The Purple Chamber


‘An apartment of the Byzantine palace was lined with porphyry: it was reserved for the use of the pregnant empresses; and the royal birth of their children was expressed by the appellation of porphyrogenite, or born in the purple.’ Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Chapter XLVIII.

In Byzantium, and elsewhere in the Levant, the rule of succession in royal families was one of porphyrogenitism: a child born after a monarch’s accession took precedence over one born before. Palgrave, quoted in the OED, says that this procedure, ‘congenial to popular sentiment and not without some foundation in principle, prevailed influentially and widely in many countries and through many ages.’ (The History of Normandy and of England)

The idea was present in Persia by 404 BC, when Darius II was about to die. His wife Parysatis pressed for their second son, Cyrus, to succeed to the kingship, for she had borne him to a king, whereas the elder brother Arsicas had been born to a subject. Darius did not agree. He appointed Arsicas (now to be Artaxerxes), and sent Cyrus back to resume his satrapy of Lydia. Cyrus mustered an army that included 10,000 Greeks, in order to march from Sardis and oust his brother. The failure of that expedition and the death of Cyrus in Babylonia are in Xenophon’s Anabasis—as is the account of the return journey of the Ten Thousand.

But meanwhile what of colours? Why were the Greeks so apparently unaware of them? Did Homer think the sea looked like wine? Why did they have no proper word for blue? And what colour were Athene’s eyes? Etcetera.

One of my young Classical Civilisation students said innocently, “Homer didn’t have an eyesight problem did he?”

Next post: Colours (concluded).

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