“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
The winds were love-sick with them.”
—William Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra
Imagine you have fallen through a mysterious, sensory-overloading, weird disorienting vortex that catapults you back to 41 BCE in Juliopolis (Tarsos), in the Roman Empire’s province of Cilicia. Many of the sounds and smells your ears and nose would capture are immediately unrecognizable, foreign, baffling your brain. For effect, play the following sound-byte:
There within sight at the mouth of the calmly flowing Cydnus River you find the Roman port. Faintly you see and hear the hammering of many ship-workers and foremen yelling commands. You notice ten or twenty half-built Roman ships, some with two and others three deck-levels or more. These are dry-docked and just as many are finished, docked and tied-off in the harbor.
Once you arrive to all the commotion trying to determine where you have fallen, what is happening, what has happened, “why is everyone gawking at me as I walk by,” it hits you. I am in 21st-century clothing, I do not speak Greek, and I think my money/currency is no good here.
A breeze picks up and brings another mystery. A distinct, unfamiliar scent crosses over your nostrils. In warm temperatures the aroma has touches of pungent, musky, woody and slight medicinal smells, but then you notice the faint compliments of sweet vanilla and black tea. With this aromatic orchestra comes the sounds of people chattering and rushing to the banks of the Kydnos River. You follow the excited crowds. There at the banks of the river you reach the wall of people lined on both shores yelling and waving out to this massive, golden-plated barge with huge reddish-purple sails on two masts. Being downwind the aromas smelt earlier cannot be avoided. You are witnessing the ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopater traveling up the river to Juliopolis to meet the Roman general Marc Antony.
If you are ever in Berkeley, CA, stop by Mandy Aftel‘s alchemy shop on Walnut Street, called Aftel Perfumes, and travel back in time to ancient and not so ancient recipes of fragrances across the globe, including what might have been Cleopatra’s legendary perfume from her purple sails on the Kydnos River in 41 BCE Cilicia, but also on her seductive body and garments as she romanced Marc Antony!
Researchers Robert Littman, Jay Silverstein, Dora Goldsmith, and Sean Coughlin replicated some of the great Egyptian fragrances from the archaeological excavation of the 300 BCE city of Thmuis and its region’s famed Mendesian and Metopian perfumes. Both contained myrrh, a resin extracted from the tree (see image). Littman states “I find it very pleasant, though it probably lingers a little longer than modern perfume.” In ancient Egypt and many parts of the Mediterranean port-cities, inland to Rome’s trading network, most of the wealthy families, dignitaries, and rulers wore these scents though they were of a thicker consistency similar to our olive oils or molasses. “Cleopatra made perfume herself in a personal workshop,” says Mandy Aftel.
It is even possible that when Marc Antony accepted Cleopatra’s invitation to come visit her in Alexandria, Egypt, the queen toured Antony through her perfume factory in Thmuis as she lavishly entertained him overwhelming the powerful general not only with the finest of foods, drink, music, and seduction royalty could imagine, Cleopatra also wanted heirs to Rome’s throne following Julius Caesar’s murder. The rest as they say, is history, and legend—although parts are factual and corroborated.
Whether Cleopatra wore this fragrance to charm and lure one of Rome’s finest generals or not, it is certain that the elite of the ancient Mediterranean, particularly in Alexandria and the eastern provinces of Nabataea, Syria, and Cilicia, did indeed wear these strong, long-lasting scents. If you are ever in need of seducing a powerful figure for your own gain and those of your kingdom’s subjects, definitely have Le Parfum Cléopâtre No 5 in your toiletry bag!
Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always
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