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Title: Concepts of colour in ancient Rome
Author: Bradley, M.
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2004
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This thesis is an attempt to understand how Romans of the early empire categorised, organised and applied colours. The study of colour has become familiar territory in recent anthropology, linguistics, art history and archaeology. Classicists, however, have traditionally subordinated the study of colour to form. By drawing together evidence and ideas floated by contemporary philosophers, elegists, epic writers, historians and satirists, this research reinstates colour as an essential informative unit for the classification and evaluation of the Roman world. It also demonstrates that the question of what colour is and how it functions - as well as how it could be abused and mislead the senses - were high on the Roman intellectual agenda. Chapter one examines a range of Roman responses to the rainbow, the locus classicus of colour discrimination and explores how Romans discussed and interpreted this difficult phenomenon. It then demonstrates that such discussion was deeply embedded in a Greek and Hellenistic philosophical tradition which was concerned with the relationship between perception, the physical world, and knowledge. It explores the impact of these debates on Roman discussions of color, and examines key passages on colour from Lucretius, Cicero, Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius. The aim of the chapter is to reach an understanding of the scope and nature of concepts of color in early imperial Rome, and the differences between Latin color and our notion of “colour”. Chapter two demonstrates that the Romans had a handful of colours which were primarily displayed and formulated on the body. This chapter studies Roman interpretations of natural skin, hair and eye colour and the strong ties that existed between these categories and behaviour, character and origin, as well as the interpretation of colour changes in the form of blushing and blanching. It then moves on to consider the manipulation of colour through cosmetics and costume dyes, and the ethical problems this generated. The chapter finishes with sea-purple dye (purpura) and argues that this artificial cosmetic colour was an ancient paradigm for the development of “abstract” colours. Chapter three studies the distribution and interpretation of colour in the Roman urban landscape. Discourse on the landscape and architecture of imperial Rome was deeply concerned with the accurate evaluation of the objects one perceived; uiridis and caeruleus, for example, were primarily properties of plants and deep water (rather than abstract colours). The cultural effort that made these colour-object connections, however, is best demonstrated by a consideration of how Romans made sense of a wide range of colourful marbles from all over the empire, classified by origin, rather than (as we normally do) by colour. I finish by comparing responses to two important phases of Roman urban development, that of Augustan Rome and that of Neronian Rome (in particular the Domus Aurea) and explore, from the point of view of colour, some of the philosophical problems that accompanied advanced artistic and architectural techniques and resources.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available