Monday, 26 May 2008

One cruet of sharpe vinegar

The Roman enthusiasm for eating oysters did not stop them from equally appreciating the pearl though this may have had to wait for its full fanfare for Pompeys conquests towards the turn of the millennia. For one victory march Pompey himself brought back 33 crowns of pearls. For newly empowered Rome, the pearl or what the poet Manus called “the gems of the sea, which resembled milk and snow” became the first emblem of power and status. The aristocracy flaunted it. They wore it on their clothes, had it embroidered into their couches; Caligula had a pearl necklace for his horse; Nero made the actors in his theatre carry pearl encrusted masks.

The sense of envy or even cynical disgust at this excess survives with us even if the artefacts themselves have mostly perished. There is an undertone to the writings of the time. Horace sarcastically remarked that a woman “loved her pearls more than her son”. Seneca wondered that earlobes could carry so many pearls at all. And possibly there is a political overtone to the much quoted line that Caesar wanted to invade Britain to find pearls at a time when other generals and campaigns were doing just that to the south and east.

Notwithstanding the excess, the value in the pearl was maintained. It remained a symbol of rank and prestige. Caesar banned women of lesser rank from wearing them at all, which was an edict that would be repeated many times in the ensuing 1500 years.

Pearls became so expensive that it was said general Vitellius raised the money to pay for a whole military campaign by selling one of his mother’s pearl earrings.

The legendary tale of Cleopatra betting Anthony she would spend more than 10 million sesteri on a dinner for him enshrined the myth.

“The servitors set before her only one cruet of sharpe vinegar…now she had at her ears hanging these two most precious pearls…as Anthony looked wistly upon her, she took one from her ear, steeped it in the vinegar, and soon as it was liquefied, drank it off…”

Whether the pearls would have dissolved in vinegar we can probably put down to artistic licence, but she could as easily have just swallowed it in wine.

These pearls would have come from Rome’s south eastern borders, the Persian Gulf, The Red Sea and even perhaps as far as Ceylon. For eating, consignments were delivered from further north. Much is made of how many oysters were consumed at banquets. The emperor Aulus Vittellius reportedly ate 1200 oysters at one go, but presumably these might have been shared among his guests and also it would have been a mark of high status that such abundance could be put before his guests. Or the writer was just flattering him. There would also have been the practical, obvious, culinary constraints. The boats arrived with their cargo and there was a need to eat them fresh on the shell. Even American settlers in Baltimore would buy by the gross – 144 at a time, for similar reasons. The rest would have been sent to the kitchen for cooking or preserving. Even with cold rooms that were constructed underneath some villas, the oysters would not have lasted indefinitely.

The enthusiasm pushed the occupation of France and Britain and in a trading sense underline the idea that such supplies would likely have come from the Atlantic. It is hard to tell how much of a factor they might have been, but Suetoneous, the Roman biographer, says Ceasar was looking for “pearls”, and given the trade that was to develop later it could well have been a factor.