Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cleopatra and the Pearl

Alka Seltzer, it ain't

Cleopatra (b 69BC-d 30BC) has inspired writers and artists for over two thousand years. The purported Egyptian beauty, who seduced two of the most powerful men of the Roman world has fascinated and beguiled us, ever since. Cleopatra has become a byword for despotic, lush, oriental opulence and extravagance; a woman who during a banquet with her lover, the sot, Mark Antony, is said to have dissolved a priceless pearl in vinegar and drank it. So what is the truth and after all this time, should we care?

The first thing to note is that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but a Macedonian belonging to the Macedonian dynasty who took control of Egypt after the death of the great general of antiquity, 'Alexander the Great' (d 323BC). A load of Highland ruffians who ruled the world, because they could. The rulers spoke Greek and didn't even bother to learn the native Egyptian language, although Cleopatra apparently made the effort, as she did with other barbarian tongues. She became ruler of Egypt on the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, at 18 (51BC). To legitimise her rule she married her younger brother who was aged 12, at the time- don't ask.

As regard her supposed beauty, let us consult the ancient writers for their considered opinion of her pulchritude: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”

Plutarch's Life of Antony 

The only other evidence we have is her depiction on coins and sculptured busts. Allowing for a degree of stylisation, especially in the Greek renditions, a modest conclusion can be made. By the way, the Roman depictions are considered more realistic as befits this most practical and  bucolic of peoples. On the available evidence it seems she was no ravishing beauty in the mould of Elizabeth Taylor, nor was she a hideous hag. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Her greatest attributes and all the ancient writers seem to agree, lay with her charm, intelligence and accomplishments, which indeed, were great.

We are on less firm ground when we come to the story of the pearl. Supposedly, Cleopatra bet Mark Antony that she could serve a meal costing 10 million sesterces. This would translate to about 30 million US dollars at today’s rates. Obviously Mark Antony was intrigued (probably drunk) and so he accepted the bet. Next day she set before Antony an extravagant banquet. He was impressed but pointed out that the meal came no where near 10 million sesterces. Cleopatra smiled and produced a glass of vinegar into which she placed one of her large and incredibly expensive pearl ear rings. The pearl fizzed in the vinegar and promptly dissolved. With a wicked gleam in her eye, Cleopatra drained the drink in one. All at the banquet agreed, she had won the bet.   

The account appears in the writings of a Roman author, Pliny the Elder, in 77AD. We should be wary of its veracity for several reasons: Firstly it was written many years after the alleged event; it was written by an enemy who had no love for Cleopatra and it has all the hallmarks of an urban myth. The ancients loved a 'rollicking' good story, just as we, and were not immune to subverting the facts, if it suited.

There should always be a kernel of truth in a good (and plausible?) urban myth. One part of the story can be tested today. Is it possible to dissolve a pearl in vinegar? The essence and nature of pearls and vinegar have not changed in two thousand years. Pearls will dissolve in vinegar but not in the way described by Pliny. A pearl, and especially a large pearl, will not dissolve within a very short time- we are looking at days. And remember, Cleopatra's pearl was very large. Therefore, the story could not have occurred exactly as described. The ancients should have got their facts right, we are talking about posterity, after all. This doesn't mean it didn't happen; a few modifications are required. If the pearl was crushed into a fine powder beforehand, then it would be possible to dissolve it quickly.

Having established that at least one part of the original story can't be true, it casts at least a modicum amount of doubt, over the rest of the story. The story, with reservations, is wholly consistent with what we know about Cleopatra herself. The great lady was wealthy, a ruler in the grand ancient tradition and flaunted the power of her privilege ostentatiously to the known world.       

I suppose, in the last analysis, we should revel in a tale told well and not ask penetrating and prosaic questions. Fiction can be intoxicating. After all, who questions whether Shakespeare's, 'Antony and Cleopatra' is a tale of real history? Tis a breathtaking, tragic, and  beautifully narrated story framed in lilting prose which, on occasion, inflames the senses. Apparently, it can make  grown men cry (not me though, I'm tough).

Historically, Cleopatra was an important character, although ultimately doomed. She played a fine game as only an intelligent ruler could in the face of subjugation to a greater power. She recognised the great Roman Empire for what is was. Not sophisticated, politically, or culturally. However, it possessed the only two characteristics which really matter in the world's great arena; political stability (*see comment, below) and a large and well trained military force. Nothing else really matters, at least from the grand geopolitical perspective. Expanding on this analysis, it is well to consider that the subjugator, the Roman Empire, when its time came, fell more to internal enemies than those without. Modern Western powers should take note.     

*As I'm sure you are aware, I'm not a great one for digression, but I thought it necessary to introduce a caveat on Rome's 'political stability', before I receive censure. The period of which I write is a time of great political upheaval for Rome. Prior to this era, Rome experienced relatively stable political conditions under the Republic, however, it did suffer from periods of social tumult. Caesar introduced a form of stability that pleased no one but himself. After his death, the Roman world descended into civil war. And with interludes, real peace and tranquillity (at least for the Romans) did not descend until the coming of the first Roman Emperor, Octavian. The rest is history- go read.   


  1. Far too sensible. Those meds must be kicking in...

  2. Yes, indeed Mr D: 'There's a blue one,and a pink one and one with a bit of poo on, and they all look just the same'. Remember that song? You should do a cover version. Arse.

    1. "The Mayor of Bayswater's daughter", if my addled old brain doesn't deceive me...

  3. Blimy I think I have just been edjumakated...