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Were the ancient Greeks and Romans colour blind?



Amanda Smith

Did the ancients appreciate colour less than we do?
Homer left historians with the impression that the ancient Greeks and Romans had an underdeveloped appreciation of colour. The ancients, in fact, were a shade more sophisticated than that and understood colour in a completely different way to us, argues Mark Bradley.
People in ancient cultures saw colour in an altogether different way from you and me. The most famously perplexing description of colour in the ancient Mediterranean world is the 'wine-dark sea' in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Have you ever looked at the sea and thought that it was the colour of claret?
One of the first people to argue that the ancient Greeks had an under-developed colour sense was a 19th century British prime minister. As well as being a politician, William Gladstone was a classics scholar and in his spare time did a study of colour usage in early Greek literature.
According to Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, Gladstone observed, quite rightly, that colour operated in a very different way in antiquity from what we are used to today. 'We have a great deal of difficulty in translating Homer's colour terms into modern western languages,' he says.
Gladstone noted that Homer actually uses very few colour terms, that black and white predominate, and that he uses the same colours to describe objects which look quite different.
'He believed that although Homer represented the origins of western literature and had very sophisticated ideas about characterisation and tragedy and plot and genre, that in fact his colour vocabulary was comparable to that of a contemporary infant of about three years old,' says Bradley.
This established the idea that Homeric Greeks had defective colour vision and that perhaps were colour blind en masse. It's been a hotly debated scholarly topic for over a hundred years. Bradley says that one of the problems with what Gladstone and subsequent scholars did was to attempt to map ancient Greek colour terms onto how we understand colour. That is, the idea of a spectrum of abstract colours that we've inherited from Newton, where we can close our eyes and picture yellow and orange and red and blue.
'If you start to approach colour in a very different way and think of it as a different phenomenon, this really helps to understand what's going on with ancient uses of colour,' he says.
According to Bradley, the Greeks viewed chroma (in Latin color) as essentially the visible outermost shell of an object. So a table wouldn't be brown, it was wood-coloured. A window would be glass-coloured. Hair would be hair-coloured, skin would be skin-coloured. 'They wouldn't talk in terms of the abstract colours that we are used to today.'
The term 'synaesthetic' can be used to broadly describe the different kind of association that the ancient Greeks made between the five senses. 'If colours are the external manifestations of objects, then the perception of that colour can tap into other ideas such as smell, liquidity, saturation, touch, texture.'
In what we would tend to think of as purely visual, the ancient Greeks brought other senses into play. 'In antiquity, in pre-modern societies, there is much more capacity for the way you describe the world to tap into several different senses simultaneously,' says Bradley.
So what of Homer's wine-dark sea (oinops pontos)? Bradley describes this as antiquity's best-known colour problem and one that's given rise to various theories. One interpretation is that it describes the sea at sunset when it's a sort of fiery red. Another interpretation hold that it's an allusion to a now obsolete type of French wine called le petit bleu or le gros bleu, a blue wine, which, if it even existed in antiquity, might explain the metaphor.
Bradley takes a different view. The important point for him is that Homer describes the sea as wine-dark following a tragedy. Odysseus mourns the death of his men after a shipwreck, when they've been swallowed up by the wine-dark sea. Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus looking out on the wine-dark sea. 'The idea is that the sea is dangerous, it's captivating, it's intoxicating, just like wine', he says. 'It's much more than just the colour, it's more about what the object-metaphor is encouraging us to think about'.
Did the Romans as well as the ancient Greeks have this 'synaesthetic' way of understanding colour? An example Bradley cites that affirms this is the meaning contained in the word we simply translate as purple. 'In antiquity when something was porphuraor purpura it would describe the dye which was extracted from sea-snails.' This dye was very expensive, it glistened and refracted light and was used for the garments of the rich and powerful. It also stank. 'One of the overpowering aspects of purple was it smelled really, really bad,' says Bradley.
The fishy smell stayed in imperial robes and senatorial togas, and so the word purpura carries both visual and auditory meaning. 'It's an example of how actually what we would see as a straightforward visual colour purple is in fact in ancient eyes something that is inherently synaesthetic.'
Contrary to Gladstone's view that the ancients having an undeveloped, infantile colour sense, this could be seen as quite sophisticated sensory perception, according to Bradley. 'In fact ancient colour was very subtle, very sophisticated, very versatile but it functioned along different parameters from how we think colour works.'
It's an interesting example of the difficulties involved in trying to understand another culture. Bradley says that Gladstone's model was extended in the 1960s by the sociologists Berlin and Kay. 'They looked at cultures ancient and modern around the world, and counted the number of basic colours they had and therefore plotted them out in a sort of evolutionary scale.'
Homeric Greece was stage 3.5 out of seven. Various African tribes were at stage one because they only had white, black and red in their vocabularies. England, Russian and Japan were right at the top of the scale. But perceptions have changed, says Bradley.
'Their approach now has been almost universally discredited, precisely because it doesn't take into account different ways of understanding colour.'