When Ancient Romans Wore Red What Did It Mean

Romans have long loved color, especially red, which may have been the first color they ever used in fabrics and artworks. To the ancient Romans, red represented power and wealth. It would seem that Roman emperors adopted the color of red as a representation of their authority and supremacy and it soon gained a highly favored and prestigious status. Red was constantly worn by Romans during official occasions such as coronations, processions and ceremonies, by far the most popular color for imperial robes.

At the height of the Roman Empire, stockings were dyed with bright shades of red and were often traded as a sought-after commodity. This allowed color to become an expression of social status amongst the wealthy. It is believed that the stockings were ever-present, suggesting a permanent status of Roman power as well as an emphasis on formality for the members of the elite. Red dye was, in fact, one of the most valuable resources in the empire.

It was also believed that certain colors could have certain positive effects that contribute to a person’s health and well-being. During the reign of Augustus, Roman soldiers would wear red cloaks while they marched in to battle, believing it would protect them from harm. This protection was then closely linked with the belief that the color could soak up the strength and energy of the sun, giving the wearer increased strength and vitality.

The color red was also frequently used in celebrations and feasts. Ancient Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia both featured vast displays of red fabrics and decorations, as these colors were considered to be the bringer of luck and fortune. Significantly, these colors were known to influence the gods which were the powerful leaders of the Roman Empire, and were often incorporated into sacred temples.

The use of red in funerary objects also adds a very interesting layer to the significance of the color. Red was believed to be the color of the deceased, and special items such as vases, coins and statues were given a red hue to commemorate the dead and symbolize a connection between the deceased and the afterlife.

In the modern day, red is still worn by high-ranking individuals associated with power and authority. In many countries around the world, red-colored garments are associated with leadership, and the color is still associated with a higher level of respect and honor.

Red Fabric and Celebrations

The earliest written reference to red dye dates back to 4th century BCE, where it was mentioned in military uniforms. Richly colored fabrics appear to have been commonly used in the Roman Empire, and it was usually associated with status and special occasions. The imperial family, officials and members of the elite typically wore garments dyed with the brightest and most expensive colors, such as the Tyrian purple, becoming symbols of the highest power and respect.

Romans would also use red to decorate their homes and streets, as well as to signify an event was taking place. For example, during Saturnalia, festival of the god Saturn held in December, the spaces would be decorated with bright red fabrics. The use of red was also believed to be an offering to the gods, a way to attract their attention and to ask for blessings and protection. This practice became especially popular in temples, where statues and altars were covered in red fabrics.

Red fabrics were often used for ceremonies, such as for processions when selecting new Roman monarchs. An interesting example of this is the ritual of Timavum, when a bull was sacrificed and then washed in the Timavo river to purify it. The upper part of the bull was then wrapped in a red fabric, symbolizing the divine power of the emperor.

In the Roman Empire, more than any other culture, the color red was used to signify power and status. This can be seen in the fabric used to decorate temples, homes and streets as well as in the clothing of the upper class. This use of color to represent social status and respect became an important part of Roman art and culture.

Sacrificial Culture

One of the oldest Roman divinities was the god of sacrifice, Mars. It was believed by the early Greeks that he carried the war-like power of the red planet, and the sacrifice of animals was a way to honor him. As red was the color of bloodshed and sacrifice, it had an esteemed status amongst the Romans and was often associated with the god of war and death.

In some cultures, including in the Roman Empire, red was also seen as the color of fire. During a large sacrifice ceremony, fire would be lit to symbolize the purification and cleansing of sins, and the offering of a burnt offering. The Romans would often use a red-colored cloth to wrap the animal before it was put on the altar. The use of red in these sacrificial rituals indicated an offering of strength and power to the god, as the color was seen to reflect the intensity of heat and energy of the flame.

It is believed that the color red may have been used as a pre-Christian ritual symbol as it is found in many ancient religious sites around the Mediterranean. Red also has a powerful connotation in the Christian tradition, often representing the passion and suffering of Jesus, which is represented in many works of art.

The color red has also been used in other sacrificial rituals, symbolizing the blood shed by prophets, saints and martyrs. This is an important reminder that the spiritual power of red can be found in almost any culture.

The Legacy of Red

The influence of the Roman Empire on the color red has lasted for centuries. To this day, it can still be seen in art, fashion, and architecture. Most notably, red is widely used in politics and civil ceremonies, such as the red carpets used for official receptions and for VIPs. This nods to the importance of the color to the Roman Empire, and how its significance has been carried through throughout history.

Red is also known to be a powerful color when it comes to advertising, as it is known to evoke strong emotions such as anger, passion, and excitement. Research has also shown that it can be used to draw the eye to certain elements on a page or screen, making it a popular choice for designers and marketers.

The color red is also known to have a strong psychological effect, and is known to have links with determination, courage, and strength. For example, the phrase “the red pill” has become a popular metaphor for knowledge and truth, and can be linked to the ancient Roman belief that red was a powerful symbol of protection and courage.

It is clear that the legacy of red for the ancient Romans has carried throughout history and still has a powerful influence today in many cultures. From its use in ceremony, religious sites and events, to its symbolism of power and protection, red is likely to remain an important color for many centuries to come.

Red in Modern Popular Culture

In modern popular culture, red is used to signify strength and beauty, especially in films and books. For example, the fairytale of The Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White’s red cape have become iconic symbols, and red can be seen as a powerful color in films such as Batman and Superman, or in the red suit worn by Iron Man. Red is also used in video games to signify power and strength, often linked to the character’s health bar and special powers.

In more modern music, red can be seen as a color of passion and longing, and can often be seen in the form of a dress. In the popular song “Red Dress” by Taylor Swift, the lyrics describe a woman in a red dress, linked to a feeling of desire and longing. Similarly, the color red is used heavily in visual art to express deep emotion and power.

The color red continues to be a strong symbol of power, status and beauty in culture today. It is no surprise, then, that it continues to be a popular and powerful choice when it comes to fashion, art, and literature.

Meaning of Red in Different Cultures

Although the color red has maintained a strong presence in Western culture, it has also been a significant color in Eastern cultures. In China, for example, the color red is associated with luck and is a common sight at weddings, festivals and temples. The color is also found in Bedouin culture and is used to ward off the evil eye. In India, red is used to signify the power and strength of the goddess Durga.

The color red also had different meaning in different parts of the world during the Middle Ages. During this period, the color was associated with royalty, power and wealth, and was even seen as a status symbol. It was also considered a color of fertility and passion and was often seen in medieval imagery and artworks.

Overall, the color red has stayed a central part of many cultures’ traditions, beliefs and practices. Its symbolism is rooted in the ancient Roman Empire, and its importance has been carried throughout history.


The color red has a long and varied history in many cultures and its importance has been carried through the centuries. From the intense significance it holds in Roman ceremonies, its significance in sacrifice and protection, to its use in art and literature, the color red has had a powerful influence over society. The color has also been a powerful choice in the East, used to symbolize luck, power and beauty. It is safe to say that the legacy of the color red will remain for centuries to come.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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