The classical Latin word for a rainbow seems to be Iris (Iris or Iridis, f.). Did the Romans ever list or otherwise discuss the colors of the rainbow in extant literature?

I asked about colors in classical Latin earlier, and I got a nice answer. The matter is complicated. I just realized that rainbows look the same now as they did two millennia ago, so if the Romans named the colors of the rainbow, then we could be exactly sure about those colors and see them as they did.


1 Answer 1


Since a rainbow is a gradient, there's still no way of knowing which hue a color word refers to. At best we can approximate.

Earl Anderson's Folk-Taxonomies in Early English has a good discussion if it (citing Dronke 1974), along with this neat chart:

Table 12 - Names of rainbow colors by Greek and Roman authors

However, there are quite a few butcherings of the Greek, so I recommend you jump straight to Edmund Veckenstedt's Geschichte der griechischen Farbenlehre. I'm actually not sure how he got what he got! Aristotle's last term was actually ἁλουργόν and not αλονρλεσ/αλουρλεσ, and it's ξανθόν and not ζανδον, κυανοῦν and not χυανουν. I don't know how well your German is, but I can help with anything you might have trouble with, that is, if you're interested in the Greek.

Edit: Links to Latin sources

  • It is indeed true that the colors are in a continuous spectrum in a rainbow. The exact hues are not known, but it still gives some insight. I'm only interested in the Latin ones here, but Greek is a nice addition. That table is great! The only thing I miss is a more precise citation of Seneca.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 21:53
  • Perhaps 3,12 in Naturales Quaestiones 1.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 22:05
  • I agree: the Greek is a big mess and I am disinclined to trust the Latin either. Always better to go back to the primary sources.
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 23:00
  • @JoonasIlmavirta That's exactly where he's getting it from. It starts from 3.11. Notice that the word for rainbow is arcus here. In case you don't have access to the Loeb, you can read here online the relevant paragraph.
    – cmw
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:18
  • 2
    @brianpck Medievalists, bah! I think it might have something to do with how Classicists have a focus on language that is absent from Medievalist programs.
    – cmw
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:12

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