The Stone of Emperors

By William Bradford
Altar of Santa Maria Aracoeli, Rome. Photo by Anthony Majanlahti

As a lifelong classical history enthusiast I was aware for years that Imperial Porphyry was the special stone of the Emperors. It wasn’t until I began to study Byzantine history that I came to fully understand how significant the stone really was in ancient Rome, and how desperately important it came to be in the late Classical and Medieval world.

Imperial Porphyry didn’t just symbolize royalty, it made royalty.

Just as gold is the substance of wealth, purple porphyry was the physical substance of imperial power. In a practical way it was even more important than crown jewels and royal robes. Any military leader could put on a crown and a purple robe and try to become Emperor. Being born in rooms decorated with Imperial Porphyry was proof of royal blood, and living with Imperial Porphyry and possessing the means to have it worked meant one truly *was* the real Emperor or Empress. Its rarity and exclusive ownership by the Imperial Family meant this stone was more valuable than gold.

I was fascinated by the story of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palailogos, being raised to the rulership of the Eastern Roman Empire.  When it was decided he should be king, he was brought to a chapel in the city of Mystras that had a tile of Imperial Porphyry set into the floor. He was brought to stand on this ancient tile that had been quarried centuries earlier in Imperial Rome to be sworn in as Emperor. The stone itself conferred Royalty, passed down from the time of the Caesars.

“How wonderful it would be to own a piece of Imperial Porphyry” I thought. “What a powerful link that would be to the ancient world!”

So, I did what anybody these days would do, I went online to get a piece. I first went to online auctions… and found none. I checked sold auctions… and there had never been any. Next I went to the search engines, looking for a gem dealer that might have purple porphyry. I found nothing. What I DID find was other people searching unsuccessfully for Imperial Porphyry, and universities describing the stone as “an example of a depleted resource that no one has in the modern world.”

In addition to being a history lover, I’m also a collector of historical antiques. It seemed incredible that *no one* in the world had even the smallest piece of this stone for sale! I became a little obsessed with finding some Imperial Porphyry and spent years looking. It finally got to the point where I had printed up a two-sided full color “Wanted” poster, which I took to several gem and mineral shows. The flyer had detailed photos of Imperial Porphyry, all its possible scientific names, and information where it was from. No one had any. The majority of gem and mineral experts had never even heard of it!

Finally, I found a place in another country that said they had Imperial Porphyry. We talked for two months; they sent me current photos of the stone. I sent them thousands of dollars, and received nothing. After a couple of months of bizarre excuses they disappeared and were not contactable by any means. I was devastated… but I still wanted to have some of this stone.

Two years later I finally heard from another person who had a legal source of Imperial Porphyry. We talked for months and finally they sent the stone first, allowing me to pay only when I had verification from a Western airline that the stone was on its way to me. After days of shipping time, and many hours of investigation by US Customs to ensure that the stone was legally obtained and not a part of some ancient monument, I was allowed to receive the stone!

I had traveled to Europe and have seen Imperial Porphyry in the Vatican, and in some of the larger museums. Nothing compared to being able to finally hold a piece of it in my hand, and realize that this piece of stone was perhaps the rarest and most special connection I or anyone else could have to Imperial Rome, and the Roman and Byzantine Emperors.

I’m proud to be able to offer Imperial Porphyry to other history lovers. This stone is as special to me as it was to the Caesars… it is the stuff of Royalty and the substance of the Empire. I can’t help but feel that making this stone available helps connect others to this amazing history, and keeps the idea of Rome alive and current as well. I hope you enjoy this amazing piece of history!