The Best Couples in History — Valentine’s Day Special


Valentines’ Day is upon us, and that means
two things — First, today is the perfect day to talk about some of History’s most
famous couples, and second, hit the grocery stores tomorrow and all the chocolate on earth
is gonna be on sale. Godspeed, friends. Alright, Let’s do some History. First let’s hop all the way back to Homer’s
Iliad, which sees our hero Achilles react extremely poorly to the loss of his one true
love. And, no, I am not talking about his war-bride
Bryseis, I am talking about his boyfriend Patroclus because of course I am. Their story actually starts long before the
Trojan War — As a child, Patroclus was banished from his homeland of Locris by committing
an oopsy-doopsy manslaughter on one of his friends, and sent across the Malian Gulf to
Phthia to serve as a squire for the young prince Achilles. According to the poet Hesiod, Achilles and
Patroclus grew up together, trained together with the Centaur Chiron, and when news of
the Trojan war came to town, they both noped on out to the Island of Skyros. There, Achilles disguised himself as one of
the king’s daughters, and aaalmost dodged the draft until Buzzkill Odysseus came to
cash in that pesky little PanHellenic Blood Oath. And so our story takes us to the beaches of
Troy, where it seems like nothing happens for 9 straight years and then suddenly everything
happens all at once. You all know the drill, Achilles gets mad
at the most infuriating character in the ancient history, he and Patroclus go to sulk and also
bang maybe, then Patroclus gets dressed up in Achilles’ armor to go fight the Trojans. This works astoundingly well until Apollo
nerfs his spatial awareness, and the ensuing hailstorm of javelins does him in shortly
after. This, of course, sets the plot into act 3,
where Achilles goes justifiably berserk over the death of his person, and murders his way
across the Trojan army until he gets murdered back. War, am I right? Per Achilles’ own request, his ashes were
mixed with Patroclus in the same funerary urn, so that they may be with each other for
eternity. Now, to anybody with basic reading comprehension,
this an extremely touching story of a lifelong love, a story so central to the plot of the
Iliad that the epic literally doesn’t make sense if Achilles and Patroclus don’t love
each other more than life itself. But scholars and historians haven’t always
seen it that way. Now, I partly wanted to talk Patrochilles
because it’s emblematic of how LGBT history can be ignored and even totally rewritten. Heck, in 2003’s Troy, Achilles and Patroclus
are recast as cousins, because the only way the filmmakers could justify their all-consuming
love in a totally-not-gay manner was to make them blood-relatives. And this isn’t limited to Hollywood — Because
if a classicist can look you in the eye and tell you that Sappho’s poems are just Gals
Bein’ Pals, then you know that open acknowledgment of LGBT history is gonna be a little sparse,
even in Ancient Greece, the single gayest locale in history. In conclusion: if you want a good dose of
the ancient OTP, go read The Song of Achilles. #3) Now let’s skip ahead a millennium to
the tale of our favorite Disaster Couple, Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Born into the disaster dynasty that was the
Ptolemaic family, queen Cleopatra of Egypt had previously been the squeeze of choice
for famed womanizer and knife-wound-aficionado Julius Caesar. But for this story, we’re skipping ahead
to the part where Caesar’s adopted heir, Caesar’s favorite general, and some loser
third guy divvied up the Roman Republic between them. Octavian took Italy and the west, and Marcus
Antonius took Greece and the east. Strategically speaking, Cleopatra needed Rome’s
support to keep Egypt independent, and Antony needed Egyptian money and manpower to help
him fund a campaign against the Parthians. Out of convenience alone, Antony’s Eastern
Rome and Cleopatra’s Egypt were a perfect match, and it just so happened that Antony
and Cleopatra got along pretty well too. In the decade after their first meeting, Cleopatra
and Antony fell in love, had three children together, and slowly went about consolidating
their states into a new shiny Romano-Egyptian empire. They established a formal imperial succession
between their children, Antony gave Cleopatra a few Roman provinces, Cleopatra gave Antony
an army that evaporated on first contact with the Parthians, Antony’s political and military
power soon became wildly outgunned by Octavian in the west, and this formerly bulletproof
alliance was starting to buckle under its own weight. Wuh-oh. Undaunted by the impending perils of war with
Western Rome, Antony and Cleopatra hosted an elaborate festival where they awarded their
children with Roman provinces, Egyptian territories, and entire kingdoms yet unconquered. Basically gifting the entire eastern Mediterranean
to one middle-schooler and three toddlers. I shudder to imagine what the baby shower’s
gift registry must have looked like “Yes, so I see here that you’re interested in
buying the island of Cyprus for the royal baby, but unfortunately Senator Lucius has
already purchased it. Could I interest you in a subtler and more
intimate gift, like The Parthenon?” Things really went south at the battle of
Actium against Octavian, where Cleopatra bailed from the fight entirely, and Antony swiftly
followed after. Now, abandoning your entire navy is a less-than
optimal battle strategy, so from there it was pretty clearly game over. Sources from Plutarch to Shakespeare proceed
to squeeze every last ounce of drama out of the defeated couple, with elaborate suicides
and picturesque scenes of dying-in-each-others-arms, but the reality was probably a little less
theatrical. Whether you subscribe to the snake-bite or
not, there’s no denying that the tale of Antony and Cleopatra just bleeds tragedy. Two monarchs starting on top of the world,
only to be crushed by the weight of their own hubris. So for all their genuine love, they are nonetheless
History’s prime disaster couple. Hopping forward one metric Western Roman Empire,
we arrive at the Byzantine royals Justinian and Theodora. Ruling together from the 520s to the late
540s, Justinian and Theodora were the definitive imperial power-couple of the ancient world,
and they oversaw everything from the sweeping reconquest of the western Mediterranean, comprehensive
legal reforms, and an extensive building program. But professional accomplishments aside, it’s
their private lives that raise the most eyebrows. Justinian’s uncle and adoptive father Justin
started as a humble farmer before becoming emperor, and Theodora was the daughter of
a bear-trainer in Constantinople’s chariot-stadium. I’ll be entirely honest, until right now
I didn’t know they had bears involved in the chariot races, but now that my curiosity
has been piqued, I’m dismayed that I’ll never see a real-life Bear-iot race. Anyway, in her early career, Theodora was
an actress, which Romans actually viewed as demeaning, since actor was a byword for stripper
which was a byword for prostitute. Now, it’s worth noting that our best source
for this period is one dude named Procopius, who wrote a handful of accounts about Justinian
and Theodora. Most of them are fairly straightforward and
praiseful, but in the Renaissance, we discovered his Secret History, which goes out of its
way to paint the royal pair as duplicitous, malevolent, and extremely slutty. I’m not going to go into details because
I like my monetization thank you very much, but if you’re jonesing for a thrill, go
look up “Secret History, Theodora, Geese”. Now all this historical shade-throwing notwithstanding,
the relationship between Justinian and Theodora was a somewhat unlikely one. Theodora came from a lower class, and her
family wasn’t a political asset, and there was even a law in place to stop high-ranking
officials from marrying actresses. But as soon as the two met, they fell in love,
Justinian axed the law about not marrying actresses, and they became an unstoppable
team. While Justinian focused on the big-picture
imperial business, Theodora managed all of the back-door diplomacy and stopped court
frustrations from sliding into conspiracy territory. Early in their career, when rioting sportsfans
were several days into their quest to burn Constantinople to the ground and Justinian
was making plans to escape, Theodora convinced him to stay and face the crisis. A decade later, Justinian had fallen into
a plague coma and Theodora held the empire together in his absence, and dodged what really
should have been a civil war. After Theodora died in 548, Justinian never
remarried. And though he kept things moving for the last
17 years of his reign, he was never as sharp as when he had Theodora by his side. Between her and Cleopatra, powerful women
in history often get an unfair shake, either treated as footnotes on their husbands and/or
accused of your standard-issue sexual depravity. But regardless, Justinian and Theodora’s
mutual love and support make them one of history’s finest power-couples. And finally, you’ve heard of marrying for
political alliances, but what about marrying your way into a brand-new country, and a world-conquering
empire, at that? Well that brings us all the way up to the
late 1400s, when the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal were wrapping up their
7-century Reconquista against the Moors. In 1469, nice, Princess Isabella of Castile
had subverted the latest of her brother King Henry’s attempts to marry her off to the
prince of Portugal, and instead got herself engaged to her second cousin — heugh — prince
Ferdinand of Aragon. Now an interfamilial pairing like this was
not only icky but explicitly illegal, so Ferdinand and Isabella had to get a formal dispensation
from the Vatican itself. Luckily, the Pope in question was none other
than Rodrigo daughter-banger Borgia, who never so much as blinked at the implications of
incest. So that legal roadblock was cleared with unsettling
ease, and the happy prince and princess patiently waited to assume their thrones. After Henry of Castile died in 1474 and John
of Aragon died in 1479, Isabella and Ferdinand became the sole rulers of the combined Kingdom
of Castile and Aragon, which stretched across Iberia and all the way to Sicily. From there, it was go-time. Following a slew of long overdue reforms to
the economy and justice system, Ferdinand and Isabella began a final push into Granada
to conquer the last Muslim pocket of Iberia. By 1492, they Reconquisted their way to the
fortress of Alhambra. To the delight of geometry teachers around
the world, they preserved the palace and all its Islamic artwork, buuuut they were a lot
less forgiving on a personal level. Jews and Muslims across Spain were forced
to convert or leave, and so the king and queen brought centuries of beautiful religious multiculturalism
to a grinding halt. But as you probably know, that’s far from
the only thing to happen in 1492, as the monarchs financed the transatlantic voyage of famed
Genoan cheesemaker and part-time murderer Christopher Columbus. His voyages opened up the door to a century
of rabid colonization and made Spain fabulously rich — some economists would argue too rich. Though Isabella died in 1504 and Ferdinand
died in 1516, the consequences of their marriage affected… literally almost everything. Their daughter Joanna inherited the Spanish
throne, and proceeded to marry into the soon-to-be-notorious Habsburg family, whose subsequent empire is
inversely proportional to the size of their gene pool. And that is how one frisky family reunion
took Spain from this to THIS. And though I may be disgusted by the context,
I am also quite impressed, because Ferdinand and Isabella are easily one of the most consequential
couples in world history. So, we’ve learned a little bit about history,
but what can these couples tell us about love? I’d say it’s 1) Given some historians
have devoted their entire careers to erasing homosexuality and/or slandering every single
woman in power, always consider whom you choose to take relationship advice from. And Yes I Do see the irony in that. 2) Stay grounded in your relationship, a Roman
province is no substitute for honest affection. 3) Effective communication and teamwork strategies
are a crucial stepping-stone on your path to both a healthy relationship and imperial
glory. And 4) … Uhhhh … — Oh gosh, Ah! Look at the time! It goes so fast when you’re having fun but
that’s all we’ve got here today so I’ll see you next time LATER! Thank you so much for watching! There are obviously many more than 4 famous
couples in world History, so me know some of your personal favorites, and they might
appear in next year’s Valentine’s special. Enjoy the holiday, and go get you some discount
chocolate!

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