Cleopatra: From turpentine and juniper to ionone and irone

Georg Petroianu, A. Stegmeier-Petroianu, D. E. Lorke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Cleopatra VII (69–30 BC), the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, is probably best known for her love affairs with Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and Marcus Antonius (83-30 BC). Rightly or wrongly she became the epitome of shrewd seduction, leading brave Roman commanders on a path to debauchery and destruction. Among the seductive strategies attributed to her is the ingestion of small amounts of turpentine [the resin of the terebinth tree (Pistacia terebinthus)] or of derived oil (Oleum terebinthinae) with the purpose of conferring to her urine a more pleasant scent reminding of violets.Turpentine components are metabolized among other compounds to ionones and irones, which – renally excreted – are responsible for the flowery scent. Having obviously worked with great generals, the strategy is said to have been embraced for everyday use by many affluent Roman women. Complicating the issue somewhat is the fact that juniper berries (Fructus juniperi) and derived oil (Oleum juniperi) containing many of the same terpenoids as turpentine have a similar effect on urine. The purpose of this contribution is to briefly review the pharmacology of turpentine and juniper derived compounds assumed to be responsible for altering the scent of urine and to examine the origin and veracity of the mentioned habit. While the effect of ingested turpentine on the scent of urine is well documented our attempts at identifying Greek or Latin authors mentioning its intentional use for this explicit purpose (by Cleopatra or anybody else) failed.

Original languageBritish English
Pages (from-to)676-680
Number of pages5
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2018


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