Colour Society Of Australia


"Making Sense of Ancient Greek Colour Names" with Dr Peter Gainsford (NZ)

  • 20 Nov 2022
  • 10:30 AM - 11:30 AM
  • Zoom (UTC+11:00) Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney
  • 16


Registration is closed

The earliest manuscript of a Plato passage that talks about pigments, dated ca. 860 CE. 
Timaeus 68b-c, Codex Parisinus graecus 1807, fol. 134r (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

The next in the series of free webinars organized and presented by the NSW Division of the Colour Society of Australia will be given on Sunday Nov 20 at 10.30-11.30 am AEDT by Dr Peter Gainsford, a classicist based in Wellington, New Zealand, who will discuss colour categories and terminology in ancient Greek, and address the background to the myth that ancient people could not perceive the colour blue.

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A selection of ancient Greek colour terms, plotted based on lexical usage and a healthy dose of guesstimation. See Peter's blog post for a paragraph of caveats!

Recent years have seen a rush of stories that ancient people could not perceive the colour blue. This is a myth, but how did the myth arise, and is there something real that prompted it? Blame is usually assigned to the 19th century scholar and politician William Gladstone. It is widely reported that, according to Gladstone, the ancient Greek epic poet Homer has no word for blue, and that he instead calls the sky ‘bronze’, and the sea ‘wine-dark’. Gladstone did not actually make any of these claims, or not directly, but he still played a key role in the development of the myth — as did Isaac Newton, 150 years earlier.

In this talk we will look at the most popular modern myths, and get an accurate picture of the ancient evidence that they are supposedly based on. Then we will turn to a more balanced account of how the ancient Greek language organises colour categorises. To assist in illustrating some of the differences between the colour systems in ancient Greek and modern English, we will look at one further myth: the notion that ancient observers described the star Sirius as ‘reddish’.

Peter Gainsford is a New Zealand-based scholar of early Greek literature and related aspects of ancient history. He received his PhD from Cambridge in 1999, and is the author of Early Greek Hexameter Poetry (Cambridge, 2016) and the Kiwi Hellenist blog at He spent twenty years in academia, working at various universities in the UK and New Zealand. Though no longer teaching, he continues to research and write about the ancient world. 

This webinar is free but registration is essential and limited to 100 participants worldwide, so early registration is advised. Successful registrants will be notified by reply email and will be sent the link and instructions to join the webinar on the Zoom platform shortly before the event. To receive this email with the Zoom link, you must register by the deadline of midnight AEDT on Friday November 18th, but please note that this webinar may be booked out in advance of that date.

This event continues a series of webinars organized and presented free of charge by the Colour Society of Australia NSW Division. These webinars are free to CSA members and non-members around Australia and the world, but as a reward to our members we make bookings available to members-only for about a week before they are open to non-members, to ensure that no member need miss out on a place provided that they register promptly, and we also make all our webinar recordings permanently available to CSA members. CSA membership is open to all at

If you do not plan to attend our webinar live, please do not register for this event, as it is subject to a limit of 100 registrants. Instead, if you'd like to view a recording of the webinar, please email by November 18th to be sent a temporary link when this becomes available.

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