Pearls of Antiquity by Caroline Lawrence

Coleman Douglas Pearls

by Caroline Lawrence

Last Thursday I attended a small exhibit of portraits by my friend Lorna Lawson-Cruttenden. The paintings were on show at an unusual venue, a jewellery shop specialising in pearls. Coleman Douglas Pearls is located at 42 Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge, London.

The owner of the store, Ms. Christianne Douglas, served us champagne with a pearl at the bottom of each flute! Naturally this led to a discussion of Cleopatra and her pearl dissolved in vinegar. I told Ms. Douglas that I would try to rustle up some famous pearls of antiquity. Here are seven:

pearls in champagne

I. Cleopatra’s Amuse Bouche
Pliny the Elder tells the story in book nine of his Natural History. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, in the first flush of love, were vying to outdo each other. She boasted to Anthony that she could consume the most expensive meal known to man. Possessor of the two largest pearls in the known world – which she had made into earrings – she now removed one from her ear, dissolved it in a beaker of vinegar and drank it down! She was about to do the same to the other one when the ‘umpire’ declared that she had won and Anthony lost. Cleopatra had the remaining pearl cut in half and dedicated it to the goddess of love, placing the two halves on the lobes of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome.
(Pliny Nat. Hist. IX.59.119-121)

II. Caesar’s Mistress
The imperial biographer Suetonius tells how Julius Caesar was ‘much addicted to women’ and ‘debauched many ladies of the highest quality’. But his favourite was a certain Servilia. He loved her so much that he bought her a pearl which cost six million sesterces. Servilia was the mother of Marcus Brutus and some wonder if Caesar might have been his father. If so, this would give added poignancy to the words Caesar reportedly uttered when Brutus dealt the death stab; not ‘Et tu, Brute?’ but the Greek, Kai su teknon? (‘And you, my child?’)
(Suetonius Life of Caesar)

III. Jesus’ Parable
Although luxurious pearls were often equated with sinful indulgence in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:9 & Revelation 17:4) Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’ (Matthew 13.45-46)

IV. Vitellius’s campaign
Suetonius tells how the Emperor Galba sent General Vitellius into Lower Germany to conquer some lower Germans. In those days you had to finance your own campaigns. Vitellius was strapped for cash, so in order to raise funds, he pawned a magnificent pearl earring belonging to his mother. This gamble paid off. He soon became emperor.
(Suetonius Life of Vitellius)

pearl earrings from Oplontis

V. Oplontis Earrings
Among the treasures on show at the British Museum’s current Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition is a cache of jewellery found on a woman fleeing Oplontis, the site of a luxurious villa between Herculaneum and Pompeii. Along with the gold and emerald necklaces were a pair of superb pearl earrings. These kind of pearl earrings were often called crotalia ‘castanets’ because the dangly pearls clicked as they knocked one another. (Pliny Nat. Hist. 9.55) According to Paul Roberts’ brilliant guide to the exhibition, the cheaper freshwater pearls survived in Pompeian tufa (hardened volcanic ash) much better than more expensive seawater pearls.

VI. Pearly Pets
In the Satyricon of Petronius, the nouveau riche Trimalchio sets his dog on the beloved dog of one of his ‘boys’. How do we know the dog was beloved? Because her master named her Margarita or ‘Pearl’. (Petronius Satyricon LXVII) The first century poet Martial writes of a lap-dog named Issa who was more precious to her master than ‘Indian stones’, i.e. pearls. (Martial Epigrams I.109)

strings of cultured pearls

VII. A Syrian prostitute named ‘Pearl’
Pelagia was a breathtakingly beautiful prostitute who lived in Antioch in the late 4th century. She wore so many pearls that the locals called her Marganito (Syriac for ‘Pearl’). One day some bishops and monks were gathered near the tomb of a saint when she rode by on her donkey, followed by a crowd of admirers. The ‘God-loving’ bishop Nonnos saw her and prayed fervently for her salvation with tears and fasting. When Marganito showed up at the weekly service she was so overwhelmed by the power of his preaching that she immediately repented of her sins and gave all her pearls to the church with instructions they be sold to feed widows and orphans. She then put off the nickname Marganito, dressed as a man and travelled to Jerusalem where she became famous as the holy ‘eunuch’ Pelagius!
(from Holy Women of the Syrian Orient by Sebastian P. Brock)

Lorna Lawson-Cruttenden’s portraits will be on show at Coleman Douglas Pearls until 22 June 2013 and you can see a magnificent collection of natural and cultured pearls there any time.

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