How a very expensive pearl is lost in a bet? When people are so rich that they don’t know what to do with their money, they start doing strange things. There is a story of Cleopatra losing one of the most expensive pearls in the world. Just to win a bet with her boyfriend Marc Anthony. Let me tell you more about this strange bet.
Cleopatra is a very smart and powerful, but also very rich lady. She is the pharaoh of Egypt long in the century BC and dates with a high Roman general, Marc Anthony. There is a legend or maybe a fact, written down by Pliny, a historian. And the pearl plays an important part in this story.
Marc Antony and Cleopatra are a couple. Both are very dominant and powerful. And for a lady in those days, Cleopatra is politically important and does not want to be inferior to the Roman general. She is Egyptian and the owner of the land. Marc Anthony wants to be bossy too. And he can since he conquered Egypt.
Painting of Alexandre Cabanel (1887) ‘Cleopatra testing poisons on condemned prisoners’ (photo Wikipedia)
One day Cleopatra boasts that she is so rich that she can spend ten million sestertii on a dinner. Marc Anthony takes the bet since according to him such an expensive dinner is impossible to organize. Cleopatra orders her staff to prepare the dinner for the next evening.
In the first course, Cleopatra offers ordinary and cheap food. And Marc Anthony starts laughing: ‘see, you cannot do it’. The second course is a cup of vinegar with water. Cleopatra takes a very very expensive pearl from one of her earrings and tosses it in the vinegar. After a little while, she drinks the vinegar with the pearl of at least ten million sestertii worth. And she wins the bet. Marc Anthony has no words for this ‘trick’. He leaves the dinner and does not want to finish his meal.
The story about Cleopatra and Marc Anthony has been told in movies, plays and songs
How does she do this?
A lot of people throughout history think that dissolving a pearl in vinegar is not possible and the story cannot be true. Professor Prudence Jones of the Montclair State University tries to dissolve a 5-carat pearl in vinegar and water and the pearl dissolves in around 24 -36 hours. Professor Jones explains: ‘The calcium carbonate in a pearl reacts with the acetic acid in vinegar and consequently there is calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide’. The Romans and Egyptians know a lot about chemistry, therefore an educated person like Cleopatra may have known this ‘trick’.
Is it likely that the two lovers dine 24-36 hours?
That’s not likely. It is possible that the historian Plinius shortens the story a bit. But even then: is it possible to dissolve such a big pearl faster than 24-36 hours. Professor Jones tries that out too. First, he cooks the vinegar, which makes the concentration of vinegar lower and the dissolving process faster. Besides that, you need a certain amount of water to get the necessary chemical reaction. And when he pulverizes the pearl, it dissolves in the cooked vinegar/water solution in ten minutes.
So it seems that a long-told legend can be a historical fact!
The value of the pearl earrings of Cleopatra
Cleopatra uses very very expensive pearls to prove that she is rich. Pliny, the historian, and author of this story calculates that the cost of the pearl is about 60 million sestertii or roughly $29 million in today’s dollars. These pearls are the largest know pearls at the time!
About the popularity of pearls by Cleopatra he states “The first place and the topmost rank among all things of the 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.”
What happens to the other pearl
You might wonder what happens to the other pearl. Cleopatra uses only one pearl from one earring, so there is one very expensive pearl left. That has a value of about 30 million sestertii or $29 million dollars.
According to Pliny, the Elder, people cut the other pearl in two. Remembering that special dinner that is only eaten half. The two halves of the pearl are used to decorate the ears of the statue of Venus in Rome in the temple of Pantheon.
The statue representing Venus in the Pantheon
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