Born in the purple
Traditionally, born in the purple 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. 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.
The concept derives from the Roman/Byzantine Imperial concept of Porphyrogennetos' under which children born to reigning emperors held superior rights to the throne over siblings born before their father ascended the imperial throne. Porphyrogénnētos (Latinized as Porphyrogenitus) (Greek: Πορφυρογέννητος, literally "born in the purple") was an honorific title in the Byzantine Empire given to a son, or daughter (Πορφυρογέννητη, Porphyrogénnētē, Latinized Porphyrogenita), born after the father had become emperor. In addition to this, the birth had to meet other conditions in order for the title to apply.
Both imperial or Tyrian purple, a dye for cloth, and the purple stone porphyry were rare and expensive, and at times reserved for imperial use. In particular there was a room in the imperial Great Palace of Constantinople entirely lined with porphyry, where reigning empresses gave birth.
The concept of porphyrogennetos was known from the sixth century in connection with growing ideas of hereditary legitimacy but the first secure use of the word is not found until 846. The term became common by the 10th century, particularly in connection with Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and its use continued into the Palaiologan period.
Imperial purple was a luxury dye obtained from sea snails, used to colour cloth. Its production was extremely expensive, so the dye was used as a status symbol by the Romans e.g. a purple stripe on the togas of magistrates. By the Byzantine period the colour had become associated with the emperors, and sumptuary laws restricted its use by anyone except the imperial household. Purple was thus seen as an imperial colour.
The Porphýra or Porphyry Chamber
The most distinctive condition was that the child be born in the "Πορφύρα" (Porphýra, the Purple or Porphyry Chamber, a free-standing pavilion of the Great Palace of Constantinople): no child born anywhere else could legitimately be called Porphyrogénnētos. As the Porphyrogennētē Anna Komnena described it, the room rested on one of the Palace's many terraces, overlooking the Sea of Marmora and the Bosphorus Strait, "where the stone oxen and the lions stand" (i.e. the Boukoleon Palace), and was in the form of a perfect square from floor to ceiling, with the latter ending in a pyramid. Its walls, floor and ceiling were completely veneered with imperial porphyry, which was "generally of a purple colour throughout, but with white spots like sand sprinkled over it."
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus is a late 13th-century Byzantine palace in the north-western part of the old city of Constantinople named after Constantine Palaiologos (son of Michael VIII). The purple chamber of the Imperial Palace was said by Anna Comnena to be "set apart long ago for an Empress's confinement" and which was decorated with expensive porphyry.
Basileus and Augusta
The other important qualification for status as a Porphyrogénnētos was that the father must be a reigning Basileus (Greek: βασιλεύς, the Greek word for King or Emperor), and the mother must be married to the Basileus (and therefore an empress) and additionally must have undergone a formal, sacred ceremony creating her an Augusta.
In Imperial diplomacy a porphyrogénnēta bride was sometimes sent to seal a bargain, or a foreign princess may have gone to Constantinople to marry a porphyrogénnētos. Liutprand of Cremona, for instance, visited Constantinople in 968 on a diplomatic mission from Otto I to secure a purple-born bride for the prince who would eventually become Otto II, in which mission he failed. A different bride who wasn't purple-born, Theophanu Skleraina, was subsequently acquired in 971.
To be "born in the purple" is often seen as a limitation to be escaped rather than a benefit or a blessing. 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 Hubert 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.
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. 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.
The classic definition restricted use of the category specifically to the legitimate offspring born to reigning monarchs after they ascended to the throne. It did not include children born prior to their parent's accession or, in an extremely strict definition, their coronation.
- Crown prince
- Divine right of kings
- Royal and noble styles
- Royal prerogative
- Silver spoon
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