1. Paris and Helen
She was another man's wife, but when Paris, the "handsome, woman-mad" prince of Troy, saw Helen, the woman whom Aphrodite proclaimed the most beautiful in the world, he had to have her. Helen and Paris ran off together, setting in motion the decade-long Trojan War. According to myth, Helen was half-divine, the daughter of Queen Leda and the God Zeus, who transformed into a swan to seduce the queen. Whether Helen actually existed, we'll never know, but her romantic part in the greatest epic of all time can never be forgotten. She will forever be "the face that
2. Cleopatra and Mark Antony
"Brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate everyone." That was the description of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. She could have had anything or anyone she wanted, but she fell passionately in love with the Roman General Mark Antony. As Shakespeare depicts it, their relationship was volatile ("Fool! Don't you see now that I could have poisoned you a hundred times had I been able to live without you," Cleopatra said) but after they risked all in a war on Rome and lost, they chose to die together in 30 BC. "I will be a bridegroom in my death, and run into it as to a lover's bed," said Antony. And Cleopatra followed, by clasping a poisonous asp to her breast.
3. Hadrian and Antinous
We've heard of the Wall—no, not that one, the 2nd Century AD one stretching across England—but what about Emperor Hadrian's heart? He lost it to Antinous (far left), an intelligent and sports-loving Greek student. The emperor displayed "an obsessive craving for his presence." The two traveled together, pursuing their love of hunting; Hadrian once saved his lover's life during a lion hunt. The emperor even wrote erotic poetry. While visiting the Nile, Antinous drowned mysteriously, some say murdered by those jealous of the emperor's devotion. The devastated Hadrian proclaimed Antinous a deity, ordered a city be built in his honor, and named a star after him, between the Eagle and the Zodiac.
4. Henry II and Rosamund Clifford
The first Plantagenet king of England had a rich, royal wife in Eleanor of Aquitaine and mistresses galore, but the love of his life was "Fair Rosamund," also called the "Rose of the World." To conceal their affair, Henry built a love nest in the innermost recesses of a maze in his park at Woodstock. Nonetheless, the story has it that Queen Eleanor did not rest until she found the labyrinth and traced it to the center, where she uncovered her ravishing rival. The queen offered her death by blade or poison. Rosamund chose the poison. Perhaps not coincidentally, Henry kept Eleanor confined in prison for 16 years of their marriage.
5. Dante and Beatrice
Rarely has a woman served as such profound inspiration for a writer—and yet he barely knew her. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote passionately of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and other poems, but only met the object of his affection twice. The first time, he was nine years old and she was eight. The second time, they were adults, and while walking on the street in Florence, Beatrice, an emerald-eyed beauty, turned and greeted Dante before continuing on her way. Beatrice died at age 24 in 1290 without Dante ever seeing her again. Nonetheless, she was "the glorious lady of my mind," he wrote, and "she is my beatitude, the destroyer of all vices and the queen of virtue, salvation."
6. Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII
When the Tudor king fell for a young lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, who possessed eyes "black and beautiful," he was long married to a Spanish princess. But Anne refused to be a royal mistress, and the king rocked the Western world to win his divorce and make Anne queen. Ambassadors could not believe how enslaved the king was by his love for Anne. "This accursed Anne has her foot in the stirrup," complained the Spanish emissary. To comprehend the king's passion, one need only read his 16th-century love letters, revealing his torment over how elusive she remained: "I beg to know expressly your intention touching the love between us…having been more than a year wounded by the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail or find a place in your affection." (Their love affair ended when he had her beheaded.)
7. Louis XV of France and Madame de Pompadour
In 1730 a Parisian prophetess told a nine-year-old girl she would rule the heart of a king. Years later, at a masked ball, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, dressed as a domino, danced with King Louis XV, dressed as a tree. Within weeks, the delicate beauty was maîtresse-en-titre, given the title Marquise de Pompadour. "Any man would have wanted her as his mistress," said another male admirer. The couple indulged in their love of art, furniture, and porcelain, with Madame de Pompadour arranging for her jaded royal lover small dinner parties and amateur theatricals in which she would star (of course). While watching one play, Louis XV declared, "You are the most delicious woman in France," before sweeping her out of the room.
8. John and Abigail Adams
Abigail Smith married him at age 20, gave birth to five children (including America's fifth president, John Quincy Adams), was John Adams's confidante, political advisor, and First Lady. And the more than 1,000 letters they wrote to each other offer a window into John and Abigail's mutual devotion and abiding friendship. It was more than revolutionary political ideals that kept them so united; they shared a trust and abiding tenderness. Abigail wrote: "There is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship ... and by this chord, I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it." As for John, he wrote: "I want to hear you think, or see your Thoughts. The Conclusion of your Letter makes my
9. Mary Godwin Shelley and Percy Shelley
When the young Romantic poet Percy Shelley met Mary Godwin, she was the teenage daughter of a famous trailblazing feminist, the long-dead Mary Wollstonecraft. The two of them shared a love of the mind—"Soul meets soul on lovers' lips," he wrote—but physical desire swept them away too, consummated near the grave of Mary's mother. When they ran away to Europe, it caused a major scandal, but the couple proclaimed themselves indifferent to judgment. "It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance," she later said. They traveled together to visit the debauched Lord Byron, and Mary wrote Frankenstein during two weeks in Switzerland. After Percy died in a boating accident in 1822, Mary never remarried. She said having been married to a genius, she could not marry a man who wasn't one.
10. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
Elizabeth Barrett was an accomplished and respected poet in poor health (and nearly 40 years old) when Robert Browning wrote to her: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett," and praising their "fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought." They courted in secret because of her family's disapproval. She wrote, "I am not of a cold nature, & cannot bear to be treated coldly. When cold water is thrown upon a hot iron, the iron hisses." They married in 1846, living among fellow writers and artists for the rest of her life. When she died, it was in Robert Browning's arms.
11. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
For nearly 40 years, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were inseparable, famous for their literary salon in Paris, which was frequented by Picasso, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and much more. When Toklas (far left) first met Stein, she wrote, "It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since them. She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair." Their love gained international fame after Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Wrote Stein, "One must dare to be happy."
12. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
The talented young Mexican painter Kahlo paid a visit to the studio of famous muralist Rivera in search of career advice. "She had unusual dignity and self-assurance and there was a strange fire in her eyes," he said. Theirs was a volatile relationship, yet Rivera knew from early on that Kahlo "was the most important fact in my life and she would continue to be until she died 27 years later." As for Kahlo, she said, "You deserve a lover who listens when you sing, who supports you when you feel shame and respects your freedom; who flies with you and isn't afraid to fall. You deserve a lover who takes away the lies and brings you hope, coffee, and poetry."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the