Is purple actually, erm, purple?

by Scribble Monboddo

Is purple really purple?

Researching the Monboddo family motto recently – and yes, there is one – I made a horrifying discovery. Purple might not be purple after all! Disturbing, isn’t it?

That wasn’t what I had gone looking for at all. What I had been after was the original meaning of a three-word phrase which also appears on everything from Nike t-shirts to tapestries worked by Mary, Queen of Scots: Virescit Vulnere Virtus. What on earth did it mean?

As it happens, I’m not the first to ask. Those three Vs have been variously translated as ‘virtue flourishes from hurt’, ‘courage grows at the wound’ or ‘strength draws vigour from an injury’. The latter, by the way, is the standard translation of Nietszche’s reference to the line in How to Philosophise With A Hammer, a work which also gave us the quote VVV often brings to mind: “whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”. The Latin root of that well-worn life-coach phrase is less of a surprise when you know of Nietszche’s earlier career as a classical philologist; he took a chair as a Professor of the subject at the terrifyingly precocious age of 24.

Sadly for Nietszche, some of his other phrases have been given rougher treatment at the hands of people he certainly wouldn’t have approved of, most obviously ‘The Triumph Of The Will’, which was misused as the title of a film about one of those rallies in Nuremberg. Justice has a long tail, though, and today the old rally ground has streets named after liberal authors like Franz Kafka and is home to refugee support organisations, social housing and, perhaps best of all, Kaweco – who make quite a nice purple ink themselves, as it happens.

Getting to the bottom of that motto seemed to require the use of primary sources; I may not be a philologist but I did train as a historian, after all. I was pretty sure that it was likely to have come from a poem, and that was soon confirmed. But then I discovered that almost all of the poet’s work is lost – indeed, we only know of the existence of Furius Antiates because his linguistic innovations so thoroughly infuriated the (presumably very grumpy) Latin grammarian Caesillius Vindex that an extract appears in his commentary on how not to write Latin. We don’t know much about Caesillius Vindex, other than that he lived around the time of Emperor Hadrian. His commentary too is lost, but again rescued in part by commonplace-book writer Aulus Gellius. We don’t much about Aulus Gellius either – you may sense a theme developing here – other than that he was also a Roman.

But research always pays off, and tucked away in the eleventh chapter of the eighteenth book in the third volume of the sole surviving work by Gellius, Attic Nights, was part of the poem itself, saved for posterity. 'Still all in Latin, obviously. But scrolling forward a millennium or so, if one peruses a grainy print from 1795 an English translation is available, with added commentary by Rev William Beloe. Who he? Well astonishingly we actually do know quite a bit about the Reverend, including his time as a grammar school teacher, his plum job as librarian at the British Museum, his firing for failing to stop a book-thief, and his religious title as Prebend of St.Pancras – a London parish including King’s Cross (from where, nowadays, one can catch a train almost all the way to Monboddo home turf). But I digress.

We’ll probably never discover the name of the poem, or even how long it was, but thanks to all those scholars we do have this: 

One of the poet’s daringly new-fangled terms was the first of those Vs, virescit, which appears to indicate something growing more vital, or becoming more alive. The second V, vulnere, literally means a battle-wound (to which we are all, in such trying circumstances, vulnerable). The third V, virtus, is often translated as ‘virtue’, but doesn’t quite mean that in the modern sense; the root, vir, simply indicates a male adult citizen (i.e. not a slave), and virtus denotes the qualities befitting an upstanding free man. Incidentally, as one of those manly qualities was repeated fatherhood, there is also a link to the English word ‘virility’, but it doesn’t mean exactly that either. Still, you get the general gist. My translation runs like this:

The blood-red sky covers all, muddying the waters;
All is shadowed by night’s inky qualities.
Spirits rise – what becomes a man becomes more so, wounded.
Here, fleet as a coot, the craft slides across the sea,
The breath of the east wind purples the waves,
And the richer grow their father’s fields.

So, not one for the ladies. But enough of family crests and the like. Another of Furius Antiuates’ bold new coinings was the entirely made-up verb form purpurat, which is usually translated as purples, empurples, or even purplates. To be fair, the latter two look pretty silly in English. Now, you can get away with this sort of thing in poetry, but does it accord with, ya know, science? If the wee sleekit boat was scudding west and the setting sun was shining through the tips of the waves would it really turn them purple, in the sense we understand the term, or would it make the water clearer, perlucid and invitingly clean? Ask a Mediterranean sailor, if you know one, but the latter sounds at least as likely. All of which suggests that purpurat could mean something else altogether...

...and indeed it very well might. There is reason to believe that Latin didn’t originally have a word for purple at all. It’s not massively abundant in nature, and was difficult to synthesise, so variants of the words for red and blue may have sufficed. The colour used for imperial robes was reserved for them at least in part due its crippling expense; by the time a barrel-full of murex snails had been harvested, crushed and fermented, the resulting toga dye was worth more, by weight, than gold. Or at least it was for a really good batch, which might reasonably be labelled the purest of the pure. Pure-pure, for short. Or in Latin, purpuratum. It's entirely possible that the word initially described a level of quality rather than a colour.

So, there you have it. We’ve been getting it wrong all these years, and when we thought we indulged in dark inky habits were actually becoming increasingly purified. Heck, I’ve tried 162 varieties of purity so far – and clearly I’m still not pure enough just yet. But what have the Romans ever done for us?