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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 52, No. 5 (Feb. 1957), 193‑201

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p193 Cleopatra's Pearls
B. L. Ullman

The famous story of Cleopatra's pearls is told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (9.119‑21): "The last of the Egyptian queens," he says, "owned the two largest pearls of all time, left to her by oriental kings. When Antony was stuffing himself daily with rare foods, she proudly and impertinently, like the royal harlot that she was, sneered at his attempts at luxury and extravagance. When he asked her what could be added in the way of sumptuousness she replied that she would use up 10,000,000 sesterces [$500,000 on the gold standard] at one dinner. Antony was eager to learn about it but didn't think it could be done. So they made a bet, and on the next day when the bet was to be decided, she set before Antony a dinner that under other circumstances would have been a magnificent one but was an everyday affair for Antony. She did this so that the day should not be entirely wasted. Antony laughed at her and asked for the reckoning. But she said that this was merely a preliminary and assured him that the real banquet would use up the estimated sum and that she would consume the half-million dollar dinner all by herself. Then she ordered the dessert to be served. According to instructions, the servants placed but one dish before her, containing vinegar whose acidity and strength dissolves pearls into slush [tabes is Pliny's word]. She was at the time wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature known as pearls. So while Antony was wondering what in the world she was going to do, she took one pearl from her ear, plunged it into the vinegar, and when it was dissolved, swallowed it. Lucius Plancus, who was refereeing the bet, put his hand on the other pearl as she was preparing to dissolve it in like manner and declared Antony the loser. This was a definite omen [of Antony's fate]. The fame of the dissolved pearl attended its mate, which was cut in two when the queen who had won in this important case was captured. Half of the dinner of Antony and Cleopatra was put in each ear of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome." In this translation I have kept rather close to Pliny's curious style. Pliny wrote about a century after the pearl was cast into the vinegar. Over three centuries later Macrobius (Sat. 3.17.14‑17) repeated the story, obviously drawing on Pliny.1

However, the idea of dissolving pearls in vinegar and swallowing them is not confined to Cleopatra. She had at least one predecessor and one successor, if we are to believe our ancient sources. Horace tells us about a contemporary of his (Serm. 2.3.239‑42):

The son of Aesopus [a famous actor of Cicero's day] took a fine pearl from the ear of Metella and dissolved it in vinegar, with the apparent intention of swallowing a p194million sesterces in a lump. How is he any saner than if he were to throw that sum into a swift river or a sewer?

It will be noticed that the Cleopatra story is ten times as good, as far as the supposed value of the pearl is concerned. Horace wrote his poem about 33 B.C., within a few years of the time when Cleopatra was doing her pearling. But Horace's tale concerns a young man who probably anticipated her by a few years, though some have assumed that Aesopus imitated Cleopatra.2 There always is a tendency to suppose that the lesser imitated the greater rather than vice versa, an assumption not always valid. The friendship of Antony and Cleopatra lasted from 41 to 31 B.C. It might be thought that the pearl episode took place at the very beginning of their acquaintance in 41, for Athenaeus, quoting Socrates of Rhodes (who apparently lived in the time of Augustus), describes the elaborate banquets that Cleopatra gave Antony and his friends when they first met,3 and the splendid gold service which the guests were invited to take away with them, but says nothing about the pearls. Yet the presence of L. Munatius Plancus at the pearl dinner probably indicates a date after 34 and before 32, at which time Plancus deserted Antony and returned to Rome.4 One is almost tempted to conjecture that Cleopatra had just read, or had heard a reading of, Horace's poem, which, as I have said, was written about 33 B.C.

The young Aesopus was giving Cicero some anxiety in the year 47 because of his bad influence on Cicero's son-in‑law Dolabella (Att. 11.15.3). The two were friendly rivals for the favors of Metella, the lady with the pearl. It is to this period that I should be inclined to attribute the story. Valerius Maximus, writing in the reign of Tiberius, repeats the tale in brief form (9.1.2). The young Aesopus, he says, quickly ran through his inheritance by serving expensive songbirds instead of figpeckers and by splashing into his drinks pearls of great price that had been dissolved in vinegar. Pliny too tells the story just after the Cleopatra tale and specifically awards precedence to the actor's wild son. Aesopus, says Pliny, not only had the honor of beating Cleopatra to the drawing of a pearl from a lady's ear and dissolving it but he did not resort to a wager to make it a better story (actually Pliny says "to make it a more regal act"). Aesopus' motive, according to Pliny, was to see what pearls tasted like. Being a jolly good fellow, he shared his pearls with his dinner guests, as he apparently shared his ladies. Perhaps Dolabella was one of those who swallowed a pearl at Aesopus' table. As for Metella, Pliny completely ignores her.

A third pearl swallower is named by Suetonius, none other than the Emperor Caligula (Calig. 37). We are told that this emperor bathed in hot and cold perfumes, swallowed precious pearls dissolved in vinegar, served his dinner guests with bread and meat of gold, saying that one must be either economical or Caesar, frugi hominem esse . . . aut Caesarem. Perhaps this is the source of Caesar Borgia's famous mot, aut Caesar aut nihil, often misquoted as aut Caesar aut nullus.

A trio then of similar tales. I might add two brief allusions to dissolving pearls, though nothing is said about drinking them down. Pausanias, the Greek writer of the second century A.D., in discussing the power of a certain waterfall to break up glass, stone, and other substances, casually remarks that vinegar possesses the property of destroying pearls, and that the diamond, hardest of stones, is melted away by the blood of a billy goat. It would seem that our story is here in rather disreputable company as far as truthfulness is concerned. Vitruvius, the writer on architecture who lived in the age of Augustus, also tells of the properties of certain waters (8.3.18‑19). There are some springs, he says, whose waters are so acid that they can break p195up stones in the bladder. The acidity, he adds, is derived from the soil. How this sort of action can happen may be seen from an experiment, he continues. Leave an egg in vinegar for some time and its shell will soften and dissolve. Lead and copper are affected by vinegar. So too a pearl. This very brief statement seems to be, at least in part, in good scientific company. Was Vitruvius thinking of the Aesopus or Cleopatra story or did he derive his information from another source? Pliny too tells about the softening of eggs by vinegar to the extent that they can be drawn through a finger ring (10.167). That trick is better than Columbus'.

Are these stories true? The attitude of scholars toward them has varied as scientific and philological methods (which I consider akin, if not identical) have developed. The older commentators of our classical texts and many newer ones are silent as to the credibility of the tales and appear to accept them at face value; for example, such late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century editors of Horace as Wickham, Lejay, Rolfe, Greenough, and others down to Villeneuve's translation of 1946, in which he comments on the story, citing Pliny, but says nothing about its truth or falsity. Other editors simply say that pearls are not soluble in vinegar.

The wave of skepticism that followed in the wake of scientific progress in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gradually demolished many popular beliefs and old tales. Some scholars accepted nothing that was not capable of scientific proof. The effect of this change in point of view was reflected in our reaction to our three tales. In his life of Cleopatra, Stahr held that the whole story about her pearls was hardly more than a folk tale and he argued that the application of the story to Aesopus increases our suspicions.5 I don't follow his reasoning there. Kiessling in his first edition of Horace's Satires, Morris, Mueller, and others say simply that pearls are not soluble in vinegar. Rackham in his Loeb translation of Pliny (1940) notes: "No such vinegar exists; Cleopatra no doubt swallowed the pearl in vinegar knowing that it could be recovered later." H. N. Wethered in his book on The Mind of the Ancient World (1937) remarks that "it seems a pity for the sake of the story that pearls do not dissolve in ordinary vinegar."6

Within the memory of many of us the skeptical assault on traditions, beliefs, old wives' tales, and so on began to give way before a reaction towards at least partial credence. In some cases this resulted from discoveries of one sort or another. If the poet Homer never existed then there must have been another poet by the same name. Such at least seems to be the position of some scholars today. Herodotus, once almost regarded as the prince of liars in some circles, has been vindicated on more than one count. Not all the stories about the early Roman kings are any longer regarded as pure fiction. So with our tales. It was Ludwig Friedländer, author of the celebrated and authoritative Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms, translated into English under the title Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire, who asked a chemist to experiment with pearls and vinegar. The following is the report made by the chemist, Prof. C. Gräbe, as it appeared first in the fifth edition of Friedländer's book in 1881:7

A 5 per cent solution of acetic acid, equivalent in acidity to a strong vinegar, when used cold, dissolves pearls very slowly; several hours are required to make them disappear. Boiling immediately induces a fairly strong development of carbonic acid, and after 8‑15 minutes small pearls are dissolved. A 3 per cent solution acts in almost the same way, but the effect is noticeably slower with a 1 per cent solution. The pearls are dissolved more quickly if the liquid is boiled or agitated; by these means the bubbles of carbonic acid, which are evolved and hinder the contact of the liquid with the pearls, are removed. Vinegar produced by fermentation contains from 2½ to 8 per cent of acetic acid.

Perhaps Friedländer was led to ask p196the chemist to conduct the experiment by the words of C. W. King in The Natural History of Precious Stones and of the Precious Metals, which he quotes:8

It is unfortunate for this good story, that no acid the human stomach can endure is capable of dissolving a Pearl even after a long maceration in it. Barbot has found by actual experiment, that one layer was reduced to a jelly, whilst the next beneath it was completely unaffected. No doubt the wily Egyptian swallowed her Pearl safe and sound, and in some more agreeable potation than vinegar, secure of its ultimate recovery uninjured; and invented the story of its complete and instantaneous dissolution.

At first sight the report of Gräbe as quoted by Friedländer is contradicted by a statement in a book entitled The Book of the Pearl. The History, Art, Science and Industry of the Queen of Gems by G. F. Kunz and C. H. Stevenson.9 Dr. Kunz, who appears not to have seen Friedländer's book,10 wrote:

Pearls are affected by acids and fetid gases, and may be calcined on exposure to heat. Their solubility in vinegar was referred to by the Roman architect Vitruvius and also by Pausanias . . .; but it seems that there could be little foundation for Pliny's well-known anecdote in which Cleopatra is credited with dissolving a magnificent pearl in vinegar and drinking it. . . . It is no more easy to dissolve a pearl in vinegar than it is to dissolve a pearl button — for the composition is similar, and one may easily experiment for himself as to the difficulty of doing this. Not only does it take many days to dissolve in cold vinegar the mineral elements of a pearl of fair size, but even with boiling vinegar it requires several hours to extract the mineral matter from a pearl 4 to 5 grains in weight, the acid penetrating to the interior very slowly. And in neither case can the pearl be made to disappear, for even after the carbonate of lime has dissolved, the organic matrix of animal matter — which is insoluble in vinegar — retains almost the identical shape, size and appearance as before. If the pearl is first pulverized, it becomes readily soluble in vinegar, and might be thus drunk as a lover's potion, but it would scarcely prove a bonne bouche.

To summarize, Gräbe says that a small pearl is dissolved in boiling vinegar in 8‑15 minutes; Kunz maintains that it takes several hours to dissolve a pearl of fair size. The size of the pearl is obviously an important factor. If we allow for this difference the two scholars are in essential agreement, that pearls can be at least partially dissolved in vinegar. Dr. Kunz was vice-president and gem expert of Tiffany's of New York for many years and the author of several other books besides the one quoted. I happened to meet him years ago and told him of my views on the Cleopatra story. He displayed great interest and insisted on sending me a box of pearls to experiment with. I hasten to add that they were fresh-water pearls of irregular shape and of no value in the pearl market. Until a short time ago, my attempts at experimentation had been desultory and inconclusive. It obviously took a long time for pearls to dissolve in cold vinegar. Still it was possible to see in my experiments that something was happening, as bubbles (of carbonic acid) were rising to the top. In one experiment with cold cider vinegar of unknown strength no appreciable loss occurred in six hours. On experiments lasting longer the vinegar dried out without affecting the pearl. I also experimented with an eggshell to test Vitruvius' statement. Finding a bottle of Heinz's cider vinegar in the kitchen cupboard, labeled as having 5 per cent acidity, I tried that. After boiling the shell for five minutes no change was obvious, but after 25 minutes, only the inner skin of the shell was left. When I boiled a pearl for 33 minutes the vinegar boiled off while I was reading a detective story. I can still smell that vinegar. The pearl seemed not to be affected, though I thought it looked a trifle peaked. Finally, under the stress of preparing a lecture on the subject, I did what I had planned to do for years, conduct a proper experiment in a chemistry laboratory. Through the kindness of some colleagues in the Chemistry Department the experiment was set up. We used two small pearls p197in 5 per cent and 8 per cent boiling acetic acid, which is the percentage in natural fermented vinegars, two in 5 per cent and 8 per cent acetic acid at room temperature, two larger ones under the same conditions, and two small ones that had been reduced to a powder. The pearls were easily pulverized with a pestle in a mortar, no doubt the method the ancients used, and the powder dissolved in cold acetic acid in ten minutes, except for a slight amount of organic matter. After 200 minutes the boiled whole pearls were 92 per cent and 88 per cent dissolved. After 20 hours the cold pearls were dissolved to the extent of 23 to 36 per cent. In two out of three experiments the stronger acid caused a greater amount of dissolution, as was to be expected.11 It should be said in Cleopatra's favor that Egyptian vinegar was noted for its strength.12 Some wine vinegars contain as much as 8 per cent acetic acid. Perhaps this paper should be called "Cleopatra's Vinegar" instead of "Cleopatra's Pearls," but for obvious reasons the latter is preferable.

In any case, it is clear that the story about Cleopatra could not be true in its literal sense, though there is truth in it. Pearls don't dissolve instantly like pills. They don't act as fast as some headache remedies today. But I don't think that is of much importance. I am concerned with a mystery so slight that no one seems to have thought of it but me. Perhaps there is no mystery and the fault is mine, but I comfort myself with the thought that the detective sees mysteries and clues that most people overlook. As in a detective story the author overemphasizes a minor point and minimizes one of major significance so as to mislead the reader, so in this problem scholars have been so much concerned with the question whether pearls can be completely and quickly dissolved in vinegar that they have overlooked the really essential point. I asked myself this question: Why did people dissolve, or try to dissolve pearls in vinegar? Where did they ever get the idea that it could be done and why did they want to do it? Perhaps for the sake of mere extravagance, you might say. That does not satisfy me. Why not throw the pearl or its equivalent in money in the sewer or in the river, as Horace suggests, or just swallow it whole? Horace implies that there is a difference. How is Aesopus any saner, he asks, than the man who throws a fortune into the sewer? Obviously most Romans would consider the man crazy who threw money into a sewer but these same Romans would not consider Aesopus crazy. Furthermore, the reason that Horace gives for the act, namely that Aesopus wanted to swallow a fortune at one gulp, is not Aesopus' reason but Horace's, as the word scilicet, which means "apparently," shows. Another point: Valerius Maximus, you will recall, in speaking of Aesopus, couples the pearl story with this same spendthrift's custom of serving expensive songbirds at his banquets. We can see a sort of logic in this: if ordinary birds are good to eat, then more expensive birds might be better. The more it costs the better it tastes. That, I am sure, is the principle that many customers follow today, and canny dealers know it. Elsewhere Horace makes fun of those who put peacocks on the dinner menu. Take off their feathers, which you cannot eat, he says, and they are just ordinary fowl; they are, as a matter of fact, tougher. Again, however, the point is that you have an expensive rarity, a rara avis, as Horace calls it. Some years ago the rich widow of an American brewer made the headlines by serving roast peacock to her guests at her villa in Rome. The old American version of this sort of extravagance is lighting a cigar with a five or ten-dollar bill. For the benefit of the younger readers of this paper let me say that this did not, at least originally, mean lighting the bill with a match and then lighting the cigar. The practice goes back to the time before striking matches existed. One took a piece of paper and lighted it at the stove or p198the fireplace. A five-dollar bill served as the piece of paper for the show-offs. I do not believe that anyone was ever put in an insane asylum for using five-dollar bills in this way, but I suspect that if a person were to make a bonfire of a number of greenbacks he would have a hard time keeping out of a mental institution. All this indicates that there must be something back of the pearl story, that the pearl was to X what the five-dollar bill was to a scrap of newspaper. Note too that Valerius Maximus states that Aesopus put the dissolved pearl in his wine. Those of you who are willing to accept my view that the question of why the Romans wanted to dissolve pearls is much more important than whether they succeeded perhaps have already anticipated my next remarks.

Of what stuff is a pearl made? Carbonate of lime for the most part, 91.72 per cent to be exact, the same stuff that is in the oyster shell. But did the ancients know what pearls were made of and did they know the virtues of lime? The answer to both questions is "Yes." The word concha meant "oyster" or "shell" or "pearl." This is not of itself proof that the ancients realized that the pearl and the shell were made of the same substance, but it helps. It recalls our expression "pearl button," when we mean "shell button," or "mother-of‑pearl button." The idea that the shell is the mother of the pearl goes back to antiquity. Pliny attributes just such an origin to pearls, giving a fanciful account of their conception and birth (9.107). Pearls, he says, are the offspring of shells (partum concharum esse margaritas). Though I have found no specific statement in ancient writers that shells consisted of lime, we do have evidence that shells were used like other forms of lime.

The ancients added many substances to wine as antacids or preservatives or both. To quote but one writer on this point Pliny (14.120 ff.), gypsum (calcium sulphate) and lime were favorite wine preservatives in Africa; in Greece, potter's clay (argilla), marble (i.e., lime), salt, and sea-water; in Italy, pine pitch and resin, wine lees, and vinegar. We have a Greek work known as the Geoponiká, a treatise on agriculture of the tenth century but consisting merely of selections from a book by the sixth-century writer Cassianus Bassus. A chapter on wine preservatives (7.12) is taken from a still earlier writer of unknown date named Fronto. He says that some persons burn the shells of shellfish and triturate them, i.e., pound them into a fine powder; this they put into the wine.

Lime was also widely used as an antacid in medical practice, as Pliny tells us (36.180) and as we can judge from its frequent recurrence in medical treatises. We used to give lime-water to our babies, though I believe that this treatment has gone out of fashion and that Coca-Cola is the proper substitute. At any rate, lime was the ancient equivalent of bicarbonate of soda, Alka-seltzer, or whatever your favorite alkalizer may be.

The answer to the question that puzzled me about the pearls came to me when I read about betel chewing in the Orient. The betel nut and betel leaf (related to the black pepper plant) are extremely sharp and biting. As a partial antacid, shell lime is chewed along with the nut and the leaf, but people who can afford it use pearl lime. I said earlier in this paper that the dissolved pearl was to X what the five-dollar bill was to a scrap of newspaper. We have now, I believe, discovered the identity of X, namely common shell lime.

In these days of intensive radio advertising you don't need to be reminded that after the prodigious eating and drinking bouts in which Antony and Cleopatra engaged it was time to alkalize, to prevent the discomforts of acid indigestion. Cleopatra had the right prescription, calcium carbonate, but queen that she was, she would not think of using the ordinary stuff that sold at the ancient equivalent of a dozen tablets for a dime, cheaper if p199you buy the large economy size. To my mind, it makes no difference how slowly pearls are dissolved by acetic acid without previous pulverization, or whether they can be dissolved at all. The important point is that the ancients had reason to believe that they could be and that when dissolved they had a more or less useful function to perform. It might be legitimate to inquire which of two men is the crazier, the one who spends a half-million on a pearl or the one who swallows it. Perhaps they should have adjoining rooms in the same institution.

I have found no mention of the pulverization of pearls in ancient Greece and Rome but I am sure that this practice must have been followed. No one questions the speedy dissolution of powdered pearls when put into vinegar. The Greeks and Romans got not only their pearls from the Orient, especially India, after Alexander's expedition to that land, but also the knowledge of their efficacy as an antacid. The very word for pearl in Greek, margaritẽs, is a Sanskrit loanword. Latin margarita is of course from the Greek, and any girl named Margaret is naturally a pearl. Pulverized pearls were employed medicinally at a very early period in India, as they still are, as well as in China and elsewhere throughout the Far East. Of course the pearls are usually of no great value.

It may be that you have been itching to interrupt and to tell me that there is a rich store of mediaeval and modern parallels to substantiate my case. True, but I wanted to prove it not by the anthropological or Golden Bough comparative method, which can (and often does) lead one astray, but by the testimony of the ancients themselves. Coming down through the ages, we can stop for only a few examples of the continued interest in the medicinal value of pearls. In the thirteenth century both Albertus Magnus and Alfonso X of Castille prescribe powdered pearls for various diseases.13 In the seventeenth century Francis Bacon says that: "Pearls are taken, either in a fine powder or in a kind of paste or solution made by the juice of very sour lemons;" and speaking of Bacon, we might add that Shakespeare has these lines in Hamlet (V, 2):

The king shall drink to Hamlet's better breath;

And in the cup an union shall he throw.

This is a literary rather than a contemporary allusion, for the word "union" is a direct borrowing from the Latin unio, the word that Pliny applies to Cleopatra's pearl. As Pliny says, this word, in the sense of "unique," was given to an unusually large pearl. Incidentally, that is the most by way of comment that I found in the few commentaries on Hamlet I examined — no statement whatever on the reason for putting pearls in wine. The word unio came to be applied also to onions, whence our name for that odoriferous vegetable, the poor man's pearl, I suppose. "Pearl onions" is one of the many etymological tautologies in the English language, like "long-distance telephone," "symphony concert," and "head of cabbage." (It has been suggested to me that the onion in the martini is a substitute for the unio in the wine; etymologically, at least, that surmise is correct.) But to return to Shakespeare for a moment, he was probably aware of the reason for putting pearls into wine. At least he has Falstaff say in King Henry IV, Part I (II, 4): "You rogue, here's lime in this sack too"; of course he means the wine called sack.

We are told that an English merchant powdered a pearl worth 15,000 pounds and drank it off in wine as a toast to Queen Elizabeth I. I cannot imagine such a toast being drunk to the second Elizabeth. Times have changed in Merrie England.

Many other allusions could be added. Let me end this recital by referring to two quite dissimilar books of quite unequal authority. My colleague, Loren MacKinney, in his Early Medieval Medicine, relates that pearls dissolved p200in vinegar were given to Charles II of England; pearls were administered to Charles' wife Catherine according to a book of which you may have heard; it is entitled Forever Amber.

But to return to the ancient stories for a moment. Valerius Maximus states that the pearl that was dissolved in vinegar was put into wine. That would be the expected medical procedure. Even the word he uses, aspergere, seems to be the technical term of physicians, to judge from the frequency of its appearance in writers on medicine such as Pliny, Celsus, and especially Caelius Aurelianus. It is applied to the addition of a liquid drop by drop and to the sprinkling of a powder. Valerius was aware, I believe, that Cleopatra's pearl was that rich girl's substitute for plain lime powder. Perhaps even Valerius' entire phrase, potionibus aspergere, is technical, for it occurs in Celsus (4.8.4). Even Pliny, whose story has several incredible features in it, uses one significant word to which I called your attention: tabes, "slush," into which the pearl was dissolved. I quoted Barbot as saying that one layer was reduced to a jelly. Bacon mentions a kind of paste. A sixteenth-century physician, Anselm de Boot, speaks of a milky and turbid solution. Apparently these descriptions refer to the bubbles attached to the surface of the pearl or to the bits of organic matter that separate from it.

It may not be out of order to discuss briefly several related matters. As has been said, sea water is listed several times among the preservatives added to wine. Hence Wethered's suggestion seems to me absurd that foreign wines were seasoned with salt water because of their excessive sweetness.14 It would take a lot of salt to do that. Besides, salt brings out the sweetness, as I have been told by an excellent cook. I think a passage in Horace may be explained more satisfactorily than it has been by remembering the reason for adding salt water. In his last satire Horace describes a dinner given by a rich parvenu. The food and service are the finest that money can buy, but the dinner is spoiled for the guests by the host's continuous remarks about the choice quality of the food and drink. Among the fine wines that are served is one from the Greek island of Chios, "without sea water" (2.8.15). It would be amusing to retail all the interpretations that have been offered of this short and simple phrase. To me it means that Chian wine imported into Italy without the addition of sea water would, if it remained drinkable, be a great rarity and therefore very expensive. It's like buying an edible canned food today to which a preservative has not been added. Some Italians did not like the salted Greek wine, others acquired a taste for it. That explains why old Cato gives us a recipe for making Greek wine (Agric. 24). It is very simple: just add a certain amount of salt or of sea water. In the same way most Americans prefer salted to unsalted butter, though originally the salt was introduced merely as a preservative. Continental Europeans prefer the unsalted variety. And it seems that we are becoming more and more fond of chemically treated foods of all kinds.

I have spoken of the use of resin as a preservative. Many Greeks today prefer retsinato, a resined wine unpalatable to most non-Greeks. Originally the purpose was merely to prevent the wine from spoiling. The practice of adding resin was introduced from Italy, where it was common in antiquity but has since disappeared. The Greek word too is borrowed from Italian, in which it no longer is used. So we have a curious reversal, a non-tragic peripety, so to speak, in which some ancient Romans preferred vinum Graecum, with its salty taste, and modern Greeks prefer the Roman wine, with its resin.

Another famous story in which vinegar plays a part deserves passing mention here. Livy tells the tale, you recall, of Hannibal and his tribulations in crossing the Alps. Finally he came to a place where there was sheer rock and no road. So he had his soldiers gather firewood, build a huge fire on p201the rock, and then pour vinegar on it. This made the rock split and disintegrate. The passage has engaged the attention of scores of scholars, and even ex-president Hoover. Again the story cannot be true in too literal a sense. True it is that heated rock will split when anything cold, even water, is poured on it. But if the rock was limestone, the vinegar might have produced better results than water. The story, whatever truth there may be in it, shows awareness of the fact that limestone can be dissolved in vinegar.15 The Cleopatra and Hannibal stories spring from the same source, the knowledge that limestone and marble, mother-of‑pearl and pearls, produce carbonate of lime, and that they can be dissolved by vinegar, especially if they are first crushed.

Let us return to Cleopatra for a final word to illustrate two points: the wide familiarity with the story of her pearls and the amazing number of ways in which this tale has been misunderstood. A few years ago an advertisement appeared regularly in many North Carolina newspapers and no doubt in others under this headline: "Could Cleopatra Drink a Pearl with Stomach Ulcer Pains?" (For the benefit of any teacher of English composition who may read this, I should note that it isn't the pearl that has the stomach pains; this is just another example of the "carved, or piano, legs" usage.) The advertisement continues in this fashion: "An intriguing story of Cleopatra is the one where an admirer praised the beauty of two of her pearls, whereupon she dropped one into a glass of wine and drank it. She would hardly have done this had she suffered eating pains," etc., etc. The contrary is true: if the pearl was not dissolved it would have no effect whatever; if it was, it would do just about as much good as the medicine that was advertised.a That, at least, is my story.

Fortunately this paper will be read by college and high-school teachers with modest incomes. Accordingly I have no fear that I have led any of you into the temptation of emulating Cleopatra and her pearlcasting.

University of North Carolina


The Author's Notes:

1 He twice quotes from the same book of Pliny just before telling the story (3.15.10; and 16.5).

2 E.g., Lejay in his edition of the Satires.

3 Athenaeus 4 147E‑148.

4 Cf. R. Hanslik in RE, vol. 16 (1935) 545; Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939) p281.

5 A. Stahr, Cleopatra (1864) p98.

6 (London, 1937) p99.

7 Vol. 3, p145, repeated in the sixth edition, vol. 3 (1890) p161. I quote from the English translation, vol. 4 (1903) p276.

8 (Cambridge, 1867) p273.

9 (New York, 1928) p55.

10 In general, scholars have ignored or overlooked Friedländer's discussion. An exception is Kiessling, who in his first edition of Horace's Satires (1886) calls these stories about Aesopus and Cleopatra fictitious on the ground that pearls do not dissolve in vinegar. In the third edition (1906) he says just the opposite.

11 Full details of the experiment are available for anyone who is interested.

12 The scholia on Juvenal 13.85 call Egyptian vinegar "forti."º Cicero (in Nonius 240 M) contrasts Egyptian vinegar with Hymettan honey. Martial (13.122) says that Egyptian vinegar was more expensive than the wine from which it was made, obviously because it was stronger than other vinegars. Cf. Pliny, N. H. 14.103; Athenaeus 2 67C.

13 These and most of the following references are taken from Kunz, The Book of the Pearl, pp311 ff.

14 The Mind, p147.

15 Cf. E. T. Sage in CW 16 (1922) 73.


Thayer's Note:

a The advertisement, which appeared in many American newspapers in the 1940s, read in full (this particular one taken from the Toledo Blade, Sept. 25, 1949):

Could Cleopatra Drink a Pearl with Stomach Ulcer Pains?

An intriguing story of Cleopatra is the one where an admirer praised the beauty of two of her pearls, whereupon she dropped one into a glass of wine and drank it. She would hardly have done this had she suffered after-eating pains. If excess stomach acidity causes you distress after eating, or painful heartburn, gas, sour stomach, indigestion, even stomach ulcer pains, then try Udga for quick relief. Udga Tablets contain 3 proven fast-acting medicinal ingredients. Like a doctor's prescription, Udga works soothingly and fast. More than 242 million sold since 1928. Get a 25c box of Udga and if you, too, don't get amazing relief within one-half hour, you get Double Your Money Back.

I've been unable to discover what happened to the Udga Medicine Company (before that: Phungen Laboratories), but, in addition to a knack for naming itself uneuphoniously, it seems to have skated pretty close to the line of the law, and Prof. Ullman was apparently right: Roman medicine would have worked just as well. According to this transcript at the National Institutes of Health, in April 1945 Udga was found guilty of mislabeling the product and making claims found to be "false and misleading since they represented and suggested that the article would be efficacious for the relief of excessive gastric hyperacidity as manifested by sour stomach, heartburn, acid dyspepsia, excessive gas, belching, and flatulence; and that it would be efficacious for the relief of persons suffering from stomach ailments caused by improper diet, irregular eating habits, consuming too many acid-producing foods, or over-eating. The article would not be efficacious for such conditions." They admitted the facts and were condemned, "and the product was ordered released under bond for relabeling under the supervision of the Food and Drug Administration." This seems not to have been Udga's first brush with the law: a footnote to another case altogether (605 F.2d 294, see footnote 12): "In re Udga, Inc. and William Fraser, and Mary Fraser, 24 F.T.C. 1245 (1937), wherein the FTC found that an antacid was being deceptively advertised as a cure for ulcers."


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