Roman Historian’s Cleopatra’s Pearl Story: Is It Fact or Fiction?
“Cleopatra’s Pearl” is a story told by the Roman author Pliny the Elder in his famous long-read book Natural History . According to this tale, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, drank a goblet of vinegar after a priceless pearl was dissolved in it. Pliny claims that this was done by the Egyptian queen in order to win a bet that she had made with her lover, Mark Antony of Rome. Scholars are uncertain as to whether the story of Cleopatra’s pearl did happen. It has been demonstrated, in any case, that it is entirely possible for pearls to be dissolved in vinegar. Moreover, pearls, or more precisely, pearl powder, has been consumed in other ancient cultures, though not for the same reason Cleopatra’s pearl was consumed.
In this painting, The Banquet of Cleopatra, also by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Cleopatra’s pearl is in her outstretched hand as she likely tells Mark Antony in regal Roman dress how she will win the bet. (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo / Public domain )
Cleopatra’s Pearl Story Lies In Pliny’s Natural History Book
The story of Cleopatra’s pearl is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History . In Book IX of this work, six chapters (Chapters 54 to 59) are dedicated to the subject of pearls. In the first chapter, which deals with pearls, Pliny describes these objects as occupying the “very highest position among all valuables” that come from the sea. Pliny goes on to say that the pearls obtained by the Romans came from the Indian Ocean :
“they have to be sought in certain islands, and those but very few in number. The most productive of pearls is the island of Taprobane, and that of Stoidis,… ; Perimula, also, a promontory of India. But those are most highly valued which are found in the vicinity of Arabia, in the Persian Gulf, which forms a part of the Red Sea.”
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After a lengthy explanation of the way pearls are formed, and how they are harvested, Pliny proceeds to discuss the different types of pearls. The natural historian notes that the quality of a pearl is determined based on its “whiteness, large size, roundness, polish, and weight.” Pliny recognizes that pearls differ from one area to another. For example, “the Indian pearl resembles in tint the scales of the mirror-stone, but exceeds all the others in size”, those from the Thracian Bosphorus were “of a red color, and small,” whereas those from the shores of Arabia bear a “strong resemblance to a hailstone.”
In the Cleopatra’s pearl story by Pliny, he also writes in great detail about remarkable facts connected with pearls and their nature. (MASAYUKI KATO / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Pliny The Elder Adds To The Story With Facts About Pearls
In the chapter that follows, Pliny shares “remarkable facts connected with pearls – their nature.” The natural historian notes, for instance, that “It is quite clear that the interior of the pearl is solid, as no fall is able to break it,” and “Pearls are not always found in the middle of the body of the animal, but sometimes in one place, and sometimes another.” Pliny also recounts a brief story about a breastplate, made entirely of British pearls that was dedicated by Julius Caesar to Venus Genetrix .
In Pliny’s next chapter the story of Cleopatra’s pearl is presented. This story, however, is one of several under the heading “ Instances of the Use of Pearls .” According to Pliny, the last queen of Ptolemaic Egypt , Cleopatra VII, once own a pair of pearls, “the largest that had been ever seen in the whole world,” which came into her possession “by descent from the kings of the East.”
The story goes that Mark Antony , Cleopatra’s lover, was entertained with the most lavish banquets day after day by the queen when he was at her court. Pliny, who does not seem to be a big fan of Cleopatra, wrote that “this queenly courtesan, inflated with vanity and disdainful arrogance, affected to treat all this sumptuousness and all these vast preparations with the greatest contempt.” Pliny, as a matter of fact, seems to be scornful of the ostentatious display of wealth . This is also seen in the story that immediately precedes that of Cleopatra’s pearl.
Prior to recounting the story of Cleopatra’s pearl, Pliny reports that he once saw Lollia Paulina, the third wife of the Caligula, the third Roman emperor . During this encounter, which was not “at any public festival, or any solemn ceremonial, but only at an ordinary wedding entertainment,” Paulina was “covered with emeralds and pearls, which shone in alternate layers upon her head, in her hair, in her wreaths, in her ears, upon her neck, in her bracelets, and on her fingers, and the value of which amounted in all to forty millions of sesterces.”
Pliny then compares Paulina disparagingly with Curius and Fabricius, ancient Romans renowned for their austerity. After asking his readers to imagine the accoutrements of Paulina and those of Curius and Fabricius, Pliny asks, “would he not much rather that the conquerors had been torn from their very chariots, than that they had conquered for such a result as this [i.e., Paulina’s extravagance]?” Clearly Pliny strongly disapproved of this conspicuous show of wealth.
In this painting by Flemish painter Anthoni Schoonjans (1655–1726) Cleopatra is just about to drop her pearl in the chalice of vinegar as part of her luxury bet with Antony. (Anthoni Schoonjans / Public domain )
An Amazing Story Based On a Bet Between Antony and Cleopatra
Returning to the story of Cleopatra’s pearl, when Antony noticed Cleopatra’s contempt, he ventured to enquire if it was possible for these banquets to be made even more sumptuous. Cleopatra saw this as a challenge, accepted it, and answered that “on a single entertainment she would expend ten millions of sesterces.” Antony, though incredulous, was at the same time extremely curious to find out how the queen might be able to manage this.
Therefore, a wager was made with Cleopatra. Pliny reports that on the following day, when the matter was to be decided, Cleopatra “had an entertainment set before Antony, magnificent in every respect, though no better than his usual repast.”
No doubt, this did not impress Antony at all, who jokingly asked the queen about the amount spent on this banquet. Cleopatra replied that that was “only a trifling appendage to the real banquet”. The queen added that “she alone would consume at the meal to the ascertained value of that amount, she herself would swallow the ten millions of sesterces.” Having said that, Cleopatra ordered her servants to bring in the second course.
The servants obeyed Cleopatra, and brought her “a single vessel, which was filled with vinegar, a liquid, the sharpness and strength of which is able to dissolve pearls”. Needless to say, Antony must have been extremely puzzled by all this, and waited patiently to see what Cleopatra would do.
As mentioned earlier, Cleopatra owned the largest pair of pearls in the world, and she was wearing them on her ears at this banquet. After the vessel of vinegar was placed before her, Cleopatra took one of the pearls, and dropped it into the vinegar, which dissolved the precious object. Then, she drank the luxurious mixture.
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Cleopatra was about to do the same with the other pearl, when she was stopped by Lucius Munatius Plancus. At that time, Plancus was an ally of Antony, and he was both at the banquet and part of the wager. Before Cleopatra could dissolve the second pearl, Plancus declared that Antony had lost. Pliny remarks that this was “an omen which, in the result, was fully confirmed”. This is a clear reference to Antony’s eventual defeat by Octavian (the future Augustus) in the last civil war of the Roman Republic.
Indeed, Antony was famously defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium, a naval battle fought in 31 BC. In the following year, Octavian besieged Alexandria, and Antony and Cleopatra were forced to commit suicide. This marked the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, as Egypt was now a Roman province.
According to Pliny, Cleopatra’s other pearl was taken as a prize of war and cut into two. The two “half-pearls” were then turned into “pendants for the ears of Venus, in the Pantheon at Rome.” Thus, the story of Cleopatra’s pearl comes to an end.
A 1906 drawing by A. M. Faulkner of Cleopatra greeting Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. (A. M. Faulkner / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Pliny Also Wrote Cleopatra Was Not the First To Drink Pearls
In his last chapter on pearls, Pliny seems to be firing a parting shot at Antony and Cleopatra, as he informs his readers that the Egyptian queen was not the first person in history to have consumed a pearl. Indeed, Pliny relates the story of a certain Clodius, who was the son of the tragic actor Aesopus.
When Aesopus died, he left a huge fortune to his son, who proceeded to spend it without restraint. Amongst other things, this Clodius was “desirous of trying, by way of glorification to his palate, what was the taste of pearls.” Having consumed a pearl, Clodius “found it to be wonderfully pleasing, that he might not be the only one to know it, he had a pearl set before each of his guests for him to swallow.”
In addition to regarding Clodius as preceding Antony and Cleopatra in the consumption of pearls, Pliny also considered Clodius’ action to be of a “higher quality.” Whilst Cleopatra consumed her pearl because of a wager, Clodius did so purely for the fun of it. Pliny has this to say in his comparison of Antony and Clodius,
“Let not Antony then be too proud, for all his triumvirate, since he can hardly stand in comparison with an actor; one, too, who had no wager to induce him – a thing which adds to the regal munificence of the act – But was merely desirous of trying,”
Pliny remarks that once Alexandria had been captured, pearls became incredibly common in Rome. Curiously, the natural historian ends his exploration of the subject of pearls by discussing the first usage of pearls in Rome. Citing the Roman historian Fenestella, Pliny notes that pearls first began to appear in Rome during the time of Sulla. At this time, however, pearls were “but of small size and of little value.” Pliny proceeds to refute Fenestella’s claim, citing another Roman historian, Aelius Stilo, who wrote that as early as the Jugurthine War, pearls of remarkable size were already called “unio.”
Can pearls actually be dissolved in vinegar? The answer really determines whether Pliny’s story is truth or fiction. ( Why Do )
Is Cleopatra’s Pearl Story True or Not? Science Says Yes!
The big question surrounding the story of Cleopatra’s pearl is whether it actually happened. This is inevitably related to the question of whether pearls can indeed be dissolved in vinegar. Many classical scholars are of the opinion that vinegar is unable to dissolve pearls. Scientific experiments, on the other hand, have found that this is entirely possible, even with weak acids. This is because pearls, which consist primarily of calcium carbonate, would react chemically with the acetic acid in the vinegar to produce calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide.
Although it is possible to dissolve pearls in vinegar, the story of Cleopatra’s pearl probably did not happen as Pliny described it. In an experiment by Prudence Jones of Montclair State University, New Jersey, in 2010, it was found that a pearl weighing about 1 gram (.03 ounces) would take between 24 and 36 hours to dissolve in a 5% solution of acetic acid. Therefore, it quite unlikely that Cleopatra would have been able to consume the pearl and vinegar mixture in a few moments.
Alternatively, it was found that if the vinegar was heated, the pearl would dissolve quicker, i.e., in hours (or minutes, according to some). Pliny, of course, does not mention anything about the vinegar being heated. It has also been suggested that the pearl might have first been grounded up into a powder and sprinkled into the vinegar. This would have made it dissolve even faster. However, Pliny does not mention anything about grinding the pearl either.
Incidentally, pearl powder was used in other ancient cultures, though for medicinal purposes. In ancient India, for instance, pearl powder was highly sought after as it was thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. In ancient Chinese medicinal texts, pearl powder appears frequently as an ingredient. Nevertheless, in terms of scientific experiments, there is little to support the health benefits of pearl powder.
Lastly, it may be said that whilst it is physically possible to dissolve pearls in vinegar, the story of Cleopatra’s pearl might not have even taken place, and that it was only an urban legend. The story of Clodius, for instance, though narrated by Pliny, was also told by the poet Horace, about a century before Pliny.
Another account of drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar is provided by Suetonius in his account of the life of Caligula, written decades after Pliny. In these various accounts, dissolving pearls in vinegar is associated with decadence. Indeed, since Pliny held the opulent lifestyle of Antony and Cleopatra in contempt, the story of dissolving pearls in vinegar, whether it happened or not, would have been quite apt for his purpose of disparaging the couple.
Top image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's famous painting of The Banquet of Cleopatra (painted 1743–44) shows Cleopatra's pearl above the tall glass of vinegar as Mark Antony looks on. Source: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo / Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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