We are left with numerous fabulous tales of colorful characters from ancient times, but perhaps none so intriguing, or ultimately tragic, as the beautiful Cleopatra. Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt, reigned for 21 years as the most powerful woman in the world. Her exploits are legendary – from being smuggled into a palace by way of a rolled-up carpet for a liaison with Caesar, to her death by asp. Cleopatra even lays claim to having served the most expensive dinner in history to her beau Mark Antony. How, you might ask? It all begins eons ago.
The story is first recounted by Pliny the Elder in his seminal work, Natural History. He tells of a wager between Cleopatra, desperately trying to maintain legitimacy as the head of an empire in the path of Roman expansion, and the Roman politician and general, Mark Antony. The year was 41 B.C. when Cleopatra made a bet with her lover: she would serve the most expensive dinner in history. Mark Antony was indeed treated to lavish courses and fine treats, but while the dinner was winding down, he remarked that the meal was not that special.
How to Serve the Most Expensive Dinner in History
Cleopatra then turned to him with a bemused smile and removed one of her earrings – so large and rare that it was worth 10 million sesterces (roughly the equivalent yearly revenue of an entire Roman province). As Pliny relates, “The first place and the topmost rank among all things of price is held by pearls … Their whole value lies in their brilliance, size, roundness, smoothness and weight … There have been two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history; both were owned by Cleopatra … they had come down to her through the hands of the kings of the East.”
Having dangled the earring for all to see her wealth and power, Cleopatra then dropped it into a goblet of wine vinegar and, the pearl thus dissolved, she drank it. Thankfully, defeat was conceded before she repeated the gesture with her other earring (which, incidentally, went on to be cut in two, so that half a helping of the pearl might be inlayed as jewelry in each ear on the statue of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome). But could this pearl cocktail, which gave rise to the most expensive dinner in history, really have existed? Do pearls dissolve in vinegar?
Do Pearls Dissolve?
While many have dismissed the story as historical fancy, researchers tell us that a pearl could dissolve in a wine vinegar common to the Egypto-Roman world. Pliny may have left out a few details, but the scenario is plausible. First, the process would be rather slow (not like the Alka-Seltzer immediacy that the legend suggests). Heating the vinegar would speed up the dissolution, but we can’t think of anything less appetizing than washing down a degraded pearl with hot vinegar (we’re told the calcium carbonate in the pearl would neutralize some of the acid, resulting in a drink that is not as acidic as vinegar – but we’ll take their word for it). A more likely scenario would be to crush the pearl and stir it in.
Drinking such a valuable pearl would be a scandalous demonstration of opulence and decadent consumption – the kind that just might do the trick in convincing a bullying neighbor across the Mediterranean to respect your sovereign territory. Ultimately, we may never know whether the most expensive dinner in history is based on fact or fabrication. We at Spey, however, much prefer to wear our pearls in delicious pearl jewelry, rather than consume them. But hey: we don’t begrudge Cleopatra her infamy.
Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Banquet of Cleopatra