Cleopatra could have drunk a pearl, researcher finds

An ancient story about Cleopatra, Mark Antony and a pearl may have been true, according to a recent article. In her article, “Cleopatra’s Cocktail,” Prudence Jones of Montclair State University reveals the results of an experiment which shows that vinegar could dissolve a real pearl, a feat which scholars had long believed was fictitious.

The Banquet of Cleopatra - painted in the early 1700s

According to the historian Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra made a wager with the Roman leader Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. Pliny writes, “She 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.”

Pliny added this pearl was “the largest in the whole of history,” a “remarkable and truly unique work of nature” and worth 10 million sesterces.

Although many historians thought this story could not be true, Prudence Jones made an experiment where she successfully dissolved a pearl in ordinary vinegar. In an interview with USA Today, Jones said, “I got interested in the story of the pearl after hearing a lecture by Christopher Pelling (of Oxford University). He talked about Pliny’s account and I began to wonder if there was any truth behind it and started trying some experiments, at first with calcium supplement tablets and pieces of oyster shell and then with pearls. It is possible to get inexpensive cultured pearls (almost all modern pearls are cultured; Cleopatra would have had natural pearls), particularly small ones. To try the experiment with a large pearl, I was fortunate to find a jeweler who had a couple of pearls weighing about 1 gram each that had been removed from pieces of jewelry. They were not perfectly round and so were not suitable for other settings and were going to be disposed of. He was willing to donate these to my experiment. Currently, when I do the demonstration for people, I use small cultured pearls from a bracelet I purchased at K-Mart for $20.”

Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University, commented to Discovery News that “I think this research has convincingly demonstrated the technique that Cleopatra could have used to dissolve a pearl. We already know that this curious, intelligent queen carried out toxicological experiments. It’s likely she softened the pearl in advance, then crushed it and placed it in a goblet to dazzle Marc Antony with her wealth and arcane scientific expertise.”

Jones, the author of two books and a number of journal articles on Cleopatra, has had an interest in the Egyptian queen since high school.

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