Simanaitis Says

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CLEOPATRA’S QUAFFING PART 1

IT’S GOOD FUN to be encouraged into interesting directions by SiriusXM’s “Radio Classics” old-time mysteries. Let George Do It is a fine example, with a recently aired episode titled “42 on a Rope.” What with one thing and another, this led me into a two-part investigation, recounted here today and tomorrow.

Let George Do It, radio mystery series produced from 1946 to 1954. Image from archive.org.

Private investigator George Valentine was portrayed by Bob Bailey (later to play insurance investigator Johnny Dollar). Old Time Radio Lover offers the “42 on a Rope” episode online. Spoiler alert (and a fine tale even knowing this): P.I. Valentine solves the case by reading Pliny the Elder’s tale about Cleopatra’s pearls.

Cleopatra VII Philopator, 69 B.C.–30 B.C., last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Died by her own hand at age 39, likely by injection of poison (not an asp bite). Painting by Alexandre Cabanel.

Did the Queen of the Nile actually display her luxuriant lifestyle to Mark Antony by downing a pearl dissolved in vinegar?

So wrote Pliny the Elder, and he should know. What’s more, in addition to Let George Do It, there’s a whole raft of academic research associated with Cleopatra’s quaffing, tidbits of which I share here.

Pliny the Elder, 23 A.D.–79 AD., Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher.

Pliny the Elder is best known for his Naturalis Historiæ, ten volumes of 37 books attempting to cover all ancient knowledge. In “Cleopatra’s Pearls,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 52, No. 5 (February 1957), classics scholar Berthold Ullman translates Pliny’s account: “The last of the Egyptian queens 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 1,000,000 sesterces [$500,000 on the gold standard] at one dinner.”

Describing dessert, Ullman continues, “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]…. So while Antony was wondering what in the world she was going to do, she took one pearl from her ear, plunged it into vinegar, and when it was dissolved, swallowed it….”

Pliny’s story concludes, “Half of the dinner of Antony and Cleopatra [the other pearl, split in two] was put in each ear of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome.”

Naturalis Historiæ by Pliny the Elder, published 77 A.D.–79 A.D. The title page shown is from the 1669 edition.

Ullman observes, “In this translation, I have kept rather close to Pliny’s curious style. Pliny wrote about a century after the pearl was cast into vinegar.”

“However,” he continues, “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.”

You are encouraged to read the rest of Professor Ullman’s most entertaining paper. Or, if you’re hip with Latin, read Pliny’s original, 9.119-21.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll hear from a Quaffing naysayer, discuss some art, some science, and even a touch of philosophy. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

2 comments on “CLEOPATRA’S QUAFFING PART 1

  1. Michael Rubin
    September 5, 2018

    My hip Latin floated off a few decades ago. I recall we recast some of the opening words of Cesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars from “Veni Vidi Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) to “Veni Vidi Cucurri” (I came I saw I ran). My poor high school Latin teacher became a counselor the following year and I foolishly finished with two years of German instead of switching to French or Spanish.

    • simanaitissays
      September 5, 2018

      Michael, I like your Latin translation. (I learned what little I knew from the Vulgate Missal. Thus I could translate only when kneeling down.)

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