Thursday 9 April 2015

Ancient Roman Colour Thesaurus by Caroline Lawrence

In aditu autem ipso stabat ostiarius prasinatus, cerasino succinctus cingulo, atque in lance argentea pisum purgabat. Super limen autem cavea pendebat aurea in qua pica varia intrantes salutabat.

"At the entrance of Trimalchio's townhouse stood the doorkeeper, decked out in grass green and belted with a cherry-red sash. He was shelling peas on a silver platter. Above the threshold hung a golden cage in which a particoloured magpie greeted all those who entered." 
The Satyricon of Petronius XXVIII

I love these lines from Petronius's Satyricon – a book written 2000 years ago – because they give us a wonderfully vivid snapshot of a scene from ancient Rome. Or perhaps instead of snapshot I should say gif because you get a shudder of animation as you read it.

You can almost see the door-slave in bright green with the red sash, perhaps leaning against the doorframe, cradling the silver platter in the crook of his left arm while he uses his right hand to shell the darker green peas with little pops. Above his head swings the golden cage with the chattering magpie inside, fluttering his white and petrol blue wings.
In those two Latin lines are colour, movement, taste, sound, smell and humour. All elements, incidentally, that memory masters like Tony Buzan encourage us to use when we want to fix something in our memory. 

I love colours and the words that describe them. I especially love colour-words with attached synaesthetic qualities: movement, scent, sound. 

Peacock blue shimmers. 

Rose pink smells delicious. 

Silver makes me think of bells. 

Best of all are colours associated with taste: chocolate, vanilla, tomato, peanut butter, mocha, orange, whisky and bubblegum. Yum.

But wait! I write historical fiction and all the taste-colour words I just listed are anachronistic because none of them existed in Imperial Rome.

What to do? 

Taking a leaf out of Petronius's codex, I started using taste-colours that the Romans would have known about: nutmeg-coloured tunic, sea-green eyes, tawny hair, etc. 

Procrastinating one day by surfing Twitter, I came across this Writers' Color Thesaurus, a visual prompt to "help you name any color imaginable". 

I don't quite agree with all the shades, so I thought it would be fun to make my own Pinterest scrapbook of colours that would be allowed in Roman times. 

Because I am linking the colour to an object, I get a special flavour (sometimes literally) for each colour. So a visual thesaurus like this is great for poets as well as writers of historical fiction. 

Here are some of the tasty colours I've uploaded: nutmeg, cinnamon, peach, pear, mulberry, grape, pomegranate, pear green, cherry, pistachio, cream, milk, whey, clove, celery and almond.

Here are some luxury colours: gold, amber, silver, amethyst, green bronze, lapis lazuli, ivory, cinnabar red, egyptian blue, emerald green and frankincense. 

Here are some textured colours: charcoal grey, dove grey, peacock blue, rust orange, tawny, moss green, egg yolk yellow, eggshell beige, bran and mud. 

Here are some fragrant colours: pine green, violet, mint, salmon, beeswax, sardine, lavender and grass. 

Here are some sinister colours: blood red, bone white and coal black. 

And as with all good synaesthesia, some colours can do more than one thing. Check out my Ancient Roman Colour Thesaurus. I hope it inspires you to create your own!

Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence has just signed up to write The Roman Quests, four history-mystery books for kids aged 9+ set in Roman Britain between the years AD 94 and AD 96. The first book, Escape from Rome, will be published in May 2016.  


Sue Bursztynski said...

How delightful! Of course, you would have to keep your colours to things the Romans would know. Do you have synasthaesia yourself, Caroline?

Caroline Lawrence said...

I don't have synaesthesia myself, Sue, but sometimes wish I did!

Sue Purkiss said...

How interesting! Thanks, Caroline.

Spade and Dagger said...

Someone in our family has mild synaesthesia and sees the days of the week as distinct colours. Unfortunately these colours didn't remotely match the daily colour-coded timetable used in primary school, which caused them great distress as nobody else could appreciate the mismatch and they were too young to realise that not everyone had that ability.

Alison Morton said...

Apart from making my mouth water, this wonderful post reminds us of how much we unconsciously connect colour and taste. I think strong link, e.g. lettuce = green, this is what throws us when we see white carrots, orange cauliflower and yellow tomatoes.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, those pesky Romans had WHITE carrots!!

Unknown said...

What a fun and useful idea for writers of any historical period! Thanks for the idea, and congratulations on your new series!

Helen Hollick said...

Only one caveat... be aware of your continent! To decribe a bright blue summer sky US writers could put "as blue as a jay" or "as blue as a robin's egg" but for UK... our jays are not blue and our robins' eggs are a pale blue. Always check!

Sue Bursztynski said...

And we don't have jays OR robins here! Still, readers can alwYs Google or think of something really, really blue where they are. :-)

Ann Swinfen said...

What a wonderful post - loved it!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Good caveats! Keep your ideas coming. :-)

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