Posted on January 11, 2018 by Mary Hood | 0 Comments
Accounts of Cleopatra VII’s (69-30 BCE) enchanting life story abound, but the story most likely to pique the interest of jewelry lovers involves a rather large and valuable pearl that the beautiful queen apparently drank!
According to the story, Cleopatra bet her lover Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. To prove herself (while showing off her opulence), she removed one of her earrings, which apparently contained one of two of the largest pearls known in the land, dissolved it in vinegar, and then drank it.
In the words of Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.), “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.” And the bet was won.
Until recently, this story was thought to be mere myth, but research indicates that this trick is actually possible.
"All you need is vinegar and a pearl. In my experiments, I used a white vinegar sold in supermarkets. Wine vinegar was most common in the Greco-Roman world, so it is likely that's what Cleopatra used," classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University explained to Discovery News. The acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the calcium carbonate in the pearl and produces calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the cocktail wouldn’t taste as acidic as straight vinegar because the calcium carbonate somewhat neutralizes the acid in the vinegar.
The effect isn’t instantaneous, however. It takes roughly “24 to 36 hours to dissolve a pearl weighing approximately one gram.” The end result is a translucent gel-like substance.
Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science, suggests that the myth—and its plausibility—may give us insight into the kind of clever character Cleopatra was:
“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," Mayor told Discovery News. "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.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons