Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Did She Or Didn't She?

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.”
            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.

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)



Vicki Leon said...

Wonderful post! And the Tiepolo detail is just exquisite. Scholars, Cleo fans, and just regular folks never tire of debating such stories. It should be noted that anyone can play, too! For instance, it's also possible that Cleopatra was adept at sleight of hand. And she could probably drink M. Antony under the table. Another theory, the one I'm fondest of, suggests that she indeed swallowed the pearl without damaging or dissolving it--and waited for nature to take its course.

Tracy Barrett said...

Very cool! People are so quick to assume that a story that good has to be false. Sometimes those ancient folks really did do something outrageous!

Unknown said...

Wonderful post Vicky!

Amazingly, this is one of the rare opportunities I can boast that a painting is in my home town! The National Gallery Of Victoria(NGV) has had Tieopolo's massive work for quiet a while.

Vicky - I saw it only last week and contemplated you and your book during it! I am very much looking forward to reading it!

More info on the Tiepolo from the NGV site here:

Hasan Niyazi

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Vicki, you always crack me up. Of all the possibilities regarding this story, having her swallow it whole and "passing" it never crossed my mind! Cleo was said to have worn "magic" amethysts to prevent drunkenness but a quite a number of Cleopatra novelists reject the idea that she drank him under the table, instead supposing that she merely "looked" like she was drinking and imbibing water instead...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Tracy, you're right--I think her supposed outrageousness is exactly why Cleo continues to fascinate so much.

Hasan, thanks for the link to the NGV and Tiepolo's masterpiece. It's SUCH a gorgeous painting and I'm envious you can stand in front of it any time you want! Thanks for leaving comments!

Gwen@ChewDigestBooks.com said...

Interesting and it makes me want to try to do it myself. Anyone want to donate Grandma's pearls to science/history? I wonder what it would taste like? I am thinking that vinegar + pearl would still taste bleech!

Unknown said...

@Gwen! Don't ruin Grandma's pearls just yet :)

Pearls do indeed dissolve in Vinegar - here are two nice articles on the Chemistry behind this.

From 'Notae- Essays on History & Culture in Rome'

Also, from Null Hypothesis.co.uk


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Yeah, I'm with Hasan, Gwen--save grandma's pearls! Actually Dr. Dorothy King said she recently conducted those experiments with the brilliant historian Adrian Goldsworthy (his new bio on Cleo will be released in the US in Sept or Oct). She said it did indeed work. When I asked her what it tasted like, she said it was as one might expect from straight vinegar--pretty awful. I think I'll take their word for it!

Patricia Cruzan said...

It would be tough to wear makeup in that day. It sounds like it would take quite awhile to apply it. I'm glad the makeup of today is different.
Your article attracted my attention, since I just went to the skin doctor recently. There are lots of things that affect the skin: the sun, tanning booths, smoking, drugs, and drinking. It was interesting to find out that men used to wear makeup.
I'm glad that I got a good report; there's no skin cancer right now. I do use sunscreen when I'm out. Years ago, I learned my lesson about not wearing it.

Anonymous said...

My child and I are now fascinated with Cleopatra! The lead in the makeup, the Hellenistic hair-do, the mullet wig, and lastly casting her "pearl" before swine -- it all makes for a thoroughly gossipy-girl read. My daughter says she LOVES your sense of humor and so do I, Vicky!!

Haley K.