Colors and Medicines in Greek Antiquity: Applications and Origins of Select Raw Materials

Hariclia Brecoulaki, Efthymios Nikolaidis


This project investigates the historical use, origin and circulation of select raw materials (cinnabar, realgar, azurite, malachite, lazurite) applied as colorants on ancient Greek art polychromy and occasionally used as ingredients in therapeutic/beautifying products from the late Archaic to the late Hellenistic period (6th to 3rd century B.C.)1. The information used for the identification of ancient colorants in extant written monuments of antiquity (painting and sculpture) has resulted from recent laboratorial analyses of colored layers, which allow us to determine accurately their physical-chemical composition. This information is combined with the information provided by the texts of the Greek and Roman grammatology on the properties and origin of ancient “stones” in our attempt to register possible circulation networks of select raw materials identified in written monuments found in Greece. The accompanying table illustrates destination locations (according to the objects’ archaeological context and dating) and origin locations. For example, the use of imported stones and minerals –such as Lapis Lazuli, cinnabar or realgar– on vessels, wooden paintings and murals of the Classical and Hellenistic period allows us to register circulation networks of imported colorants that reached Greece from the Black Sea, Asia Minor or remote Afghanistan (through Persia), and evaluate their selections and uses.


The theoretical exploration of colors as matter, image and natural phenomenon in ancient Greece is known through the texts of philosophers and grammarians; from Empedocles and Democritus, Plato and Aristotle to the intellectuals of late antiquity. Color is often discussed in hermetic/magical texts and alchemic recipes, while numerous and various color expressions and descriptions are found in ancient poetry and literature, as well as medical treatises, such as those by Hippocrates and Galen.

At the same time, the practical applications of color can be documented by extant monuments, since prehistoric times and until the end of the ancient world, in the form of painting surfaces on walls and wooden paintings, polychromy on buildings, sculptures and various useful objects, but also as a material used for everyday or ritualistic activities. Theophrastus in his work On Stones thoroughly describes the minerals of which painters made their colorants –both natural and artificial; some centuries later, the Roman Vitruvius and the encyclopedist Pliny the Elder transfer recipes, commenting in detail on the origin of the minerals, the properties of the colorants and their corresponding applications in painting. Moreover, colors were often used as medicines or beautifying elements (psimythia) in ancient Greece. Shiny realgar was applied to dye hair (Aristotle, Problems, 966b, 29) and green colorants with copper and cyan colorants –malachite and azurite respectively– were used as eye shadows, face paints for actors, before the invention of masks, and for the treatment of ocular diseases.

For ancient civilizations, as well as ancient Greece, the raw material that could produce a color or dye was inextricably linked to its attributed value and the uses it was destined for. The manufacture technology of colors and the chemical or natural processing of raw materials, in order to transform them into colorants or dyes, were familiar to painters. Paides in their workshops would grind up minerals to pulverize, clean, oxidize or mix them, a tradition preserved until the Renaissance. The selection criteria of raw materials were determined mainly by economic, geographic-geological and social parameters, the availability and, lastly, the estimated quality of a work and the artist or artisan’s artistic expectations. The properties and quality of materials were indeed significant: their stability, vibrancy, particular shade and compatibility with other colorants. Due to the very bad preservation of ancient objects of organic materials –e.g. wood, leather and fabric– most available information on ancient polychromy mainly comes from painted surfaces of inorganic material: masonry lime mortars, marble and clay. Using contemporary physical chemical diagnosis on ancient materials, we have largely managed to recompose the painters’ raw materials and, through the evaluation of the results, better understand the information found in ancient written sources.


Contrary to the extensive use of colors produced by low cost materials that needed relatively simple processing, such as earthy and red ochre, carbon black, lead white and white argils or other artificial pigments, for instance Egyptian cyan, imported mineral colorants and semiprecious stones were usually applied on positional objects (luxuria) and used to decorate luxurious monuments5. This project documents the use of a group of raw materials (realgar, cinnabar, azurite, malachite/conichalcite, lazurite and green earth) that were identified mainly in sculptures and paintings of the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic period and were applied as colorants. The uses of most of these raw materials in medical prescriptions—referred to below to illustrate our point—are documented in ancient Greek and Roman literature.


Realgar or arsenic, a poisonous arsenic sulfide with deep orange to red and yellow shades and particularly unstable to solar radiation7, was included already since the Archaic period in the palette of Greek painters (on the applications of realgar mentioned in written works of antiquity, see the table of colorants). Orpiment has an intense and shiny tint which is described in Latin by the adjective auripigmentum (golden-like) used by Pliny the Elder (Natural History XXXIV, 177-178). Vitruvius (VII, 7.5) mentions that realgar was mined in Pontus. Dioscorides also places its extraction in Pontus while furthermore he mentions Mysia and Cappadocia as realgar sources (Ι, 190, V, 120-121). Arian of Nicomedia in his work Periplus of the Euxine Sea mentions that Sandarache bay was in the northern shores of Asia Minor, between the cities Herakleia and Tios (Periplus of the Euxine Sea, 19). In medicine and pharmacology, the use of realgar appears in the making of medical products. It seems to have powerful healing properties and, besides other uses, it is recommended for sepsis, psoriasis and dysentery (Hippocrates, De ulceribus, 16-17).


Cinnabar, a hydrogen mineral, became early on a painting material thanks to its exquisite intensity and luminosity9. However, contrary to the low cost of earthy red colorants (red and earthy ochre) easily obtained by painters in antiquity, cinnabar is considered to be a "precious" raw material and is usually frugally used by painters to indicate details (on the applications of cinnabar in ancient written works see the table of colorants). According to Theophrastus (On Stones, 58.1) the mineral of cinnabar comes from the Iberian Peninsula and Colchis. Pausanias (Description of Greece, VIII), as well as Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, 5, 94) and Oribasius (Medical Collections, 13, Κ.) also mention that cinnabar comes from the Iberian Peninsula. The use of cinnabar in medicine and pharmacology is registered as an element with diaphoretic power, a styptic, used to heal burns, treat freckles (red and itchy rashes), as well as ocular diseases (Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 5, 94. Galen, On the Powers (and Mixtures) of Simple remedies (Drugs), book ΧΙ, 12, 221. Oribasius, Medical Collections, 14, 60; 15, 1:27. Paul of Aegina, Medical Compendium, VII, 3).


Azurite and malachite, in cyan and green color respectively, consist of basic copper carbonate and are often found in nature along with other cupric minerals, such as conichalcite (on their applications in ancient written works, see the table of colorants). Azurite was mainly used as a pigment in Archaic Period sculptures. During the Classical and Hellenistic Periods, its use seems to dramatically decline and azurite is replaced by the so-called Egyptian cyan, a synthetic cupric pigment. Malachite is widely employed in both sculptures and paintings and usually identified with chrysocolla of the ancient (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XXXIII, 86). The use of conichalcite (copper arsenate), a mineral of an especially bright and saturated green color, has also been verified in some cases. Their extraction mostly occurred at Laurium and from mineralizations at Chalcidice (Theophrastus, On Stones, 26, 39, 40, 51. Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, V, 104. For reference to Macedonian chrysocolla, see Fragmenta Alchemica, Tractatus aclhemicus, P. Holm., frag. 20.3). According to Pliny the Elder (35, 30), chrysocolla was included among the “florescent” colors, characterized by their luminosity and high cost. Aristotle mentions the existence of azurite (cyan metal) and chrysocolla mining sites at Demonisos, and informs us that the price of better quality chrysocolla was similar to the price of gold. This mainly occurred because chrysocolla was also used as an ocular drug (On Marvellous Things Heard, 834b), in the cure of ulcer (Galen, On the Powers (and Mixtures) of Simple remedies (Drugs), VII, 13, 749), sarcomas, the healing of wounds, and as styptic and thermal element (Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 5, 89).


Lazurite, the ancient sapphire stone with the deep cyan color (Theophrastus, On Stones, 23), is a silicate mineral that was extremely rarely applied in the polychromy of ancient Greece, obviously due to its especially high cost (on its applications in ancient written works, see the table of colorants). Its use as painting material is documented by the sources of the Hermetic magic text Cyranides and it is considered the stone of goddess Venus (Cyranides, Ι, 18). Grinded up in milk, it was used as an ulcer and perspiration medicine (Aëtius of Amida, Books on Medicine II, 38.1). In later sources, lazurite is characterized the “golden sapphire” because its composition contained golden-like silicate iron inclusions (Alexander of Tralles, Twelve Books on Medicine, ii 45.12). Theophrastus (On Stones, 55) and Pliny (Natural History, 37, 119-120), based on the earlier treatise14 of Sotacus, refer to the Persian origin of the lazurite. Apparently, with Afghanistan being the main source of origin of the lazurite from antiquity to this day15, Persia was a distribution point towards the wider Mediterranean space.


Green earth consists of a mixture of argillic ingredients, mostly of celadonite and glauconite16. The colors in the minerals where it is found vary from blue-green to green-olive shades. It is the main pigment with no copper in its composition. Green earth is an easily applied pigment, compatible to all sub-layers and painting materials and, most importantly, it can be preserved for a long time. The most important sources of celadonite and glauconite in antiquity, according to Vitruvius (VII, 7, 4), were Smyrna and Cyrenia in Libya, while it was also found in the area of Skouriotissa in Cyprus. Its uses in Greek painting are very limited because painters preferred cupric colorants with bolder shades (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 35, 48-49). Apart from one mention of the application of green earth on the statue of the Persian Rider in Acropolis, its use is confirmed in Hellenistic murals in Delos (on its applications in ancient written works, see the table of colorants).

1 In antiquity, the word “pharmakon” (medicine) also meant colorant. Theophrastus describes the paides who would grind up minerals and stones to produce colors as “pharmakotrives” (medicine grinders), (On Stones, 55).

2 Analytical methods of diagnosis include Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM - EDS), X-ray diffraction crystallography (XRD), molecular spectroscopic analysis (FT and μRaman / ΝΙR / μFTIR) and X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF).

3 On determining the origin of minerals, we mostly consider information found in both ancient sources and contemporary geological studies referring to mineral extraction locations or mineralizations known in antiquity. In some cases, more than one possible locations are mentioned due to the lack of evidence that could safely determine the mineral’s origin.

4 Brecoulaki - Perdikatsis, 2006.

5 Brecoulaki 2014.

6 Sources do not clearly distinguish realgar from orpiment. The names sandarache and arrenicon are used for both (THEOPHRASTUS, On stones 40, 50-52).



9 J. Trinquier: Cinnabaris et ‘sang-dragon’: le ‘cinabre’ des Anciens entre minéral, végétal et animal, Révue Archéologique 2 (2013), 56, 305-346. Brecoulaki 2014.





14 Les Lapidaires grecs, eds. Halleux R. – Schamp J., Paris 1985.

15 Von Rosen L., Lapis Lazuli in Geological Contexts and in Ancient Written Sources, Uppsala 1988.

16 Hradil D. – Grygar T. –Hradilova J. and Bezdicka P., Clay and Iron Oxide Pigments in the History of Painting, Applied Clay Science 22 (2003), 223-236.


* Including abbreviations that refer to the table of colorants.

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