Curious Bites

Cleopatra's Pearl Banquet

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Cleopatra's Pearl Banquet

Cleopatra not only knew her food, but her chemistry as well. And we all know how important chemistry is in both cooking… and love.

There have been two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history; both were owned by Cleopatra, the last of the Queens of Egypt, they had come down to her through the hands of the Kings of the East....In accordance with previous instructions the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar, the strong rough quality of which can melt pearls. She was at the moment wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature. Antony was full of curiosity to see what in the world she was going to do. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was melted swallowed it....With this goes the story that, when that queen who had won on this important issue was captured, the second of this pair of pearls was cut in two pieces, so that half a helping of the jewel might be in each of the ears of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome.

Pliny, Natural History (IX.59.119-121; also Macrobius, Saturnalia, III.17.14-17)

In the year 41 B.C.E., Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt (and a woman accustomed to getting her own way), in what was to be a successful attempt at capturing Mark Antony’s attention and heart, bet him that she would be able to throw the most expensive banquet in history. Antony, charmed and intrigued, accepted the wager. While there are several versions of this story, (first recounted by Pliny the Elder as shown above), it’s generally accepted that at the end of the banquet in question, Cleopatra removed one of her large pearl earrings – jewels that were said to be worth “the value of 15 countries” – and dropped it into a glass of wine vinegar (a mild acid), waited for the pearl (which consists mainly of calcium carbonate) to dissolve, and then drank the whole thing. The value of the contents of that single glass, not even counting the rest of the banquet, had certainly been more expensive than any other up until that point. And by this clever – though extravagant – feat, she not only won the wager with Antony, but his heart as well. He soon left his wife and moved to Alexandria and his love affair with Cleopatra is one of history’s most famous.

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