The set was prepared as part of an exhibit done at Emory University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, Michael C. Calos Hall. This exhibit was quite some time ago, in 1989. I suppose that the organizers needed a “hook,” something to arouse the interest of the casual museum-goer, and Cleopatra sufficed, as she always has. (But to be perfectly accurate, you’d have to include many more people, as the period being examined is that between the first century B.C.E. and the second century A.D., around two hundred years.)
Most of the history traditionally passed down about Cleopatra depicts her as a treacherous seductress, luring poor defenseless Julius Caesar to Egypt, and then Mark Antony to his death, complemented by her own suicide via poisonous asp. A lot of this was written by first-century Romans, who didn’t like her much. She did take up with both rulers, but these relationships started with political alliances. Cleopatra was a ruler, not a mistress. She was ruthless. She had one of her brothers (incidentally, he was her husband also, common in Egyptian dynasties then) assassinated. Descriptions of her facial features weren’t kind. It didn’t seem to matter. She has been described as intelligent and charismatic, a great talker and, later, an effective ruler who built Egypt’s economy quite skillfully.
Shakespeare’s drama “Antony and Cleopatra” focuses on the romantic aspects of this story. His plays of this type were written to appeal to the commoners, who would have seen it much as we might see a historical romance novel, one we know took certain liberties with fact. He describes her royal barge as having purple sails “so perfumed that the winds were lovesick.” Well, maybe. Who really knows?
Professor Giuseppe Donato, who oversaw the preparation of the perfumes and wrote the package’s insert about them, describes them as unguents, what we’d call oils. None are sweet. They are thick, and the color varies from light gold to deep amber. There is little information on how they were derived, but my best guess -- based on the museum’s reputation, the subtlety of the scents and and the age of the oils -- is that the natural ingredients were used. These all have Latin names. I found that delving into some of these ingredients led me down a long road, to translations of Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. To 79 A.D.) from whom Donato took much of his historical information.
I was trying to think of a way to describe all seven of these without too many Latin names, but there are some. It’s my guess that Donato did this for continuity (and also, he’s Italian). So here goes:
Cyprinum -- Oil of cypress reed: I found this to be grassy, herbal and relatively faint. All but one ingredient (oil from unripe olives) are still used in artisanal and sometimes even mainstream perfumery.
Ingredients are cypress, cardamom, calamus, rosewood oil and onphacium (the olive oil).
Metopium -- Oil of bitter almond. (Incidentally, described elsewhere as “the perfume of ancient Egypt.”) This one is a little sharper than the last, and resinous at first, but there is a trace of sweetness in the drydown. Myrrh is the standout essence, at least to my nose.
Ingredients are bitter almond, probably the oil base -- benzaldehyde is sometimes synthesized from it now. Cardamom appears again, as does “rush,” calamus, honey, wine, myrrh, galbanum, turpentine resin and onphacium (the olive oil.)
Myrtle Laurum -- Oil of Myrtle and Laurel: Initially very much as expected -- an aromatic evergreen. Again, a little sweetness in the drydown. The ingredients are lily -- which I can’t detect at all -- fenugreek, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon, spikenard and rush.
Regale Unguentum -- Royal Unguents: Pliny mentions this as having been composed for the kings of the Parthians, who ruled from a region of what is now northeastern Iran between 247 B.C.E. And 224 A.D. Certainly, it has a long list of ingredients. This makes it more mysterious to my nose, a little floral, a little animalic, well-mixed like a modern perfume but still relatively faint, with a herbaceous drydown.
So here we go with the ingredients:
Balanus oil, probably a fixative, also called Ben-nut; panace, a balm known for its healing power, also called all-heal or Hercules balm; oenanthe or “vine leaves,”; malabathrum or malobathrum, aka “Indian Bay Leaf” or tamala pattra (Sanskrit) -- obviously very ancient, used in cooking, too; amomum, another name for cardamom; cinnamon; spikenard; maro (marum or maron) which is a spice mixture similar to the modern Za’atar -- many variations; cassia, styrax, laudanum (possibly a misprint, as laudanum is tincture of opium -- maybe they meant labdanum? Or maybe not.) Balsalm, myrrh, calmus, rush, oenanthe, serichatum, a shrub not well-identified botanically but possibly cinnamon-like; cyperus (a rhizone with a violet-like scent), rosewood oil, crocus blossom (possibly saffron), henna, marjoram, honey, lotus and wine.
Rhodium -- Oil of Roses: Initially, I can smell roses here, and a grassy, slightly animalic quality, but the drydown has a citrusy note that dominates. Apparently roses were quite common at this time and heavily used in perfumery.
Ingredients are rose, crocus, cinnabar, calmus, honey, rush, alkanet (a coloring substance, made from a root, usually reddish), wine, “sublimated salt,” and onphacium (the olive oil.)
Susinum -- Oil of lilies: This one is quite faint, lightly floral. Donato says that it was the most refined and delicate of all the unguents. Even on skin, I can barely smell it, and it disappears rapidly.
Ingredients are: lily blossoms, crocus blossoms, balanus, calamus, honey and myrrh.
Telinum-- Oil of fenugreek: This has the strongest smell of them all, and it is clearly identifiable as fenugreek aka immortelle -- the familiar maple-syrup note used in some niche and artisanal perfumes today. The drydown features the fenugreek note prominently.
Ingredients are: Fenugreek, cyperus (a rhizome with a violet-like scent), calamus, melilot (yellow sweet clover), honey, mato, marjoram, and onphacium.
There is a lot of interesting reading possible here! I picked and chose from several references in my attempt to verify the insert’s description of the unguents. Here are some:
The New Perfume Handbook, (1997) by Nigel Groom. An essential resource. The book is out of print and pretty expensive, but the text is available on the web, often by googling the name of a perfume ingredient. ISBN is 0-7514 0403 9.
For some of Pliny’s writings on perfumes and plants, go here or here.
The bust of Cleopatra image, held by Berlin Museum, comes from WikiMedia. Historical information about her from various sources, including the Smithsonian and Wikipedia.
The package was prepared by Professor Giuseppe Donato, Director Emeritus for the Institute of Applied Technologies, National Research Council of Italy.