Born in the purple

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who was purple-born, in a 945 carved ivory.

Traditionally, born in the purple[1] was a category of members of royal families born during the reign of their parent. This notion was later loosely expanded to include all children born of prominent or high-ranking parents.[2] The parents must be prominent at the time of the child's birth so that the child is always in the spotlight and destined for a prominent role in life. A child born before the parents become prominent would not be "born in the purple". This color purple came to refer to Tyrian purple, restricted by law, custom, and the expense of creating it to royalty.

Origins in the Byzantine Empire

The concept derives from the Roman/Byzantine Imperial concept of Porphyrogenitus under which children born to reigning emperors held superior rights to the throne over siblings born before their father ascended the imperial throne.[3] The term is sometimes associated with the rareness and great expense of purple dye in the ancient world.[4] In the Byzantine Empire being Porphyrogenitus very specifically meant being born in the Porphyra or purple chamber of the Imperial Palace, a room which Anna Comnena said was "set apart long ago for an Empress's confinement" and which was decorated with expensive porphyry marble.[5]


To be "born in the purple" is often seen as a limitation to be escaped rather than a benefit or a blessing.[6] Rarely, the term refers to someone born with immense talent that shapes their career and forces them into paths they might not otherwise wish to follow. An obituary of the British composer Charles Hubert Hastings Parry complains that his immense natural talent (described as being "born in the purple") forced him to take on teaching and administrative duties that prevented him from composing in the manner that might have been allowed to someone who had to develop their talent.[7]

In this sense, the parent's prominence predetermines the child's role in life. A royal child, for instance, is denied the opportunity to an ordinary life because of his parent's royal rank.[8] An example of this usage can be seen in the following discussion comparing the German Kaiser William II with his grandfather, William I, and his father, Frederick III:

Compare this with his grandfather, the old Emperor, who, if he had not been born in the purple, could only have been a soldier, and not, it must be added, one who could have held very high commands. Compare him again with his father; the Emperor Frederick, if he had not been born in the purple, though he certainly showed greater military capacity than the old Emperor, nevertheless would probably not have been happy or successful in any private station other than that of a great moral teacher.[8]

The classic definition restricted use of the category specifically to the legitimate offspring born to reigning monarchs after they ascended to the throne.[9] It did not include children born prior to their parent's accession or, in an extremely strict definition, their coronation.[10]

See also


  1. "Purple". Webster's Dictionary. 1913. Archived from the original on February 22, 2006. Retrieved 2008-10-19. At the bottom of the first definition of the word "purple."
  2. "Purple". Unabridged (v 1.1) based on Random House Unabridged Dictionary. 1996. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  3. Lane, Nick, "Born to the Purple: the Story of Porphyria". Scientific American. December 16, 2002. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-10-06. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  5. Anna Comnena, The Alexiad (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 196, 219.
  6. "Dom Pedro and Brazil" (PDF). The New York Times. 1891. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  7. Legge, Robin H. "Charles Hubert Hastings Parry". The Musical Times. 1918. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  8. 1 2 Anonymous, "The Empress Frederick, A Memoir". James Nesbit and Company, London. 1913. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  9. "Born in the Purple". in E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. Retrieved 2008-10-19.
  10. "The Unfading Light Of Charity Grand Duchess Olga As A Philanthropist And Painter". Historical Magazine: Gatchina Through The Centuries. 2004. Retrieved 2008-10-19.

Further reading

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