this weekThrowing Down the Goblet

December 31, 2004

Cleopatra’s Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra.

Cleopatra arrived on her legendary barge, and proceeded to throw elaborate banquets for Antony and his officials for several evenings straight—nothing like a bit of wining and dining to smooth over political misunderstandings. So impressed was Antony at the lavish feasts Cleopatra had arranged that he accepted a friendly wager. Cleopatra bet Antony a large sum of money that she could host the most expensive meal in history. The next day, as the meal in question was nearing its end, Antony said that it had been terrific, but no more impressive than her other banquets—and certainly not worth the sum of money she had specified. At this, Cleopatra removed one of her pearl earrings and dropped it in a goblet of wine vinegar. Each of the pearls was so large and rare that it was extraordinarily valuable—estimates are usually expressed in extremely helpful terms such as “10,000,000 sesterces” or “100,000 gold aurei,” or “the value of 15 countries.” In any event, it was worth a fortune. The pearl dissolved in the vinegar, which Cleopatra then drank. Antony conceded defeat—the value of that single drink, let alone the banquet, had indeed been more than any meal in history.

I’ve Got a Crush on You
There are a number of different versions of this story, which originally appeared in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. According to some versions, Cleopatra ground the pearl in a mortar before dropping it in the vinegar. That would have been a wise choice. Pearls, which are made primarily of calcium carbonate (the same material that forms stalactites, stalagmites, and tufa), will indeed dissolve in a mild acid such as vinegar, neutralizing the acid in the process. (This is how antacids work, by the way—check the label on a bottle of Tums and you’ll see that its main ingredient is also calcium carbonate.) However, this might take days for a whole pearl; a crushed pearl could dissolve in a matter of minutes.

Not only did Cleopatra win the wager, she won Mark Antony’s heart. Antony left his wife and moved to Alexandria. But ten years later, Octavius led Rome in a war against Egypt. He defeated Antony and Cleopatra, both of whom committed suicide shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, according to legend, the pearl from Cleopatra’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. Rome fell, of course, soon thereafter. Coincidence? Probably, but all the same, I recommend against sticking antacids in your ears. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Cleopatra’s Wager…


The Algonquin Hotel sells the $10,000 martinis. You can read about it at NPR.org, or read the story of the first such drink sold in this story (PDF) from the Daily News.

More on the story of Cleopatra and her pearls:

Virtually anything you could possibly want to know about Cleopatra can be found on Cleopatra on the Web.

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For details on the chemistry of pearls dissolving in vinegar, see The Cleopatra Cocktail by Prudence J. Jones. Pearls: A Natural History by Neil H. Landman, Paula M. Mikkelsen, Rüdiger Bieler, and Bennet Bronson also discusses both the legend of Cleopatra’s wager and the chemistry of pearls and vinegar. Other pearl resources: