June’s birthstone, the pearl, was one of the most valuable gems of antiquity. According to Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra inherited a fabulous pair of pearl earrings from her royal ancestors. One day her lover, the Roman general Marc Antony, declared he had become bored by the lavish banquets at Cleopatra’s Egyptian court. The queen responded that she could recapture his interest by spending ten million sesterces on a single evening’s feasting and entertainment. Antony did not believe it was possible to spend such a large sum in one night, and took the queen’s wager. The next evening an extravagant dinner was spread before the pair, but it was no grander than usual. Just when Antony was convinced he had won the bet, Cleopatra ordered a final course: a single cup of vinegar. Into the vinegar she dropped one of her priceless pearl earrings, and the acidic liquid dissolved the gem. Cleopatra then smugly drained the glass, effectively imbibing ten million sesterces at a single dinner party.
As for the other earring, Pliny tells us that after the violent demise of the luxury-loving couple, Cleopatra’s second pearl was cut in half and made into a new pair of earrings that decorated the statue of Venus in the pantheon back in Rome.