To celebrate the momentous return of the inexplicably popular TV series “Love Island”, we’ve finally caved and decided to watch it. To be honest, we were a little disappointed…Love Island has nothing on the gossip and myths of the ancient world! So, we’ve decided to showcase some of our favourite romantic, sensual and downright naughty stories.
(Content Warning: Salacious Acts, Salubrious Naughtiness and an Unfortunate Amount of Incest)
Carry On Cleo!
By Sarah Hitchens
One of the most famous and controversial love triangles in ancient history was that of Cleopatra and her Roman amoureux, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra was an Egyptian queen whose affairs with Rome’s “most desirable” men have inspired Shakespeare, Hollywood and the unforgettable Carry-on Cleo.
Cleopatra was queen of Egypt and the last monarch of the Ptolemaic Empire. The Ptolemaic dynasty liked to “keep things in the family”, and like her relatives before her Cleopatra was married to not one, but both of her brothers, as well as having legendary affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.
Cleo’s exploits are too extensive to fit into two short paragraphs but our favourite part of the story is definitely her fabled meeting with Julius Caesar.
Cleopatra married her brother Ptolemy XIII, solidifying her claim to the throne ahead of her two older sisters (who would later meet somewhat suspicious, sticky ends). According to legend, Cleopatra heard that Caesar was fond of royal women. So, she rolled herself up in a carpet and was smuggled into Caesar’s bedroom where she “convinced” the enigmatic Roman leader to lend his support to Egypt. When her brother/husband heard what Cleopatra had done, he incited a riot and ended up besieging his sister/wife and her lover. However, Roman reinforcements eventually showed up and Ptolemy’s army were chased into the Nile. Ptolemy was killed in the fighting. Cleopatra claimed that Caesar was father to her oldest son (though Caesar never acknowledged the child).
Cleopatra was then married to her even younger brother Ptolemy XIV, whom was eventually poisoned – probably by Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s final affair was with Roman Triumvirate Marc Anthony. Marc Anthony’s wife Fulvia was less that happy about the match, but was unable to stop the affair! In the end, rather famously, Cleopatra supposedly committed suicide by snake-bite when Augustus Caesar captured Egypt after the Battle of Actium.
A Girl Worth Fighting For
By Classicus Scholarus
You’ve probably heard of Helen of Troy: “the face that launch’d a thousand ships/and burnt the topless towers of Ilium” A.K.A. the most beautiful woman in the world A.K.A. a woman so gossiped about by different Greek authors that it’s impossible to know what’s true and what’s not.
When she was young, she was supposedly kidnapped by Theseus and rescued when her brothers Castor and Pollux invaded Athens. Helen’s life involved quite a pattern of men invading cities to get her back. When it was time for her to marry, many suitors competed for her. Odysseus (who was never a real contender – he hadn’t even brought a gift!) proposed that all her suitors should pledge to support the victor against his enemies. After the pact was made, Menelaus the king of Sparta won and married Helen.
Meanwhile, Eris (the goddess of discord) had been angered because she had not been invited to the banquet celebrating the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (hello there, Maleficent!). She threw into the festivities a golden apple as a prize for “the fairest” to try to cause disruption. Athena, Hera and Aphrodite all tried to claim that they deserved the apple and asked Zeus to judge who was the most beautiful. Zeus refused to choose between them, so asked a mortal, Paris, to judge the contest. Naturally, all three tried to bribe him; Athena offered him skill and wisdom in war, Hera offered him all of Europe and Asia, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world (i.e. Helen).
Paris was not thinking with his brain that day.
After being promised Helen by Aphrodite, Paris visited Sparta “on a diplomatic mission”. Accounts vary on whether Helen was seduced by Paris and willingly ran away with him or whether she was abducted. Herodotus claims she was kidnapped, while the Cypria says that (after giving Helen gifts), Aphrodite brought the pair together. Sappho argues that Helen willingly left Menelaus and their daughter Hermione. To be fair, stay with the guy who won you in a contest after making a pact with his mates, or run away with the guy who won you as a bribe in a contest with a bunch of bickering goddesses? Tough choice.
When he found out she was missing, Menelaus called on Helen’s other suitors to honour their promise and support him in war, including Odysseus and Agamemnon, king of Argos. This started the war between the Greeks and Trojans which supposedly lasted ten years. Ironically, some authors (Euripides, Stesichorus, and Herodotus) claim she never even went to Troy, but was in Egypt for the duration of the war.
Speaking of Agamemnon and the Trojan War…
The Last Bath of Agamemnon
By Juan Candelas Fisac
This is the story of King Agamemnon of Argos, and how he came to a sticky end in the bath, at the hands of his queen, Clytemnestra. Do note that this story is more a love web than a love triangle.
Have you ever heard the saying, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”? To say Clytemnestra was furious was an understatement. Marital turbulence began when Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis in exchange for good winds to carry their war ships to Troy. Yep, that’s right, he murdered their daughter for some wind.
Infanticide is just the beginning of this couples’ problems.
So Agamemnon was not exactly the father of the year, but neither was he the ideal husband, since this immoral king also cheated his wife numerous times during the Trojan War. One of these unfortunate endeavours, recorded by the Odyssey, is the attempt of Agamemnon to sleep with Achilles’ lover, Briseis. Are you keeping track of all these names? (Do you think Agamemnon did?)
The carnal and bloody sins of Agamemnon were paid in kind with a sweet last bath in his home when he came back from Trojan War. Aegisthus, who was taken as a lover by Clytemnestra due to her frustration during the War (yes, an eleventh-hour additional lover!), killed Agamemnon with an axe or sword whilst he was having a bath!
Love, War, and Blacksmithing
By Hannah Drummond
Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, fertility, pleasure and beauty. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when Cronus cut off the genitals of his father Uranus (which then landed in the ocean and created Aphrodite). Like many Greek gods and goddesses, Aphrodite had numerous lovers – both mortal and immortal. Her immortal lovers included the gods Hermes, Poseidon, Ares and Hephaestus.
Aphrodite was forcibly married to Hephaestus by the will of Zeus, who gave her as a prize (!) to whoever could bring Hephaestus to Olympus (he had trapped Hera in a golden throne as revenge for his own ugliness…). Aphrodite agreed, believing that her lover Ares would win. Dionysus suggested to Hephaestus that he go to Olympus, free Hera from the golden throne, and claim Aphrodite for himself. He agreed with Dionysus’ plan and was married after freeing his mother from the throne that he created – which seems a bit like cheating, really.
In the Odyssey Book 8, the bard Demodocus tells the tale of Ares’ and Aphrodite’s love affair after Aphrodite had married Hephaestus. Helios, the sun god, witnessed the affair and told Hephaestus. Hephaestus decided to make a plan and exact revenge upon the two, but this time a golden throne wouldn’t do. Instead, he forged chains that were impossible to break and attached them to his and Aphrodite’s bed. When Ares next visited Aphrodite the chains were triggered and bound the two lovers together. Hephaestus then brought the gods of Olympus to his home to see the two shamed lovers in his bed. When the gods witnessed the two stuck in the chains they laughed, claiming that “Ares must pay an adulterer’s penalty”. Poseidon spoke up for the two lovers and said he would pay the penalty if Ares failed to and Hephaestus, agreeing, released the chains. Shamed, both Aphrodite and Ares fled.
The “happy” ending is that in total Ares and Aphrodite had four children together, but they also both had many children outside of their relationship. Of course.
Two Gods, One Lettuce
By Christopher Bebbington
Ah, the humble lettuce – forefront of the classic salad, and one of the players in a very strange Egyptian “romance”. In any reality TV show, there’s always one contestant who is in it to win at any cost, and for ancient Egypt, that contestant was Seth! The Contendings of Horus and Seth, found in the 20th Dynasty Chester Beatty I Papyrus, tells the story of the Egyptian gods Horus and Seth engaging in a number of trials to prove who was more suited to succeeding Osiris as the king of Egypt.
During the story, Horus and Seth faced challenges before the Ennead of Egypt to prove themselves worthy of kingship; in each challenge, Horus proved superior to his uncle. Ultimately, Seth decided to employ trickery to defeat Horus – he asked Horus to spend the evening at his home, and in the dark of night, he tried to mount his nephew!
Horus caught Seth’s semen in his hands, and ran to his mother, Isis, who was shocked to see what had happened! She took some of Horus’ semen into a pot, and cooked up a scheme for revenge…
The next morning, Isis visited Seth’s garden and asked his gardener what vegetables Seth usually ate. The gardener told Isis that he frequently enjoyed a bit of lettuce, so Isis mixed Horus’ semen in with the lettuce. Seth breakfasted on the lettuce, and enjoyed it as he always did (even with the additional dressing).
When Horus and Seth came before the Ennead, Seth decried Horus as unfit to rule since Seth had “performed the labour of a male” upon him. The Ennead were horrified, but Horus confidently declared that Seth had lied. He told the Ennead to summon forth the semen of Horus and see where it answered from.
The Ennead called forth the semen of Horus, which emerged as a golden solar disc upon his head. Seth was horrified, having been beaten at his own naughty game, and in the end Horus was awarded the kingship of Egypt.
So maybe don’t always eat your greens.
Human society has always been fixated by gossip, sex and sensuality, and this holds true in the ancient world. The immoral activities of gods and mortals in legend, myth and reality create a fascinating tapestry that stretches through time and is certainly more fascinating than who cheated on who on Love Island. Or at least we think so.
Edited by Christopher Bebbington & Elle DeSpretter.