Did No One Know Blue in Ancient Rome?

So, apparently “No One Could See the Color Blue Until Modern Times.” I have it on the high authority of the Princeton Archae…er, I mean, the science section of the Business Insider. So its totes true.

Hm. This is the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet. Someone asked me (understandably, me being a guy with a Ph.D. in this stuff), “Is this true!?” Right away I thought…Iiiiiiiii doubt it.

Picture of the Ishtar Gate, an enornous ancient monument literally covered blue with lapis lazuli. Erected in the 6th century BC in Babylon, it survives intact to this day, in the Berlin Museum.I mean, any Classicist knows Latin and Greek are full of words for the color blue, and there were tons of blue things back then. Not just, you know, the sky, or lakes and seas and shit. But sapphires and lapis lazuli. Picture of a painting on an interior wall at Pompeii, shiwing an idyllic scene of ruins amidst trees against a fantastical blue sky.The latter, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon was thoroughly covered in, and from which even a blue paint was produced (as we find on some of the recovered interior walls of Pompeii). And, well, I guess IPhoto of a cut sapphire, looking all amazingly blue. should have mentioned this first, but blue corresponds to a photon frequency that photochemically interacts with a specific group of cone cells in human eyes that specifically react to that specific color. Soooo…how could ancient humans not have seen it again?

Here is what Business Insider tells us…

Until relatively recently in human history, “blue” didn’t exist, not in the way we think of it. As the delightful Radiolab episode “Colors” describes, ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there is evidence that they may not have seen it at all.

Okay. 100% bullshit. But let’s continue…

In “The Odyssey,” Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” But why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green? In 1858…

Sigh. Really? 1858? Go on…

…a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the prime minister of Great Britain, noticed that this wasn’t the only strange color description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green. So Gladstone decided to count the color references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts and noticed the same thing—there was never anything described as “blue.” The word didn’t even exist.

Gladstone was evidently a shitty classicist. He was right to go for Parliament. He wasn’t going to get employed in philology. A sad pall of shame falls upon Oxford for granting him a first in Classics [sort of].

He had a bozo thought-cousin though…

Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures. … There was no blue, not in the way that we know the color—it wasn’t distinguished from green or darker shades. Geiger looked to see when “blue” started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world. Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence—in every language studied around the world—was red, the color of blood and wine. After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

Nope. All the basic colors have known roots in Proto Indo-European [red][blue][green][yellow]. They thus predate all recorded language. Nice try, Geiger. Oh wait, when did you write? Oh, right, thefuckthehellwayback. So obviously he concluded…

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians—and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

Nope. Lapis lazuli and pigments based on it were everywhere, and others were available, e.g. azurite and indigo. Blue glass had been all the rage for thousands of years all across the ancient world. And remember when Julius Caesar was freaking out in his memoirs over those blue-painted dudes he was fighting in Britain? (Incidentally using both the Latin word for blue and glass.) And BTW, since we’re obsessing over how only Egyptians ever supposedly saw their amazing blue-dyed cloth and blue paints and pigments, maybe we should ask Geiger…haven’t you ever heard of trade?

If you think about it, blue doesn’t appear much in nature—there are almost no blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations. There is, of course, the sky, but is that really blue? As we’ve seen from Geiger’s work, even scriptures that contemplate the heavens continuously still do not necessarily see it as “blue.”

Photo of a peacock. Yep. Peacocks are blue. Their tails have a lot of green in them. But their bodies are startlingly and distinctively blue.Except for all the ancient paintings of it that depict it as blue. You know, but for that. Oh, and you know, all those huge blue bodies of water everywhere. Yep. Blue is so rare in nature. How did we ever discover it?

And remember when Julius Caesar was freaking out in his memoirs over all those blue-eyed barbarians he had to keep killing for ages and ages? He evidently could tell the difference. He knew how to spot him some blue.

Very accurate painting of a peacock from a fragment of an interior wall recovered from Roman Pompeii.And, um, there were blue flowers in antiquity. And blue animals are not so rare. In fact there was a pretty popular blue animal back then. The peacock was a famously known bird, a culinary delicacy across the Roman world, commonly depicted in art across the Empire (and beyond). And it’s really, really blue. As the Romans who painted pictures of them on the walls of Pompeii evidently were well aware.


Okay. Homer might have been a color weirdo. As the article says, “we do not know exactly what was going through Homer’s brain when he described the wine-dark sea and the violet sheep,” although the ancients kind of already had a theory about that: they concluded Homer must have been blind. (Although color blind would do. And it was more common.)

The article also continues that “we do know that ancient Greeks and others in the ancient world had the same biology and therefore same capability to see color that we do” (although Geiger was trying hard to lobby for the opposite conclusion back in ages past). So they are aware there is something hinky here. So the article implies certain scientists ask (?), “But do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it? … Did colors come into existence over time? Not technically, but our ability to notice them may have.” Which is then supported by an experiment on a really hard to find tribe that has absolutely not one thing to do with Greeks or Romans (much less the Chinese, the Indians, the Babylonians…). Da-da-dump. Spish.

It is true that some cultures don’t demarcate words for green and blue but use a covering term for both. As a converse example, yellow and brown are actually the same color, but many cultures choose instead to distinguish them with different words, even though they didn’t have to, they could have just said brown is dark yellow. And for all I know, maybe some cultures do. So some cultures likewise use one word for green and blue. But you know what? Ancient Greece wasn’t one of them. They may have regarded yellow as a shade of green. But they clearly could tell the difference between blue and green, and had words for the purpose. Moreover, even we actually can tell lots of colors apart without even knowing what they are called (there are countless words for different shades of red that I can distinguish…yet I myself only have one word for them: red). So this language theory seems hosed. But I can’t judge that. What I do know is antiquity.

Picture of a blue cornflower. Yep. Very blue.Even before I checked all those things above (providing you now with wonderful links), when I was first asked about this article I knew it had to be hot baloney right away. Latin had a well known word for blue, and it was routinely used to describe the color of the sky: caeruleus. Greek also had such a word, and it has the same Sanskrit root: kuanos. With tons of cognates, too. Latin had even more words for blue than Greek did, although many derive in fact from that very Greek word kuanos, which was very early used to refer to the color of the blue cornflower (one of those blue flowers that was supposed to not exist back then), and used regularly to describe lapis lazuli, that well-known stone I mentioned before, used in art and jewelry, even major public monuments, and as the tint for blue pigment.

Honestly. How else could Romans and Greeks have kept referring to blue-eyed barbarians (as far back as Xenophanes, fr. 14), without ever having a word for blue? At most one might say caeruleus, for example, could sometimes be used for dark green. But that’s extremely rare (likewise kuanos in Greek). But we already know why that would be—most particularly why that would occur so rarely. Because, obviously, some authors were color blind.

So I don’t know what this article is up to, or who they are getting this from. No. Sorry. Ancient Greeks and Romans could see and recognize blue, and distinguish it from green, and had plenty of dedicated words for doing that. Myth busted.


  1. Just yesterday I was talking to a chemist here at Durham university about pigment sources for medieval manuscripts. He uses raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical constituents of the colours employed by illuminators. Interestingly, their research has identified a period in which the importation of lapis lazuli dropped, and he thinks that somewhere along the supply chain, someone was substituting it with Egyptian blue (calcium copper silicate) which was cheaper, thereby driving up his profit margins.

    Thanks for your interesting post!

    1. Rebecca Turner April 22, 2015, 11:44 pm

      Which… they did link to a few times, but… they literally added nothing to, nor provided any commentary on. =/

  2. Tao Te Ching (6th c. BC) [source: https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1619320878 ]
    Chapter 12
    12.1.1 The five colors make our eyes blind.
    12.2.2 The five flavors make our mouth lose (taste).
    12.2.3 The five musical tones make our ears deaf.

    The 5 colors in traditional China were: Blue, Black, Red, White, and Yellow.
    The 5 flavors were: Salty, Bitter, Sour, Pungent, and Sweet.
    The 5 musical notes were: La, So, Re, Mi, and Do.

  3. M'thew April 23, 2015, 12:42 am

    Maybe reading Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher might help. He describes the whole Gladstone thing from the language point of view (without referring to all the blue stones that were used in ancient times). He also quotes a lot of research that indicates that the lack of refinement in words for colours is not limited to ancient Western civilizations, but occurs all over the world. Nothing to do with some physiological difference between them (ancient Greeks, or the people of Bellona Island) and us. It’s all just a matter of vocabulary and the need (or lack thereof) to discern between various hues of colours. Deutscher also busts anything that Geiger says with respect to colour.

    If there are still people espousing the hypothesis that the ancient Greeks and Romans somehow weren’t able to see the colours that they did not discern the way we do nowadays, then these people are way behind the times.

  4. mordred April 23, 2015, 12:58 am

    Hmm, the article was not published on April 1st. There goes my theory….

    I only skimmed the article’s comments but it seems very few people reading the page have a classical education, or know of the incredible invention of online dictionaries! (My largely forgotten Latin lessons only brought up caerulus after some thinking…) At least some people remembered cornflowers, peacocks, bluejays…

  5. Frans April 23, 2015, 2:59 am

    But was Homer such a color weirdo? I assume the North Sea and the Atlantic are the same color in the UK as on this side of the Channel (Benelux): gray blue to gray green. Saying any kind of wine looked like that would be akin to madness — or at least an indication of being color blind. So, where am I going with this?

    Well, I’ve been to Italy and Greece. The sea there is blue. And during sunrise and sunset, it takes on a purplish, wine-like aspect. So I wouldn’t be so quick to put Homer away as color blind, unless it’s corroborated by other evidence. Of course it’s not the most straightforward description, but isn’t questioning that akin to asking why the author of Beowulf says whale road instead of simply sea?

    Oddly enough, Wikipedia claims that Gladstone went on a Grand Tour. He should’ve noticed how the sea looks different in southern Europe. I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps Business Insider has more to answer for than Gladstone?

    PS Only after writing this I noticed that the exact same remark was made last month already by Phill Evans: “Wine dark sea is a beautiful and exactly right description of the Mediterranean at sunset. It goes a deep deep red, like the darkest red wine.”

  6. You are right, though I’ve always thought that the absence of the word *blink (corresponding to pink) in modern English proves that we can’t see light blues!

  7. Diana MacPherson April 23, 2015, 5:02 am

    Two words: evil eyes. As you say, blue eyes really freaked out the ancients. They also gaudied up their buildings and statuary with blue paint so much that it was, well, gaudy but I guess everyone has different tastes.

  8. lreadl April 23, 2015, 5:27 am

    Numbers 15:38
    Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue:

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, that heaven is represented in antiquity as being blue derives from Exodus 24:10:
    and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.

    In other words, we see the sky as blue because we are seeing the floor of heaven from below.

    So, yeah, WTF.

  9. Here’s a nice video about how different languages cut up colours differently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TtnD4jmCDQ
    We recently had a chat in the Pharyngula Lounge about how our native languages describe the whole violet/purple clusterfuck of colour and how the words mostly go with things that are of that colour (and are often relatively recent additions to the vocabulary. What need do you have for the word purple in a pre-industrialized European countryside?)

  10. oualawouzou April 23, 2015, 7:23 am

    I am flabbergasted that such a statement became prevalent enough that you felt you needed to make a serious debunking of it. 0_0

  11. sawells April 23, 2015, 8:12 am

    Wow, that article was dumb.

    My dad once gave medical evidence in a court case involving a snakebite. the case was almost thrown out because one witness described the snake as blue and the other as green – until it was pointed out that the witnesses both had Zulu as their first language, which again has a green/blue cover term, and that was the word they were both thinking of.

  12. Outis April 23, 2015, 9:51 am

    I think the article ran with an idea that has some nuance, and in the process, obliterated it.

    I think the idea was that colors are grouped differently, and we’re more sensitive to groupings that we’ve trained ourselves to see. So what is obviously “blue” to us may not be quite as obvious to a different culture, and differentiating shades of a color is more difficult with fewer words. You mention yellow and brown; the theory goes that we’ll be able to more quickly identify the colors and sort them, because we have the two words, than a culture that has only one. It isn’t that our eyes see differently, just that our language plays a role in our ability to process and understand what we’re seeing.
    About five minutes into this video is a rather short clip of an experiment demonstrating this:

  13. mordred April 23, 2015, 11:00 am

    Bluejays I think are a New World animal. But there were indeed other blue birds in the Greco-Roman world.

    Hmm, Latin is not the only language foreign to me… I always assumed blue jay was an English term for “Eichelhäher”, the Eurasian Jay. Which still has some nice metallic blue feathers!

  14. I’d also heard that the Greeks didn’t “see” blue and dismissed it as BS.

    Similarly there was an episode of QI where it was claimed the Welsh language has no word for blue, which is equally BS, it’s “glas”.

      1. Well, they certainly would not have known what they were (drifting debris? weird sea creatures?). But if the claim is that they would be invisible, well certainly not. If strange and unfamiliar things were thereby invisible to our perception, we’d have gone extinct long ago.

  15. Phillip Hallam-Baker April 23, 2015, 3:36 pm

    Actually Oxford did NOT grant Gladstone the degree. Gladstone came first in the examinations and would have been awarded a double first but he hadn’t satisfied the residence requirement. So instead of graduating as a scholar, Gladstone as the son of a Baronet was graduated automatically.

    Yep, it was still a thing back then. If your dad was an aristocrat, you graduated automatically.

    The reason he didn’t meet the residence requirement was that he was already heavily involved in politics. He also founded one of the debating societies that amalgamated into the Oxford Union (the union itself was founded in 1823 but it did not play its current role in UK politics until much later and largely because of Gladstone).

    Gladstone’s 1877 paper might seem odd by modern standards but the origin of species is only published in 1859 and Gladstone is busy running the country for much of the time inbetween. The fact that the pre-eminent statesman of his age known for his religiosity is engaged in such work is itself rather remarkable. The idea that color vision might have evolved since Homer would not seem absurd as it does today.

    1. Oh wow. Thank you for that bit of history!

      (Although it wasn’t Gladstone that advanced the biological theory. That was Geiger. Gladstone just overlooked a common Latin word. And the actual uses of Greek words. That is, he sucked at philology, not philosophy of biology. But nevertheless, point worth noting.)

  16. Might as well throw in this suggestion, quoted by the New York Times back in 1983:

    Robert Fitzgerald, the American translator of Homer, noted in an interview that the literal translation of the phrase is ”wine-faced sea.” Still, he uses ”wine-dark sea.” As a romantic expression, he said, it ”can’t be improved on.”

    Years ago, Mr. Fitzgerald recalled, he had an intimation of what the minstrels and Homer might have had in mind. He was on a ship coming out of the Corinth Canal into the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea.

    ”The contrast of the bare arid baked land against the sea,” Mr. Fitzgerald said, ”gave the sea such a richness of hue that I felt as though we were sailing through a bowl of dye. The depth of hue of the water was like the depth of hue of a good red wine. So I associate the expression with the richness of hue rather than a specific color. I’ve been content with that as my personal interpretation.”

    The occasion for the NYT article was a dust-up in the letters pages of Nature (sadly paywalled).

  17. gingerbaker April 24, 2015, 8:13 am

    Happy to see your obliteration of this nonsense. 🙂

    Reminds me of another ridiculous claim floating around from that execrable movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” – that American or Carib Indians literally could not see the sailing ships of arriving Europeans because they had no cultural reference to such contraptions.

  18. Of course, Homer could also have been red-green color-blind, and thus a green sea looked wine-colored to him. Given the fact that red-green colorblindness is the most common form of colorblindness (and it’s only found among men), this seemed to be a plausible explanation to me when I learned about the “wine colored sea.” (That, and the possible problems of translation, of course.)

    Although I’m not colorblind, it has always struck me as strange that we use red and green lights to indicate stop and go for traffic, that we use red to imply bad and green to imply good in so many visuals and graphics, despite the fact that up to 10% of males in a population are red-green colorblind.

  19. Afzal April 25, 2015, 11:47 pm

    How come the letters ‘er’ no longer depict the sound as in ‘ERror’, why can’t people tell anymore? Replace the ‘r’ with an ‘n’ and it’ll be plain…unless you also think ‘en’ is equivalent to ‘un’.

    perhaps the insensibility is related to misperception of culurs.

  20. Phillip Hallam-Baker April 26, 2015, 7:17 am

    Gingerbaker, in fact the majority of native americans could not see the ships but the reason was quite simple and obvious: They had just been wiped out by European plague carried on those ships.

    Looking again at the original piece, it seems to me that this is an example of the zombie proof by deference to authority.

    One of the key differences between argument on the left versus the right is the role of authority. A right wing troll will usually begin an argument by riffing off a statement made by someone they consider to be an authority. If the person happens to be a Democrat, it will be asserted that ‘even liberals’.

    Such arguments hold little weight on the left today. We have all heard too many specious arguments attributed to Marx or Adam Smith. The idea that the complex interactions of a modern political economy were fully understood and solved by a man who died before the development of the internal combustion engine has always been absurd.

    Here we see the ideological mind at work. They find a fanciful theory attributed to a great man. They wonder if it has been overlooked! Then instead of seeking to disprove their new pet theory, they look for evidence to support it.

    In general, any assertion based on small n psychology samples needs to be taken with considerable skepticism. And the same goes for large. It is really hard to measure any effect in laboratory setting without contaminating the result.


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