Cleopatra, that famous ruler and seducer of all men, is famous for having won the heart and soul of Marc Antony — by melting down a pearl and drinking it, to entrance the Roman with the pearl's aphrodisiac properties. But could this actually work? In the 1950s, scientists tested it out.
So was Cleopatra's aphrodisiac a real thing? And could it help you seduce a Roman general?
The story goes like this: Marc Antony and Cleopatra were sitting at a banquet table. Every night, they had dined and been entertained so extravagantly that Marc Antony wondered aloud at it. Cleopatra lightheartedly said that she could spend the kind of money that most people would shell out for a country estate on a single night's entertainment. Antony said this wasn't possible, and he and Cleopatra made a bet about it. The next night, they had an equally opulent dinner and equally enthralling entertainment, but they hadn't spent nearly that kind of money on either. When Antony joked, saying that he didn't see where they money was going, Cleopatra called for a servant to bring her a glass of vinegar. When it was set in front of her, she plucked out her pearl earring - and at this point her earrings were the largest pearls ever seen in the world — and threw it into the glass. The pearl dissolved, and she drank it.
This was the account given by Pliny the Elder. It was an old story. The fable about the heedless rich person so extravagant that they melted down jewels for the taste was repeated several times, applying to several different people. In this case, though, it had a second meaning. Cleopatra wasn't just tasting the pearl, she was showing off for her lover. In snaring both Marc Antony and Julius Caesar — arguably to both their costs — she was considered by her detractors a near-magical seductress.
And both vinegar and pearls were considered to have aphrodisiac properties. In the story, Cleopatra was essentially showing Antony the trick that she used to ensorcell him, like a magician showing the people how he makes doves appear from his sleeves — and then seducing Antony anyway.
Could a pearl even be dissolved in vinegar? And if it were, could anyone stand to drink acid of that strength? There had been so many arguments about this story over the centuries that in 1957, BL Ullman decided to test it. He was a classicist, and a resourceful one at that. He trawled jewelers until he found one that had lopsided pearls which had once been removed from settings and weren't useful anymore. He then grabbed some vinegar and set to work, testing the ancient tale.
What he found was that there was no way that the stories, as they were told, were true. Pearls did not just melt away when exposed to vinegar. At best, this would took a day and a half. Boiling the pearl in vinegar didn't do much to speed up the process. At some strengths, the vinegar simply boiled away as Ullman kept an eye on it while reading. The best results came after he crushed the pearl. One has to imagine that Antony would be less enchanted if he had to wait while Cleopatra grabbed something heavy and smashed the earring to dust and dumped it in a cup to the let the vinegar do the rest. Even the final stage of dissolving, according to Ullman, took hours.
Decades later, yet another experiment was done on pearl crushing, this time with $20 cultured pearls by classicist Prudence Jones. She found that boiling the pearl in vinegar could work. A five carat pearl dissolved in about ten minutes of being boiled in supermarket vinegar. It's possible that Ullman erred on the side of acid strength, since Jones noticed that more mild acids worked faster. Neither experimenter attempted to drink the vinegar, however. Or, if they did, they didn't mention if it made them irresistible to Roman generals — although I like to think, as a matter of scientific principle, they at least tried that out.
In the end, it looks like the pearl story was just another fable about Cleopatra the extravagant seducer. It's nice to know that some matters of history have been settled.
Top Image: Brocken Inaglory
Via Cleopatra: A Life, JStor, and USA Today.