Prestige, color, and color language in Imperial Rome

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
David B. Wharton, Associate Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: This paper explores some ways that the human desire for prestige affected language in early Imperial discourses of color. It identifies the desire for prestige as a fundamental human psychological disposition that is often expressed through the acquisition and display of expensive objects, both in antiquity and the present, and examines the role of color in enhancing products’ perceived desirability. It argues that connoisseurship is an important component of choosing and acquiring high-status objects, requiring the ability to make fine-grained color distinctions. A broad comparison of the color vocabularies used by Cato the Elder and Columella in their agricultural works suggests an increasing desire in the early Empire to discriminate among the wide variety of colored luxury and imported agricultural products available to Roman elite consumers. Meanwhile, the importation of expensive dyes and pigments sparked lexical borrowing and innovation in color-related terms. Competitive status displays in textiles and other decorations, such as flowers and gems, required status-conscious consumers to use increasingly sophisticated color concepts and expressions, including conceptual metaphors, in order to distinguish effectively among high-status items. Although the Romans’ color conceptions tended to be organized around the material substances that produced the desired colors, they were also capable of forming abstract color categories and terms in differentiating colored products. However, ‘prestige’ is a fluid concept and should not be understood as a set of monolithic preferences among the elite; different subgroups therefore responded differently to purportedly prestigious colored items or color terms. Colored items, in turn, in their economic and social contexts, were capable of evoking a variety of emotions, including desire (for acquisition), admiration, envy, disapproval, and even disgust.

Additional Information

Psychologie de la couleur dans le monde gréco romain, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou, Fondation Hardt, 2020, pp. 271-302.
Language: English
Date: 2020
color language, Latin color terms, ancient Rome, prestige

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