’ as an English speaker would understand it, may not be the primary referent at all. Ancient Greek, for instance, furnished its speakers with a system of sensory adjectives that pick out visually and conceptually salient reference points encountered in several different cognitive domains of sensory experience, of which our ‘colour’ is only one. Cases in point are: chlōros, commonly translated as ‘green’, but used also of dew, tears, limbs and blood, and evoking primarily fecundity, freshness or vitality; porphureos, commonly translated as ‘purple’, but also related to the concept of heaving movement (porphurō), hence, used of the surging sea; argos, ‘bright, gleaming white’, but also ‘nimble’ or ‘swift-moving’ activity, as of dogs and horses, likely because the strobing of light refracted through running legs was felt to approach the term's core concept of bright flashing light.

Fifth- and 4th-cent. philosophers do theorize primary colours between the poles of to leukon (‘bright’ or ‘light’) and melan (‘dark’) but display limited consensus as to their number or identity. Empedocles, Democritus and Plato, who can be read as positing four basic colours of which the third is eruthron, ‘red’, notably disagree about the fourth (positing ōchron, ‘pale’, chlōron, and lampron, ‘shining’, respectively: Empedocles. A92 DK; Democr. A135. 73–5 DK; Pl. Tim. 67c–68b). Aristotle, in concert with his views on tastes, diverges still further, enumerating seven of which none is eruthron (Sens. 442a20–8), while beyond his four primaries, Democritus allows for an indefinite further number of colours (A135. 78 DK).

Latin colour categories display analogous cultural idiosyncrasies and present similar headaches for translators. The Latin color, from which our ‘colour’ derives, holds a plethora of meanings. Roman writers of the early Empire connect color to the surface of an object, pigment, and dye, but also to character and rhetorical self-presentation. For Ovid, Seneca and Pliny the Elder the discourse of color constitutes a potent site for debating the relation between perception and knowledge and the moral and ethical charge of luxuria. Artificially coloured surfaces, in particular, draw the attention of Roman moralists as a locus of deception and moral decadence, foregrounding concerns about the epistemological veracity of appearances which also mark late Republican and Imperial discussions of rhetorical color (‘character’) in the context of Latin oratory (Cic. De or. 3.199; Quint. Inst. 2.5.12; 4.2.88; 8.3.6). Roman writers are heavily informed throughout by the philosophical doctrines of the Stoics and the Epicureans. The clearest example is Lucretius’ epic, De rerum natura, where he presents colour as a real entity (following Epicurus), but also recapitulates its epistemic limitations as a stable locus of knowledge about the world (Lucr. 2. 730–841).


  • W. E. Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Heroic Age 3 (1858), 457–99.
  • B. Berlin and P. Kay, Basic Color Terms (1969).
  • E. Irwin, Greek Color Terms (1974).
  • L. James, Light and Colour in Byzantine Art (1996).
  • M. Clarke, in K. Stears and L. Cleland (eds.), Colours in the Ancient Mediterranean World (2004), 131–9.
  • A. Rouveret, S. Dubel and V. Naas (eds.), Couleurs et matières dans l’antiquité (2006).
  • G. E. R. Lloyd, Cognitive Variations (2006), 9–22.
  • M. Bradley, Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (2009).