Top 10 drinking myths, legends and ancient rituals

Cleopatra’s pearl cocktail bet

According to popular legend, Cleopatra VII (69 B.C. – 30 B.C.) once made a bet with her lover and Roman leader Marc Anthony over whether she could spend ten million sesterces (an ancient Roman currency) on a single meal.

In a lavish display of her wealth, Cleopatra is said to have brought out a glass of vinegar and then plucked one of her pearl earrings from her ear. She dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and once dissolved drank down the ‘cocktail’ in a single gulp.

The story comes from Pliny the Elder’s (23 – 79 A.D.) iconic Natural History, which states: “She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. … She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.”

Whether the tale is true or not is unconfirmed, and perhaps unimportant. But modern scientists have weighed in on whether it could even be possible to dissolve a pearl in vinegar so rapidly.

Prudence Jones from Montclair State University in New Jersey replicated the experiment for a paper published in the journal Classical World, dropping a five-carat pearl into a glass of supermarket white vinegar. Jones found that a one-gram pearl would dissolve within 24 to 36 hours. The calcium carbonate in the pearl would also have neutralised some of the acidity, making the drink more palatable than plain vinegar. Alternatively, crushing the pearl beforehand and using boiled vinegar speeds up the reaction by a few minutes.

To make this tale plausible, the drink would have to have been prepared a few days prior.

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