Passionate, dramatic, epic: the love story of Anthony and Cleopatra is arguably the most famous and enduring of all time. What sets this story apart from those of other great lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, is that at its heart lies truth: Anthony and Cleopatra did exist, and they did love each other with a burning, consuming passion. Yet their truth has morphed into legend, as so many imaginations through the centuries have been captured by their story and inspired to weave fiction from fact.
So what are the facts, as a starting point?
Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was the last ruler of Egypt, before the country was incorporated into the Roman Empire. She was proud of her Egyptian heritage, seeing herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess. Yet she was not Egyptian through and through: she was of a Greek family who had ruled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great.
Cleopatra was helped to become sole ruler of Egypt by the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, whose mistress she become, bearing his son, Ptolemy Caesar, nine months after their first secret meeting. When Caesar was assassinated, she turned her attention to his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (83–30 BC), who along with two other men had assumed the dictatorship in Rome. Their political aspirations were well-matched, and with Mark Anthony placed in charge of Egypt, he co-ruled with Cleopatra in the pursuit of great power and glory.
Anthony was married four times, latterly to Octavia, the sister of the future Roman Emperor Augustus. Marriage then for leaders was about political alliance, not love; but it was love that brought Anthony to Cleopatra’s side time and again, and she bore him three children. Soon, Anthony and Augustus could no longer see eye to eye, and civil war erupted, which culminated in Augustus declaring war on Cleopatra and declaring Anthony to be a traitor. At the Battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea, Augustus defeated Anthony’s forces, and he fled to Egypt and Cleopatra.
Ruthless ambition and pride had united Anthony and Cleopatra thus far, but now came the moment in history that made this love affair so memorable: the two committed suicide. First Anthony, knowing that he could not escape Augustus’s reach and believing that Cleopatra had already taken her life, stabbed himself in the stomach. As he lay awaiting death, however, he learned that his love was alive, and he was brought to her – to die in her arms. After the burial rites, Cleopatra then chose to join him in death, through the poison of an asp which she provoked into biting her. They are believed to lie together still in a mausoleum near the temple of Taposiris Magna, southwest of Alexandria.
Quite a story, don’t you think? No wonder it has inspired so many creative minds over the years, some sticking to the facts as recorded at the time, but most taking poetic licence to represent the compelling and epic love of these formidable figureheads. Here are just two of the many depictions of Anthony and Cleopatra that have brought so much colour and emotion to our cultural landscapes.
William Shakespeare wrote a tragedy based on the famous lovers, called Antony and Cleopatra and set in Rome and Egypt. It was first performed at the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century. The relationship between the two protagonists underlies all the action, and is based on an angst-ridden combination of passion and manipulation. Power and fame are of absolute importance – and invincibility, which is why, to Shakespeare’s mind, Antony and Cleopatra take their own lives, ensuring that their love will become legendary and that they will be remembered as heroic, noble and sacrificing. Not, in fact, a tragic ending, but one infused with a mastery of one’s fate. So says Cleopatra upon Anthony’s death:
We’ll bury him, and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,
Let’s do ’t after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.
The film Cleopatra, released in 1963, has gone down in history as being absolutely epic, the most expensive and ambitious movie created to that point (it cost 44 million dollars to make, and despite being the highest-grossing film at the box office that year, it did not make a profit and plunged 20th Century-Fox into a financial quagmire). It’s a sumptuous, grand, dramatic biography of Cleopatra’s life, and most especially her love affairs with Caesar and Anthony.
It is the relationship with Anthony that really stands out, however, for the chemistry between the actors is so fiery. Here’s a snippet of one of their scenes:
Cleopatra: You come before me as a suppliant.
Antony: If you choose to regard me as such.
Cleopatra: I do. You will therefore assume the position of a suppliant before this throne. You will kneel.
Antony: I will what?
Cleopatra: On your knees!
Antony: You dare ask the Proconsul of the Roman Empire?
Cleopatra: I asked it of Julius Caesar. I demand it of you!
The spark so evident on screen was compelling because it was burning brightly off screen too. While filming Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton engaged in an adulterous affair that created an almighty scandal; as Vanity Fair put it, “Never before had celebrity scandal pushed so far into global consciousness”. One wonders what the real Cleopatra would have made of that. I imagine, somehow, she would have been undaunted, her head held high.
What do you make of Anthony and Cleopatra’s love story? Is it a story of love, in fact, to inspire us, or one of power plays and possession and lust? I would love to hear your thoughts.
‘Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.
Layla, I’m begging, darling, please.
Layla, darling, won’t you ease my worried mind.’
So sang Eric Clapton. ‘Layla’ is widely heralded as one of the greatest rock love songs of all time, but do you know the story behind the music?
The inspiration for ‘Layla’ is a very old tale, that of unrequited love in 7th-century Persian. It is a story that has been inspiring creatives for centuries, having been popularised by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Here are just some of the artworks it has inspired:
The story of Layla and Majnun is, as English poet Lord Byron put it, ‘the Romeo and Juliet of the East’. Various versions exist, but at the core of each is a love that cannot be.
A young man named Qais ibn Al-Mulawah (known as Qays) fell in love with a young lady named Layla: deeply, irrevocably, hopelessly in love. He put his all into wooing Layla, and she reciprocated, falling in love with him. But he became so obsessed by Layla that locals dubbed him Majnun, meaning madman. Consequently, when Majnun finally plucked up the courage to ask Layla’s father for her hand in marriage, he refused, on the grounds that Majnun was a crazy, and thus unsuitable, suitor. Against her wishes, Layla was married off to a wealthy merchant, and a heartbroken Majnun fled the village, to wander the wilderness, murmuring love poems to an audience of wild creatures.
Like Romeo and Juliet, the ending is a sad one. Layla died first, of a broken heart, and Majnun then died of grief at her tomb, after inscribing into a rock:
I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla And I kiss this wall and that wall It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart But of the One who dwells within them.
Another version of the story has the star-crossed lovers meeting at school. Majnun would be beaten for paying attention to Layla rather than his studies, but for each stroke it was Layla, somehow, who would bleed. When their families discovered the powerful and mystical link between the two, a feud sprang up. As the two reached adulthood, their union was forbidden. Majnun ended up fighting Layla’s controlling brother and killing him (shades of Tybalt). To save Majnun from being stoned to death for this crime, Layla agreed to marry another man, while Majnun was exiled. But as time wore on, Layla pined for Majnun, and her new husband was jealous. He decided to remove the threat, and he rode into the wilderness, found Majnun and stabbed him in the chest. At the moment of Majnun’s death, Layla’s heart stopped beating too.
To this day, each June newlyweds and those who are betrothed come to the village of Binjaur in the state of Rajasthan, India, to pay homage at what legend tells is the tomb of Layla and Majnun, a symbolic place representing love and union – for the two are remembered together eternally in the afterlife, where madness and feuding cannot touch them.
In a new series of blogs, I will be exploring the great love stories of history, both real and imagined by poets, playwrights and authors.
I am starting today with one of my favourite stories, whose legend has endured for almost a millennia, that of Abelard and Héloïse. It is a true story dating back to the 12th century.
Héloïse was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Her wide knowledge and intelligence made her nominatissima, ‘most renowned’, in Western Europe. Young scholars require tutelage, and so it was that in 1115, as a young woman (some say as young as seventeen, others argue she was in her early twenties), Héloïse came to be a student of the well-respected Parisian teacher and philosopher Pierre Abelard.
It was a meeting of brilliant and bright minds, and the two quickly fell deeply in love. Abelard convinced Héloïse’s uncle and guardian, Fulbert, to let him move into their home, where he would tutor Héloïse. A passionate, but illicit, affair began, the culmination of which was Héloïse falling pregnant. She was whisked away to Brittany to stay with her sister for her confinement, and once the baby – a son named Astrolabe – was born, she returned to Paris.
Fulbert, understandably, was enraged upon discovering the affair, and to appease him Abelard proposed marriage to Héloïse, but a secret marriage, for he worried the move would affect his prosperous career. Secrets have a way of getting out, however, and in this case Fulbert was the perpetrator: he began telling people of the ‘secret’ marriage.
Indiscretions were not tolerated in the 12th century, and the repercussions were grave: ultimately, a group of Fulbert’s friends attacked Abelard one night and castrated him. Full of shame, Abelard turned to the monkhood, donning his robes at the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. The heartbroken Héloïse, meanwhile, took the vows of sisterhood as a nun – reluctantly, it must be said, although she accepted her fate, becoming prioress, eventually, at the Oratory of the Paraclete in Champagne.
You may be wondering, what makes this love story endure? So far it has been no more than a thwarted illicit affair. It is what comes next that has made the story of Abelard and Héloïse go down in history: the two lovers began a correspondence by letter that has stood the test of time – passionate and intelligent debate captured forever in ink and paper.
These are not mere love letters, however, for the story of Abelard and Héloïse is, ultimately, a tragic one. Abelard repudiates their love, their relationship, recasting it as sinful lust and directing Héloïse to turn away from him, to God. Poor Héloïse! Modern-day academics have suggested that Abelard’s harsh, somewhat arrogant take on their relationship at this point may in fact be a deliberate attempt by Abelard to protect Héloïse. In his book Abelard & Heloise (Hacket, 2007) William Levitan writes: ‘Here the motive is part protective…for Abelard to take all the moral burden on himself and shield, to the extent he can, the now widely respected abbess of the Paraclete.’
Whatever the truth of their feelings in the end, the two lived out their lives apart – celebrated for their learning, yet alone. After their deaths, however, their bones were laid side by side. In 1817 their remains were moved to the Père Lachaise Cemetery:
Ever since, people have paid homage to the lovers at their tomb. Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad:
[A]mong the thousands and thousands of tombs in Pere la Chaise, there is one that no man, no woman, no youth of either sex, ever passes by without stopping to examine… This is the grave of Abelard and Heloise — a grave which has been more revered, more widely known, more written and sung about and wept over, for seven hundred years, than any other in Christendom save only that of the Saviour. All visitors linger pensively about it; all young people capture and carry away keepsakes and mementoes of it; all Parisian youths and maidens who are disappointed in love come there to bail out when they are full of tears; yea, many stricken lovers make pilgrimages to this shrine from distant provinces to weep and wail and “grit” their teeth over their heavy sorrows, and to purchase the sympathies of the chastened spirits of that tomb with offerings of immortelles and budding flowers.
Mark Twain went on to tell the story of Abelard and Héloïse in his own imitable way, culminating in a scathing judgement passed on the ‘dastardly seducer’ Pierre Abelard (you can read it for yourself at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/innocents/chapter15.html). Unromantic, certainly, but with the ring of truth to it: Abelard hardly comes across as a kind and loving man. But in legends, the details are often not important; what matters is sentiment. Tragedy, in fact, as with Romeo and Juliet. Had Abelard and Héloïse eloped together and lived a long and happy life, no doubt nobody would visit their graves.
Over the centuries, the story of Abelard and Héloïse has inspired many creatives, from artists (the painting above is by English artist Edmund Leighton) to poets, notably Alexander Pope in the 18th century and Christina Rossetti in the 19th. I love the Rossetti poem, ‘The Convent Threshold’, for its ending, full of hope for reunion – for a happy ever after which perhaps, if you so believe, Abelard and Héloïse found in the next life:
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in Paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.
Ask yourself this: what would your life be like without love stories? No romance novels. No romantic TV series or movies. No daydreaming, even. How would you feel?
I know that I would be! Since I read my first romantic fairy-tale as a young child, I’ve been in love with love stories. Romances make me feel wonderful: uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired, hopeful.
According to recent research by the University of Oxford, a romantic like me may be addicted to love, and so if I were to be cut off from romance, I would experience the feelings of withdrawal.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions for the word ‘addicted’:
- Physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance
- (informal) Enthusiastically devoted to a particular thing or activity
Of course, those of us who adore romance stories consider ourselves in the latter category. Certainly I am ‘enthusiastically devoted’ to dreaming, writing and reading romance.
But could one cross the line into being ‘dependent’ on romance stories?
The University of Oxford study is entitled: ‘Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?’ The researchers set out to consider how love may be viewed as an addition:
‘These phenomena—including cycles of alternating ecstasy and despair, desperate longing, and the extreme and sometimes damaging thoughts and behaviors that can follow from love’s loss—bear a resemblance to analogous phenomena associated with more “conventional” addictions like those for drugs, alcohol, or gambling.’ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378292/)
The New York Post entitled its article on this study ‘There’s a dark side to being a hopeless romantic’ (http://nypost.com/2017/05/10/theres-a-dark-side-to-being-a-hopeless-romantic/). The point is that addictive love can disrupt daily life and have a significant impact on mood and personal growth.
Can an ‘addiction’ to romance stories have the same damaging effect?
I am reminded of Mrs Stuart in Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel Work: A Story of Experience. Upon discovering a room ablaze and a servant just standing there and laughing, she exclaims:
‘She must go, Horatio, she must go! I cannot have my nerves shattered by such dreadful scenes. She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.’
Can romance books turn your brain? Perhaps, if you were to let them. Remember the two definitions of addicted: while there is nothing at all wrong with being ‘addicted’ to romance stories in the sense that you are enthusiastically devoted to them, it is not ideal to be dependent on them, to become so devoted to the romance genre that you confuse fiction for reality.
Any ‘hopeless romantic’ knows, deep down, that while they can completely surrender as they read, giving themselves up to romance, at some point they must close the book. They re-enter a world in which romance is not always quite as readily available and sublimely magical as on the pages of a book (or on the big screen). However, they re-enter that world uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired and hopeful.
The aim, then, with romance: be enthusiastically devoted. Always.
There are so many different ways to express that you love someone; often, though, it can be hard to find the words to encapsulate all the emotion within.
When it comes to declarations of love, however, the words you write in your Valentine’s card need not be entirely your own; over the centuries so many writers and poets have made art of sentiment.
I am a ‘quodophile’: I collect quotes that strike a chord with me, noting them down in a book. For this Valentine’s Day, I am sharing with you my favourite ten love quotations from my collection. I hope these put you in the mood for romance today, and inspire you to tell that special someone how you feel.
If, like me, you love quotations, do follow me on Twitter, where I share my favourite quotes on love, life and the arts each day.