The Ancient World Was A Riot Of Colour – So Why Do We Pretend It Wasn’t?

The beginning of Wheel & Anchor’s brochure for our 2023 trip to Greece says this:

Church in Santorini, Greece
Church in Santorini, Greece

“Close your eyes and imagine the Greek Islands – what do you see? I think for most it’s something like blue-roofed houses atop steep cliffs that plunge into the sea, surrounded by the sparkling cobalt waters of the Mediterranean….”

After having spent a lot of time there over the last decade, this is absolutely the same Greece I conjure up in my mind’s eye: a palette of colours so piercing they take your breath away: not just that unique, luminous blue of the sea and sky that’s also made its way onto the roofs of buildings, onto doorways and windowsills and even onto the national flag, but the rich hues of the fresh fruit, the orange of a good honey raki, the sparkling gold of a glass of Naxos’s famous kitron – and really, the whole spectrum, set gloriously aglow in the Aegean sun.

But when most people think of Greece, they think of Classical Greece – and somehow, in that imagining, all the colour gets washed out.

Think of all the ancient Greek statues you’ve ever seen. They’re the colour of stone, aren’t they? Simple and unadorned in exactly the style that all our most important statues and buildings use today to speak of great significance, of solemnity and sober contemplation, of coronations and presidential elections and great storehouses of cultural treasures. 

But there’s a strange assumption there, if you think about it. We’re assuming that the Greeks – and also the Romans, and the Egyptians, and every other Mediterranean culture – somehow lacked our passion for making things super-colourful – while they were living in one of the most colour-rich corners of the globe. It’s perhaps a strange thing to think?

And like many strange things to think, it is, of course, dead wrong. 

Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy
Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy

Ancient peoples certainly had the means to brighten up their surroundings, with all the pigments we know were available. There was cinnabar (red), ochre (a bricky red-brown colour), madder (a pinkish-red), orpiment (arsenic sulfide – yikes) that gives a yellow colour, and azurite, a blue-tinged carbonate of copper that goes green with age and becomes malachite, and there’s Egyptian Blue made from calcium, silicon and copper, which is the oldest synthetic pigment in history. And of course there’s carbon for black, and lead carbonate for white.

This is hardly a comprehensive summary, but it shows a little of the range they could play with. So – why wouldn’t they use them on their buildings, just like we do – or rather, just like we do when we’re not trying to make a building look like “a Classical piece of architecture”?

If this is tying your brain in knots, you’re starting to see the problem here.

In fact, many ancient pieces of classic sculpture and architecture would look to our eyes as garish as the outside of the average McDonalds.

No, seriously. There’s an example from the Greek island of Aegina: a statue of a Trojan archer, dating back 2,500 years, excavated in 1811. The original is now in a museum in Munich, and it’s gorgeous, in that creamy hue you associate with weathered marble. But after scientific examination, the faint traces of its original colours could be seen, along with faint indentations denoting the patterning of those colours. 

So scientists made a replica – a speculative one, but one that fits the available evidence. And I kid you not: he’s wearing yoga pants. Or at least something looking an awful lot like those multicoloured leggings with the diamond pattern that are all the rage right now? He’s wearing those.

The quiver for his arrows is patterned the same way. And on top of all that, he’s wearing a canary-yellow tunic covered with pictures of cute animals. It’s a little like the walls of Troy are being defended by Willy Wonka.

You can extend this everywhere. If you walked through the Parthenon in Athens, it would probably have been, in the words of historian Natalie Haynes, “a riot of colour and glitzy decoration”. Wherever a statue depicted metal, that would be painted gold, or silver, you know, in the really shiny way. Newly cast bronze would have looked shiny and almost alarmingly brown. 

Everything would have looked, by modern standards, gaudy and cheap. Most of us used to the monochromatic grandeur of Britain’s Westminster Abbey or the White House would be appalled. What were they thinking?

Egypt temple of Philae
Egypt temple of Philae

(Well, they were thinking like us. We paint things, don’t we? Why would we assume ancient people lacked our sense of fun?)

But it wasn’t just the Greeks. The Egyptians painted their temples – hence, Egyptian Blue as I mentioned earlier. And analysis of the world-famous marble statue of Augustus Caesar discovered in Italy in 1863 in the remains of the villa of his third wife, Livia Drusilla – well, you might have seen this statue. It’s perhaps the most famous symbol of ancient Rome in existence today: Augustus, dressed in an ornately-carved breastplate with a robe around his waist, lifting his arm to point at something in the distance, like he’s modeling underwear for a mail-order catalog – all in that gorgeous near-monochrome of old marble.

But there’s a replica in the town of Braga in Portugal, based on studies of what the statue would have looked like at the time. His flesh is painted pink, his robe is a deep red, his hair’s a kind of mousy-brown. Yes, his breastplate is marble-white – but it’s also filled with details etched out in red and bright blue.

It seems the way ancient cultures used colour has very little, and quite often nothing, to do with what most of us now think they looked like. It’s a meaningful association we’ve adopted simply because these buildings and statues are so old that all the paint got rubbed off. 

Think about that. Isn’t that fascinating? (And – bonkers?)

So if you’re exploring the Greek islands next year, or any other part of the Mediterranean, and your travels lead you into the ruins of an ancient temple, or perhaps through a museum packed with preserved antiquity wrought in stone, take a moment to clear your thoughts and imagine something brighter, even garish – as bright or garish as modern life can be. It’s a world of colour we never knew existed.

Join Wheel & Anchor for an island-hopping adventure in Greece in September 2023, covering some of the well-known islands like Crete and Santorini, and some of the lesser-visited ones like Naxos and Paros. More details here.


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