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October 8, 2022updated 02 Jun 2023 1:54pm

Wine in history: Drinking with Cleopatra

By Stuart Walton

We know that Cleopatra was a woman of “capacious and unabashed appetites,” says Stuart Walton. But which wines were fit for the Queen of Egypt?

Along with the asp and the carpet roll, one of the most famous anecdotes about the last Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, is that, in a nonchalant display of opulence before the new lover, Mark Antony, she is said to have dissolved one of her priceless, inherited pearl earrings in a cup of wine and then drunk it off.

The story is in Pliny’s Natural History (IX), where its slightly more credible detail is that it was wine vinegar in which the jewel was dissolved. Even so, and given the probably high acetic acid level of Egyptian vinegar, the process would still have taken a little longer than the enduring legend had it.

As a precipitate of calcium carbonate, a crushed pearl would more readily have deliquesced in vinegar, like the one that the English banker Sir Thomas Gresham allegedly dissolved in wine before the astonished eyes of the Spanish ambassador in 1560, to demonstrate his fealty to Queen Elizabeth I. A whole earring would have had to be swallowed whole—and perhaps recovered later—but the story gained traction for its amalgam of ostentation and the miraculous.

In Andrea Casali’s 18th-century depiction, in the Hinton Ampner collection in Hampshire, the Egyptian potentate, arrayed like Mrs Sarah Siddons, dandles the bewitching bauble over the bowl, before the mesmerised gaze of an Antony who hasn’t yet troubled to take off his plumed helmet.

Cleopatra: Myths and misogyny

Much of what is known about Cleopatra bears the timeless accretions of myth, but what we do know is that she was a woman of capacious and unabashed appetite. The ancient writers reflect a misogynistic view of headstrong women: Cicero, who warmly detested her, thought her no better than a vamp, with her provocative walk, her free and easy way of talking, her flirtatiousness.

“Her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself remarkable,” reported Plutarch, “but the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation… was something bewitching.”

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Accounts of what wine the Queen preferred vary widely. She almost certainly had a taste for sweet wines, made by raisining grapes on mats in the sun, the genetically ancient Muscat of Alexandria a favoured variety. Both her Roman lovers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, appear to have gifted her wineskins of Piedmontese Brachetto.

If this was anything like its present incarnation, the frothing, residually sugary, strawberry-sherbet fizz of Brachetto d’Acqui, it would explain why some of the Latin sources appear to have Caesar and Cleopatra drinking a sparkling (spumans, spumescens) wine. A forerunner of Champagne it wasn’t, nor anything like, but the tasting notes still tantalise. Some descriptions of the wine—saliens (jumping), titillans (tickling)—seem to indicate a liveliness that goes beyond mere acid-freshness.

Mallory O’Meara’s recent study of women and alcohol, Girly Drinks, states confidently of Cleopatra that “sweet wines from Syria and Ionia were what she preferred, especially when spiced with honey or pomegranate juice.” Sweetness being a prized attribute of wine in the Classical era, this is in line with what one would expect.

For her fabled seduction scene, the Queen arrayed herself on the royal barge with its golden poop, silver oars and purple sails, surrounded by beautiful boys wafting fans, and laden with Egypt’s best gastronomic offerings and its sweetest wines. This is the image Shakespeare copies faithfully from Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius (XXVI).

The two lovers are known to have founded a drinking society, the Inimitable Livers, in honour of Dionysos, later to be superseded, according to Plutarch’s Lives (LXXI), by another known as the Partners in Death, so called because the members would remain bound to each other for life. “They passed the time delightfully in a round of suppers,” repasts lubricated with an abundance of sweet wine.

Serious devotions

A Queen who wore an amethyst ring engraved with an image of Methe, the Egyptian goddess of drunkenness, took her devotions seriously. Amethyst was believed to be the natural antidote to inebriation, so that stone and engraving were in dialectical tension with each other.

Was the representation intended, as Kathryn Gutzwiller of Cincinnati University suggested in a paper of 1996, as an indication that even the goddess yields up her own essential nature in the presence of this Queen? Drunkenness is not entirely a matter of licentious self-release. Those who can control themselves under its impress have attained a virtuous state of maturity. That a woman, however regal, should stake such a claim in the first century BC was practically inconceivable.

The Roman emperor Octavian, who loathed Cleopatra for her presumptuous lack of feminine modesty, referred to her as “the Eastern harlot.” She had committed the unforgivable infraction of making herself equal to a man, a charge in which her drinking—doubtless exaggerated in imperial fulmination— decisively convicted her.

When she died by her own hand in 30BC, shortly after cradling Antony through his own haemorrhaging hara kiri, Octavian relented in his vituperation to the extent of allowing their bodies to be buried together. Jars of wine would have sustained their journey into the underworld. Their tomb has never been found.

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