Red, White & Blue\Green

Jaan Puhvel

  There was a real Roman chariot race on the Campus Martius at the Equirria (< *Equi-curria) 'Horse Run'), celebrated around the original New Year (27 February and 13 March) and reputed to have been founded by Romulus in honor of Mars. Johannes Lydus (De Mensibus 4:20) has preserved the tradition that the participants were divided into three "tribes" and that their colors were red, white, and green respectively. These are of course still the colors of the flag of Italy, and with frequent green/blue variation, also of, for example, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Britain, and the United States. In fact there is much evidence that white, red, and green/blue were the canonic colors of the Indo-European three social classes, white for the priests, red for the warriors, and green/blue for the productive class. 

White and red were in fact the two "privileged" colors, produced by costly treatments (bleaching of linen and red/purple dyes), while the rest were more or less "natural" hues. In Mycenean Greek textile inventories only leuka 'white' and porphureia 'purple' cloth is expressly attested by color, and Spanish colorado still means 'red' above all. Thus the equirria preserve another reminiscence of the prehistoric tripartite class structure, and Johannes Lydus clinches this by stating the the russati (red) belonged to Mars, the albati (white) to Jupiter, and the virides (green) to Venus, thus to patron deities typical of the warrior, priestly, and commoner orders. 

Jaan Puhvel, Comparative Mythology (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1987), 159-60. The title above is editorial.