We all know the story of the discovery of the Por-phyra shellfish, by the dog of a Tyrian nymph loved by Hercules; which having picked up some of these shells, and crushed them with its teeth, its mouth became stained with purple dye. It is scarcely probable that it could crush the strong hard shells of the Buccinum, or Murex, but it might easily break the beautiful fragile shell of the Helix ianthina, which we know yields a purple juice; for though a fable, the above was intended to relate a possible event; and we are told by Sir Gardner Wilkinson, that the ianthina is common on the coast about Tyre and Beyrout. And though so small, being only the size of a small snail, three-quarters of an inch in diameter, the water becomes completely coloured all around it, whenever it is alarmed, and throws out its purple liquid.†
Athenaeus speaks of many different kinds of purple-fish, some of them of large size, like those which are found near Segeum and Lesteum; and some small, like those found in the Euripus, and around Caria. According to Pliny, the juice of the Buccinum was considered inferior by itself, but mixed with that of the Pelagia it blended well, and gave a bright lustre to the colour. The proper proportions for dyeing fifty pounds of wool were 200 pounds of juice of the Buccinum, and 111 pounds of pelagium,* and this mixture produced a beautiful amethyst colour. The Tyrian hue was given to wool by soaking it in the juice of the Pelagia, while the mixture was in a raw state, and afterwards dipping it in the juice of the Buccinum. The best quality was of the colour of blood, of a blackish hue to the sight, but of a shining appearance when held up to the light.† The "conchyliated" colour comprehended a variety of shades, viz., that of the heliotropium, as well as one of a deeper colour; that of the mallow inclining to a full purple, and that of the late violet; this last being the most vivid of all the "conchyliated" tints.‡
* Pliny, 'Nat. Hist.' vol. ii. bk. ix. chap. 67.
† See note, Rawlinson's 'Herodotus,' vol. ii. bk. iii. chap. 20, p. 415.
The best purple in Asia was that of Tyre, and the peculiar symbol of that city was the whelk, or purpura, and it appears on the Tyrian medals.§ Strabo remarks that this city was rendered unpleasant as a place of residence, owing to the great number of its dyeing-works.
In the days of Ezekiel, purple was imported by the Tyrians from the Peloponnesus, but they soon learned to extract the dye for themselves. A modern traveller, Mr. Wilde, observed at Tyre numerous round holes cut in the solid sandstone rock, in which shells seem to have been crushed. They were perfectly smooth on the inside, and many of them shaped like a modern iron pot, broad and flat at the bottom, and narrowing towards the top. Many of these were filled with a breccia of shells, and he supposes that all the shells were of one kind, probably Marex trunculus*
* Pelagia was the shellfish, and pelagium, the juice, or colour, from it.
† Pliny, 'Nat. Hist,' vol. ii. bk. ix. chap. 62 (38). ‡ Ibid. vol. iv. bk. xxi. chap. 22 (8). § 'Heraldry of Fish'.
Dr. Tristram in 'The Land of Israel,' mentions finding traces at Tyre of its ancient trade and manufactures, and that amongst the rubbish thrown out in the excavations were numberless fragments of glass, and whole "kitchen-middens" of shells, crushed and broken, the owners of which had once supplied the famed Tyrian purple dye. All these shells were of one species, and that one of the most plentiful on the coast, the Murex brandaris. It has frequently been stated that Murex trunculus is the true original of the Tyrian dye, and it is very possible that it may have been also used for that purpose. But Dr. Tristram adds, "While we noticed only a few broken specimens of M. trunculus scattered about, the compact masses of broken shells, and which, therefore, had most probably been used in manufacture, and not merely for food, were exclusively of the former species".
In Africa, the island of Meninx (now called Gerbee, in the Gulf of Cabes) was famed for its purple, as well as parts of Gastulia that border on the ocean; and in Europe, the best came from the coast of Laconia.
Cornelius Nepos speaks of the Tarentine red; and Hardouin remarks that in his time were still to be seen the remains of the ancient dyeing-houses at Tarentum, and that vast heaps of the shells of the Murex had been discovered.*
* W. Smith, ' Dictionary of the Bible,' vol. iii. p. 1581, article 'Tyre'.
Aufrère, in 1789, describes a hill called Monte Tes-taceo, behind the Alcantarine Convent, at Tarento, consisting chiefly of the shells of Murex brandaris which were supposed to have produced the purple dye, † and according to Dr. Bizio, the Tyrian purple was produced from this Murex brandaris, and the amethystine purple from Murex trunculus. Romulus employed the purple dye for the trabea. It was purple and white, something similar in cut to the toga, and was the royal robe worn by the early kings. Servius mentions two other kinds of trabea besides the one already described, one wholly of purple, which was sacred to the gods, and another of purple and saffron, which belonged to augurs. Julius Caesar appears to have been the first of the Roman emperors who wore the toga entirely of purple.
As long as the Empire of the East lasted, this dye continued to be appropriate to imperial use. Its manufacture seems to have expired with the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, for, in 1464, Pope Paul II. authorized the substitution of scarlet for purple in the vestments of the church.‡
The best purple dye was stated by the ancients to be exceedingly durable; and when Alexander took possession of Susa, he found amongst its treasures 5000 talents in weight of purple cloth, from Hermione in the Peloponnesus, which had been laid up there for 180 years, and yet retained all the freshness and brilliancy of its original colour. It was said to owe its durability and freshness to some use of honey in the process of dyeing.*
* Pliny, 'Nat. Hist.' see note, vol. ii. bk. ix. ch. 63 (39). † Aufrere's 'Travels'.
‡ Schmidt,' Forschungen,' p. 209, as quoted in 'Phoenicia,' by John Kenrick, M.A.