A Day in the Life of a Seller of Purple

By Elizabeth Prata

First in a series.

What was a day in the life like for a person who lived in New Testament Bible times? It depended on what trade the person made their living. Let’s look at the woman of Thyatira, Lydia, a seller of purple.

Lydia is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament, in Acts 16:11-15, and v. 40. She was a worshiper of God, which meant that she was seeking a deeper spiritual life than the pagans around her, though not yet a proselyte. Proselyte was the name given by the Jews to foreigners who adopted the Jewish religion, but Philippi had a negligible number of Jews in the city, too few even to attain a quorum for a synagogue. It is all the  more remarkable that Lydia worshipped God in that Hellenistic Roman city.

Paul found her in Philippi with other women worshiping along the riverbank. It is here that it’s mentioned that she was a seller of purple cloth. (Acts 16:14.)

Lydia was originally from Thyatira, a bustling merchant city of guilds. It is likely that Lydia learned her trade there, though no mention is made of how or why she ended up in Philippi. David Elton Graves of Liberty University, from his article What is the Madder with Lydia’s Purple? A Reexamination of the Purpurarii in Thyatira and Philippi explains,

It appears that Lydia was not alone in Philippi carrying out her trade, as Antiochos from Philippi was the first dyer to be a benefactor to the city of Thyatira. There was a close connection with the dyeing trade of Philippi and Thyatira

In another clue as to the tie between the purple-dyers of Thyatira and the purple-dyers of Philippi, we read in New Testament Cities in Western Asia Minor: Light from Archaeology on Cities by Edwin M. Yamauchi,

In 1872 Professor Mertzides discovered in Philippi the following text in Greek inscribed on a piece of white marble: ‘The city honored from among the purple-dyers and outstanding citizen, Antiochus the son of Lykus, ad native of Thyatira, as a benefactor.’

This indicates perhaps that the purple-dyers may have also worked as a guild in Philippi as they did in Thyatira, and that their profession was held in high esteem since there was an inscription made and a benefactor to the trade.

Though purple dye can be made from the madder plant, the only true purple colorfast dye known at that time was produced by the murex snail, a marine mollusk. Debates continue as to whether Lydia used the Madder plant or the Murex, but either way, making purple dye was a difficult, costly, and time-consuming process. As a result, purple dye was purchased by royalty, elites, and the very wealthy, who used it to stripe a border of the hem of their garment, as the Senators did in Rome to their togas.

Lydia owned a house, which indicates she was probably a widow. The house was large enough to support Paul, Silas, and Luke and perhaps others with them, on Paul’s missionary journey. She also hosted the nascent church in her home. She impressed upon Paul to stay at her home, without a husband mentioned or other male with whom she needed to consult, the common practice for a woman at the time. This clue also tells us she was probably a widow. Lydia seems to have been shrewd in business, wealthy, and her own decision-maker. She likely ran in high circles since her clients would have been the richest.

So what was life like for a wealthy widow in southern Europe in the first century?

Philippi was a leading city in the district, according to Acts 16:12. A safe estimate of the population might be about 10,000-15,000. It lay on an important trade route and the city was patterned after Rome, though it was thoroughly Greek as well. Philippi was a wealthy city. It had a theater, a forum, and an arena in which games were held. It also had baths.

This wealth was shown by the many monuments that were particularly imposing considering the relatively small size of the urban area: the forum, laid out in two terraces on both sides of the main road, was constructed in several phases between the reigns of Claudius and Antoninus Pius, and the theatre was enlarged and expanded in order to hold Roman games. There is an abundance of Latin inscriptions testifying to the prosperity of the city. Wikipedia

A wealthy Israelite house (Source)

Lydia was converted to Christianity, as well as “her household”. A woman of her trade and standing, in such a wealthy city, no doubt would have servants. Lydia would have had many servants.

Servants, of course were a necessity – some wealthy country landlords could have had at least 50 living on their premises. According to the Mishnah (Ketuboth 5:5) – the more servants a woman had, the less she had to do herself. One servant liberated her from baking, two from cooking and breast-feeding. Four allowed her to “sit all day in a chair.” (Source)

In the morning upon awakening, if Lydia went to the baths, a servant would have put up her hair. Women did not go into public with their hair down, and they wore a head covering. Lydia’s house had more than one room, as the common people had. In fact, a woman of her standing would have lived in a house of upwards of 12 rooms, all around an open courtyard planted with shrubs and trees. Her furnishings would include a divan, upon which people of that era sat cross legged, and at night the diven was used as a bed. There were no special bedrooms in Oriental homes at that period.

Painting by Liotard, in the Louvre

Lydia then likely would have gone to the baths, with her hair up and her head covered. Women took their baths in the morning, men in the evening. The wealthiest could afford to have water piped into their home, so it is possible Lydia took her bath in her own home and didn’t need to venture out until she was ready to attend to her business. She’d be perfumed and her hair oiled.

No one is sure whether Lydia oversaw the actual purple-making process or if she was a vendor of already finished textiles in purple. If she managed a factory of dyers, that would have been an incredibly complex and busy job. Since making purple is labor intensive, she’d be boss of many employees. If the dye she handled was made from the murex, it would bring with it a host of issues. But first, here is the The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia on purple-making:

Purple dye was manufactured by the Phoenicians from a marine mollusk, Murex trunculus. The shell was broken in order to give access to a small gland which was removed and crushed. The crushed gland gives a milky fluid that becomes red or purple on exposure to the air. Piles of these broken shells still remain on the coast at Sidon and Tyre. The purple gland is found in various species of Murex and also of Purpura.
Purple cloth was used in the furnishings of the tabernacle (Ex 25:4, etc) and of Solomon’s temple (2 Ch 2:14; 3:14); in the palanquin of Solomon (Cant 3:10); and in the hangings of the palace of Ahasuerus (Est 1:6). The kings of Midian had purple raiment (Jgs 8:26); the worthy woman of Prov 31:22 has clothing of fine linen and purple. Mordecai was clothed with purple by Ahasuerus (Est 8:15); Jesus by the Rom soldiers (Mk 15:17, 20; Jn 19:2, 5).

The gland secretes one drop of the liquid. One. Drop. It typically took about 10,000 shells to make a small amount of usable dye. Huge mounds of murex shells have been excavated from all around the Mediterranean.

Archaeological data from Tyre indicate that the snails were collected in large vats and left to decompose. This produced a hideous stench that was actually mentioned by ancient authors. (Aristotle, Vitruvius, and Pliny the Elder). Not much is known about the subsequent steps, and the actual ancient method for mass-producing the two murex dyes has not yet been successfully reconstructed; this special “blackish clotted blood” colour, which was prized above all others, is believed to be achieved by double-dipping the cloth, once in the indigo dye of H. trunculus and once in the purple-red dye of B. brandaris. (Source: The Mediterranean Sea: Its history and present challenges, edited by Stefano Goffredo, Zvy Dubinsky)

In fact, the process of making Tyrian Purple was so offensive, the Talmud allowed a woman to divorce her husband if he became a dyer after marriage, lol. Hence, one issue is that if her business, was factory oriented not end-product sales, would have been some distance outside the city. She’d need to rely either on a trusted manager, or oversee the operation herself. Either way, Lydia was busy all day either on site, at her vendor stalls along the marketplace in the Forum, or at home managing accounts. Or all three!

Roman fresco from the fullonica (fuller’s shop) of
Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale

In any case, whether Lydia was a maker and seller of purple textiles or a or a vendor only, she  was a busy woman, between managing her household, her servants, and her business. What is evident is that though she was likely both wealthy and busy, she put her faith first.

Pre-salvation, she worshipped God. She gathered at the prayer house by the river and communed with Him and fellowshipped with other worshippers. After salvation, she hosted Paul & Co. along with other believers as the church grew and services were held in her house.

The Bible is replete with warnings not to allow riches to corrupt one’s soul, (Psalms 62:10, Proverbs 11:28, Job 21:13, Ecclesiastes 1:3, Matthew 6:24 etc.) but Lydia was spared that wordly flaw, and she centered her faith and her life on Jesus.

Left, fresco depicting women preparing and drying sheep’s wool and other textiles in a fullonica, for dyeing.

Her daily routines were not filled with taking time to put on costly adornments (1 Timothy 2:9), nor to laze around all day in a chair. Lydia was busy. I suspect after her heart was opened to receive the Gospel, (Acts 16:14) she redoubled her efforts in business so that she could fund missions and host the church. Her purple-selling now had a purpose beyond worldly status. The vanity of the rich was now funding the spread of the Gospel.

Lydia’s story:

Therefore putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and on the day following to Neapolis; 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony; and we were staying in this city for some days. 13And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled.

And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. 15And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

[When Paul was released from prison, he did not go to the house of the Philippian jailer who had also converted, but straight to Lydia’s home:]

And they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.

 

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