History of an erotic Roman drinking cup, £5.00
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Cleopatra of Egypt: from history to myth
William Kent after Carlo Maratta, Cleopatra dropping the pearl into the wine, a red chalk drawing
As the story goes, Cleopatra invited Mark Antony to compete with her in providing a banquet, boasting that whatever he spent she would outdo him. When it came to her turn, Cleopatra simply removed a splendid pearl earring and tossed it into a goblet of wine in front of her. According to Pliny, the pearl magically dissolved in the wine, which Cleopatra then drank. But for the protests of the onlookers, including Mark Antony's, she would have followed with the pair, which, like the first, was worth 100,000 sesterces.
In William Kent's drawing Cleopatra holds an enormous pearl towards a classical drinking cup, opening her hand so that we may see its great size. The mood of ostentatious consumption is captured in the queen's luxurious clothes and the voluminously draped setting. Beside the throne, a voluptuous female figure, apparently a statuette, evokes Cleopatra's sensuality.
Cleopatra's extravagance was one of two themes (the other being her suicide) popular with European artists from the Renaissance onwards. Both are drawn from the Roman view of Cleopatra, as mediated through Antony's biographer Plutarch. Cleopatra was seen as a powerful, manipulative and ultimately tragic queen who lost all her riches for love of Antony.