T. R. Frazier
I’d seen the sea wear many colors: the heavy gray of the lead vats I stirred each night; the sullen yellow of the unripe dye they held; the shifting green as the dye warmed and matured; the gentle blue as the long-awaited prized color began to emerge. But the day the Cilician pirates bore me away, the sea wore Tyrian purple.
I’d implored the god Apollon to take me away from Tyre, away from the stench and toil of making the porphúra dye — the Tyrian purple. I’d forgotten that when petitioning a god, one should word supplications with care.
I’d grown weary, laboring alongside my parents, stirring the vats of brine, urine, and rancid snail guts. Working all day and sometimes late into the night, skimming the foul froth from the precious dye, whisking away the hordes of flies and wasps.
Some in our village gathered and shelled the spiny snails by the thousands, others filtered and ground them, all with painstaking care. Our world stank for miles around. At the end of each day, we’d made no more than could dye one thin stripe on a single garment. The powder was worth its weight in gold, but we saw precious little of that.
In rare free moments, I would flee the village and stand outside the theatron in Tyre, listening to plays in which gods rescued mortals from tragic ends and watching the wealthy parade by wearing the color I’d helped make. I coveted the fine clothing I helped create yet could not wear.
When I spoke of this, my father would wag a finger at me.
“Kroisos, I named you after the king of Lydia because like him we have all we need. Right here.” And he’d sweep his arms around our stinking village.
“Lord Apollon,” I’d whisper, as I lay in our reeking hovel perched above the tideline. “Take me from this place and let me live among the rich.”
His answer to my prayer came in the form of pirates who snatched me from the beach one day and carried me away over the purple sea.
Now I crouched, naked and trembling, in the heat and chaos of the great slave market of Delos, hundreds of miles from home. My gut roiled like a vat of spoiled dye, and I was assailed with a new stench I’d never had need to complain of – fear. A plaque around my neck read: Tyrian boy, 15 years. Speaks Greek. Hard worker. In truth, I was nearly 17, small for my age.
“The mine overseer from Laurion!” whispered the big Thracian next to me. “I don’t want to be thrown to the mines. Hades follows soon after.”
Here the man came, prodding arms and feeling legs. Seeing the Thracian, he nodded to our captors, and my companion moaned as money changed hands.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I whispered another prayer to Apollon. Please, something better than the mines. The god had been born on this island. Surely he could hear me.
A musical, commanding voice spoke. “I require a boy, a clever and obedient one.”
My eyes flew open. For a moment, I thought Apollon himself had descended to rescue me, as he did in the plays I longed to see. Beardless, with long, curling hair, skin so fair the purple veins showed at his temples, the young man before me could have played the part of Apollon at the theatron. Two stripes — of a color as familiar as my own blood — adorned his fine white tunic, cut in the Roman style.
The mine overseer turned my way, and I went cold as the River Styx. As the god-like man talked with the slavers, I caught the hem of his garment.
He stared down his perfect nose at me, gaze flicking from the plaque on my neck to my porphúra-stained hands.
In Greek, I said, “Take me, my lord Apollon.”
One side of the Roman’s thin mouth lifted at the flattery. He crooked a finger. “You shall wash clothes until your hands are clean, then you shall wait on me. Come, Tyrius.”
Tyrius. Thing from Tyre.
And so I became the property of Marcus Sergius Silus, from, as I came to learn, one of the proudest families of Rome, returned to civilian life from a year with a legion as tribunus laticlavius. For a while, I was giddy at my escape from the mines. All day I labored over vats of household laundry, but at least they weren’t vats of putrid snail guts with clouds of stinging insects hovering over them.
At night I slept on a bed of straw in the attic, away from the other house slaves who snubbed me for my accented Greek and halting Latin. Or tried to sleep. My body was still accustomed to late nights. I’d sing myself the songs of the vat-boys, rude ones that made us laugh and keep us from nodding off, to while away the dark hours.
The purple dye took nearly two months to leave my hands, and then I began to wait on Marcus Sergius. Compared to farm slaves, my labors were few and light. I accompanied my master to the baths and wine shops, tended to his sandals, fetched and carried for him.
But I dreaded the times he took notice of me, quizzing me with mockery in his eyes.
“Tyrius,” he’d say in Greek. “Give me the Latin for slave.”
A smile twisted his lips. “Tell me, then, what ‘servus homo est, non persona’ means.”
I shook my head, eyes on my feet.
“It means, Tyrius, that you are a person in form but not under the law. Now, the word for ‘dog’?”
I wasn’t chained to the door like the ianitor, the doorman of the house, but like a dog I trailed after my master. His words could sting like whips, though he rarely wielded one. I thanked the gods for that mercy. And I believe he was fond of me, in his cold way. Like a favorite pet, he trained me, fed me tidbits, teased me.
The loss of my humanity pierced me, like spines on a snail’s shell. I tried to tell myself I was better off than a free plebeian. After all, I accompanied my master to plays at the amphitheatre. But I was not grateful for Apollon’s answer to my prayer. My golden shackles chafed.
Once as I stood beside Marcus Sergius in the amphitheatre, transfixed by a tragedy by Euripides, my master crooked a finger.
“Fetch my staff.”
I cast a longing glance at the stage. The actor-god was coming to save the day, lowered by a crane as if descending on a beam of sunlight. By the time I fetched the staff the play would be over.
My master smiled, enjoying my distress, his power, his test of my obedience. Though I burned to see the end of the play, I obeyed.
I ran through the streets, a dog fetching for his master, feet stinging as they slapped the stones, eyes stinging with shame.
I must have pleased Marcus Sergius, for soon he kept me by his side wherever he went. I cut his hair, dressed him, accompanied him to feasts and festivals. The slaves who once had snubbed me now tried to curry favor, but I kept to myself. Surrounded by people, in one of the greatest cities in the world, I felt completely alone. Lying down to sleep at nights on the floor outside my master’s door, I’d feed my hungry heart with memories of Tyre.
My father, a Greek, used to tell stories after we’d eaten our meal of snails and flatbread.
“Kroisos,” he’d say. “Let me tell you how the first porphúra came to be.” He’d put his arm around my mother’s waist, resting his head on her dark hair. “Hercules was walking along the beach with his dog, on the way to visit his nymph mistress, when the dog bit at a snail shell. When he saw his dog’s purple mouth, old Hercules said, ‘Now that’s just the color of the dress I’ll give my woman.’”
My mother would swat his arm. “Greeks will steal anything.” Turning to me, she’d say, “We Phonecians know the truth. It was the god Melqart’s dog who chewed on a shell, and he presented the garment to his mermaid mistress.”
My father would nudge my mother. “It wouldn’t be the last time a Greek fell for a nymph on these shores.”
She’d swat his arm again, and they’d laugh, his white teeth shining, her long hair falling from its band. I’d squirm, at once embarrassed and pleased by their love for each other.
Lying in the Sergii house, in the quiet of the night, the memories overcame me, and I cast an arm across my face.
Forgive me, Lord Apollon. Better a free man stinking of shellfish than a slave smelling of rosewater fetching like a dog. In Tyre I did my own, my family’s bidding. In Tyre, I was my own master. In Tyre, people loved me. But Tyre was two years and hundreds of leagues away.
One cold, wet afternoon, Marcus Sergius bid me attend him at the Temple of Apollo Medicus, the god who heals. The Romans will steal even gods.
“First though,” he said, “the forum for a length of Tyrian dibapha.”
I went still as the marble statue in the atrium. Dibapha — cloth double-dipped in the purple dye that might as well be running through my veins.
Marcus Sergius watched me, a mocking smile curling his lips. “Poetic, is it not? Tyrius portat tyrium.” The thing from Tyre carrying the thing from Tyre.
I nodded, my eyes cast down.
Chuckling at his own joke, he shrugged on a thick wool cloak and bade me follow. Beneath his cloying violet perfume, I caught the smell of porphúra in the stripes of his tunic, and the thought of home threatened to spill over onto my cheeks.
As we neared the forum, Marcus Sergius stopped to get out of the rain and drink wine with friends. He drank too much, that one, and his friends had taken to calling him Purpura for the tinge of color on his nose. Placing a heavy purse in my hand, he bid me buy the cloth and present it at the temple in his stead, as an offering for his health and good fortune.
“Apollo will not mind,” he shrugged, and his fellows laughed.
At the forum, I found a merchant selling cloth that, to my practiced eye, was of the finest quality. I gently looked over a rare, costly bundle of wool dibapha, and the familiar, putrid smell of rotting shellfish was as ambrosia to my nostrils. I tucked the precious cloth, wrapped safe from the rain, against my heart.
With a shiver I stepped through the great doors of the temple of Apollo Medicus. I paused, seeing no one but an old augur examining bird entrails for their portents. Nodding to him as I passed, I stepped softly up to the altar and gently placed the cloth upon it. I was just turning away when a voice, musical and powerful, spoke my name.
I looked about for my master, but now saw no one at all. The thought struck me like a thunderbolt from Zeus: my master did not know my true name.
I heard a soft laugh. I turned and looked up. A young man clad in purple, burningly handsome, came toward me down a dazzling shaft of brilliant golden sunlight.
I fell on my face before him. “Lord Apollon! I have been a fool!”
The god of philosophy put his hand on my shoulder, and I trembled at the heat of his touch. “Ah, so you have learned your lesson, child.”
“Too late,” I choked.
“Such little faith!” He raised me to my feet, his mouth twisting. “Surely your master has explained that conceit of Roman theater — the deus ex machina?”
I flared up. “The Romans stole that from Euripides! It’s apò mēkhanês theós!” Then I stopped my mouth and hung my head, remembering to whom I was speaking.
The god of music and poetry only threw his head back and laughed. “Romans will steal anything, won’t they?” He led me to the temple doors, and they swung wide, not onto marble buildings by the Tiber, but to a lopsided hovel on a Tyrian beach.
The god of prophecy gestured to the scene, and I could smell the stench of rotting shellfish.
“Consider well. Marcus Sergius will be a senator one day, and you might rule over his wealthy household.”
Not daring to speak, I shook my head and stooped to kiss the hem of Lord Apollon’s robe. Spinning on my heel, I ran headlong toward the vision, a golden laugh echoing behind me. But when I passed through the great doors, I felt not hot Tyrian sand beneath my feet, but the cold Roman marble of the temple portico. I had seen the god, but he had not finished with me yet.
My heavy feet carried my heavy heart back to the wine shop. But his friends shook their heads at me, grinning.
One slurred, “Purpura wobbled after you to the temple. Go sniff him out, pup.”
My master must have been deep in his cups to walk the darkening city alone. Being a rich aristocrat’s son had made him second in command of a legion for a year, but he was no soldier. Gnawing my lip, I retraced my steps, splashing through sodden streets, picturing robbers and cutthroats around every corner. I did not love Marcus Sergius, but I did not wish him dead.
Relief broke over me when I spied him using the wall of a seedy insula to brace himself, wobbling as if the world was spinning around him.
A cold flash of foresight shot through me, from Apollon it must have been. I looked up. A woman leaned out her window three stories above my master, a broken amphora in her hands. Romans have the filthy habit of throwing anything — food scraps, the contents of last night’s chamber pot, broken pottery – out their windows and into the streets, and pedestrians needed to watch out for these gifts from above.
I began to run, crying out to him. His eyes widened as I pelted straight at him, bulling him over onto the wet stones of the alley. The falling amphora struck me a glancing blow, and my world went spinning as well.
Blood poured down my face and mingled with the purple stripes of his robe. Master and slave, blood and dye.
Raising his head from the stones, his eyes fluttered open, flicked to my temple, then to the wine-stained shards of the amphora around us, and his handsome mouth twisted.
“Apollo Medicus has rebuked me.”
I helped him to his feet and arranged for a litter to bear him home.
As I followed behind, my head throbbing with each step, Marcus Sergius beckoned to me.
“You’ve been a faithful servant, Tyrius. I find myself in your debt. Ask what you like, and I’ll give it to you.” He shifted. “Shall I raise you to the position of major domo? Or perhaps coin – for my life, some number of Aureus?”
I saw Lord Apollon’s hand in this. So when I spoke, I chose my words with utmost care.
Marcus Sergius healed, and in person nine times made offerings to Apollon. Then, before the whole Sergii household my master gently touched my head with his staff, and he was my master no more.
His mouth twisted. “So Apollo requires yet another tyrius of me. Tyrius pergit Tyrum. Tyrius travels to Tyre.”
I grinned beneath my pileus, the conical felt hat signaling my manumission, and bowed to Marcus Sergius for the last time, and as a free young man.
It took far less than the gold coins he had given me to buy passage on a merchant ship bound for Tyre. It’s name — Apollo. And I swear to you, as we set sail the sea wore the color of darkest wine, of clotted blood, of Apollon’s robe: the Tyrian purple.
“Tyrian Purple”, © T. R. Frazier. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on May 30, 2022
T.R. Frazier writes speculative and contemporary fiction about strange people, places, and things. After logging 21 residences on 2 continents, she now lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, four children, and perennial foster cat. Find out more at tarynfrazier.com
The illustrations are based on photographs used with the kind permission of Mohammed Ghassen Nouira. Please check out his facebook page where he has chronicled his years of work renewing the ancient methods of creating authentic Tyrian Purple dye.