Great Love Stories Throughout History

Love it or hate it, there’s no question Valentine’s Day is all about amor. Whether that’s in the form of commercialized heart-shaped goodies or a quiet candlelit dinner at home, it’s a day to celebrate our own great love stories or dream about the ones we’ve yet to have. What better to fuel those love story fantasies than some of the true great love stories throughout time? So grab some wine, sit back, and scroll while I shower you in centuries of love!

Be warned before you start, the great loves of the past weren’t all smooth sailing; they were full of sacrifice, intensity, and some seriously poor decisions, but ultimately worth everything to those enamoured couples who could hardly stand to live without each other. Maybe just don't take them as examples of how you should be with your significant other! 

Cleopatra and Marc Antony

This one needs no explanation, but that’s what I’m here to do anyway! The last (kind of) Egyptian ruler in Egypt, Cleopatra was known for her beauty and mastery at seduction. When Marc Antony took charge of Caesar’s eastern land and was sent to investigate Cleopatra, she arrived on an elaborate barge dressed as the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus, with the hopes of charming him as she had Caesar.

Pro tip for talking yourself out of a ticket, ladies, because it worked! Marc Antony was so taken by her that he followed her back to Egypt and pledged himself to her protection. He returned to her seven years later and joined her in her war against Rome, but the two were defeated, leading to the ultimate conquest of Egypt in 30BC.

The real tear-jerker here is the misunderstanding: Antony was falsely led to believe Cleopatra had died and stabbed himself with his sword, then, after burying him, Cleopatra locked herself in her room with and killed herself as well (the whole asp she-bang is unconfirmed, but that’s what I’m going to imagine). As per her request, her body was buried next to his so they’d remain together forever. Anyone else getting some serious Romeo and Juliet vibes? (History)

Justinian and Theodora

Theodora was brilliant performer in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople back in the 6th Century with one crazy sexual reputation. Renowned for her beauty and brazenness as a talented courtesan/comedienne, Theodora gained a large following rather quickly for her wanton sexual performances, like one supposed instance where she lay naked onstage while geese ate grain off of her body.

According to Procopius — who hated her and wrote his The Secret History to bash her — her wanton lust was so insatiable that “On the field of pleasure she was never defeated.” Basically, she was a terrible match for an emperor, but Justinian fell madly in love with her anyway.

As his mistress and then Empress (after creating a new law just to allow their marriage), Theodora was active alongside her husband in governing their empire and even worked to improve women’s rights. Justinian continued to love and admire his courtesan wife until she succumbed to illness in 548AD, leaving him with a heartbreak he never quite got over. (Listverse, The Guardian)

Abelard and Heloise

Anyone else miss love letters? Well, no one did those better than these two from the 12th Century, whose forbidden love remains one of the most intriguing to date (and you can fight me on that). Abelard was a professor in France at the height of his career, hired by William Fulbert to tutor his niece, Heloise (the one female student attending Abelard’s lectures) in exchange for lodging.

Soon their shared home and tutor sessions became the setting for an intensely passionate torrid affair. Despite the whole tutor-student thing, and at the cost of a serious scandal, the two fell deeply in love: a love which that is chronicled in a series of love letters they wrote to each other in secret. The letters are racy as their affair was, chronicling — in detail — their numerous sexual encounters in places like convent kitchens and her uncle’s boudoir, which led to Heloise’s unexpected pregnancy. The two married in secret, so not to damage Abelard’s academic reputation with news of a wife, but her uncle discovered them and, I kid you not, he snuck into Abelard’s chamber to castrate him. Yes, castrate him.

Unwilling to find someone else, the two took vows of celibacy and left for the monastery and nunnery. Eeven with their separation and Abelard’s lack of a penis, they remained madly in love until their deaths — their letters continued, often lamenting their loss of each other and the lustful thoughts that consumed them. Forget their holy vows to serve the Church — their love was tantamount to religion with a devotion just as intense. Sadly, out of respect for each other and their monk/nun status, the two agreed that to become only “family in Christ” instead of spouses and remained separated until their respective deaths. Abelard was buried at Heloise’s abbess until her body joined his 20 years later. (HistoryExtra, NY Times)

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Divorced, Beheaded, and Died. Divorced. Beheaded, Survived. The whole affair may have ended with one famous head-chopping, but it started as a testament to one king’s passionate love (okay, lust) for his wife’s lady-in-waiting and sister of a former mistress. This one’s a bona fide case of playing hard to get because Henry was not just charmed by her beauty, but also her constant rejection of his advances. She was everything his current wife and queen, Catherine of Aragon, was not: witty, exciting, passionate, and young. In fact, he loved her so much that when the Catholic Church forbade his divorce from Catherine, he married Anne in secret and broke from the Church, thus starting the whole new Church of England.

In a tragic case of classic sixteenth-century anti-feminism, the men in charge didn’t appreciate the fact that she, you know, actually voiced her opinions and orchestrated a string of rumours that turned Henry against his dearly beloved, resulting in her eventual execution by decapitation. But the real tea is that with the charges of adultery (with a side of incest) and treason, she likely would have been subject to a much more gruesome death, but in perhaps a last moment of their love affair, Henry sentenced her to a noble beheading by an executioner of her choosing. Get you a man who can do both! (History)

Mary Godwin Shelley and Percy Bysse Shelley

Sapiosexuals, unite! Percy Shelly was a successful Romantic poet in the 19th century who, upon meeting Mary Godwin, daughter of a famous feminist, was swept up in an intense physical and intellectual love affair. He described their bond as "Soul meets soul on lovers' lips," a testament to their shared love of knowledge. Their relationship was just as full of physical desire — so full, in fact, that they hooked up the first time on Mary’s mother’s grave.

They ran away together to Europe, uncaring about the scandal, and continued to nurse their love for each other and support for mutual intellectual success until Percy’s death in a boating accident in 1822. Mary remained unmarried for the rest of her life as she could not love anyone less than the genius her first husband had been. (Town and Country)

Fun fact: In 1816 the couple hit up Switzerland to meet with Percy’s friend Lord Byron, another successful Romantic poet. On a dark and stormy night, they all got to chatting about the supernatural and read a collection of German ghost stories. In the spirit of the night and true to their creative nature, they opened a competition to see who of the three could write the best horror story. After two weeks and nighttime edits with her dear husband, Mary finished Frankenstein. I think it’s pretty easy to tell who won. (The Telegraph)

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Thanks to the success of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald is already a symbol of the wild Roaring ‘20s, but it was with Zelda by his side that things really picked up speed. Zelda Sayre had a reckless streak and was known for her rebellious spontaneity; at a dance on night during World War I, she met F. Scott Fitzgerald who was soon professing his ardent love for her. She initially turned him down because he didn’t have enough of an income but changed her mind when his first book was picked up for publication.

Their marriage was as full of life as they were, from high class hotel hopping in NYC, to cliff-jumping into the Mediterranean, to partying with Picasso. Their marriage was also full of fighting and jealousy, resulting in some boiled jewelry, burning clothing, and one particularly crazy instance where Zelda lay on the road ahead of F. Scott’s car and dared him to run her over. Now, this definitely was no paragon of romantic perfection — and no, it definitely couldn’t have been healthy — but they loved each other incredibly fiercely until their tragic deaths 7 years apart from alcoholism (F. Scott) and a fire at a mental institution (Zelda). Maybe it’s not such a happy ending, but, man, that was some wild emotion when they had it. (Town and Country)

Okay, that’s enough gooey love-loving for now—I’ll leave you to swoon. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photos: Wikipedia, John Sanidopoulos, French Culture, Anne Boleyn Files, LitHub, Literature Salon