The wikipedia article on purple contains nothing on this.

Also, why did the ancients not simply mix red and blue dye together to make purple?

  • Blue pigments (Indigo,and especially lapis lazuli) were also rare and expensive. – Alex Feb 8 at 1:55
  • @Alex Not all of them. Egyptian blue was extensively used in the Roman Empire. – sempaiscuba Feb 8 at 2:23

The modern theory of primary colors hadn't developed yet for the ancient world.

Interestingly (and surprisingly to a lot of people), it also appears that most of the ancients didn't consider blue a color, and didn't typically describe things like the sky or the seas as being blue.

Blue was a latecomer among colours used in art and decoration, as well as language and literature. Reds, blacks, browns, and ochres are found in cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period, but not blue. Blue was also not used for dyeing fabric until long after red, ochre, pink and purple.

For example, according to Pliny the Elder(ibid) the primary colors were red, yellow, black, and white. In modern terms, yellow and magenta are two of the three primary subtractive colors that you can use for dyes, and black and white can be used as the key ("K") ink. But of course without magenta, you conspicuously can't get any blueish hues. He was apparently unaware of (or unimpressed with) that entire part of the color spectrum.

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    I rather think the "ancient" Brits did know about blue (from woad), and the Romans might have noticed (& even commented upon it) when they invaded. ;-) That section of the article appears to be talking about prehistory, while I suspect the OP may be talking about historic periods (ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt etc) when they refer to "the ancients". – sempaiscuba Feb 7 at 11:25
  • @sempaiscuba - Hmmm. Looking into it, woad was indeed used on pottery back into the paleolithic, and the more civilized areas were aware of it. It looks like the Greeks had bad things to say about the dye, and the Romans considered it a "barbarian" color. Tweaked the wording a bit. They knew about the dye it appears, just not about the color. (A weird distinction to try to wrap a modern brain around) – T.E.D. Feb 7 at 13:30
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    @DevSolar - The thing is, we have many ancient written sources, and they did not describe the seas (or the skies) as being blue or woad or indigo or anything like that. Historically speaking (and yes this is weird) the seas and skies were not blue until recently. – T.E.D. Feb 7 at 14:09
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    For example, according to Homer, the seas were the same color as Oxen. The word he used is usually translated into English as "wine-dark". Unless those Oxen were named Babe, he probably wasn't thinking of what we'd consider the color blue. – T.E.D. Feb 7 at 14:14
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    The Jews used a blue dye since ancient times. It is called Tekhelet and it comes from a similar source as Tyrian Red. – ed.hank Feb 7 at 14:43

To add to TED's answer, another reason they didn't do this is that they simply outlawed wearing purple, which was the imperial color:

The Sumptuariae Leges of ancient Rome were various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (Latin sūmptus) in banquets and dress, such as the use of expensive Tyrian purple dye.

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    This is a good point for Rome. Rome wasn't the only ancient society though. Also one imagines that if it became cheap due to some new technique, it would no longer have the cachet of being only attainable by the ultra elite (which might have made such a law pointless) – T.E.D. Feb 7 at 11:19
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    And Tyrian purple was not what we think of as purple today; today we might refer to that color as red. The point wasn't to prohibit "any color between red & blue", the point was effectively to trademark a specific, very expensive luxury dye for the exclusive use of elite. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 7 at 11:57

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