Cleopatra (69-30 BC) lived in perilous times. With the powerful Roman Empire practically at her gates, she managed to secure her position as supreme ruler of Egypt by forming an alliance with Julius Caesar, and after his assassination, with Mark Antony, one of his successors. She had to impress Mark Antony and the one sure way with a Roman was with pearls given their obsession .

Cleopatra bet that she could host the most expensive dinner in history. According to the Roman historian, Pliny, she dropped one of her outrageously expensive pearl earrings said to be worth ten million sesterces into a cup of wine vinegar until it "melted" and then drank it. For comparison, a common Roman soldier around that era earned roughly 900 sesterces a year so that was a lot of money to be throwing away!

Picture : "Anthony and Cleopatra" Oil Painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema(1885)
If she did, then she had to have swallowed it whole. Dissolving it would have taken too long. Vinegar is mainly acetic acid and chemically reacts with calcium carbonate which constitutes pearls, to form carbon dioxide and water. Victoria Finlay, the author of Jewels: A Secret History actually did the experiment to show how long the process took. She purchased a centimetre round, badly flawed natural pearl and placed it in wine vinegar. Nothing much happened at first. But overnight, she detected a greyish film on pearl which came off in her fingers. It took another day before the pearl broke into two. At 32 days, it floated at the top of the vinegar and was the consistency of unappetizing mush.

Update (July 24,2010) : Further experiments recently carried out by Prudence Jones, a classics professor at a US university found like Victoria Finlay, a 5% solution of acetic acid (about the concentration of vinegar), a 5 carat test pearl takes 24- 36 hours to dissolve. Stronger acetic acid solutions actually slowed down the reaction. If Cleopatra had boiled the vinegar or crushed the pearl, the dissolving process will take only 10 minutes. So that would have made swallowing the pearl a whole lot easier.

Whatever. Cleopatra won the bet and went on to have three children by Antony. But ultimately, her effort was in vain. After Mark Antony lost the civil war between himself and Octavian (the future Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar), they both committed suicide. Soon after, Egypt fell under Roman control. Her son by Julius Caesar was executed because he was a succession threat. Not much is known about the fate of her three children by Mark Antony.

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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