BMCR 2006.08.47

Couleurs et vision dans l’antiquité classique

, , Couleurs et vision dans l'antiquité classique. Rouen: Publications de l'Université de Rouen, 2002. 196 p. : couv. illustrations en coul. ; 24 cm. ISBN 2877753360 €19.00 (pb).

This volume revisits one of the oldest and most contested problems of classical philology—that of ancient colour perception and discrimination. Couleur et vision dans l’antiquité classique represents a field of enquiry that first attracted serious scholarly attention in the early nineteenth century with Goethe’s theory of defective colour vision among the Greeks, an idea that was famously promoted in the wake of Darwinian theory by the British prime minister and Homeric scholar W.E. Gladstone and hotly debated by philologists and anthropologists well into the twentieth century. The issue of the poverty and imprecision of ancient colour vocabulary (or at least the difficulty in mapping it on to that of the modern West) has never been satisfactorily resolved, and the remainder of the twentieth century has continued to see a steady trickle of scholarship on the subject, mainly concerned with reinstating the perceptual sophistication of the ancients. This century has thus far seen a modest revival of interest in ancient colour perception, with a spate of interdisciplinary conferences and publications concerned with the richness of Greco-Roman colour discrimination, the cultural specificity of ancient colour, and the complexity of literary and artistic engagement with vision and visual categories.1

Villard’s volume is a collection of ten short essays by philologists from Rouen, Paris, Lyon and the École Française de Rome, together with a brief introduction and short ‘synthèse’ by Villard. These essays represent a reasonably wide range of expertise in (mainly Greek) linguistics and literature from the Hippocratic corpus through to Lucian, with a particular focus on ancient medical texts and Greek literature of the second century A.D. The volume has little to say about artistic and architectural registers of colour (in spite of Villard’s allusion to their significance, pp. 6-7), nor the influence that available pigments and materials exerted on the development of perceptual categories, and (with the partial exception of Trinquier’s paper) there is also little consideration of the effect of Roman traditions, discourses and imperial hegemony on ancient colour usage. Nevertheless, the deployment of colour in medical texts in particular is an original and significant contribution to the field; for Villard (p. 8), the sophistication and creativeness of colour categories employed in ancient medical diagnosis is enough to dismiss any persistent ideas about a cultural “colour-blindness”. The volume also notes interesting patterns in the relationship between the ancient philosophy of perception and the formulation of visual experiences in a wide range of Greek literary contexts.

The first paper by A. Blanc (‘Rendre les nuances de couleur en grec: l’emploi du procédé linguistique de la composition nominale’) is a technical linguistic study of the effects of prefixation in Greek colour terminology. This is a sensitive and persuasive study of the possibilities of perceptual subtlety that lay at the edges of ‘basic colour terms’ in Greek (‘adjectifs à spectre large’, as B. puts it), and complements the detailed philological study of Latin colour vocabulary in J. André’s seminal Études sur les termes de couleurs dans la langue latine (1949), to which B.’s methodology is indebted. B. argues that Greek colour vocabulary—at least that of Hippocratic and technical texts of the classical period—is comparable to modern French in its versatility, although whereas French employs a range of suffixes (blanchâtre, noiraud, rouget, brunot, jaunelet, etc.), Greek instead normally uses prefixes ( δια -, ἐν -, ἐξ -, ἐπι -, παρα -, ὑπο -). B. proceeds with a close and judicious examination of each prefix and proposes a sensible semantic range for each: so, ἐν – is possessive (e.g. Aristotle’s animal livers are ἔνωχρος because they possess a yellow substance); ἐπι – denotes the presence of a colour at the surface; ὑπο – denotes an inferior shade or degree of colour; ( δια – implies the thorough or distinctive presence of a colour; the most complicated, ἐξ -, evokes an intensive colour at the exterior of an object, sometimes implying change or deviation from a norm. None of B.’s conclusions are particularly surprising or original; one can find many of them explored, for example, in Maxwell-Stuart’s thorough Studies in Greek colour terminology (1981), which is not referenced. This said, B.’s paper makes a good case for precision and sophistication in classical Greek technical prose.

A. Christol’s paper ‘Les couleurs de la mer’ is a focussed study of colour categories applied to the sea in Homeric texts and classical Greek literature (principally verse, although the implications of this literary range are not thought through). After a rather sketchy outline of colour theory—in which C. shows support for Berlin & Kay’s controversial Basic color terms (1969)—he offers a useful catalogue and discussion of different categories used to describe the sea: ἰοειδής (‘violet’, although C. overlooks the metaphorical implications of the suffix); γλαυκός (‘dans la zone du bleu’); πολιός; οἶνοψ; μέλας; and, in classical Greek, κυάνεος (‘bleu sombre’)2. C. discusses in detail the category οἶνοψ (Homer’s “wine-dark sea” being one of the classic colour problems), and suggests several possible interpretations: the bubbling of fermentation; a shimmering surface similar to that evoked by πορφύρεος; the sea at sunrise/ sunset; or even a type of cheap bluish wine akin to the obsolete French ‘petit bleu’/ ‘gros bleu’. C. is (frustratingly) non-committal, and opts in the end for a versatile system of lexical associations between wine, blood and the sea which allow the poet to select whichever category he chooses. C. finishes by examining the complex category πολιός (principally ‘grey-haired’, but also used to describe sea, steel and wolves). His conclusion that πολιός denotes a wavelength that includes our ‘grey’, ‘green’ and ‘blue’ (rather like Ossete ‘c’aex’, as he maps out in two rather curious diagrams at the end of the paper) strikes this reader as less significant than the metaphorical associations of age, timelessness etc. that could be evoked once one accepts (as C. does on p. 42) that the primary referent of πολιός is grey hair. The general movement suggested by parts of this paper away from the chromaticity of these categories towards a more metaphorical set of associations (the sea as danger, adventure, “the unknown”, a poetic artefact, or timeless) is a promising one and sits well with patterns of perception outlined in other papers, although the extent to which C. himself sees this is not clear (the paper has no summary).3

Then the first of the medical studies: L. Villard’s ‘Couleurs et maladies dans la Collection Hippocratique : les faits et les mots’ is a learned study of the sophisticated and inventive means by which Hippocratic authors identified and described changes in the colours of skin, eyes, excretions etc. and thereby diagnosed specific maladies. V. demonstrates the precision and subtlety of colour descriptions in Hippocratic texts—sometimes rendered by compounds of different categories (e.g. ὠχρόλευκος, ἐρυθρόχλωρος), sometimes by prefixation (e.g. ὕπωχρος), sometimes by combinations of the two ( ὑποχλωρομέλας), and sometimes by allusion or comparison to a familiar object ( ὀρώδης, ‘whey-coloured’; γαλακτώδης‘milk-coloured’ etc.). V. makes an important point about the epistemology of colour perception in Hippocratic texts: colours are signs of particular physical states (in particular, expressions of humours) and accurate observation of colour is a crucial aspect of medical expertise. V. is also sensitive to the notion of different registers of colour discrimination: it is not the case that all Greeks discriminated these colours, rather that medical experts developed the sophisticated visual categories they needed for their work. Particularly interesting is the idea (p. 63) that medical authors borrowed poetic categories of colour in formulating their observations: this was a highly educated and literate discourse, as well as one appealing to ‘des réalités quotidiennes’ (e.g. in cases like “whey-coloured” skin). V. finishes her paper by suggesting that Greek artistic verism is a good analogy to medical ekphrasis; there may be some intellectual mileage here, but the ideas are not fully developed.4

V. Boudon’s ‘La théorie Galénique de la vision: couleurs du corps et couleurs des humeurs’ applies the same methodology to colour classification in Galen, arguing that accurate visual perception was central to medical diagnosis in his texts, that Galen adapted Aristotelian optical theories for his purpose, and that his somatic colours were closely linked to the colours of the four humours. Most of B.’s paper is concerned with Galen’s application of optical mechanics and the Aristotelian idea that colour was the primary object of vision (which for Galen was a divine faculty). Galen’s four basic colours—white, black, red, yellow—formed the basis of the eight ‘temperaments’ which were signalled by the colour of hair, skin and eyes, and this four-colour palette (B. comments briefly) also corresponded to the four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile). There are a lot of good ideas buried in this paper — especially regarding Galen’s emphasis on the physicality of colour — although their implications for the uses of vision in ancient medicine are not as clearly stated as they might have been. If, for example, Galen’s colour palette indeed corresponds to somatic humours, does this mean that medical vision discriminates bodily properties rather than colour qua colour?

I. Boehm’s paper ‘Couleur et odeur chez Galien’ picks up where Boudon left off, and examines several excerpts for patterns of interconnection between visual and olfactory perception in Galen’s medical diagnosis—a tentative dip (one might argue) into the field of synaesthesia. While B. does not establish any hard and fast correspondence between odours and colours (as she judiciously notes in her conclusion, p. 96), some significant patterns emerge, based largely on the physiology of the four humours as well as the properties hot-cold. Again we find that either chromatic or olfactory change is at the heart of accurate diagnosis, and Galen identified particular sequences of colour change in illnesses (red to black to yellow, for instance); consequently, disorders could often be reversed by exposing the patient to particular odours and colours. This essay (like Villard’s paper) makes a strong case for situating the colours and smells of medical diagnosis in the very physiological phenomena they designate, so that the categories could be as precise and informative as possible.

These ideas lead neatly on to the final “medical” paper, J. Trinquier’s ‘Les vertus magiques et hygiéniques du vert dans l’antiquité’ which demonstrates that the medical associations of colour found a place not only in other literary circles, but also in artistic and architectural conventions. This is the longest contribution in the volume and, demonstrating impressive Wissenschaft, draws upon philosophical, medical, architectural and etymological literature from Aristotle right through to Isidore, as well as studies of natural history, Egyptian papyri and Roman art, to explore the pervasive therapeutic properties of green and green objects in Greco-Roman antiquity. This is an original and stylishly-written piece that picks up some of the themes about the physiology of colours in earlier medical papers, extends them to broader registers of cultural history (with a focus on early imperial Rome), and asks some important questions about colour perception and association. It is the only paper that deals at any length with Latin texts, and one might wonder what is lost (or gained) by translating colour experiences into Latin. T.’s study falls broadly into two parts: the first (pp. 98-114) is a study of the therapeutic properties of green stones (especially emeralds) and animals (e.g. lizards and scarabs), the significance of which T. persuasively situates in Egyptian ritual and iconography; the second (pp. 114-127) offers discussions of greenery qua vegetation, where T. makes a strong case for linking medical theories about plants and humours (or ‘humidity’) with the Roman architectural vogue for green spaces as a site for rest and recuperation. T. does not do as much as he might have done to connect the two parts of his paper. Pliny the Elder (a central figure in this paper) expresses considerable moral outrage that the aesthetic luxuria of gems is beginning to rival nature, and that—because of the Roman fetish for emeralds—it is no longer the case that grass is always greener.5 If we accept that green was primarily the property of verdure, and that explanations of the therapeutic properties of green largely depended on this connection (for which T. provides ample evidence), then other objects with the same ‘wavelength’ (emeralds, Carystian marble, green scarabs, etc.) generate a new sense of ‘colour’. This point is surely of great significance.

D. Kasprzyk’s ‘Les couleurs du rêve chez Artémidore’ diverts the study of colour away from the physical mechanics of colour on to the difficult intellectual field of “colour symbolism”. Although a little slow to get going, this paper identifies some important patterns of chromatic association and colour semantics in Artemidorus’ Onirocriticon. ‘La palette d’Artémidore’ (p. 135) consists principally of white, black, “red” (under which, curiously, K. combines ‘fiery’ and ‘bloody’ as well as the dyes κόκκινος, πορφυροῦς and ἁλουργής), and a fourth category, ποικίλος, which describes an object of unstable or patchy colour. K. suggests three patterns of colour usage in the text: first, straightforward prognostic associations between colours in dream and colours in reality (so, a ποικίλος panther in a dream might signal the arrival of a tattooed person in reality); second, colours whose meaning is defined by social context (esp. costume colours, e.g. purple dress to signal the acquisition of power or wealth, black to forecast death, etc.); and finally, colours with deep-seated psychological or moral associations (e.g. white or black objects with positive or negative connotations, ποικίλος visions indicating confusion, deception, etc.). K. demonstrates that Artemidorus, in seeking a rationale for dreams, exploited descriptive categories from other literary registers (esp. poetry), and that “colour symbolism” in the Onirocriticon was a highly sophisticated and creative aspect of dream interpretation.

S. Badilita’s ‘Le symbolisme des couleurs chez Philon: l’exemple du De Somniis I, 189-227′, examines similar issues in a first-century Jewish treatise on the dreams of the patriarch Jacob, one of which (relayed at Genesis 31) features rams and goats with coats that are pure-white ( διάλευκος), mottled ( ποικίλος) or speckled ( σποδοειδής ῤαντός). Philo’s interpretation is an extraordinary allegorical exegesis on the ritual and cosmic associations of polychromy and whiteness, evoked by rites de passages in the appareil of the High Priest, as well the flux and instability of human life which was epitomised by the ποικίλος coat of Joseph. B.’s paper again highlights the striking creativeness of colour symbolism in the context of dream interpretation, although it remains to be asked how far these particular categories actually constitute colours. If they do, is this because Philo makes them into transferable visual experiences? In addition, although B. makes much of Philo’s intellectual debt to Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, one would like to know more about the influence of Jewish culture and ritual on formulations of colour and visual experiences. Nevertheless, B.’s discussion offers another interesting example of the deployment of colour in epistemological enquiry.

The volume ends with two papers that divert the focus away from colour to a broader study of the discourses of vision. I. Gassino’s short paper ‘Voir et savoir: les difficultés de la connaissance chez Lucien’ explores how the traditional philosophical relationship between vision and knowledge is questioned, paraded and parodied by Lucian. Most of this paper is concerned with Lucian’s characterisation of blind and partially-sighted figures as possessing a moral (rather than simply physiological) disorder, and therefore defective knowledge and understanding. At the same time, G. observes, Lucian subverts the philosophical clichés: Tiresias (‘l’aveugle qui sait’, p. 171), for example, rejects all knowledge and philosophical speculation; elsewhere, sight is represented as misleading or distracting (e.g. one observes gilded statues but not the rotten wood and scaffolding inside). G. finishes her paper with Lucian’s catch-22 argument that proper observation relies on prior knowledge and therefore vision per se does not straightforwardly derive information about the external world. This paper, although not always easy to follow, competently outlines the philosophical doctrine on sight and knowledge as well as Lucian’s subversion of this doctrine.

E. Oudot’s elegant essay ‘Regarder Rome, percevoir Athènes: remarques sur le vocabularie de la vision dans les éloges de villes chez Aelius Aristide’ closes the volume with a discussion of the relationship between viewing, ekphrasis and urban politics and geography in two eulogies of the second-century raconteur Aristides: the Panegyric to Rome (written AD 144) and the Panathenaikos (delivered at the Panathenaia in 155). For Aristides, the distinctive feature of Rome’s urban topography is that man cannot encompass it in his sight ( οὐδ’ ἰδεῖν ἀξίως αὐτήν); its immensity alludes to grandeur of the Roman empire and the conquest of space. Athens, on the other hand, is a cultural and intellectual centre and Aristides’ description, O. argues, is notably telescopic—a series of concentric circles with the Akropolis at the centre of the city, the city at the centre of Attica, Attica at the centre of Greece, Greece at the centre of the world. The city of Athens is a paradigm for the nature of man ( τῆς φύσεως τῆς ἀνθρωπείας εἰκὼν καὶ ὅρος —a discourse of cosmos that O. links to Platonic philosophy). To enter Athens is to enter a different sort of reality, and Aristides’ description privileges terms denoting light and brightness. This leaves us, then, with two different ways of looking. The ramifications of O.’s paper for the volume as a whole are not clearly stated, although (like Gassino’s paper) it offers another angle on the interactive relationship between perception and knowledge in Greek literature.

Villard closes the volume with a modest ‘Synthèse’ which identifies common issues that cut across the ten papers. Distinctive themes include: the privileging of brilliance and light in the Greek visual repertoire; the physicality of colours (‘la perception des couleurs est l’objet propre de la vue’); the flexibility of colour symbolism in moral and ethical discourse; the inventiveness and sophistication of Greek colour vocabulary; and also the distinctive role of different literary registers, objectives, styles and genres for formulating colour experiences. This final observation underpins one of the biggest problems facing the study of ancient colour perception (and to some extent the intellectual inconsistency of this volume)—the more one accepts a multiplicity of visual registers, the harder it becomes to form any overarching conclusions about colour in antiquity.

Nevertheless, this volume is a welcome addition to a vibrant interdisciplinary field and should provoke constructive discussion among scholars of ancient perception, as well as enrich one’s reading of the individual texts and authors for whom vision and the discrimination of colour was a significant concern. This is a wide-ranging field, and Villard has done a commendable editorial job of bringing together a fairly disparate set of papers together and identifying areas of common ground. In particular, the collection makes an important and original contribution to the study of colour and perception in ancient medical texts, and its foregrounding of epistemological enquiry in the deployment and interpretation of visual categories in ancient literature is to be welcomed.


A. Blanc, ‘Rendre les nuances de couleur en grec: l’emploi du procédé linguistique de la composition nominale’

A. Christol, ‘Les couleurs de la mer’

L. Villard, ‘Couleurs et maladies dans la Collection Hippocratique

V. Boudon, ‘La théorie Galénique de la vision: couleurs du corps et couleurs des humeurs’

I. Boehm, ‘Couleur et odeur chez Galien’

J. Trinquier, ‘Les vertus magiques et hygiéniques du vert dans l’antiquité’

D. Kasprzyk, ‘Les couleurs du rêve chez Artémidore’

S. Badilita, ‘Le symbolisme des couleurs chez Philon: l’exemple du De Somniis I, 189-227′

I. Gassino, ‘Voir et savoir: les difficultés de la connaissance chez Lucien’

E. Oudot, ‘Regarder Rome, percevoir Athènes: remarques sur le vocabularie de la vision dans les éloges de villes chez Aelius Aristide’.


1. Conference proceedings include: M.A. Tiverios and D.S. Tsiafakis (edd.), Color in ancient Greece (Thessaloniki, April 2000), Thessaloniki 2002; S. Beta and M.M. Sassi (edd.), I colori nel mondo antico (Siena, March 2001) Fiesole 2003; K. Stears and L. Cleland (edd.), Colours in the ancient Mediterranean world (Edinburgh, September 2001), Oxford 2004. Recent publications include: J. Clarke, Imagery of colour and shining in Catullus, Propertius and Horace, New York 2002; A. Rouveret, (ed.) Couleurs et matières dans l’ antiquité: textes, techniques et pratiques, Paris 2006. The reviewer is working on a monograph on concepts of colour in ancient Rome for Cambridge University Press.

2. Curiously, Christol omits to mention μαρμάρεος, used of the sea at Il. 14.273.

3. Christol might have noted that the sea was a classic example of the inscrutability of colour for Academic Scepticism (see for example Cic. Acad. 2.105).

4. It is however significant that one can trace some degree of philosophical discomfort with the artificiality of paint; unlike the physiological colours of the body, pigments have no affinity with the underlying object; see Ion of Chios (at Ath. 13.603E) for an example of this problem. For a solution, see Plat. Rep. 4.420d.

5. So Plin. HN 37.1, plerisque ad summam absolutamque naturae rerum contemplationem satis sit una aliqua gemma. Cf. Pliny’s wonderful snipe at emeralds at 37.62: nam herbas quoque silentes frondesque auide spectamus, smaragdos uero tanto libentius, quoniam nihil omnino uiridius comparatum illis uiret.