Many historians say the pearls did not dissolve in vinegar, and the whole story was made up by Pliny, who was the first to write about this legend. One thing we can gather from the whole story is that vinegar is an excellent method of telling whether or not a pearl is genuine.
Pearls dissolve in wine. Pearls are made of calcium carbonate and dissolve in acid. Wine contains acetic acid. So pearls dissolve in wine. However, the acid concentration of wine is very low. So a pearl must be submerged in wine for a long time before it finally dissolves.
This test serves a purely scientific purpose, as it is inconceivable that Cleopatra & Mark Anthony would use acid to dissolve the pearl, and then consume it…at risk of losing first their teeth, then their lives. If this is true, then even more amazing is the fact that Egypt’s Last Queen did not smash the pearls up and drink vinegar with them each evening. The last queen of Egypt took out one of the pearl earrings she was wearing and dropped it into the vinegar, where it dissolved.
The Legend of the Dissolving Pearl
In a shrewd effort at this, Cleopatra crushed one large pearl out of the ring and dissolves it into a cup of wine (or vinegar), and then swallows it. According to some versions, Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII ground one of her pearl earrings in a mortar, then dropped it into vinegar. Meanwhile, according to legend, pearls from Egyptian queen Cleopatra VIIs other earrings were subsequently split into two, each half being placed into one of the ears of a statue of Venus in Rome.
Meanwhile, according to legend, the pearl from Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII’s other earring was later cut in two, with each half being placed in one of the ears of the statue of Venus in Rome. She was about to place a second pearl into a different wineglass of vinegar, when Lucius Plancus, an ally of Antony and referee for the wager, stopped her and declared her a victor. The story of the dropped pearls in the vinegar is one of the best-known stories of Cleopatra and is only behind that of her death from the asp-bite.
A More Complete Version of the Tale
The story was first told by Pliny the Elder, written 77 AD — more than 100 years after the death of Cleopatra, second only to that about her death from an asp bite. The story was first told by Pliny the Elder, the king, declaring her a victor. The tale first appears in the Natural History written by Pliny the Elder and is only behind that about her death. The account was first told by Pliny, written over 100 years after her suicide. The Natural History is written in 77 AD – more than 100 years after Cleopatra’s suicide.
Cleopatras removed one of them, dropped it in a single glass of vinegar, and when it was dissolved, swallowed it down. She was about to drop the second pearl in another glass of vinegar when Antony’s ally Lucius Plancus, who was refereeing the bet, stopped her and declared her the winner. The pearl dropped in vinegar is one of the most famous tales about Cleopatra, second only to the story of her suicide by the bite of an asp.
The story first shows up in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, written in 77 AD — over 100 years after the death of Cleopatra, who died in 31 BC the death of Cleopatra. The Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny, the elder, wrote about Cleopatras being poisoned a hundred years later. Just before Mark Antony’s eyes, Cleopatras took the pearl out of his ear dropped it into vinegar, and then went on drinking.
Cleopatra’s hand reached out slowly toward Cleopatra’s earlobe, retrieved the earrings, and then removed a larger, naturally occurring pearl from its body–again, very slowly–and dropped the pearl into the cup of wine. Another kind of drawing shows just Cleopatra holding a rare, valuable pearl, either taking it out of the earring or preparing to drop it in her cup.
Additional Examples of the Dissolving Pearl
It helps to know that Cleopatra was far from the last person that ancient Romans told a story of dissolving pearls in vinegar. Even leaving aside the improbably long waiting period, it is virtually certain that Cleopatra did not dissolve the pearl in vinegar to impress her lover Marcus Antonius.
While it is certainly possible that Egypt’s final Queen (or the Cruel Caligula, or a Roman actor’s son) did indeed drink dissolved pearls, it is impossible that they plucked a jewel from the piece, dropped it into a vinegar cup, and drinking a few minutes later.
There is another set of scholars who understand that pearls would dissolve in vinegar, but still question the story, and their reason for being skeptical is because they believe that the story sounds like an urban legend. Their urban-legend alert goes off because Cleopatra is not the only one said to have drunk pearls that dissolved in vinegar in the ancient world.
Scrutiny on the Story of the Pearl
Over the years, scholars have tried to inject some scientific objectivity into the vinegar stories, trying to dissolve pearls with vinegar or with sacrificial acid, to mixed results. There is one well-known tale, told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, in which Cleopatra drinks the largest pearl in the world, which is dissolved in vinegar, on a wager with Mark Antony. Pliny the Elders The largest pearl in the world, which is dissolved in vinegar, is in the wager with Mark Antony.
According to Roman romantic legend, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, while Roman politician Marc Antony expressed surprise over the splendor of his banquet, had the pearls dissolved into a wineglass, drinking them as proof of her apathy towards rich people. A romantic legend claims that when he expressed his surprise at the beauty of Cleopatra’s banquet, she dissolved a valuable pearl in a glass of wine and drank it to demonstrate her lack of riches.
Cleopatra cannot wait until pearl #2 is dissolved in wine or vinegar, so an obvious solution was to crush and grind the pearls, then dump the pearl powder in white vinegar (pH=2.4), ready for consumption, becoming the most expensive dinner in the world.
The direct earring-to-vinegar-then-down-the-hatch process either did not occur, Cleopatra hedged her bets by letting the pearls sit to soften for a day or two before wearing them for the dinner, or Cleopatra made vinegar boiling down before dropping them into it, or else Cleopatra had vinegar boiling before dropping them in. You need a couple of days to fully dissolve. So, Cleopatra could not drop the pearl in a glass of vinegar, shake it, and watch as it dissolved, just as you would dissolve Alka-seltzer into water.