The 10 Greatest Love Affairs in History

It’s what makes women wear torturous undergarments and feign interest in preposterous sporting rituals. It’s also what makes men hold dainty purses outside of fitting rooms and suffer through hosts of terrible movies. What could be this powerful? Why, love, of course. We’ve combed through Cupid’s handiwork and selected some romantic pairings powerful enough to influence culture, trigger wars, and spawn international scandals.

1. Antony and Cleopatra



Cleopatra always had a high profile love life. The queen of Egypt, she was the mistress of Julius Caesar, king of Rome, until his assassination in 44 B.C.E. After Caesar’s death, Mark Antony began sharing an uneasy alliance with Gaius Octavian (Caesar’s grandnephew) and army general Marcus Lepidus as triumviral rulers of the Roman Empire. Looking to gain a powerful political ally, Antony invited Cleopatra to Tarsus (in what is now Turkey) in 41 B.C.E. for a meeting that would become legendary. Although she was rather plain looking, Cleopatra had a captivating presence and was known for her intelligence, wit and, at times, ruthless ambition. Antony was charmed instantly and followed Cleopatra back to Egypt. Back in Rome, Octavian was understandably angry, because Antony had previously wed his sister, Octavia, to strengthen his position. He began to view Cleopatra as a greedy temptress who had turned Antony into a helpless puppet. Octavian declared war on the two lovers, which culminated in the Battle of Actium in western Greece in 31 B.C.E. There, Octavian’s naval fleet defeated the joint forces of Antony and Cleopatra, and the pair fled back to Egypt. Octavian, still pursuing sole control over the Roman Empire, invaded Egypt and forced Cleopatra and Antony to surrender.

During the final struggle against Octavian in Egypt, Antony received a false report that Cleopatra had committed suicide. Antony, overcome with grief, thrust a sword into his abdomen. His men carried him to where Cleopatra was hiding, and he died in her arms. Soon after, Cleopatra was taken prisoner. Legend has it she smuggled a poisonous snake into her cell and placed it upon her chest where it delivered a fatal strike. Cleopatra was buried next to her beloved, where they lay together for eternity.

2. Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin



Catherine the Great and her lover, Grigory Potemkin, definitely take the cake for the best “how we met” story. In 1761 Catherine was the wife of Russian Czar Peter III. But after only one year in power, Peter was overthrown (likely with Catherine’s help) and killed (she may have given those orders, too) by the Imperial Guard forces in a coup d’etat. It just so happened that, right about the time Peter was meeting his grim fate, Russian soldier Grigory Potemkin was on guard duty ensuring Catherine’s safety. Catherine, who would become empress only days later, took a liking to Potemkin, despite the fact that he was obese, vain and missing an eye. But Catherine wasn’t exactly known for being picky about her lovers; she had many, but she undoubtedly showed the longest fidelity to Potemkin. By 1771, Catherine had made him an official Russian statesman, a count and the commander of her armies. Although their love affair ended in 1776, Potemkin remained the love of her life. When he died at age 52, Catherine went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

3. Napoleon and Josephine



Napoleon Bonaparte, a ruthless and ambitious soldier in the French military, was captivated the moment he saw Josephine, a charming and beautiful Paris socialite. Napoleon doggedly pursued the widowed, 32-year-old mother of two, but wasn’t immediately successful. Despite being a military genius, he was unkempt and rather homely looking. Josephine eventually had a change of heart, and the two were married in 1796. Shortly after their wedding, Napoleon embarked on a series of military campaigns, while Josephine embarked on her own series of adulterous affairs. When Napoleon received word of this, he became enraged and demanded a divorce. But Josephine begged for his forgiveness, and he relented.

As Napoleon continued to rise in power and wealth, being crowned emperor of France in 1804, he became focused on having a son to carry on his royal lineage. But he eventually came to the conclusion that Josephine was unable to conceive, and the couple divorced in 1809. Less than a year later he married 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria and had a son. But without Josephine it seemed his destiny was cursed. After devastating military losses he was exiled to the island of Elba on May 4, 1814. Josephine, still heartbroken, wrote a letter to Napoleon and asked permission to join him. He wrote back that it was impossible, but Josephine died on May 29 before his letter arrived. In 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to Paris. The first person he visited was the doctor who treated Josephine. When Napoleon beseeched the physician as to why his beloved Josephine had died, the doctor replied that he believed she had succumbed to a broken heart. He then retrieved violets from her garden and wore them in a locket until his death in 1821.

4. Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feoderovna



Young Nicholas II, the future Czar of Russia, fell for the ravishing German princess Alix of Hesse as soon as he saw her. The pair became inseparable and, to the dismay of the royal family, often engaged in public displays of affection. Nicholas and Alex (as he called her) became engaged in 1893. The following year Nicholas’ father died, and, only days later, the young couple was married in a ceremony diminished by the Russian leader’s recent death. Nonetheless, Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra had a happy and passionate marriage. But while they were enjoying lavish royal parties and yacht outings, their countrymen toiled in poverty. During WWI the Russian people suffered greatly, and by 1917 support for the royal family was all but gone. Russians stormed the streets of St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd) in protest and toppled the monarchy. Nicholas and his family were arrested and sent to Siberia. On July 16 of the next year the entire family was executed by the new Bolshevik government, ending the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty.

5. Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. and Anne Spencer Morrow



An American aviator, Charles became famous in 1927 when he made the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. While on a goodwill trip to Latin America later that year he met and began seeing Morrow, the shy, self-conscious daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Their courtship gained international attention, and when the two married in 1929, they became one of America’s first celebrity couples. Anne soon began flying the friendly skies—she was the first licensed female glider pilot in the country—and took to the air with her husband. Together they made history by charting potential air routes for commercial airlines, and they even set a Los Angeles-to-New York air speed record in 1930 when Anne was seven months pregnant. With her beloved husband’s encouragement she wrote memoirs of their life together and became one of the country’s most popular and famous diarists with 13 published books to her credit. But their storybook romance hit a few rough spots, including a few short-lived affairs, and the tragic and infamous kidnapping and murder of their infant first son in 1932.

6. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas



It was love at first sight when Gertrude Stein, 33, met Alice Babette Toklas, 29, in Paris in 1907. Like many great lovers, they met by accident. Stein’s parents had gone to Oakland, Calif., to check on property damaged during the 1906 Bay Area earthquake, where they met Toklas and enthralled her with their stories of Paris. Toklas moved there two years later, met up with Gertrude, and the two women soon began living together. Besides being a well-known avant-garde writer, Stein was a brilliant eccentric with a heavy, unladylike presence. Alice B. Toklas, who worked as Stein’s secretary and cook, was a chain smoker with a slight mustache, given to exotic dress. The pair became inseparable. Their apartment at now-famous 27 Rue de Fleurus became the foremost meeting place for artists and writers like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

7. (Prince) Edward and Wallis Simpson



Edward, the handsome Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, changed the course of his life, as well as that of British history, when he fell in love with Wallis Warfield Simpson—a woman who was not only American, but also married. Edward met Simpson at a party in 1931, hosted by Lady Thelma Furness, a viscountess with whom Edward had conducted a long relationship. Edward was not instantly smitten, but he and the upwardly-mobile Mrs. Simpson traveled in the same social circles, and after many society balls and dinner parties he was slowly captivated by her charm and poise. By 1934, Wallis was separated from her husband, and British Parliament grew increasingly nervous over the relationship. Then, in 1936, Edward’s father died, and he was forced to take his position as king. But his brief stay on the throne only created a media frenzy due to his relationship with Simpson. Miserable, Edward abdicated the throne in a famous radio broadcast in which he told the world that he “found it impossible to carry the heavy burden” of being king without the support of “the woman he loved.” Edward’s younger brother, Albert, became King George VI, and, since the title Prince of Wales can only be held by the eldest son of the sovereign, Edward was made the Duke of Windsor. King George made sure that his brother kept the courtesy title of His Royal Highness, but he also pointedly decreed that should he marry Wallis, she (and any children they produced) would be denied royal status. After Simpson’s divorce in 1937, Edward and Wallis were married in a small ceremony and spent most of the rest of their lives in France.

8. Waties Waring and Elizabeth Avery Waring



The story of Julius Waties Waring and Elizabeth Avery Waring is not just a great romance, it is a great romance that altered the course of America’s civil rights movement. Growing up in Charleston, S.C., Waties Waring was the personification of Old South patrician. In 1941, at the age of 61, he was appointed a federal judge and became a popular member of the Charleston elite. Yet, Waring was already showing signs of dissent: He ended segregated seating in his courtroom and appointed John Fleming, a black man, as his bailiff. But eyebrows were raised even higher when Waring divorced his Southern-born wife of 32 years and married Elizabeth Avery, a twice-divorced native of Detroit. Waties and his new bride found themselves shunned by Charleston society; aside from being a “Yankee,” Elizabeth was disliked because she was seen as inspiring her husband to look at issues of race in an even more aggressive light. Indeed, by the late 1940s, Waties had undergone an astonishing conversion that turned him into an outspoken critic of segregation and champion for racial justice. In fact, it was due to Waring’s key legal influence and court ruling that the segregationists’ “separate but equal” doctrine was declared unconstitutional, laying the groundwork for the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

9. Harry Tyson Moore and Harriette Simms Moore



Harry and Harriette Moore are a relatively unknown yet pioneering couple that helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The two met in 1925 while Harry, 20, was teaching elementary school in Cocoa, Fla., and Harriette, 23, formerly a teacher herself, was selling insurance. The two quickly fell in love and were married within a year. Both strong-willed and compassionate people, the Moores raised a family (they had two daughters) while organizing the first Brevard County Chapter of the NAACP in 1934, championing such causes as equal pay for black teachers. With the support of legendary African-American attorney Thurgood Marshall, the Moore couple became key allies in the movement. By 1941, Harry was the president of the Florida chapter of the NAACP, and his new level of activism took him into the dangerous arena of lynchings and police brutality. At first, Harry’s involvement was confined to letters to government officials, but he quickly began launching his own investigations. Many believed this is what precipitated the attack in 1951 on Christmas Day—also the Moores’ 25th anniversary—when a bomb exploded in their bedroom. Harry died before he reached the hospital; Harriette passed away nine days later from her injuries. Though authorities believe that the Ku Klux Klan was involved, the murders have never been solved.

10. Juan Domingo Peron and Maria Eva Duarte (Evita)



Move over Bill and Hillary, this was the ultimate power couple. Evita Peron, born Maria Eva Duarte, began carving out a perfectly respectable rags-to-riches story when she left her poor family and small town of Los Toldos, Argentina, in 1935 to pursue acting in Buenos Aires. She appeared in vaudeville stage acts and found some success as a radio actress, but her life changed when she met and charmed Juan Domingo Peron, the future president of Argentina, in 1944. After only a year the two were married, and in 1946 Peron was elected president of Argentina. Together the couple helped reform labor and social welfare programs. In addition, Evita established a women’s branch of the Peronista political party, as well as foundations for needy children and the elderly. Indeed, she was one of the most active first ladies the world has ever known, made formal in 1951 when she was asked to join her husband’s election ticket as vice president. The Perons’ political opponents blocked her candidacy, fearing that she could one day become president, but Evita was not bitter. When her husband was inaugurated for the second time in 1952, Evita appeared by his side. But the occasion was bittersweet; she was suffering from cervical cancer and died shortly thereafter. Her husband’s inauguration was her last public appearance.

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The article above, written by Sam Boykin, is reprinted with permission from the May-June 2001 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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You previously printed an article that said that Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were not all that they were cracked up to be and they didn't even get along that well after they were married because Wallis wanted to marry a king, not a duke. So you are effectively contradicting yourself here.
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Strange, isn't it? Both articles were from mental_floss, by different authors. From what I recall, he was madly in love with her, but she wasn't as hot on him. And most affairs burn more brightly in the beginning than over the long haul. Many of these great affairs were people who died young, or in the case of Napoleon and Josephine, eventually divorced.
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