The phrase “born to the purple” is an idiom in the English language. It has roots in classical antiquity, but is still used, albeit rarely, in modern English. A man or woman of royal blood can be said to have been “born to the purple”. The phrase can also sometimes be used to refer to someone born into a very wealthy and influential family but not actually of royal blood.
In the era of classical antiquity, a particular shade of purple cloth was very difficult to make. Rare sea snails had to be collected, and this task was both tedious and more than a little dangerous. Cloth dyed this color of purple was prized very highly and was a symbol of great power in the ancient world. Sumptuary laws typically permitted only members of a royal family to wear this color, although, over time, the strength of this prohibition gradually decreased.
Other substances known for their rich purple color were also associated with royalty. Porphyry, a purple variety of marble, was widely used in Roman times to indicate imperial rank, a tradition seen in statues such as the Four Emperors, which is carved from porphyry, depicting the four tetrarchs clasping hands in a show of imperial unity. The Byzantine Empire and subsequent European monarchies and empires continued the tradition of reserving the richest purples for royal use.
A child of a royal family had the right to wear this unique color, and was thus “born to the purple”. In the Byzantine Empire, empresses retreated to give birth in chamber lined in porphyry. This fact, too may have contributed to the origin of this expression.
Societies that followed the Byzantine Empire gradually relaxed the strict limits on the use of purple. The secret of making royal Tyrian purples was also lost for a long while, which made sumptuary laws somewhat irrelevant. The expression remained, however, and “born to the purple” continued to indicate birth into status and privilege.
The industrial revolution and French Revolution gradually re-made the face of Europe and led to the gradual decline in the power of actual royalty. Children of elite families in trade, finance, government, or other areas could still be said to have been “born to the purple”. This phrase is somewhat obscure and archaic in the modern world, but can still be found in literature and popular culture and continues to indicate birth into a position of great status.