Cleopatra’s Pearl Wager
Cleopatra (69 B.C. – 30 B.C.) was one of the most famous rulers of Egypt. She ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51BC until her death in 30 BC. She was a clever and consummate rule, even though she tends to be reduced down to being Julius Ceasar or Mark Anthony’s partner in many history texts. She was a savvy politician famed for her intellect. She was also known as one of the wealthiest people in the world at the time. This legend stems from that last fact.
This account was written down by Pliny the Elder – a Roman philosopher (23AD – 79AD) – in his book Natural History. Pliny claimed that as a way to demonstrate her wealth and power Cleopatra made a bet with Marc Anthony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on a single meal. There are various estimates regarding the modern-day equivalent for a sesterce ranging from $0.50 to $1.67, which would make the equivalent of 10 million sesterces between $5,000,000 – $16,700,000.
What food could possibly make up a – minimum – 5 million dollar meal?
According to Pliny, Marc Anthony tended towards eating large, extravagant meals. One day Cleopatra claimed that she could provide an even more luxurious fair, and claimed she could prepare a 10 million sesterces dinner. Astounded by this claim, Marc Anthony accepted the bet. The next day she prepared a luxurious feast by anyone else’s standards, but one that seemed common to Marc Anthony. He asked her how she estimated this was equal to 10 million sesterces, but she claimed that this was just so they didn’t waste the day. She would consume the 10 million sesterces meal herself after this first course.
After they had finished she called her servant to bring her the next course. The servant brought out a glass of vinegar and sat it down in front of the famous ruler. Cleopatra then removed a pearl from her earring ( said to be one of the largest and most unique pearls ever found, estimated by Pliny to be equal to the bet amount) and dropped it in the glass. She then waited for the acidic vinegar to dissolve the pearl and drank it.
She moved to dissolve the other one for Marc Anthony to drink, but Lucius Plancus who was overseeing the bet stopped her and declared Cleopatra the winner.
Fact or Fiction?
While Pliny’s writings were taken as truth for centuries, modern-day scholars tend to dismiss this as falsehood and exaggeration. However, Prudence Jones of Montclair State University was curious enough to give this a try. Using 5-carat pearl and grocery store white vinegar, Jones found that it took one gram pearl between 1 and 1 1/2 days for a pearl to dissolve. Provided that Cleopatra crushed up the pearl, which some retellings will claim, it is feasible that she really did consume millions of dollars in just one drink. Whether it actually occurred though is lost to the dredges of history.
Pearls are known as the Stone of Sincerity and are said to help with finding answers and truthfulness, which is somewhat ironic here, since we may never know the truth of what went down regarding this infamous bet. These sea stones are supposed to enhance personal integrity and inspire loyalty to a cause. Wearing them signifies faith, charity, and innocence, and they’re supposed to be a symbol of purity, which is why so many brides wear them on their wedding day. Pearls are also said to help with digestion, so maybe the dissolved pearl helped Cleopatra force down that glass full of vinegar.