Ancient sculpture with kissing couple. Image credit Paolo Gallo via Shutterstock

Love in Ancient Cultures

While love is a universal emotion, cultures around the world express it differently both verbally and through body language. For some cultures, marriage is synonymous with love. In other cultures, marriage and love are separate concepts, where marriage is a strategic move to improve a person’s life. As well as varying across cultures, the concept of love has changed over time. Since the time of the ancient Egyptians and ancient Romans, concepts of love have existed and were vital to society.


A sculpture Cupid and Psyche, a Roman love story.
A sculpture of Cupid and Psyche, a Roman love story. Image credit Alina Zamogilnykh via Shutterstock

In ancient Rome, spouses were not expected to love each other in the romantic sense most people expect to love their partners today. Similar to other societies at the time, they had arranged marriages to keep the family line going. Marriages were a contract meant to improve an individual’s wealth and status. Though there were some exceptions, men held all the cards when it came to love, sex, and marriage in Rome.

Love poems from ancient Rome found today, were mostly written by men to the women they were having affairs with. Since women were not considered equal to men, many of the men’s love poems had a dark undertone. Defined by the men in their lives, women had little autonomy in ancient Rome and were primarily wives and mothers.


Exquisite portrait of young loving couple with frizzy hair from the Tomb of Ramose in the ancient egyptian necropolis of the nobles at thebes near Luxor, Egypt
An exquisite portrait of a young loving Egyptian couple in the Tomb of Ramose. Image credit mountainpix via Shutterstock

In ancient Egypt, devotion and love went hand in hand. Love was also a concept associated with the afterlife. Although arranged marriages existed, there are stories of people in ancient Egypt marrying for romantic love. Traditionally, in ancient Egypt society, a couple would get married to show their loyalty to one another. Both people in the marriage, the man, and the woman were equal partners and also considered to be in a friendship.

While feelings could change and divorce was not uncommon, infidelity was not socially acceptable. Love and loyalty to your current partner were qualities held in high esteem. Poetry found from ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE), talks about romantic lovers. In ancient Egypt’s poetry and literature, partners referred to each other as sister and brother. This was not meant literally but rather to demonstrate how both partners were equal. However, in noble families, sometimes siblings did marry to keep power within the family.


Mosaic of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most tragic Greek love story.
Mosaic of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most tragic Greek love story. Image credit Pres Panayotov via Shutterstock

Today people use the word love for a variety of things from their feelings towards their partner to a new shirt. While English does not distinguish between different types of love, the ancient Greeks did. The Greeks used specific words for different types of love. The Greeks had six different words in place of the English word love. Eros described sexual passion, philia described friendship, ludus described playful love, agape described selfless love, pragma described mature love, and philautia described self-love. Overall, this provided a balanced view of love.

The ancient Greeks did not expect to rely solely on a lover for their entire fulfillment of love, since they considered all types of love. Each different type of love came from different relationships. For example, philia, or friendship, was a love that came from friendships. This contrasts with today’s western view of love, which expects all love to come from one partner.

There were also many Greek philosophers who wrote about love. One of the most well-known is Plato. Plato wrote the Symposium, the book that started the notion of soul mates. Romantic love such as this, however, was not expected in a marriage. In ancient Greece, the discussion around soul mates and romantic love often centered around men’s extramarital homosexual relationships.


Ancient Babylonia and Assyria sculpture from Mesopotamia
An ancient Babylonia and Assyria sculpture from Mesopotamia of two people holding hands. Image credit Andrea Izzotti via Shutterstock

Ancient Mesopotamia society took place in what is today known as Iraq. Because of the security of marriage, ancient Mesoptami held marriage and love in high esteem. Arranged marriages were normal as were bridal auctions. Marriage was a legal contract between two families, rather than a romantic ceremony.

Children, not romantic fantasy, were the goal of marriage in ancient Mesopotamia society. If a couple were unable to conceive, the man could take a second wife. Although the ancient Mesopotamia norms of love and marriage are different than the norms of today, there are letters, inscriptions, paintings, and sculptures that show a genuine connection between couples.

Today the western ideal is love for love’s sake, where, similar to the ancient Egyptian view, partners are equal. Concepts of love and marriage have transformed over time and will continue to change. Learning about love in ancient cultures is an opportunity to reflect on how the concept of love has changed and what it might look like moving forward.


More in History