Color and Other Optical Characteristics: Ancient Perception and Reception

We may imagine that when Zeus revealed his true form to Cadmus’s daughter Semele at her rash request, his blinding brilliance was enough to reduce her to ashes even if he had left his thunderbolts behind. The name Zeus has associations of luminosity (it is derived from a word that means “to shine”), as do many of the common epithets for Greek deities: Phoebus Apollo means “radiant Apollo,” and the goddess Athena is often described in Homer as glaukopis, which can be translated as “with gleaming eyes.” Apollo appears to his worshippers at Delphi in a blaze of flame and brilliant light in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. Similarly, the great heroes of ancient Greece often are depicted with a bright glow about them—like Achilles in the Iliad, “shining in all his armor like the sun.”72

In Quintus Smyrnaeus’s fourth-century A.D. Fall of Troy, the mourners at Ajax’s funeral lay “gleaming gold” and “lucent amber-drops” around his body.73 This connection between the radiance of precious jewels and the brilliance of heroes and gods was established in Greece as early as Homer. Given the strong associations among the dazzling, the divine, and the heroic, the choice of amber for a piece of jewelry or a work of art indicated a divine or heroic subject. For example, Pausanias mentions in his Description of Greece the amber statue of the emperor Augustus.74 The image must have been a “marvel to behold.”

When amber was considered in terms of its hue (instead of its brilliance), the images it evoked were no less striking. The most sought-after pieces ranged from yellow to red—colors that were associated with fire and the precious metal gold (figure 21).75 The fiery and glowing colors were important to life, marriage, and death and were linked with divine forces. Yellow and red were redolent of fire (and consequently the sun) and of light itself, and were symbolic of life and regeneration.76 In the Roman writings of Martial and Juvenal, gold was often referred to as being red.77 And since Homer, amber and gold had been paired, and both were symbols of the sun.

Hove tumulus cup, Wessex culture, Bronze Age. Amber, D: 8.9 cm (312 in.). Brighton & Hove, Royal Pavilion & Museums.
Figure 21
Hove tumulus cup, Wessex culture, Bronze Age. Amber, D: 8.9 cm (312 in.). Brighton & Hove, Royal Pavilion & Museums.

The various images that a gemstone’s color conjured up could sometimes, as in the case of elektron, determine its name. As we noted, etymologically the word is probably connected with elektor, “the beaming sun,” the root meaning being “brilliant.” Pliny the Elder, for instance, talks about a variety of jasper that was called boria (meaning “northern”) “because it is like the sky on an autumn morning.”78 And when Pliny discusses the different colors of amber, his terminology is almost invariably metaphorical. “The pale kind,” he writes, “has the finest scent, but, like the waxy kind, it has no value. The tawny is more valuable and still more so if it is transparent, but the color must not be too fiery; not a fiery glare, but a mere suggestion of it, that is what we admire in amber. The most highly approved specimens are the ‘Falernian,’ so called because they recall the color of the wine; they are transparent and glow gently, so as to have, moreover, the agreeably mellow tint of honey that has been reduced by boiling.”79

The metaphorical resonance of the colors associated with amber, like the divine and heroic associations of its brilliance, would doubtless have played an instrumental role in the kinds of subjects carved in amber and in its use. In ancient gemstones, a correspondence between color and subject was desired. According to an ancient epigram, the Nereid Galene was cut into an Indian beryl because the stone’s blue color was appropriate for this personification of the calm sea.80

Amber’s fragrance—it is the only “stone” that is both shining and fragrant—is enhanced through rubbing.81 Amber is thus a perfect material for a divine image, especially when we recall that “statues were regularly polished with perfumed oils, perhaps matching the emanation of fragrance that forms so regular a part of divine ephiphanies.”82 Not only the fragrance, but also the great age of the material, its mysterious origins, its transmuted nature, and its electromagnetic, optical, and other properties, as well as its divine and heroic epithets, would have evoked a variety of ideas in its beholders—radiant Apollo, the fiery sun, Olympian honey, Falernian wine.


  1. Iliad 19.398 (R. Lattimore, trans., The Iliad of Homer [Chicago, 1961]). It is a common tendency in Greek poetry to emphasize qualities such as brightness or sheen rather than hue, as C. Irwin, Colour-Terms in Greek Poetry (Toronto, 1974), was among the first to emphasize. See also , pp. 97–101; , pp. 11–27; and many of the conference papers in L. Cleland, K. Stears, and G. Davies, Colour in the Ancient Mediterranean World, International Series 1267 (Oxford, 2004). See C. W. Shelmerdine, “Shining and Fragrant Cloth in Homeric Epic,” in , pp. 99–107, for a discussion of the highly desirable qualities of shininess and fragrance in Aegean elite textiles and the larger implications of her argument.
  2. Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy 5.623–25, trans. A. S. Way, Loeb Classical Library 19 (London, 1913).
  3. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.12.7–8, trans. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod, Loeb Classical Library 188 (Cambridge, MA, 1966): “Of the statues set up in the round buildings, the amber one represents Augustus, the Roman emperor.… This amber of which the statue of Augustus is made, when found in the sands … of the Eridanus, is very rare and precious to men for many reasons.” What better material for the divine princeps?
  4. For the Roman preference for a reddish cast in yellow, see , p. 272, n. 74. On the affinity of red and gold in Egypt, see , pp. 106–7. For the Classical world, see , p. 26. The flammeum, the most characteristic element of the Roman bridal costume, and the veil of the Flaminica Dialis were deep yellow (luteum), the same color as lightning, according to Pliny (Natural History 21.22). See , esp. chaps. by L. La Follette, “The Costume of the Roman Bride” (pp. 54–64), and by J. L. Sebesta, “Symbolism in the Costume of the Roman Woman” (pp. 46–53), and “Tunica Ralla, Tunica Spissa: The Colors and Textiles of Roman Costume” (pp. 65–76). Some amber is similar in color to egg yolks (said to be the color of the flammeum). As noted in “Amber Medicine, Amber Amulets” below, amber is attested as a gift for Roman brides.

    For the Egyptians, pure gold, its pigment cognate, yellow, and the color red were the colors of the sun; gold was symbolic of that which was eternal and imperishable. The flesh and bones of the gods were held to be of gold, and thus that was the natural material for their images (, pp. 106–9, 116). E. A. Waarska, in The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, exh. cat., ed. E. Hornung and B. Bryan (Washington, DC, 2002), p. 105, no. 20, says that gold represented purity, and bedecking a mummy with such a material was thought to ensure a successful afterlife for its owner.

  5. , p. 26, with bibl.
  6. J. André, Étude sur les termes de couleur dans la langue latine (Paris, 1949), p. 155, discusses the many instances of gold referred to as red in Rome (as cited in D. Janes, Gold and God in Late Antiquity [Cambridge, 1998]). For further discussion of the poetic and symbolic vocabulary for the different colors of gold, see P. R. S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Techniques: The Archaeological Evidence (Oxford, 1994), p. 218.
  7. , p. 36: “The shape in which a stone was going to be cut was also sometimes determined by its colour.”
  8. Falernian wine, a product of Campania, was among the most prized in ancient Rome and, as Pliny writes, the second-best wine produced in Italy (Pliny, Natural History 14.8.62). On Falernian wine and its golden, red, and dark red colors, see, for example, P. McGovern, S. Fleming, and S. Katz, eds., The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (London, 1996); and T. Unwin, Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade (London, 1991). See also The Wine of Dionysus: Banquets of Gods and Men in Basilicata, exh. cat. (Rome, 2000). While wine is associated with Dionysos (and the Egyptian Bes), honey is associated with the Olympians Zeus and Artemis.
  9. See , pp. 36, 89. For the use of garnets, hematite, and other red stones for martial subjects, see n. 223.
  10. On being both fragrant and shining, see Shelmerdine (n. 72, above). On amber as an attractor, see Al-Beruni (n. 69, above); on amber-fragrant kisses, see Martial (n. 114, below).
  11. , p. 101, with reference to N. J. Richardson, ed. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford, 1974), p. 252.


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