In 333 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Darius III at the Battle of Issus.
In the chaos of the battle, Darius fled in his chariot. The Macedonians captured his camp, including Darius’ mother, his wife – who, according to Arrian, was also his sister – and his two daughters.
Later, Darius sent ambassadors to Alexander, offering money, lands, and one of his daughters in marriage – in exchange for the rest of his family.
Alexander replied that he didn’t need Darius’ money, that the lands were already his, and “if he wished to marry the daughter of Darius, he would marry her, even though Darius refused her to him… When Darius heard this answer, he despaired of coming to terms with Alexander, and began to make fresh preparations for war.”
Notably missing from the discussion between Alexander and Darius is any consideration of what the lady wanted. Was Barsine, daughter of the Persian King of Kings, happy with this plan? Whatever the answer is, it didn’t seem important enough to be mentioned in the histories.
Barsine was married to Alexander as part of the Susa weddings, a mass wedding ceremony meant to unite Macedonian and Persian civilizations by marrying Alexander and his officers to a total of 80 noble Persian women.
Alexander’s officers weren’t lost in unending marital bliss; far from it – all except one of them divorced their Persian wives after Alexander’s death at age 32.
Even leaving the sister-marrying Darius aside, then, it seems like the concepts of love and romance have changed a bit since the times of Alexander the Great.
How to woo a Dravidian
When I was first dating Morena, she used to say “You never act romantic!”
Romantic? I wasn’t sure what she meant. I pictured a guy in a blazer, sitting in a dimly-lit, mid-priced Italian restaurant, talking about his feelings. Rom-coms. Ugh. Surely nobody did that in real life.
“But you’re a writer…” she’d say. “Say something romantic!”
“Descriptions of female beauty aren’t interesting to me,” I’d reply.
Morena would say “I love you.” I’d go to the market and buy her a kilo of chicken wings. Or, more accurately, I’d buy the pack of 2 kilos, and give half of them to her to take home.
Love languages: ours were different.
To be fair, she was a student in those days, and didn’t have much money for food. You can’t eat “words of affirmation” for dinner, can you?
Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about love and romance back in the day. What did guys do to win over women before blazers and mid-priced Italian restaurants?
Did Alexander the Great give his concubines and captured wives giant bouquets of flowers? Or make long speeches about their beauty?
I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a romantic comedy all the way through. But maybe the old books I was always reading would give my introverted self some tips about how to “be more romantic”.
Or at least some idea of what “romance” means – and how it fits in the modern world.
Love in the Bible
The Bible has a lot to say about love – and sex, of course.
“Let all that you do be done in love.”
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“Do not have sexual relations with any of your father’s wives, for this would violate your father.”
Some translations actually say “uncover the nakedness of your father” instead of “violate your father”. Either way, it sounds pretty gross.
Also – this is few hundred years before Alexander – we have this gem from the Old Testament…
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.” – Exodus 22:16, New International Version.
I can just imagine the men of ancient Israel lusting after the virginal daughters of goatherds and fishermen. Sneaking off with them, perhaps, for a quick romp in the olive groves in the afternoon.
What was the going rate for virgins in Biblical times?
Elsewhere, the Book of Deuteronomy names the “bride price” as 50 pieces of silver. Apparently a piece of silver was roughly equivalent to a day’s wages, at the time. What else you could have gotten for 50 silver coins is not certain – they certainly didn’t have iPhones back then – but according to Wikipedia, it would be the equivalent of a few hundred dollars in today’s money.
Anyway, Jesus was betrayed for thirty, and he was the messiah.
Thirty shekels is a weekend trip to Whole Foods, in other words. And for just a bit more, you could have a new, almost-virgin bride. How romantic.
Love on the Steppes of Mongolia
In Genghis Khan’s time, bride kidnapping was popular.
The eventual Khan’s mother, Hoelun, in fact, made her place in history only after being kidnapped by Yesügei. Because of her beauty and signs of fertility she was made Yesügei’s primary wife, and gave birth to five children, one of whom, Temujin, was later to became known as Genghis Khan.
But not before his own wife was kidnapped. After an arrangement between their fathers made when Temujin was nine and his future wife Börte was 10, the two spent several years apart, finally marrying in their late teens.
Börte’s dowry was a black sable jacket. Those you can get for around 10,000€ in today’s money.
Shortly after the wedding, though, disaster struck. Börte was kidnapped by the Merkit tribes. Temujin weighed his options, and eight months later, he and his tribe went to kidnap her back. Temujin found Börte in the midst of the pillaging and plundering. They fell into each others arms, and the rest is history.
Later, Temujin would exterminate the Merkits and enslave their women. It’s not exactly a mid-priced fettuccine alfredo, or a bag of chicken wings, but I’m sure Börte was grateful for the romantic gesture.
(“Would you commit genocide for me?” “Of course, baby. Of course I would.”)
Temujin went on to become the Khan, and had several other wives, as well as many concubines, before dying in 1227 AD. Today, it is estimated that he has 16 million direct descendants – one in twelve men in Asia carry his Y-chromosome.
He clearly loved Börte, according to the historical accounts – and others as well. One of his loves, Yesugen, once told the Khan, “my elder sister, who is called Yisüi, is superior to me: she is indeed fit for a ruler.”
Not one to be tied down, the Khan married them both. A fear of commitment, perhaps? This was long before Freud and psychoanalysis.
I wonder how the Khan talked to his wives, late at night, in the comfort of the imperial tent. Did he reveal his innermost feelings? Whisper sweet nothings in their many ears? Or was he a cold-hearted psycho in love, just as on the battlefield?
The modern biography Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World doesn’t have much to say about Temujin’s sensitive side.
So far, my search for romantic advice in history books wasn’t going very well.
What about Pride and Prejudice?
Great love story, right?
The Penguin Classics edition was just five bucks on Kindle, so I picked it up.
Ten minutes later… God I hate this book. I hated it in high school and I hate it now.
Here’s the basic plot: a bunch of rich people sit around for several months doing nothing but judging each other about the quality of their relations and other classist nonsense. The younger women are looking for rich husbands so that they can avoid the horror of working for a living – to even be associated with someone who works for a living is more than a bit embarrassing.
After many inane conversations in drawing rooms, the very rich and handsome Mr Darcy decides he wants to marry Elizabeth Bennet, proposing to her and reacting thusly when rejected:
“Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? – to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”
In other words, he likes her, but she’s not on his level, and he’d be embarrassed to be associated with her family. She turns him down, at first. But then she changes her mind, and says yes to his second proposal, despite what he’s just said about “the inferiority of her connections”. Yipee. Love triumphs over all!
I guess I don’t “get” Pride and Prejudice.
There may be some proto-feminist message in the idea of “spirited, unconventional country girl attracts tall, handsome, rich guy from the city”. But that doesn’t do much for the masses of people in those days who were working in the fields, or sending off their children to serve on the estates of the idle rich.
You can’t even respond “well, that’s just how things were back then” because the whole story is in every moment about the lives of the top 1% of that society – at most, it’s representative of how gender relations worked for a tiny minority of lazy aristocrats, not British people as a whole.
Also, I always thought the conclusion to Pride and Prejudice was a bit nauseating.
Elizabeth doesn’t like Darcy when he’s glowering and acting like he’s better than everyone, but eventually it turns out it’s not an act at all – he really does consider himself to be better than everyone, but he likes her anyway – and that’s when she falls in love.
Maybe I’m missing something, but love stories of the wealthy and talentless don’t do much for me. Guess I’m no Jane Austen myself, though, so I shouldn’t talk.
Also, I’m getting nowhere here, as far as understanding the true meaning of love and romance.
I’m not a wealthy British aristocrat. You’re probably not a wealthy British aristocrat either. So what’s the action step?
For now, let’s move on…
How about Shakespeare?
That Shakespeare guy sure thought a lot about love.
We probably shouldn’t talk too much about the fact that his most famous character – Prince Hamlet – drove his girlfriend to suicide with his erratic behaviour.
Or that his best love story involves two teenagers who barely knew each other killing themselves after a few days of infatuation.
Anyway, I hear he wrote some good love poetry. Let’s see…
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.Shakespeare. Sonnet LVII.
Gross. It’s all about sitting around waiting for your girlfriend to call, except it takes place centuries before telephony. So, sitting around waiting for your girlfriend to dispatch a courier with a handwritten note, I suppose. I don’t know. Maybe a carrier pigeon.
Either way: get a life, Will!
There’s no shortage of women out there. Find one who has more time to hang out.
Okay. History and literature still aren’t helping me to understand the mysteries of love, sex and romance.
So let’s try a different angle here.
Sex and love in the third and 21st centuries…
Morena’s native Indian culture is very puritanical these days, but that wasn’t always the case. There’s a fair amount of sexiness in the ancient Hindu texts.
For example, the Kama Sutra says “though a man loves a girl ever so much, he never succeeds in winning her without a great deal of talking.”
That hasn’t changed much, despite the almost 2000 years since its writing.
However, a lot of people these days meet for the first time on dating apps, in which their first impression is through a picture. It takes about a second to decide whether to swipe left or right on someone you haven’t met. Afterwards, if you’ve swiped left, they have no second chance to charm you with their unique personality.
According to the Kama Sutra:
“Now, good looks, good qualities, youth, and liberality are the chief and most natural means of making a person agreeable in the eyes of others. But in the absence of these a man or a woman must have resort to artificial means, or to art, and the following are some recipes that may be found useful.”
Interesting use of the word “liberality”. I assume in this case it means “generosity”.
How to win a woman’s heart, Kama Sutra style
What follows is a list of ointment recipes, instructions for using “oil of hog weed” or “lamp black… applied to the eyelashes” in order to make oneself more attractive.
Also, “If the bone of a peacock or of [a] hyena be covered with gold, and tied on the right hand, it makes a man lovely in the eyes of other people.”
And this bit: “If a man cuts into small pieces the sprouts of the vajnasunhi plant, and dips them into a mixture of red arsenic and sulphur, and then dries them seven times, and applies this powder mixed with honey to his lingam [penis], he can subjugate a woman to his will directly that he has had sexual union with her…”
What does the author mean by “subject a woman to his will”, exactly? Sounds sort of toxic.
But he continues, “Or, if, by burning these very sprouts at night and looking at the smoke, he sees a golden moon behind, he will then be successful with any woman; or if he throws some of the powder of these same sprouts mixed with the excrement of a monkey upon a maiden, she will not be given in marriage to any body else.”
Still sort of toxic. Also, how is one to do any of those things while trapped inside a mobile app?
Just finding the monkey poo to fling at a maiden is hard enough for the modern, urban male – and the Kama Sutra offers no digital alternatives. Should I make friends with a zookeeper? I don’t know.
Maybe it’s time to change tactics, and avoid romance altogether.
Why not get an arranged marriage?
One of Morena’s uncles is in an arranged marriage.
I knew that arranged marriage was a thing out in India, of course. But I didn’t know how prevalent it was until I started asking around. Apparently even today, 90% of marriages in India are arranged by the family.
The uncle’s wife described the situation to me over tea. Essentially, she said “Our fathers knew each other, and we both lived in Oman at the time. They got us together one day, and I thought he was okay, so we got married.”
They’ve been together for about 30 years now, and live in Dubai with their two sons. They seem to be as happy as anyone else.
“I thought he was okay,” though. Pretty romantic, huh?
Of course, arranged marriage isn’t forced marriage. The young people are brought together to see if they like each other. But it’s brief. Just long enough to decide if someone’s “okay”, I guess.
Basically it’s the opposite of our western concept of dating, courtship and marriage: rather than first getting to know someone and then deciding whether or not you want to marry them, you marry someone and then get to know them, starting on the honeymoon.
One imagines that this type of marriage would benefit from lowered expectations: rather than “you complete me” it’s more like “Well, here we are. Let’s find a way to live together.”
And apparently, arranged marriages (at least in India) are just as successful as “love marriages”. The divorce rate over there is just 1% – and even that’s an increase over what it was a few decades ago.
Are the Indians on to something with the de-emphasis of romance?
For several years I’ve thought that the idea of “finding your soulmate” isn’t helping people, sentimentally, and that having thousands of options on Tinder is not encouraging anyone to stay in a long-term romantic relationship.
Okay, so what is “romance”, anyway?
Anthropologists have suggested that the idea of romantic love is a recent cultural creation.
It’s tied up with the ideas of personal freedom, self actualization, “following your heart”, and the notion that an individual person’s life has a sort of narrative structure.
Ideas like “love conquers all”, “all you need is love”, and “love always wins” are well-rooted in our collective consciousness.
And while they seem to be popular slogans, it’s worth asking: What are they based on? Where do they come from?
Turns out that “love conquers all” is from the Roman poet Virgil, “all you need is love” from the Liverpudlian John Lennon, and “love always wins” is the name of a perfume from Bath and Body Works, currently $17.95 for eight ounces.
Like most pithy slogans, these vague statements about love are not subjected to many real questions about their validity.
I recently wrote a couple of articles about the Spanish Civil War, for example. If love does conquer all, and always win, should we say that love won that conflict? I don’t think so. In a more literal sense, fascism did. Using weapons, not hugs. So I guess Bath and Body Works was wrong.
Other than that, the upper-class Romans of Virgil’s time were usually in marriages of convenience. Their feelings of romantic love were reserved for their extramarital affairs. “Happy Valentine’s Day, honey! I’m going to see my mistress…”
And what about Lennon?
All you need is love, right?
Well, a lot of pop songs seem to be about love. They’re usually a bit cringey – I always feel like I’m listening to some guy’s unrealistic second-date enthusiasm, plus a guitar and drum track.
In other words, “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before, except during the composition of my last album, which has five similarly cringey love songs on it.”
Anyway, the Beatles are darker than they’re usually given credit for – plus a lot of their lyrics were just random phrases they put together while high. Also, current scholarship suggests that, lyrics about love aside, John Lennon was an asshole.
But he understood that the “peace and love” thing was good for sales. He captured the zeitgeist, and in the process, made himself rich. A true “working-class hero”, as he so humbly called himself.
About that zeitgeist, though…
The last several decades have been a time of shocking social change, in matters of love and relationships as well as in everything else.
Let’s keep in mind that for the entirety of recorded history, most people were farmers. Marriage and children are a different proposition if your survival depends on finding or creating people to be unpaid labor on the family farm.
These days, most people live in cities, and we often have welfare states to help us out if family can’t or won’t.
Access to effective contraception, abortion, etc, has made commitment to relationships unnecessary. These days, almost nobody’s going to be forced into a shotgun wedding if their pullout game fails.
So let’s just fool around, and see what happens.
Free love! What could possibly go wrong?
The Beatles were just singing what people at the time were thinking: “all you need is love” certainly sounds more fun than a shotgun wedding, or a marriage based on the economic necessities of subsistence farming.
Plus, all those centuries of religious moralizing about pre-martial sex suddenly seemed quaintly outdated once the girls on your street got on the Pill.
Most of the more serious consequences of practicing your sexual freedom had evaporated more or less overnight – “You mean to tell me that now there’s a CURE for syphilis?”
And the unprecedented prosperity of the 1960s in Europe and America made “fun” seem like a worthy goal for the Baby Boomer generation to pursue.
Seems like a brave new world, but… Are there any downsides to “fun”?
Sure there are.
In fact, we may just be amusing ourselves back into the bad old days.
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
Louise Perry, in her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, proposes that hookup culture – and the liberalizing of sexuality in general – mostly benefits rich guys and horny extroverts.
In modern Western societies, then, while the wealthiest and most photogenic men take their pick of the women competing for their attention, the average guy gets next to nothing, and women’s sexuality is reduced to a commodity.
All this is packaged up as if it were freedom and progress, but that’s debatable – and it’s certainly not progress for everyone.
As the meme about OnlyFans says: “We call it… female empowerment, and they’ll dance naked for the price of a cheeseburger!”
Perry does a better job of explaining the new dynamic than I ever will. Get a copy of her book, or check out her interview on the Modern Wisdom podcast…
You may not agree with everything she says, but it’s worth contemplating her argument.
Dude, where’s my free love?
These days, people shop for a sexual partner on an app, the same way they’d order an Uber Eats. Or – even stranger – they order up the illusion of a sexual partner on Pornhub or OnlyFans.
None of this is what the “free love” crowd of second-wave feminism was expecting, back in the 60s. No, those noble feminist crusaders thought they were creating a utopia where sexually-liberated women would hop right out of the kitchen and into “fulfilling careers“, free from patriarchal oppression.
(If the women back in the 60s had bothered to ask, they might have found out that fulfilling careers are pretty rare, and that most jobs actually suck… but I digress.)
In any case, the whole plan seems to have backfired: a few short decades later, those feminist crusaders’ granddaughters are trying to scrape together tuition money by selling pictures of their butts online.
It turns out that free love isn’t free.
Of course, women trading beauty and sexual favors for money, status and social position is nothing new.
From Jane Austen’s blushing young heroine hanging onto her virginity until a wealthy enough suitor rides into town, to the girls in Sex and the City playing hide the salami with rich guys in Manhattan, it’s a tradition as old as culture itself – probably even older.
And in a way, I think that modern sexual culture is a bit like a return to the old harem days of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan – a Darwinian struggle that most people are losing.
I’m hardly the world’s best feminist – and it shocks me a bit that I’m saying this – but modern capitalism sure is good at finding new ways to turn women’s bodies into commodities to be bought and sold in an online marketplace.
Google around. It’s not bride kidnapping, but it’s also not the liberation we were all promised.
And it’s not like pop culture hasn’t been warning us about some of the problems of free-love dating culture for years. Just look at Mr Big in the aforementioned Sex and the City. Why oh why won’t he just commit to the beautiful and sexually-liberated Carrie Bradshaw?
A better question is why would he?
As a rich guy in a big city, he’s got infinite options for female “companionship”.
Why settle down with just one woman?
Has modernity ruined the age-old art of romance?
Genghis Khan eventually made bride kidnapping illegal within his empire.
Not even the most depraved, Prince Andrew-ish members of modern royal families would be tempted to marry their own sisters like Darius, these days.
In fact, nobody I know has ever been married as part of a “spoils of war” arrangement. And most Western women aren’t explicitly waiting around for a Mr Darcy to whisk them off to a life of leisure.
On the other hand, the paying of a bride price – or a dowry – is still common in many countries.
In India the practice of paying a dowry has been illegal for several decades, but even so, I came back from my Indian wedding with more gold than I know what to do with. Informal gifts, you understand. But if Morena had been marrying a local guy, presumably there would have been an official dowry involved.
Anyway, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t live in India. You’re probably in a much more liberal society, where everyone just does whatever – and whoever – they want. And that’s great.
But you may be looking around and wondering: is romance dead?
It might be. And it’s not just Tinder’s fault. There are a lot of factors contributing to the decline in sex, the rise in divorce rates, and the general lack of commitment to long-term relationships.
And there a lot of downstream consequences to these social changes we haven’t fully grasped yet.
I might talk about some of those another time.
But for now, let’s wrap this up.
How I finally settled down
Eventually, I decided to marry Morena.
For the price of just several hundred kilos of chicken wings, I bought her a diamond engagement ring, and we flew off to India to get hitched.
My reasons were not romantic. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve learned almost nothing about “how to be more romantic” in the last few years.
But I have learned other things. For one: youthful self-indulgence is overrated.
See, I’m no stranger to hookup culture. I’ve used the apps. But what I quickly discovered is that once the novelty of going on a few new dates a week has worn off, you’re stuck with yet another soul-sucking grind. And who needs an extra one of those?
Also, I’ve learned that a lot of times, the zeitgeist is just wrong.
I could list numerous examples, but I’m sure you’ve got your own favorites: times when the popular thing, or the thing the “experts” were recommending, turned out to be a really, really bad idea.
So remember: following the herd is usually not a great choice. But youthful rebellion is often just another type of herd-following.
In other words, be careful who you follow. And think strategically about your life. You might live long enough to regret your youthful stupidity. In fact, I hope you do.
That’s all I’ve got for today. Stay on the path, kids.
Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.
P.S. For other love-and-romance themed articles, check out Sex in Spain, or Dating Spanish Girls, or this one about the Spanish Prostitution Debate. Or if you’re looking for something more serious, try this one about turning 40 and the virtuous life. Enjoy!