“Antony and Cleopatra * Justinian and Theodora * Ferdinand and Isabella *            William and Mary

Antony and Cleopatra are the archetypal lover-monarchs, They met at a magnificent conjunction of fleets off the coast of modern Turkey in the autumn of 41 BC. Antony was in command of the eastern half of the Roman Empire; Cleopatra ruled over the Hellenistic monarchy of Egypt; they met in order to forge a diplomatic alliance, but became lovers. Their attempt to conquer the East was destroyed by Octavian, but the pair gained immortality with their double suicides, their colorful descendants (Caligula, Nero, and Queen Zenobia), and their leading Shakespearian roles.

The Emperor Justinian’s long reign, which saw the definitive establishment of the Byzantine Empire, was aided by his truste wife, Theodora, who brought a street-fighter determination to the partnership. Her mother had been a dancer and her father a bear-trainer, and she had grown up working in the circuses, brothels, and dance halls of Constantinople.

Ferdinand of Aragon was a womanizing, ruthless warrior-king of Aragon; Isabella, the intellectual heir of the richer but troubled Kingdom of Castile; they were cousins and their marriage began as an elopement. But their long reign was a political triumph, marked by their joint conquest of Moorish Granada (and notorious expulsion of Muslims and Jews) and the lucky patronage of Columbus and the discovery of America, which helped to forge the nation of Spain.

Britain’s most famous joint monarchs were William (of Orange) and Mary (Stuart): A personal union of cousins that ended the Anglo-Dutch naval wars and created a Protestant bulwark against Louis XIV’s expansionist Catholic kingdom of France. Their union allowed them to be ‘jointly offered the throne’ by Parliament when their uncle/father, James II, had been deposed. Mary miscarried their child in the first year of their marriage and was never able to conceive again, but kept an affectionate relationship with her husband, who had just one mistress and one boyfriend–his ex-pageboy Arnold van Keppel (who he elevated to Earl of Abelmarle). The appeal of the Keppels as royal companions has remained constant, with Edward VII and, most recently, Prince Charles, falling in love with Arnold’s descendants.

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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