Saturday, 13 August 2022

Cleopatra Mark Two

I have been known to rehash the odd post or two. Some would say I'm a lazy bugger and should be castigated accordingly. And with that sentiment, I would heartedly agree. Lazy, indolent and mayhap, a tad slothful. What can I say? Guilty as charged. This post originally appeared in c2015. Writing is hard and although I do appear to have a modicum of talent for penning complete and utter bollocks, it does not preclude a degree of lassitude.  
That said, I have also updated grammar and amended errors, sundry. Thus, this post is supposedly about said exotic bint dissolving an expensive pearl in vinegar and drinking the acidic concoction, in one. Tis enough to give, even the most robust constitution, digestive dyspepsia- is there any other?

Reminds me of an ex Girlfriend- her name was Karen

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, and should we care?

The first thing to note is that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but a Macedonian belonging to the Macedonian dynasty that took control of Egypt after the death of the great general of antiquity, Alexander the Great (d 323BC). Macedonians: A load of Highland ruffians that 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 after the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, at 18 (51BC). To legitimise her rule she married her younger brother, aged 12, at the time- don't ask.

As regards her supposed beauty, let us consult the ancient writers for their considered opinion of her said 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, lay in her charm, intelligence and accomplishments, which indeed, were great. How could it be otherwise?

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. The next day she set before Antony an extravagant banquet. He was impressed but pointed out that the meal came nowhere near 10 million sesterces. Cleopatra smiled and produced a glass of vinegar into which she placed one of her large and incredibly expensive pearl earrings. 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, that 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;  further, it was written by an enemy who had no love for Cleopatra and it has all the hallmarks of a myth. The ancients loved a 'rollicking' good story, just as we do today, and were not immune to subverting the facts if it suited. The story also suited Roman propaganda in which Cleopatra is suitably depicted as a
luxuriant despotic ruler- the antithesis of tough, rustic, stolid, georgic, Rome.

There should always be a kernel of truth in a good (and plausible?) 'tall story'. 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.

Having established that at least one part of the original story can't be true, it casts 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 her power and privilege with extravagant abandon.       

I suppose, in the last analysis, we should revel in a tale well told and should not be asking 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 that, 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 Roman Empire for what it was. Not sophisticated, politically, or culturally. However, it possessed the only two characteristics that 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 in 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.   

Gratuitous photo of da missus and grand fruit


  1. Yes fellows, we can learn a lot from the collaps of the roman empire - and I bet we don´t. You mention Plutarch of Chaironeia - reminds me to Plutarch of Athens, who lived something 300 years later and was witness of the fall. His attempt, to reanimate Plato´s epistemology by founding the ancient world´s last academy for fundamental occidental philosophie was right, but came much to late and therefore was doomed to fail. After Contantine declared the strange superstition named christianity state religion, logic has been finally abolished and without logic any system has to collaps. Thinking was no longer in demand - shamans claimed the monopoly. Light was switched off and it took more than 1.200 years of disturbing dark times before enlightenment returned with Descartes, Hume, Kant & co., making sciences and systematic progress possible again. Today same powers like 400 a.c. are going to turn back the wheel again. Reset the seat back, have a drink, enjoy the impact.

  2. I'm here to the end. Whether Western societies can survive the current list of calamities, is mute. Was predicted that European civilisation would be destroyed during the Great War. Perhaps it started the slow decline. No doubt our way of life is under threat. What can the average man do? Very little unfortunately. Enjoy your life, drink deep from the ale filled cup; enjoy fancy viands; Walk with your wife/concubine and hold hands; make love. What more can a man do?