Strange Invisible Perfume

“From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.”

“Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love sick with them”

The quote is Shakespeare. of course,  from Anthony and Cleopatra, she whom age could not wither nor whose infinite variety could custom stale, and if the winds were love sick, they were as nothing compared to the boyfriends, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony.  Especially Marc Anthony, who gave up an empire for the woman.

High maintenance, our Cleopatra.  It was said that she spent 400 denarii a day to soften and perfume her hands – honey and oil, and kyphi, a mixture of cinnamon, honey, wine, and resin (Pliny Natural History XIII.20 ; Athenaeus Deipnosophist XV 689).  This at a time when a Roman soldier earned one denarius a day.

Well, it’s not like she couldn’t afford it.  Bear in mind that she was absolute queen of Egypt, which back in the day was rather like being the King of Saudi Arabia.  All that rich Nile delta soil had, over the millenia, generated a whole lot of wealth.  (It also left history, plus culture. Citizens of soon-to-be Imperial Rome felt quite the country bumpkins when wandering through the not-quite-yet ruins of Egypt.  Rome in the final days of the Republic was basically a brick city, not the marble plated wonder that Julius Caesar’s nephew Augustus was going to leave it.)

Rome, in yet another parallel to America, went through periods of reckless libertinism and Spartan prudery,  and at the time of Cleopatra was coming off the latter.   Proud of its hard won machismo, Rome had banned foreign essences as corrupting. (Though in a sort of Don’t-Ask, Don’t-Tell kind of way, Caesar would, from time to time, let his troops indulge in French perfume when they were invading tripartite Gaul.)

There may, however, have been an economic motive to the embargo as well   Perfume, then as now, was decidedly Not Cheap, and didn’t bring any real return to the Republic.  The men in charge had to ask themselves, do we really want our hard earned good solid Roman denarii going to a bunch of loose moraled, high living, cash rich grain merchants on the Nile?  I don’t think so.  Wouldn’t be patriotic.  Jupiter bless the SPQR.

History goes in circles, of course,  and soon enough the likes of Caligula and Nero would all but drown in petals and perfumes, but that’s stuff better suited to a history blog, not a perfume.  So the question for us is, what exactly was the strange invisible perfume?

Rhodinon, perhaps, though this was an Italian specialty, from roses harvested in the fields north of Naples.   Rose was sacred to the Egyptian goddess Isis, as well as to the pagan Venus, which made it acceptable in mixed households.

Cyprinum for one   From the henna plant, much beloved of Mohammed among many others, both for its smell and as a means of dying his beard. .

Tocca would have us believe that they have a clue.

But the do we really want to go there?  Bear in mind that we are talking about a real person here. Not a very nice person, granted, but still, given Cleopatra’s ending, one wonders if this would be the most desirable corporate association.  Product placement, anyone?

I mean to say, really – is the public up for Eau de Anne Boleyn?   Fleur de Marie Antoinette? Empress Alexandra Romanov body wash?

I like to doubt it, however much death by jewel-like asp is more romantic than axe, guillotine, or firing squad.  Some things are better left to the academics than to the merchant class

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