Were the ancient Greeks and Romans colour blind?
Homer left historians with the impression that the ancient Greeks and Romans had an under-developed appreciation of colour. The ancients, in fact, were a shade more sophisticated than that and understood colour in a completely different way to us, argues Mark Bradley. By kind permission of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, we are pleased to bring you this fascinating look at colour.
People in ancient cultures saw colour in an altogether different way from you and me. The most famously perplexing description of colour in the ancient Mediterranean world is the ‘wine-dark sea’ in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Have you ever looked at the sea and thought that it was the colour of claret?
One of the first people to argue that the ancient Greeks had an under-developed colour sense was a 19th century British prime minister. As well as being a politician, William Gladstone was a classics scholar and in his spare time did a study of colour usage in early Greek literature.
According to Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, Gladstone observed, quite rightly, that colour operated in a very different way in antiquity from what we are used to today. ‘We have a great deal of difficulty in translating Homer’s colour terms into modern western languages,’ he says.
Gladstone noted that Homer actually uses very few colour terms, that black and white predominate, and that he uses the same colours to describe objects which look quite different.
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