7 Ancient Love Stories That Shook the World
In the annals of history, there exist tales of love that transcend the boundaries of time and society, romances that have left a permanent mark on the world. From the passionate but doomed romance of Mark Antony and Cleopatra to the political union-turned-love affair of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, these love stories offer a glimpse into the personal lives of rulers, conquerors, and royals. Amidst the grandeur of empires and political intrigue, these real-life love stories reveal the enduring power of love and its influence on the course of human events. Not all of these love stories are happy, but they’re all profoundly human.
1.Cleopatra and Mark Antony- Ended In Suicide
Probably one of the most famous love affairs in history is that of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, and Mark Antony, a powerful Roman general. Their coupling was not just a romantic one, it also reshaped the political landscape of the ancient world.
Cleopatra, famed not just for her beauty but her intelligence and charisma, captivated Antony when they first met in 41 BC. Her allure was a potent weapon and she wielded it strategically to form an alliance with Antony against their common enemy, Octavian (who would later become Augustus). Their romance blossomed amid the opulent courts of Alexandria, with grand feasts, extravagant displays, and leisurely boat rides along the Nile.
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra’ (1885) by Lawrence Alma Tadema. (Public domain)
But their romance wasn’t without controversy. Firstly, Antony was married and left his wife, Octavia, to be with Cleopatra. Leaving his loyal Roman wife to be with a foreigner (someone of Greek descent no less) wasn’t exactly a good look for Antony and Octavian utilized it in his propaganda.
People back home were also concerned that Antony’s loyalties had shifted. Could he still be trusted to put Rome’s needs ahead of Egypt’s? These concerns played right into Octavian’s hands.
It’s no wonder then that their relationship was doomed to have a tragic end. Their union quickly led to political tension that ignited violently at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, where Antony and Cleopatra’s united forces took on Octavian’s navy.
Both Antony and Octavian were master strategists, but many historians believe his relationship with Cleopatra clouded Antony’s judgment. In the run-up to Actium, he had made several serious blunders against Octavian, losing battles he should have won.
The couple’s love story met its end when they were defeated at Actium. According to Roman historians, the two fled to Alexandria where they were besieged by Octavian’s forces. The most famous version of their story ends with Cleopatra faking her own death to avoid being captured. Upon hearing the news, a devastated Antony is said to have taken his own life, falling on his sword.
The still very much alive Cleopatra is then said to have killed herself by allowing a venomous asp to bite her. Their deaths marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and the rise of the Roman Empire's undisputed power.
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2.Emperor Shah Jahan Built the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz Mahal
What’s the ultimate way to show your significant other how much they mean to you? Well, if you’re Emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Empire you build your wife one of the most famous architectural masterpieces in the world.
Emperor Shah Jahan ruled from 1628 until his death in 1658. Before coming to power, he married Kandahari Begum, the daughter of a powerful nobleman. He then married Akbarabadi Mahal after becoming emperor, but not much is known about her. On April 30, 1612, he married Mumtaz Mahal and his love for her changed his life.
She wasn’t just his favorite wife; she was his closest confidante and a trusted advisor. Tragically, during the birth of their fourteenth child, Mumtaz Mahal passed away. Grief-stricken, Shah Jahan vowed to honor her memory in an extraordinary way.
He did so by commissioning a grand white marble mausoleum of unparalleled beauty, the Taj Mahal. He brought in the most skilled architects and artisans to create this architectural marvel, which took over 20 years to complete. Its breathtaking symmetry and intricate details stand as an eternal tribute to Mumtaz's memory.
The beautiful monument, Taj Mahal dedicated to Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife. (TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)/flickr)
Shah Jahan's love for Mumtaz Mahal and the Taj Mahal's creation continues to captivate the world. Today, millions of visitors from around the globe marvel at this symbol of love and devotion, reminding us that true love transcends time, place, and even mortality.
3.Emperor Nero and Poppaea Sabina’s Love Affair Ended in Murder
Nero isn’t exactly ancient Rome’s most fondly remembered emperor and much of that has to do with his love affair with Poppea Sabina. Theirs is a tale of passion, ambition, and the tumultuous dynamics of ancient Rome. Nero, infamous for his reign marked by excess and tyranny, was captivated by the enchanting Poppaea Sabina, a woman of exceptional beauty.
As seems to have been a theme with powerful Roman men, Nero’s romance with Poppea began while he was still married to his first wife (another Octavia). He had married her as a young man in 53 AD, but their marriage was never a happy one. His affair with Poppaea, a married woman herself, soon became scandalous. What Nero did next only made things worse.
Nero wanted to marry Poppaea, but divorce was frowned upon in Roman society. To get around this he accused Octavia (who was immensely popular) of adultery and conspiring against him, which allowed him to divorce her. He didn’t stop there.
Octavia was the daughter of Emperor Claudius, which meant she had powerful allies. Nero feared his wife might decide on revenge and decided to have her banished in 62 AD. She was exiled to the island of Pandateria (modern-day Ventotene) where she was forced to live in despicable conditions. It’s believed while in exile she died by forced suicide, aka murder.
Nero married Poppaea at an extremely lavish wedding. Their relationship was marked by indulgence and extravagance. Poppaea used her influence over Nero to advance her own interests and ambitions, often to the detriment of the Roman Empire. Their union was punctuated by decadent parties and displays of wealth, straining the Roman economy.
It all ended in tears. In a fit of rage, Nero kicked a pregnant Poppaea, which led to her death. He was devastated by her loss and built a lavish tomb for her. From there Nero's reign spiraled into chaos and rebellion, culminating in his suicide.
Woodcut Illustration depicting Poppaea Sabina and Nero (Kladcat/CC BY 2.0)
4.Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti- Behind Every Powerful Man
How about a love story that is a bit happier? We’ve all heard the old saying that behind every powerful man is a woman. Well, Nefertiti is the woman who proves that old adage true.
Their love story is a captivating chapter in ancient Egyptian history, marked by a unique blend of romance, religion, and radical change. Akhenaten, originally known as Amenhotep IV, ascended to the throne in the 14th century BC. His reign was profoundly shaped by his deep love and partnership with Nefertiti.
Nefertiti wasn’t just a queen; she was a powerful partner in Akhenaten's religious and political revolution. Together, they embarked on a bold journey to transform Egypt's polytheistic beliefs into the worship of the sun god Aten, advocating for the monotheistic worship of this deity.
Their love and shared vision for religious reform led to the construction of a new capital city, Amarna, where they could practice their faith away from the traditional centers of Egyptian power. Despite the radical nature of their reign, Akhenaten and Nefertiti's love and devotion to each other were evident in the inscriptions and depictions that adorned their temples and monuments. Nefertiti played a prominent role in religious ceremonies, and her iconic bust, discovered in the modern era, is an enduring symbol of her beauty and influence.
The bust of Nefertiti on display at the Neues Museum in Germany. (Xenon 77 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
5.Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Never Got to Live Happily Ever After
Nefertiti and Akhenaten aren’t the only royals to have had a happy marriage, however. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's love story is an enduring symbol of devotion and partnership that left an indelible mark on the British monarchy and the 19th century.
When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, she was unmarried. She had met her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha the previous year and a relationship between the two was secretly arranged. What began as a political arrangement soon blossomed into a profound and lasting love.
The two married in 1840 and their marriage was a true love match, which was unusual for royal unions of the time. Albert quickly became Victoria’s right-hand man. He often acted as her most trusted advisor, playing a crucial role throughout her reign.
In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert who also became her most relied-upon advisor. (Public Domain)
Albert's impact on Victorian Britain was profound. He championed educational reform, technological innovation, and social welfare. The couple's family life was notably warm and close, with nine children. The image of Victoria and Albert as loving parents and spouses helped shape ideals of family and domesticity in the 19th century. Behind closed doors, the two are also said to have had an…interesting sex life.
Tragically Albert died on December 14, 1861, he was only 42 at the time. His death shattered Victoria. She entered a period of mourning that lasted for decades, wearing black and withdrawing from public life. She never really recovered, and the rest of her life was marked by profound grief.
6.Napoleon Bonaparte Never Got Over Empress Josephine
Napoleon, the military genius who would later become Emperor of the French first met Josephine, a captivating and elegant widow, in 1795. At the time General Napoleon Bonapart was a rising star in the French army and Josephine de Beauharnais was a widow and mother of two.
It is said that it was love at first sight and that the connection between them was instantaneous. They married a year later in 1796, Josephine's charm, grace, and warmth were a striking contrast to Napoleon's austere demeanor.
Sadly, their marriage was destined not to last. The only thing Napoleon loved more than his wife was his career and straight after their wedding, he left to fight in the Italian Campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars. His military campaigns took him away for extended periods, something Josephine quickly grew tired of.
When Napoleon was home the two spent much of their time trying to produce a male heir to secure Napoleon's dynasty. Despite the fact she’d already had two children Josephine had problems conceiving. Napoleon once again put his ambitions ahead of his love.
In 1809, after it had become clear that Josephine would never bear him a child, Napoleon divorced Josephine. Letters from the time show the two were still in love and that Napoleon had struggled with the decision. He had broken both of their hearts.
The of the Empress Josephine’ (1843) by Henri Frédéric Schopin. (Public Domain)
After the divorce, Josephine was given the title of "Duchess of Navarre" but continued to live in France where Napoleon ensured her comfort and well-being until her death in 1814. His final words are said to have been, "France, the army, the head of the army, Josephine."
7.Cyrus the Great and Cassandane Built an Empire Together
Cyrus the Great is remembered for a great many things. This legendary conqueror united the Persian tribes and after conquering the Medes in 550 BC founded the Achaemenid Empire. He then went on to campaign across the ancient Near East, his myriad successful campaigns turning his Empire into one of the ancient world’s biggest powers.
He met and married Cassandane, also known as Atossa, sometime around 550 BC. She was the daughter of the powerful Median king Pharnaces, and their marriage was part of a significant political alliance between the Persian and Median royal families.
Yet what started out merely as a political union led to something deeply emotional. Cassandane became his trusted advisor and companion, sharing in both his many triumphs and challenges. Their marriage produced several children including Cambyses II and Smerdis (also known as Bardiya or Gaumata).
While Cyrus is primarily remembered as a conqueror, he also had a softer side and was respected for the benevolence he showed to those he conquered. Unlike some conquerors of his time, Cyrus practiced a relatively benevolent form of governance. He allowed conquered peoples to retain their customs, languages, and religions, which contributed to the stability of his empire. Many believe this was a result of Cassandane’s influence over him.
The Great Cyrus & Kasandan in the Castle of Apadana. (shams bahari /CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It is said that when Cassandane passed away, Cyrus was inconsolable, and he ordered elaborate funeral rituals to honor her memory. The legacy of Cyrus and Cassandane's love extended beyond their personal relationship. Cyrus's benevolent rule and respect for diverse cultures and religions laid the foundation for the Persian Empire's enduring influence in the ancient world.
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When studying the lives of influential figures from history it can be easy to forget they were human too. Their place in time distances them from us, making them feel more like characters in books, rather than real people made of flesh and blood.
But every ruler on this list was a real person, a person with their own thoughts and feelings. These love stories are proof of that. Even history’s greatest military leaders, men like Napoleon and Cyrus the Great needed someone to go home to.
This knowledge doesn’t just humanize them, it connects us to them too. Every person on this list has one thing in common, the same thing we have in common with them, love. These stories underscore that love knows no boundaries. It transcends politics, empires, and time itself. These love stories remind us that even amidst the tumultuous affairs of state and the grandeur of empires, the human heart seeks connection and affection.
Top image: An embracing couple in medieval dress, symbolic of ancient love stories of history. Source: Karrrtinki/Adobe Stock
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Editors. 2023. Napoleon Bonaparte. History. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/european-history/napoleon
Editors. 2022. Nefertiti was more than just a pretty face. National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2022/03/nefertiti-was-more-than-just-a-pretty-face
Haughton. B. 2011. Cleopatra & Antony. World History Encyclopedia. Available at:https://www.worldhistory.org/article/197/cleopatra--antony/
Mead. R. 2021. How Nasty Was Nero, Really? The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/06/14/how-nasty-was-nero-really