7 of the Most Scandalous Divorces in Ancient History
The world has seen its fair share of scandalous divorces throughout history, from ancient Rome to modern times. Divorce, a legal mechanism that has been around for centuries, has often resulted in the epic airing of dirty laundry, shocking revelations, and even violence. While most divorces are businesslike affairs severing ties and negotiating assets, some splits have sent shock waves throughout society because of what caused them, what they revealed, or the sheer drama of the proceedings. These are some of the most scandalous divorces in history and what made them so.
1. Caesar and Pompeia- A Rare Miscalculation
Today Caesar is remembered as one of the greatest Roman leaders and a military mastermind. But before he rose to the highest position in the Roman Empire, he was just another politician. And being a politician is all about keeping up appearances.
In 69 BC Caesar's first wife died and he left Rome to serve as a quaestor (a type of governor) in Spain. When he returned, he married a woman called Pompeia in a political marriage (she was very well-connected). Soon afterward, Caesar was elected to serve as the pontifex maximus (Rome’s high priest). This meant Caesar, and everyone in his life had to be above reproach.
Caesar divorced Pompeia and accused her of being unfaithful. He said that "my wife ought not even to be under suspicion". Which gave rise to a proverb, "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion". ( Public Domain )
In 62 BC Pompeia held the festival of Bona Dea . This was an important religious ceremony that only women could attend. One can imagine Caesar's face when he discovered a man had been discovered at the festival disguised as a woman. A man who just so happened to be a political rival.
The rumor mill soon spun into action. Roman gossips spread the word that Pompeia had held the festival so that she could spend time with her lover. Her reputation was in tatters.
These were only rumors, and there was no evidence Pompeia had been anything but a dutiful wife, but Caesar was done. He believed that his wife should be above suspicion. She obviously wasn’t, so he divorced her.
The divorce led to a major scandal. Caesar’s divorcing of Pompeia only helped to reinforce the rumors. Why would he divorce her if she wasn’t guilty? Some political opponents saw his handling of the scandal as a sign of weakness. While Caesar’s career quickly recovered, it was a rare miscalculation made by an otherwise brilliant strategic mind.
2. King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon- First of Many
It would be impossible to write an article on historical divorces and not mention Henry VIII . The man literally changed his country’s religion, and fell out with the most powerful man in the world, just because he was bored with his wife.
Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon for 24 years when he decided it was time for a change. He was particularly irked that in the span of 24 years, she had repeatedly failed to produce him a male heir. He was determined to have a son and had concluded Catherine simply wasn’t capable of getting the job done.
In 1527 he began seeking an annulment. His grounds were that she had previously been married to his brother, making his own marriage null and void. Unfortunately for him, Catherine refused to acknowledge it and the Pope refused to grant it, seeing straight through Henry’s paper-thin ploy.
This led to a bitter dispute between a king who was used to getting his own way and a Catholic Church that was also used to getting its own way. No one was bigger than the church. Henry broke away from the church and created his own, the Church of England, with himself as its head. He then granted his own annulment and married Anne Boleyn , who gave him his male heir. She would later find herself on the literal chopping block.
Anne Boleyn condemned to death, by Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret. ( Public Domain )
By his death in 1547, Henry had worked his way through 6 wives. But his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was his most influential split. It had far-reaching consequences, including the English Reformation and the founding of the Church of England . In the years following his death, thousands would die as different Christian sects vied for control of England.
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3. Nero and Claudia Octavia- Another Mistake for Nero
Nero has quite rightly gone down in history as one of Rome’s worst, and craziest, Roman Emperors. His list of scandals is an exceptionally long one indeed and includes his divorce from his first wife, Claudia Octavia.
The two married when Nero was just 16 years old. It was a political marriage as Claudia was the daughter of Claudius, Nero’s predecessor. The marriage was never a happy one.
Nero was known for his “extravagant” lifestyle and his affairs with other women. Claudia, on the other hand, was a more reserved and traditional Roman wife. Despite this, she remained loyal to her husband, dutifully conducting her role as empress and providing him with the obligatory male heir.
This did her no favors. Nero eventually became bored with his wife and infatuated with another woman, Poppaea Sabina. He promptly divorced his wife so that he could marry his new love. He accused Claudia of adultery, along with other crimes, and had her banished to the island of Pandateria.
Painting by by Giovanni Muzzioli (1876), Poppaea Brings the Head of Octavia to Nero ( Public Domain )
It was a major scandal. No one really believed Nero’s accusations. Claudia was widely admired by the Roman people, who saw her as a symbol of virtue and morality, especially when compared to her husband. The divorce violated Roman tradition and undermined the dignity of the imperial office.
It was yet another mark against an emperor who was already unpopular. His second marriage was equally unhappy and it's likely he murdered her in a fit of rage. His reign ultimately came to a bloody end when Nero was declared an enemy of the state and forced to commit suicide in 68 AD.
4. Emperor Constantine and Fausta- A Family Affair
Another Roman Emperor, another scandalous divorce. Much like in the case of Nero and Caesar, it was also a political marriage. Fausta was the daughter of Maximian, Constantine’s co-emperor, and their marriage was arranged to bring the two powerful men together. Despite the fact it was an incredibly unhappy marriage, it did produce several children.
Detail of Tapestry Depicting the Marriage of Constantine and Fausta by Peter Paul Rubens. (Mary Harsch/ CC BY NC-SA 2.0 )
There were rumors of infidelity on both sides. Embarrassingly, it was reported that Fausta was having an affair with Constantine’s son, Crispus, while Constantine was busy having a relationship with Fausta’s stepmother. It seems they both liked to keep their affairs within the family.
Whether the rumors were true or not is unknown. It could be that they were spread by Constantine’s enemies to undermine him, or it could be that Fausta herself spread them in retaliation to Constantine’s affairs. What we do know is that the rumors had deadly consequences.
Constantine had Crispus put to death at some point between the May and June of 326 AD, he then “divorced” Fausta by having her suffocated in her own bath the following July. It was a major scandal and damaged Constantine's reputation, particularly among the Roman aristocracy. The incident also caused tension between Constantine and his former co-emperor, Maximian, who was Fausta's father.
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5. Charlemagne and his Second Wife- The End of an Alliance
It should be abundantly clear by now that ancient leaders liked to use marriage as a political tool. In the case of Charlemagne, he was so unbothered by who his actual wife was, that his second wife’s name never made it into the history books.
Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor , married his second wife in 771 AD. It was a purely political affair in an effort to build an alliance with the Lombards (a Germanic people who ruled much of Italy at the time) and the pope against his own brother, Carloman.
It was not a happy marriage. Charlemagne reportedly found his wife immensely unappealing and often called her a “sow.” They had one child together, Pepin, but the marriage was short-lived.
Carloman died in 771 AD, which meant Charlemagne no longer needed the political alliance or his unappealing wife. Rather than go through the proper legal channels, Charlemagne simply announced himself divorced and shipped his wife back to the Lombards, greatly insulting them.
The divorce led to a decades-long conflict between the two families. Charlemagne went on to marry and divorce several more times. All political marriages, all doomed.
1846 painting ‘The Divorce’ by Jan Hendrik van de Laar. ( Public Domain )
6. Willmott and John Bury- Undivorced
Before the modern age came along women didn’t have a great range of options available to them when it came to dumping their husbands. If a woman wanted to ditch her husband she either needed to wait him out, kill him or get an annulment.
A woman calling for an annulment had to prove that the marriage had never been consummated, since the church’s obsession with marriage hinged on the fact its sole purpose was reproduction. No baby making = no marriage.
Of course, proving you had never had sex with your spouse wasn’t easy. This meant seeking an annulment was often an act of last resort. In 1561, Willmott Bury asked that her marriage to her husband, John, be annulled. She claimed he’d been left impotent by a kick to his unmentionables by a horse as a young man.
This argument convinced the local church officials and she got her annulment. All was good and the two soon married other people. The problem came shortly afterward when John caused a major scandal by having a son.
The church announced that both new marriages were invalid and the two were still married in the eyes of the lord. A whole host of embarrassing lawsuits followed. New legislation had to be brought in that voided any annulment if the husband later proved to be sexually capable of having children post-annulment.
Matrimony by the Church considered a holy sacrament. Annulment could be granted if there was proof that marriage had not been consummated. Painting by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1445 ( Public Domain )
7. Barbara Villiers and Robert Fielding- Divorce and Bigamy
We finish this list with one of the most sordid divorces in history, that of Barbara Villiers and Robert Fielding. Theirs was a marriage so toxic that it sounds like something straight from reality TV.
Barbara Villiers was the 1st Duchess of Cleveland and the Countess of Castlemaine. She had gained her impressive titles and impressive wealth by being the former (and favorite) lover of King Charles II.
At the age of 64 Villiers met 54-year-old Robert Fielding, an untrustworthy fortune hunter, and all-around bad guy. She was blinded by love, and in 1705 rushed headfirst into a very unhappy marriage.
Unbeknownst to Villiers, Fielding was already married. He had supposedly married a wealthy widow by the name of Anne Deleau in the hopes of grabbing her fortune. Unfortunately for him, the ‘wealthy’ Deleau didn’t exist. She was actually a fellow grifter (and prostitute) who had married Fielding in the hopes of conning him.
When Deleau discovered Fielding had married Villiers (making him a bigamist) she promptly began blackmailing him. Fielding was forced to steal from his new wife to pay off his first wife.
If this wasn’t bad enough, he also seduced (and impregnated) Villiers’ granddaughter. His charade as the perfect husband quickly came crashing down. With his true colors on show, Fielding began abusing Villiers. One time he beat her so viciously she was forced to jump from a window to escape.
Thankfully, since Fielding was a bigamist, divorcing him was a piece of cake. Sadly, by the time she had come to her senses, he had robbed her of most of her wealth.
Divorce has been a part of human history for a long time, and it has always been a tumultuous and scandalous affair. While divorce laws have changed over the years, the reasons for the splits and the resulting drama have often remained the same.
From Julius Caesar and Pompeia to Charlemagne and his unnamed second wife, these historical divorces are a reminder that even the most powerful and influential people can fall prey to the complications of relationships. It's a reminder that we're all human, and love and heartbreak have been part of the human experience throughout history.
Top image: Divorce in medieval times. Source: tatyana/ Adobe Stock
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Editor. 2023. Barbara Villiers . Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Barbara-Villiers-Duchess-of-Cleveland
Sullivan. R. 2023. Charlemagne. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlemagne
Preskar. P. 2021. The Scandalous Love Life of Roman Emperor Nero. Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/lessons-from-history/roman-emperor-nero-e98c6470945e