Goodbye to all that

The politics of romantic exits

In Plutarch’s Lives, the first-century essayist relays an anecdote in which Cato the Elder expels a man named Manilius from the senate after Cato learns of a deeply immoral act he had committed: Manilius had kissed his wife—that is to say Manilius’s own wife—in public and in front of their daughter. In her biography Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff tells a similar story about Mark Antony, saying that he had been reprimanded for having “openly nuzzled his wife;” of Pompey the Great, she writes that he had “made himself a laughingstock for his indecent habit of falling in love with his own wife.” These stories may make the Ancient Romans sound as if they rivaled the Victorians in terms of physical prudery, but nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, Roman men took pride in their varied and lurid sexual appetites. It was the idea of love—specifically love within a marriage—that aroused their...