Whether Cleopatra did or did not drink a melted priceless pearl, the story tells us a great deal about how the Romans perceived the queen. For some it was an example of Egypt’s seductive and destructive riches. For others, it showed a queen not just indifferent to the might of Rome, but above it. A “sin” for which, Romans believed, “required” her destruction.
One of the more fascinating legends about Cleopatra involves a very big pearl and a swig of wine.
According to Pliny, Cleopatra bet Mark Antony that she could outspend him on a party. Game on! Antony went all-out for his shin-ding. When it was her turn, the queen held an ordinary banquet. Thinking he’d won, Mark Antony began to gloat. Until Cleopatra took off an oversized pearl earring, dropped it into her wine and then chugged the dissolved pearl.
Keep in mind, Romans considered pearls the rarest and most exquisite of gems. Julius Caesar, in fact, invaded Britain in part because he’d heard they had luscious pearls (according to Suetonius).
But the big question is–did it really happen? Did Cleopatra really toss a priceless gem into wine and drink it? For centuries, scholars said, “No way.” But a Cleopatra expert, Dr. Prudence Jones of Montclair State University in NJ, says not so fast.
[Full disclosure: Dr. Jones is one of the four classicists/professors who vetted my CLEOPATRA RULES! manuscript, a fact which made me squee with glee because, I admit, I’m a bit of a fangirl…]
Believing that scholars weren’t giving enough credit to ancient scientists, Dr. Jones held a series of experiments with real pearls and wine vinegar. And what she found was that yes, pearls did dissolve in vinegar if the concentrations were correct. Now, it could take up to 24 hours or more for a very big pearl, true, but there are ways to make it appear to dissolve before your eyes.
First, you could boil the vinegar and drop it in while it’s bubbling. But since Cleopatra supposedly drank the mix soon after, that’s unlikely. What is more likely is that she had “softened” the pearl earlier with a long soak in the acidic-mixture.
“There’s usually a kernel of truth in these stories,” Dr. Jones pointed out in a recent USA Today article. “I always prefer to give ancient sources the benefit of the doubt and not assume that something that sounds far-fetched is just fiction.”
Dr. Jones’ article in Classical World: http://tinyurl.com/2ddyu2t.
USA Today article quoting Dr. Jones: http://tinyurl.com/299arhg.
Painting: Detail of Tiepolo, Banquet of Cleopatra (1743)