Ancient Lovers: Five Touching and Sometimes Tragic Love Stories Before Romeo and Juliet
Do you believe in true love? Are you a romantic in constant search of the one thing that so many novels, poems, and films have been dedicated to, or are you one of those people who doesn’t have much faith in love, if any at all, and who mocks the bold “explorers” searching for their one true love?
Regardless of which group you belong to, here are five ancient love stories that will renew your faith in love. Some of them might be nothing but creatures of mythology or literature and others are probably exaggerated, but the sure thing is that all these stories became immortal in time and part of pop culture due to their deep message for all of humankind: love conquers all.
Odysseus and Penelope
In our modern times very few people would be able to understand the unique bond between Odysseus and Penelope and even fewer could imitate what they did.
- Being Lovesick Was a Real Disease in the Middle Ages
- Neolithic Romeo and Juliet? The Star-Crossed Lovers of Valdaro
- Shave Your Armpits and Don’t Smell Like a Billy-Goat: Ovid’s Art of Love, Relationships and Adultery
Soon after they got married, Odysseus had to leave Penelope and their infant son to fight as one of Greece’s leaders in the Trojan War. He wouldn’t return home for the next 20 years, a period of time in which Penelope was totally faithful to her husband and declined every offer from the 108 suitors who conquered Odysseus’s kingdom.
The mythical king of Ithaca was equally devoted to his true love, and despite following his biological “needs” a couple of times, he eventually declined most temptations and decided to return home to his wife and son. A story for all of us to remember - true love is worth waiting for and can beat any distance if there’s hope and faith.
‘Odysseus and Penelope’ (1563) by Francesco Primaticcio . ( Public Domain )
Cleopatra and Mark Antony
This is possibly the most famous love story in the world behind that of Romeo and Juliet - and without a doubt it is the most popular historically recorded love of all time. The two fell in love at first sight and their love was so strong that it became a threat to the Roman Empire, which kept losing power and control to Egypt because of the decisions made a blinded-by-love Mark Antony.
Despite all the obstacles and warnings, Mark Antony and Cleopatra got married and Antony ended up fighting his own people. According to one version of their story, it is believed that while fighting a battle against the Romans, Antony was informed falsely that Cleopatra was dead and, devastated by this news, took his own life with his sword. When Cleopatra learned of Antony’s death, she took her own life, putting an end to one of the most famous loves that ended in tragedy.
A late 19th century painting of Act IV, Scene 15 of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: Cleopatra holds Antony as he dies. By Alexandre Bidas. (Folger Shakespeare Library/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Tristan and Isolde
The heartbreaking love story of Tristan and Isolde has been told and retold in various stories and manuscripts. Tristan met the love of his life after traveling to Ireland to ask for the hand of the beautiful princess Isolde in marriage, on behalf of his uncle Mark, king of Cornwall.
On their way back to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde committed a fatal mistake and drank a magic potion, which produced invincible and eternal love in anyone who tasted it. Despite this, Isolde eventually married Mark of Cornwall, but she could not help but love Tristan eternally. The love affair continued after the wedding, but when King Mark finally learned about it, he banned Tristan from Cornwall.
Tristan and Isolde. ( Public Domain )
Tristan moved to Brittany and married another woman - only because her name, Iseult, reminded him of his true love, Isolde. Despite both of them being married to other people they never managed to get over each other and their sad story ends with Isolde dying on Tristan’s chest in what is one of the saddest love stories of medieval literature.
Pyramus and Thisbe
The story of these two young lovers comes from the Middle East. In the tale, Pyramus is described as the most handsome of all men in Babylonia and Thisbe is said to be the most beautiful woman. Just like Romeo and Juliet, they were members of feuding families and for that reason they met secretly and shared a love only they knew about.
In one of their secret meetings near a lake, Thisbe, who was sitting under a tree, saw a lioness with blood on her jaws thirsty for water. As the animal approached the lake, Thisbe panicked and ran to a cave to hide but unfortunately as she rushed to hide she dropped her veil. When the lion saw the veil, it picked it up and left blood all over it. When Pyramus arrived on the scene and found Thisbe’s bloody veil, he only thought of the worst and was shattered by the idea that a wild animal killed Thisbe. The pain led him to take his sword and stab himself in the chest. When Thisbe returned to the meeting place and saw Pyramus lying dead she killed herself with his sword too.
Pyramus and Thisbe. ( Public Domain )
Heloise and Abelard
In 12th-century Europe, the norm for your average society was to be as repressed and strict as it gets; thus, a love affair between a theologian and philosopher (Abelard) and his younger student, Heloise, scandalized and challenged Parisian society like never before. The thin line between blind faith and logic was violated and the consequences were about to hit Heloise and Abelard hard, who by the way had already been married. The trigger was when Heloise got pregnant; they both realized that it would not be safe for her to remain in Paris and they fled to Brittany, Abelard’s birthplace.
- Four Ways to Love: How the Ancient Greeks Used Magic to Fulfil Hopes, Dreams, and Desires
- Love is a Battlefield: The Legend of Ishtar, First Goddess of Love and War
- The Eternal Kiss of the Hasanlu Lovers Throws Up Questions of Ancient Love: Romance, Bromance or Something More Familial?
Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame and the one who had hired Abelard to be his niece’s tutor, in a scheme to protect her dignity (only in his own mind), was the one who put an end to their love by having his servants castrate Abelard while he slept.
Abaelardus and Héloïse in the manuscript ‘Roman de la Rose ’ (14th century) . ( Public Domain )
Abelard became a monk and dedicated his life to philosophy while the heartbroken Heloise was forced by her uncle to give her child up for adoption and become a nun, even though she remained in love with Abelard, with whom she corresponded for the rest of her life. Their affectionate but sad love letters were later published and continue to touch thousands of people around the world today.
Top Image: ‘The End of the Song’ – a depiction of the lovers Tristan and Isolde. Source: Public Domain
Homer. The Iliad . (Book)
William Shakespeare . Antony and Cleopatra (Book)
Tristan and Isolde. Timeless Myths. Available at: http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html
Pyramus and Thisbe. Shmoop. Available at: https://www.shmoop.com/pyramus-thisbe/summary.html
Heloise and Abelard. Available at: http://www.abelardandheloise.com/Story.html