Did the Romans distinguish between black and blue? Or, more generally, what do we know about their color system?

I was wondering because many of the modern Roman languages use either Arabic or Germanic words for blue and I faintly remember my Latin teacher saying that Romans referred to the sky both at day and at night as "black". Here some examples:

  • Italian: azzurro ("Arabic"), blu ("Germanic")
  • French: bleu (there is also azurer = dye in blue)
  • Spanish: azul
  • Catalan: blau
  • 1
    Interesting question! I suggest taking a look at the earlier color questions (this and this). They don't contain an answer to your question, but I thought you might be interested. I also added the color tag to your question.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 8:57
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I'd say that the second link in particular completely answers this question. It links to a book which not only describes their color system, but discusses both black and blue as distinct colors.
    – cmw
    Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 11:15
  • 1
    @C.M.Weimer Yes, the linked material gives an answer, but the answer itself doesn't. Finding and explaining the relevant points would make a good answer here.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 12:07
  • 1
    To start, the word 'ater, atra, atrum' is the most common word for black, also meaning dark. The adjective 'caeruleus, caerulea, caeruleum' comes from the word 'caelum' meaning sky, and it describes the blue colour of the sea or the sky.
    – Cataline
    Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 13:21
  • 2
    It's a very complicated question - it has generated a lot of research - and in very broad terms, it depends on your theory of color. I personally recommend Mark Bradley's Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (Bradley 2009).
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 16:18

1 Answer 1


The question is if they could differentiate and the answer is yes, of course. One aspect that could be more complicated is how they used it.

  • blue (bluish, etc.): caeruleus, -a, -um.
  • Origin: it derivates from caelum (sky, etc.)
  • Example: mare caeruleum.
  • Comments: Neptune and Tetis were considered blue divinities because they came and represented the sea.
  • Comments: In Spanish there are many words for the color blue, "cerúleo" is conserved, with evident diphthong changes.
  • Comments: A brain region called locus coeruleus was named as by the pigmentation caused by the content of melanin granules in this structure.

On the other hand:

  • There are different words differentiating between general, matte and shiny:
    • general: furvus, -a, -um.
    • matte: ater, -tra, -um.
    • shiny: niger, -gra, -grum.
  • Example: Furvae regna Proserpinae - The kingdoms of the gloomy Proserpine.
  • Example: atra bilis - black bile (Theory of the four moods of Hippocrates).
  • Example: Nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo - I'm (not interested) if you're white or black. (Catulo, Carmina, 93, 2)
  • Example: Candida de nigris et de candentibus atra [...] facere - Transform black into white and white into black. (Ovidio, Metamorfosis, 11, 314)
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    Very nice examples! I am not sure, though, about how to interpret them and how they answer the initial question. Being derived from caelum (sky) the adjective caeruleus may as well have meant any color the sky takes on (from bright blue to black). This may then support the hypothesis that the Romans did not distinguish between black and blue as our current color systems does. Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 14:01
  • 1) I assure you that the perception of color in the present moment and in the antiquity, for colors such as blue and black, are exactly the same. 2) There is an incorrect belief about the impossibility of differentiating colors, based on differentiating the words sea and sky (caerula verrunt - caerula caeli) whose translation must be based on the context (I believe that this generates your error and the error of question quoted in comments). It Is incorrect because ambiguity refers not to color but to the noun or substantive sea or sky. Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 15:02
  • 1
    Now I understand the misunderstanding. You're right, of course, Romans were able distinguish a blue sky from a black sky. The question was whether they had two distinctive words for blue and black as we do. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 8:01
  • We might comment that in many languages different adjectives appear for black (and similar), and different lexemes may exist for different colors (such as blue). Anyway I do not understand this error, if you ask any child will say that the sky and sea are blue ... and on the other hand should not become confusing words for blue derived from the lexeme sea or sky . This seems a common mistake, which my teacher told me a long time ago, if someone can provide me with a text source or an appointment we could analyze it in more detail. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 9:46
  • Ok, let's see, Michel Pastoureau comments that while the beliefs or even theories that Greeks and Romans were "blind" to blue are erroneous if there was some ambiguity when designating dark colors using words derived from a certain lexeme for blue (as it happens with the lexemes of sea and sky). I have not yet been able to access the direct source, I will continue searching. Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 10:15

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