The 10 Greatest Love Stories in History
Love is a tricky business. Many of life’s greatest joys stem from finding a powerful connection with someone and sharing in their passions and interests. However love can also lead to crippling sadness and despair when things don’t go as planned. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most epic and famed love stories that have taken place throughout history in both real life and myth.
1. Romeo and Juliet
Of course it would be difficult to begin such a list without Romeo and Juliet, whose famous and doomed tale of love and devotion has become somewhat of an anthem for tragedy. Written by William Shakespeare and based on a previous Italian fable, “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet”, this story tells the tale of two love-struck teenagers, whose incredibly passionate and unending love is hindered due to a long-lasting and petty feud between their two families.
Their powerful love for one another, however, proves too strong to be thwarted, and they choose love and ultimately death over the thought of endless separation. A variety of unfortunate circumstances lead to Romeo believing (falsely) that Juliet is dead, which leads to him ingesting poison to end his misery. After Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead, she ends her life with a dagger.
Although ultimately a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another is both moving and inspirational, and their untimely deaths result in reconciliation between their two families (although most would agree that this comes a bit too late). Romeo and Juliet was by far one of Shakespeare’s most popular and moving works, along with the acclaimed “Hamlet”.
2. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony
Although Romeo and Juliet was a masterful work of fiction, epic love stories do exist in real life as well, which brings us to Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Falling in love at first sight, these two became inseparable and powerful partners-in-crime. One could even say they were one of the very first power couples—ruling over both Rome and Ancient Egypt and dramatically increasing the breadth and scope of Egypt’s regional dominance.
The story, according to Plutarch’s famous text “Lives”, takes place in both Rome and Egypt during the Sicilian revolt and the final War of the Roman Republic. Mark Antony, one of the Triumvirate rulers of the Roman Empire at the time, was said to have spent days on end with Cleopatra—often refusing to leave her side even for a moment.
The end of the tale, which would be rude to divulge, ends in tragedy for both Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and proves once more that sometimes relationships plagued with too much intensity and passion can be a deadly mix.
Shakespeare was so inspired by the tale that he adopted a version for the stage, with the first performance taking place in 1607 at the Globe Theater in London.
3. Lancelot and Guinevere
This epic tale begins in a way unlike many similar romantic stories. Instead of a handsome and charming Lancelot quickly falling for a stunningly gorgeous Queen Guinevere, and a stunningly gorgeous Queen Guinevere in turn falling right back, Guinevere was initially hesitant to reciprocate Lancelot’s constant advances, due mostly to the fact that she was happily married to the mighty King Arthur at the time. Thus, although Lancelot was indeed a charmer, their love was slow to evolve, and it took everything in Lancelot’s power to eventually win over his dream-girl. Complicating matters further for Lancelot was that he was King Arthur’s most illustrious and trusted knight—making his constant devotion and obsession with Guinevere all the more inappropriate and challenging.
As is the case with so many of history’s greatest love stories, however, this one too ends in tragedy (although with a slightly happier ending than Romeo and Juliet’s tale). King Arthur, upset with his wife’s actions, one night raids Guinevere’s room flanked by twelve knights to find her and Lancelot in bed. Flying into a blind rage, King Arthur immediately orders Guinevere to be burned at the stake. In the final hour, however, the heroic Lancelot swings into action and rescues his unfortunate lover.
4. Tristan and Isolde
The next on our list once again mixes great romantic joy with deep sadness. The tale of Tristan and Isolde, which has taken on a variety of different forms through different mediums, takes place during King Arthur’s reign as well.
When King Mark of Cornwall sends his handsome nephew, Tristan, to go pick up his new bride—the stunning Isolde—from Ireland, Tristan can’t help but fall maddeningly in love with her. The two spend the entire voyage back to their unknowing King confined to their cabin talking of marriage.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, King Mark finds out about their affair, and although the King is indeed upset with the news, he treats Tristan more leniently than would be expected for committing such an act during the Middle Ages, and simply banishes Tristan from Cornwall—sparing him what would have been an untimely and painful death at the stake.
No matter the physical distance between them, however, Tristan was never able to overcome his love for Isolde, and he eventually died of grief over their separation.
5. Paris and Helen
Originally told through the lens of Homer’s epic “Iliad”, the story of Paris and the seductive Helen combines what many believe to be fact and fiction.
It is likely true that Helen existed and was incredibly gorgeous, and it is likely true that her marriage to Paris was one of the first and most prominent causes of the Trojan War. It is less known, however, just how their love came to be, and how far Paris went to protect Helen after their love became an object of derision.
The two lovers “met”, fictionally of course, after the Greek god Zeus appoints the Trojan prince Paris to judge a beauty contest, in which Aphrodite is featured. In order to sway Paris’ crucial vote in her favor, Aphrodite offers him the love and devotion Helen—the most reputable and beautiful woman in the world. Paris immediately accepts this thinly veiled bribe and declares Aphrodite the winner while taking his prize. Sadly, this leads to Helen being kidnaped—sparking a vicious war between the Greeks and Trojans.
6. Orpheus and Eurydice
Our next tale comes from the world of Ancient Greece as well, and involves—as always—a mixture of love and pain. Orpheus and Eurydice meet, immediately fall in love and get married. However Hymen, the god of marriage, refuses to bless the union, which sets the newlyweds on a disastrous trajectory. Immediately following their wedding, Eurydice decides to take a stroll and gets bitten by a poisonous snake—prompting Orpheus to run to her aid. Instead of treating the wound, however, Orpheus reacts to her predicament in a wildly unhelpful way: by playing music. This, unsurprisingly, is not a success, however it leads to Orpheus traveling to the underworld in an attempt to bring Eurydice back to life.
Although a deal is struck that allows Eurydice to return to the mortal realm, it involves a promise from Orpheus that he won’t look at her as they they ascend from the underworld. Tragically, Orpheus is overcome with temptation and sneaks a peak—sending Eurydice back to the underworld forever.
7. Napoleon and Josephine
Not all great relationships start with both sides falling immediately in love. Sometimes love is slow to evolve, as was the case with Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon, initially interested only in the increased amount of power and influence the wedding would provide (Josephine was incredibly wealthy and well-connected), eventually became enamored with his bride, whose subtle but very distinct beauty became a source of great inspiration for the young emperor.
Josephine, although initially hesitant about the union as well, eventually reciprocated Napoleon’s love. Of course life is complicated, and even though they loved one another dearly, both were unfaithful throughout their entire relationship. Their mutual love and admiration, however, never seemed to fade. Sadly, Josephine was unable to provide Napoleon with an heir to the throne—prompting them to amicably part ways while keeping one another in their thoughts.
8. Odysseus and Penelope
In one of the most notorious tales of Ancient Greek love, Odysseus and Penelope showed the world that love truly knows no distance in either time or space. The couple, after having been separated for over twenty years after their marriage, overcame and resisted an endless stream of temptations to be unfaithful—including over one hundred eager and handsome suitors for Penelope and the illustrious, gorgeous, and torturous sirens for Odysseus.
In fact, Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus during his prolonged absence was so powerful and garnered so much respect that her name has become somewhat synonymous with devotion and marital fidelity. And her incredible grace, intelligence, beauty, and kindness made her the perfect match for Odysseus.
9. Pocahontas and John Smith
There’s almost always a certain degree of controversy when it comes to a truly great love story, although our next story might take the cake. As the tale goes, Pocahontas, the beautiful daughter of the powerful Algonquin chief Powhatan, falls deeply in love with John Smith, an Englishman who seems to have reciprocated her love almost immediately.
Their relationship, however, was wildly upsetting for Pocahontas’ father, who had spent years trying to drive the English settlers off Native land. His marked disapproval led to the capture and ultimate torture of Smith, whose talks of reconciliation were ignored.
Pocahontas did not give up on her new love, however, and pleaded with her father to release Smith—almost certainly saving his life by throwing herself between Smith and his attackers.
Although some people call into question the authenticity of this tale, it is doubtlessly one of the most inspiring and moving love stories of all time.
10. Marie and Pierre Curie
Some great love stories have to do more with a love for the mind than a love for the flesh, as was the case with Marie and Pierre Curie—two physicists who would spend their days working, reading, and discussing the world together. Pierre had his mind set on marrying Marie from the moment they met, and although Marie found Pierre to be attractive she was initially hesitant to wed, due to concerns over how this would affect her herculean work habits.
After finally marrying in 1895 they began a scientific partnership that enthralled those both within and outside the scientific community. In 1898 the industrious couple had one of their greatest breakthroughs when they discovered both plutonium and radium—two elements that would have a vast influence on the future of humanity due to their massive energy potential. Unfortunately, while these elements can indeed provide a great societal service, they can also bring great destruction through their use in atomic weapons. It’s safe to say, however, that the positive aspects of Marie and Pierre Curie’s contributions to the world outweighed the negatives.
Marie won Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry—the second of which was not shared with her husband only because he had died—yet despite their notoriety and fame they were incredibly poor their entire lives, choosing to spend practically all of their money on scientific experimentation rather than physical comfort.
It’s clear that although the means and circumstances surrounding some of the world’s greatest love stories have changed significantly, certain themes have been constant throughout history. Despair and death seem to plague these tales in a way that makes many of them bittersweet and cautionary. However they all should ultimately inspire people to take risks when it comes to finding love. Nothing ever worth having comes easily.