7. Emperor Nero and Poppaea Sabina’s break-up might have been the one event that pushed the Emperor over the edge and into insanity
The Emperor Nero was a married man when he first set eyes on Poppaea Sabina. She was regarded by some ancient historians as the most beautiful woman in Rome at the time. Naturally, the Emperor was smitten and soon took her as a mistress. The contemporary sources also noted that Poppaea Sabina was highly ambitious. She had married another man simply to get close to Nero. So, when she became his lover, he persuaded the Emperor to have his own mother Agrippina the Younger murdered. With her out of the way, Nero could divorce his wife and marry Poppaea Sabina.
When they fell out of love, it was brutal – and violent. In the summer of 65, Poppaea Sabina was pregnant with her second child. However, she was determined to leave Nero, some ancient sources say, as the Emperor was spending more time at the chariot races than at home. Nero didn’t take this well. According to one popular account, he attacked her, leading to her death. The end of the relationship pushed Nero into a deep mourning – and some historians believe sent him over the edge into madness. Before long, he was out of control and had transformed into the monstrous tyrant most people known him as.
6. Rachel Donelson and Lewis Robards’s break-up was to haunt a President for years
Lewis Roband doesn’t feature in many history books. But he arguably had a key role to play in American history. Indeed, if he never ended his relationship with Rachel Donelson, Andrew Jackson might never have become President. As it was, the way he broke-up with her and left her life for good almost scuppered the former soldier’s chances of making it to the White House. And even when Jackson became President, that break-up hung over his head all the time. The reason? Roband never finalized the divorce process between him and Donelson – so when she became Mrs Jackson in 1794, she was technically still married.
The messiness of the break-up meant that Jackson’s opponents could target his wife, accusing her of bigamy. It was just one factor in John Adams winning the 1824 election. And even when Jackson finally won the vote in 1828, his opponents continued to brand his marriage as immoral and illegal. Tragically, the stress of it all took its toll on Rachel. She fell ill at the end of 1828 and then died just before Christmas. Jackson was sworn in as President 10 weeks later and he never forgave Adams for digging up the dirt and branding his beloved wife a bigamist.
5. Abraham Lincoln split with Mary Owens by sending her a letter – and then went on to greater things
What if Abraham Lincoln never became President but instead lived a quiet life as modest family man and lawyer in New Salem, Illinois? American history would have turned out very different indeed. And it nearly happened, too. While still a young man, Lincoln agreed to a potential match with a lady called Mary Owens from Kentucky. He had told her sister that he would be open to marriage if Mary ever made it to New Salem – some say Lincoln was half-joking when he agreed to this – and, sure enough, she arrived in the sleepy town at the end of 1836.
Lincoln, being a true gentleman, agreed to see her. The pair even dated for a while. However, ‘Honest Abe’ couldn’t continue with the pretense for long. By the summer of 1837, Lincoln had moved to Springfield to move ahead with his law career. He decided the right thing to do was to break up with Mary. Lincoln sent the young lady a letter claiming she would not like the state capital. He even said that he would not blame her if she walked away from the relationship herself. Lincoln never received a reply. He threw himself into his work and then in 1839, he met Mary Todd, his future wife and mother of his four children. She would be by his side as he embarked on his legendary rise to the top.
4. Caroline Norton and George Norton’s messy divorce had a lasting impact on women’s rights in Britain
The messy end to the marriage of George and Caroline Norton was to have a major impact on women’s rights in Britain, and across the wider world. Caroline, who was born in 1808, married lawyer and politician George when she was just 19-years-old. She was clever and beautiful, while he was an ill-tempered brute, a drunk and a professional failure. He would take his anger and frustration out on his young wife. What’s more, George pushed Caroline to make the most of her beauty and charms to improve their standing in society. By 1836, Caroline had had enough. She broke up with George and demanded a divorce.
George didn’t take the break up well. He took the couple’s three sons and refused to tell Caroline where they were. According to the letter of the law, the children were his ‘property’. What’s more, he even took the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to court, charging that he and Caroline had been having an affair. The court threw out the case. However, Caroline still needed to fight for custody of her children. She even petitioned Queen Victorian herself. Eventually, she succeeded in getting Parliament to pass the Custody of Children Act in 1839 and then, later in life, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1857. Both were landmark pieces of legislation.
3. Julius Caesar and Pompeia’s separation is still an example many modern-day power-hungry politicians follow to this day
Over the centuries, many famous or powerful figures have decided to ditch their partner rather than run the risk of embarrassment. Far from ‘standing by your man (or woman)’, they are ready to break off a relationship if it looks like their partner’s actions might harm their own ambitions. And, as with many things, Julius Caesar led the way. His brutal separation from his second wife Pompeia set a precedent, illustrating how ruthless leaders don’t let love or loyalty get in the way of the pursuit of power.
Caesar wed Pompeia in 67BC, just a year after his first wife had died in childbirth. For a while, it looked like a good union, especially in political terms. But then in the year 62, Pompeia served as the hostess for the annual Bona Dea festival. This was a female-only religious festival to give praise to the ‘Dear God’. This time, however, a young man, a known prankster called Publius Clodius Pulcher, snuck in disguised as a woman. According to the rumors of the time, he was there to try and seduce Pompeia. When he heard of this, Caesar divorced his wife straight away rather than try and defend her reputation. He argued that ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’ – implying that the partner of an ambitious politician needs to be squeaky-clean or risk getting dumped.
2. Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb’s break-up may have caused the great poet to flee England – and go to his death in Greece
George Gordon Byron is widely-acclaimed as one of England’s finest-ever poets. But he might have produced an even greater body of work had it not been for his break-up with Lady Caroline Lamb. The pair had enjoyed a torrid affair throughout 1812, even though Lamb was married to William Lamb, the future Prime Minister. She famously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, and he made no secret of their affair. Neither did Byron keep his decision to break-off their relationship a secret. Lam was heartbroken and humiliated.
Byron didn’t take the break-up well, either. In 1816, he fell into a brief, ill-advised marriage to William Lamb’s cousin. However, by this point, his reputation was in tatters – due in no small part to the malicious rumor his angry former lover had been spreading. Byron saw no option but to leave England, especially when Lamb published a novel based on their affair. He soon ended up in Greece and was killed in 1824 while helping the country fight for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Byron was just 36 when he died – a remarkable life cut tragically short.
1. Julius Caesar cold-heartedly broke up with Cossutia as he began his rise to the top
It’s never been entirely clear whether Julius Caesar married and then divorced Cossutia or they were simply engaged when he broke the relationship off. What is clear, however, is that Caesar was still technically a boy when the pair met and embarked on a romantic affair. He had yet to wear the toga of manhood, while she was a young girl from a good, if not great, family. According to some ancient sources, as soon as Caesar assumed his manly toga, he moved to make her his wife.
In 84BC, Caesar suddenly split up with Cossutia. His father had just recently died and he was looking to the future. Moreover, he was assessing his chances of gaining power while married to a girl from a family that was not novi homines, that is, one which didn’t have at least one Senator to its name. Caesar abruptly ended the union and married Cornelia soon afterwards. Since she was the daughter of four-time consul of the Roman Republic Lucius Cornelius Cinna, the union made much more sense politically and set Caesar on the path to greatness.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: