Skip to Content

History Department Seminar: Sarah Bond

Tuesday, November 1
3:30-5:00 p.m.
McKenzie 375

Royal Purple and Indigo: the Hidden Labor Behind Luxurious Dyes 

Perhaps no other color in history has been so celebrated and so reviled as the color purple. Although it has come to be known as the shade of royalty, the workers who labored to make the mucus-based dye in the Roman Mediterranean were often viewed as lowly and as smelly as the mollusks the harvested. During the later Roman empire, these workers were even subject to state control within a caste-like system that made their jobs hereditary. If we look to the history of another purplish hue, indigo, we see a similar regulation of the labor force — and the very bodies — of those enslaved workers used to produce it in the Antebellum South. From diamonds to coal to Tyrian purple to indigo, the workers who create luxury goods often do not enjoy the same status as their products. This lecture looks at the archaeological and literary evidence for these often-invisible workers in order to reconstruct the lives of ancient dye workers, while also reminding us of the enslaved labor that continues to create the products we use or the buildings we admire even today. 

Sarah E. Bond is Associate Professor of History and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the History Department at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean(University of Michigan Press, 2016) and numerous articles on Roman labor unions, late antique law, and ancient artisans. She was a columnist for Forbes and is now a regular contributor at Hyperallergic, with articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other public history publications.