When I ran the gallery, I was often asked to give lectures and gallery talks on jewelry, including pearls. When pearls were the subject, I frequently mentioned the famous story about Cleopatra and Marc Anthony.
According to the legend, Cleopatra bet her lover Marc Anthony that she could provide him with the most expensive banquet the world had ever seen. Marc Anthony took the bet, but when the day of the banquet arrived, was disappointed that it really was a mundane sort of affair.
Cleopatra, who was wearing a pair of earring worth 10 million sesterces, told her lover not to be hasty. (Sesterces, a unit of Roman currency are difficult to estimate in today’s dollars. As best I can determine, when gold was $300 some currency experts estimated 10 million sesterces at $500,000. At today’s price that would be on the order of $1.5 million.)
According to Pliny the Elder she then “ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar…She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.”
Marc Anthony presumably told her to stop there since the legend refers to only one destroyed pearl.
I’ve always liked the story. It brings remote historical figures to life and suggests the age old value and romance associated with pearls.
But I’ve always considered it a story. Cleopatra’s dates were 69 B.C. – 30 B.C. while Pliny the Elder was born in 23 AD so he couldn’t have had first hand knowledge about the banquet.
More compelling is the fact that although we don’t know the exact size of Cleopatra’s pearls, they had to be enormous. Pliny described them as “two most precious pearls, the singular and only such jewels in the world, and even Nature’s wonder.“
So, how then could one of them be dissolved in vinegar in the short amount of time Pliny implies?
Well, as it turns out, it really could have happened.
Researcher and classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University in New Jersey experimented with vinegar to find out whether the acetic acid concentration in vinegar is sufficient to dissolve calcium carbonate in a large pearl.
Using a solution identical to white wine vinegar sold in the supermarket today, she found it takes 24 to 36 hours to dissolve a pearl weighing one gram.
She also addressed a second issue—given the taste of vinegar, how could Cleopatra drain an entire goblet? According to Jones, “The calcium carbonate in the pearl neutralizes some of the acid, so the resulting drink is not as acidic as vinegar.” The dissolved pearl apparently leaves a translucent gel on the liquid’s surface.
She speculates that Cleopatra softened the pearl in advance and crushed it before dropping it into the goblet.
Her conclusion: the legend is plausible.
It’s an interesting addendum to a compelling story.
By the way, Pliny mentions that the remaining pearl was cut in half and made into earrings for the statue of Venus in the Pantheon Temple of the gods in Rome.