In today's western culture the color black is associated with mourning. Did the Romans have a mourning color? I am interested in a color that was physically present in time of mourning, for example in clothing.

The word ater is the closest I can think of, but I haven't found an association with mourning. It does figuratively mean "dark" or "unfortunate", but a physical presence is lacking.

If one or more colors were associated with the loss of a loved one or other mourning, was it mentioned in the literature?

  • 1
    FWIW, I've been doing some research on Catholic liturgical colors. The best source I've found so far is Benedict XIV. He says in the VI century there was apparently no more than white and red, and by the XII century black was intended for the dead and other meanings. That leaves a huge gap, though.
    – Rafael
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 13:06
  • @Rafael It does leave a gap, but I'm not sure if we're going to have any information closer to classical antiquity. If you can answer a question close to this one, that would be a useful contribution. I'm worried that there may not be sufficient ancient evidence on the matter, so I'm open to any pointers.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 13:12
  • 1
    Incidentally, Toynbee's “Death and Burial in the Roman World” is the best monograph on the topic that i've come upon, and also quite accessible, if you want to research the topic deeper. Commented May 19, 2018 at 23:10

2 Answers 2


Black is mentioned as the colour of mourning in several places.

Upon hearing of the death of her sister, Procne:

induiturque atras vestes

put on black clothes

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 6.568a

Althaea did the same when she saw her slaughtered sons in the temple - 8.448

Again, when Vitellius heard of the defection of his soldiers:

pullo amictu

having thrown on a dark toga

came down from his palace, surrounded by his household in tears, his son carried in a litter as if in a funeral procession - Tacitus, Histories, 3.67

The black toga of mourning and its exchange for a white one after a ritual bath and then worn at a banquet (mentioned in the above answer) can be found in Cicero, Against Vatinius, 13.

An interesting image is that of the last threads of a dying man's life on the Fates' spindle in Martial as:

stamina pulla

black threads

Epigrams, 4.73

Lastly, Tibullus writes of Persephone's warning to him of an imminent death:

at mihi Persephone nigram denuntiat horam

but Persephone announces to me the black hour

Elegies, 3.5.5


Ok, here is what I found in the Wikipedia article on color black (emphasis added):

In Latin, the word for black, ater and to darken, atere, were associated with cruelty, brutality and evil. They were the root of the English words "atrocious" and "atrocity". [1]

Black was also the Roman color of death and mourning. In the 2nd century BC Roman magistrates began to wear a dark toga, called a toga pulla, to funeral ceremonies. Later, under the Empire, the family of the deceased also wore dark colors for a long period; then, after a banquet to mark the end of mourning, exchanged the black for a white toga. In Roman poetry, death was called the hora nigra, the black hour. [2]

The sources are:

  1. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, New York: World Publishing Company, 1964
  2. Michel Pastoureau, Noir – Histoire d'une couleur, p. 34.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to these books to tell if the quotations are reliable, or if they account for all or only part of the ideas expressed.

FWIW, it seems that black is also the traditional color for mourning in Japan.

The Catholic Church has observed the use of black in Liturgy when praying for the dead (among other uses) since at least the XII century and quite probably earlier, but apparently not earlier than the VI century, according to a book by Pope Benedict XIV.

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