A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths

Alexander Meddings - November 4, 2017

If there’s a line dividing history from mythology, it’s so fine that it’s practically invisible. No matter how widely read or clued up we might be, our understanding of the past is saturated with errors, inaccuracies, and myths. But having holes in our historical knowledge is no bad thing. For a start it drives us to learn more; if it didn’t, you wouldn’t be on this page. It also teaches us something valuable about history itself: that it’s not about having an impeccable memory of dates and events, but about being able to ask why certain “truths” have become established where others have not.

Our word history comes from the Greek istoria (Ιστορία) which actually means “inquiry”. The translation is telling. And the fact that we need inquiry to get to the bottom of what really happened tells us we have a lot of untruths to sift through first. Such untruths might come about for any number of reasons: they might be the result of innocent misunderstandings, lazy attention to detail, or purposeful distortion (history being written by the victors).

As historians, it’s ultimately our job to put these untruths right—ideally, though admittedly not always, in an entertaining and interesting way. But as the recent phenomenon of fake news goes to show, trying to put across the truth in a world drowning in false information is nothing if not an uphill struggle. Every struggle has to start somewhere though; so here are the first ten steps.

Myth 1) Nero fiddled while Rome burned

The story of the deranged Emperor Nero watching his beloved city burn to the ground while twanging on his fiddle is so deeply rooted in Western culture that it has become a staple idiom across most European languages, coming to describe someone doing something pointless or trivial in the midst of an emergency. Yet as powerful as this image is, unfortunately, it’s also certainly entirely fictional.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
“Fiddling while Rome burns” has been a popular go-to for political cartoonists for centuries. This one shows former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown failing on the economy at the start of the global financial crash of 2008. The English Blog

Three ancient sources describe Nero’s behavior during the Great Fire of 64 AD. The first is Suetonius, an imperial courtier, who wrote his biographies of the first twelve emperors around 50 years after Nero’s reign in the 110s – 120s. He describes how, as if upset by the ugliness of Rome’s architecture and narrow streets, Nero ordered the city to be set ablaze. Watching from the Tower of Maecenas and dressed up, as he often was, in stage costume, Nero proceeded to sing “The Fall of Troy”; a musical throwback to another famous and fire-consumed city.

The great historian Tacitus is less sure about Nero’s involvement. He tells us that Nero was away from Rome when the fire broke out (though he may well have arranged it) before going on to describe how—for mysterious reasons—certain groups wandered around the city preventing others from extinguishing the flames. But Tacitus tells us that Nero actually did his best to help: throwing open his private gardens to house the homeless and reducing the corn price to help the poor. He tells us of a rumor that went around about Nero singing “the Fall of Troy”. But he’s adamant it was just that: a rumor.

Our third source, Cassius Dio, is of little use. Writing around 150 years after the event described, it seems he based his history on Suetonius’s biography, as he reports Nero’s complicity in the fire as concrete fact. But if the disagreement among our three sources isn’t enough to debunk this myth, there’s one final detail: the fiddle wasn’t invented until around the eleventh century. So even if Nero did indeed accompany himself to “the Fall of Troy”, it would have had to be with a cithara.

While we’re here, it’s also worth mentioning that Nero never threw Christians to the lions in the Colosseum. True, in the aftermath of the Great Fire he scapegoated this minority group for starting it, and in a particularly grisly spectacle the emperor had many Christians crucified and set alight along the Appian Way. But we know he didn’t execute them in the Colosseum for the same chronologically anachronistic reason as the fiddle—the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheatre as it was then known, wasn’t built until after Nero’s death.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Far from being particularly short, as this chart shows Napoleon wouldn’t look out of place leading modern-day France (apart from the dress). Pinterest

Myth 2) Napoleon was short

Because there isn’t a great amount to say about Napoleon’s height, I’ll keep this short. Napoleon was actually around 5″7 (170cm) which makes him about average for the age. Napoleon was also 5″2 (157cm) which makes him well below average for the age. Nope, this isn’t a mistake. It represents the fact that there were two accepted European measurements in use during the nineteenth century: the first British, the second French. And depending which unit of measurement you subscribe to, Napoleon can quite accurately be described as both.

The post-mortem carried out on Napoleon marked his height as 5″2. It was performed by his personal physician, Frenchman Antonio Antommarchi, but it was done so on the British-held island of St. Helena and signed off by British doctors. For reasons other than height, the British had never really seen eye to eye with Napoleon, decades of war and all that… So it makes sense that after the great man’s death they would have wanted to (quite literally) belittle him—especially when they didn’t have to technically lie in doing so.

That said, while Napoleon might not have been short for his time he did pale in stature alongside the company he kept. To say nothing of his generally tall officers and bodyguards, Napoleon would always enter the battlefield flanked by the crème de la crème of his infantry, the Old Guard. Entry into the prestigious unit meant meeting certain height requirements: 5″10 in English measurements for a grenadier (178cm) and 5″8 (173cm) for a chasseur.

This explains why Napoleon was known among his own army as le petit caporal or “the little corporal”. It has to be said that, despite being rather endearing, the nickname certainly didn’t help later rumors. Ultimately, it’s rather fitting that it was Napoleon who wrote, “what is history but a set of lies agreed upon.” For it was such a lie, about the small stature of one of history’s biggest figures, that has turned out to be one of the most enduring.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
The wreck of the Titanic, discovered by Robert Ballard in September 1985. Mother Nature Network

Myth 3) The Titanic was described as “unsinkable” before it sank

We have several people to thank for the perpetuation on this myth. The first is James Cameron, director of the Oscar-winning, record-breaking, box office sensation “Titanic” (1997). He puts the words into the mouth of the film’s two male antagonists—the fictional Caledon Hockley, Rose’s callous fiancée—and the historical J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of White Star Line and the man who disguised himself as a woman to escape the sinking ship.

Then we have theologians, preachers, and moralizers from both sides of the Atlantic, who in the weeks and months following the disaster tried to rationalize it as an act of God or Nature, punishing man for his technological arrogance. For them, Titanic‘s sinking was made all the more poignant—and their message made all the more powerful—by the idea that the ship’s builders had described their creation as unsinkable; Man’s unfaltering belief in his creation offering a fitting tale of hubris.

Finally, we have the writers. Whether for newspapers, novellas, or—particularly popular at the time—for poetry, writers drew upon the unsinkable idea much in the same way as theologians and moralizers did, but to add drama to their own narratives rather than to an overarching Christian one. For those with some grounding in the classics, the parallel was too good to pass up, especially given the nomenclatural similarities between Titanic and Titan Prometheus, who also overreached himself by stealing fire from the Olympian gods.

In reality, the Titanic was never described as “unsinkable” until after it sank. The closest it came was when it was described as “practically unsinkable”, first in a June 1911 edition of the “Irish News” and “Belfast Morning News” and again in an edition of the Shipbuilder Magazine the same year. The ship’s builders, the White Star Line, had also released publicity claiming it was “designed to be unsinkable.” However to call the largest floating mass of steel ever built by man infallibly unsinkable would have been a step too far, even for the industrially enlightened, admittedly arrogant, Edwardians.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Portrait of Marie Antoinette. Getty Images

Myth 4) Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake”

Upon learning about yet another bread shortage amongst the French peasantry, the Queen of Versailles, Marie Antoinette, is supposed to have exclaimed, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“. It’s a wonderful example of an out-of-touch aristocrat completely missing the point, musing over why the starving masses don’t trade in their basic nourishment for a more luxurious egg and butter-based delicacy. The idea that these words were uttered by Marie Antoinette is also completely and utterly false.

The phrase first appears in the autobiography of the influential political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He attributes the words to une grande princesse, “a great princess”. But the fact that Rousseau wrote this part of his biography in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was just nine years old, makes her an unlikely candidate for the princess in question. At least one hopes.

Some historians have suggested that if these words were ever uttered at all, they were done so by a princess who lived around 100 years earlier, the wife and first cousin of “the Sun King” Louis XIV, Marie-Therese. But in trying to pin them on a historical figure, these historians aren’t being skeptical enough about their sources. Rousseau’s autobiography has been proven to be fundamentally unreliable, and later writers were unable to agree on which woman was supposed to have suggested the French peasantry munch on brioche.

Another problem with the quote is that during the reign of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI, there were in fact no famines, only bread shortages. The first happened before his coronation in 1775, while the second broke out in 1788, the year before the Revolution. That people could have put these words in her mouth in the months leading up to the Revolution is possible, given the tattered state of her public image.

While Marie Antoinette may not have been insensitive and ignorant, she was opulent and frivolous. This was especially problematic considering the dire financial straits France found itself in during the months leading up to the Revolution, and it earned the queen the epithet Madame Déficit. The fact that she was Austrian by birth didn’t help her cause either, especially given levels of xenophobic chauvinism sweeping the nation at the time.

We often hear that history is written by the victors, and Marie Antoinette clearly sat on the losing side of the French Revolution. This explains why later pro-revolutionary historians knowingly—and erroneously—ascribed this phrase to her: partly to justify her execution at the guillotine, partly to blacken her image as someone whose extravagant spending exaggerated the plight of the poor, ideally to do both.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Karl Theodor von Piloty’s “Murder of Caesar” (1865). Pinterest

Myth 5) Julius Caesar was the first Roman Emperor

This commonly held misconception ultimately boils down to semantics. Etymologically, we derive our word “emperor” from the Latin imperator. But rather than having anything to do with wielding sole, autocratic political power, imperator was instead the title bestowed on a successful general who had managed to extend the territory of the Roman Empire. Its historical use, therefore, stretches back long to the early years of the Republic, long before the arrival of the Roman emperors.

Our monarchical idea of an emperor is better encapsulated in the Latin word princeps: a term meaning “first citizen” which has given us our word “prince”. There was also the word rex—meaning king—but since the expulsion of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Republic, the Romans had an innate hatred of kingship and one-man rule. The only way a Roman could rule alone was as dictator. But this was only permitted in extreme circumstances and lasted only a year.

Julius Caesar was an imperator in that he added the entirety of Gaul and, briefly, Britain to the empire. But he never called himself princeps or rex. In fact, when Caesar was offered a crown he refused it, making it publically known that he had no aspirations of kingship. The closest Caesar came to autocratic power before his assassination was declaring himself dictator perpetuo—dictator in perpetuity.

The first emperor in the true sense was instead Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus. After Caesar’s assassination, he began styling himself caesaris divi filius, the Son of the God Julius Caesar. And after defeating Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC and establishing himself as sole ruler of the Roman world, he declared himself princeps inter pares, first amongst equals. The “amongst equals” part, however, was just a sham.

In reality, Augustus monopolized all political power for himself. He created many institutions we associate with the emperors (such as the Praetorian Guard), took over sole control of the army—reserving the title of imperator for either the emperor or a chosen few in the imperial family—and set in motion the process that moved political decision making away from the Senate and behind the closed doors of the imperial palace.

While we’re here, there are a few myths about Caesar worth debunking. He never actually said, “the die is cast” as he crossed the Rubicon. The Latin (alea iacta est) translates more accurately as, “the dice have been rolled (let’s hope I’m lucky)”. Nor was he born from Caesarian section. His name probably comes from the Latin caedere (“to cut”), referring to a particularly slash-happy ancestor. And disappointing though this may be, I regret to inform you that he had nothing to do with the invention of the Caesar Salad.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Hitler mounts the steps to the podium at the Nuremberg Rally (1938). Pinterest

Myth 6) The Nazis were socialists

Spend enough time on social media and you’ll see Godwin’s Law is alive and well. Nowhere is this more the case than with historical topics: debate one for long enough and sooner or later Hitler will surface from the dead and rear his ugly head. When you take Hitler and the Nazis as your starting point, however, and mix in politically charged—and relevant—ideas of socialism, nationalism, and fascism, you’re bound to cause some controversy.

Not debate though. I don’t want to wax lyrical about the battlefields of political debates today—this is, after all a history page. But it does seem that we’re losing the ability to intricately weave an argument, to try to mine under (or, better, undermine) those on the other side with reason, persuasion, and logic. It seems instead that we’ve reverted back to the World War I tactics of trying to incessantly bombard those on the other side into submission. The big difference is that today’s shells are Facebook comments fired blindly into the ether.

Nevertheless, here it goes: Despite being called National Socialists, the Nazis were not socialists. Nazi ideology completely rejected socialism—just as it did capitalism and liberalism for that matter—for the nationalistic ideology of Volksgemeinschaft. Translating as the “people’s community”, the term has a utopian ring to it as a community of social equality. But this is fundamentally misleading; for equality was promised only to the racially superior Aryans.

Okay, so there’s a gulf between ideology and practice, and at some point or other during the party’s life, it incorporated aspects of everything. Capitalist cartels were formed which enriched certain businesses while socialist elements cropped up too: the state taking the fiscal driving seat in nationalizing certain industries, profit sharing, and providing old age-related benefits, for example. But these elements were not cored to Nazi ideology; rather they were a means to a eugenically driven end.

Hitler used socialism as a vehicle through which to drive up support amongst the workers, and at times this involved implementing socialist policies. But once the Nazis had secured power, Hitler did away with many of these ideas—along with many of those who had come up with them—in favour of his own distinctly racial brand of fascist ideology. Hitler hated socialism, and this hatred was inexorably tied up with his innate hatred of one group in particular, the Jews. It’s no surprise, then, that socialists were among the first to be transported to the concentration camps.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Protesters gather outside the Miss America Pageant on September 7 1968. Getty Images

Myth 7) Women burnt their bras in the 1960s and 70s

It’s a powerful image: fired up female protesters burning their bras as part of a demonstration against the oppressive influence of modern beauty culture. It would have been symbolically fitting too: setting alight an increasingly sexualized item of lingerie, an item that had come to embody the sexual objectification of women; and what’s more, doing it outside the Miss America Pageant of 1969 (an event misleadingly held in 1968). Unfortunately, however, it never happened.

There are a number of reasons why the bra-burning myth came into being. One was the conflation of draft card burning in protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 70s and of women throwing their bras—and other objectifying items like “Playboy” magazines and hair curlers—into garbage cans. Another was the misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of contemporary news stories. A New York Times article, written by Robin Morgan and published on September 8, 1968, described a “symbolic bra-burning” in an effort to dispel rumors of destructive or vandalistic acts (the key word being “symbolic”).

Then there was another piece. Given the title “Bra Burners and Miss America,” it was written by Lindsy Van Gelder and published after the event in the New York Post. The article actually set out a comparison between the burning of draft cards in protest of the war and the Miss America protest. But people paid more attention to the title than the content. And alas, the myth was solidified.

The reason the myth has stuck is slightly more complicated. Perpetuating the myth that women were militantly burning their bras was in the interest of groups who wanted to trivialize their cause. Focussing on the theatrics of the feminist movement took attention away from the real, political issues: equal pay, the repeal (or end of) oppressive reproductive legislation, more readily available help with childcare etc.

Ironically, going braless in the 1970s was something of a catch 22 for many feminists. While liberating a new generation of women from the discomfort of their brassieres, it also stimulated a new sexual excitement in men who saw their newfound mammary emancipation as a welcome change from the cone-shaped brassieres of the 50s and 60s. Ultimately, the bra-burning myth tells us less about the militancy of feminist movements at the time than it does about the enduring potency of collective, false, and often convenient memories.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Jean-Léon Gérôme Pollice Verso (1872) Wikipedia jpg

Myth 8) Gladiators always fought to the death

The biographer Suetonius wrote that upon entering the arena the combatants would say, “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant” (Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you). Yet they probably said this more for dramatic effect than in expectation of their imminent death. For, in reality, it was rare for a professional gladiator to perish in the arena, not least because of the considerable financial cost this would have meant for their owners.

The amount of training gladiators had to go through in the ludus was expensive. Novices fighting under instructors—probably former gladiators themselves—would have to progressively pass through a series of grades (palus), the highest being the primus palus. For the gladiator owner (lanista), it would have been terrible for business if he lost the cream of his crop every time he entered the games. It’s for this reason a defeated gladiator could request—though not always successfully—to leave the arena alive.

Contrary to popular belief, as long as you were lucky enough to avoid being brutally murdered as part of a public spectacle, being a gladiator was actually a highly desirable occupation. For anybody who’s seen the recent TV Series “Spartacus”, it might surprise you to know that with all its sex, swearing and extreme (but not always lethal) violence, it actually offers one of the most realistic insights into everyday life of a Roman gladiator.

Another widely believed misconception is that of the pollice verso or the upturned thumb. The gesture first entered popular imagination with Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872 painting (above) and has been universally famous since Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic “Gladiator”. Traditionally, we have always thought that the upturned thumb meant mercy while the downturned thumb spelled death.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Medaglione di Cavillargues. Archaeological Museum of Nîmes

However, a medallion found in southern France in 1997 should make us think differently. It shows a gladiatorial scene in which the presiding figure has tucked his thumb under his fingers, saving the lives of the defeated combatants. This suggests that the upturned thumb spelled death while the thumb tucked under the finger (which represented sheathing a sword) meant mercy.

It’s also worth mentioning that, while the power to decide did ultimately rest with the emperor, good emperors used the occasion of the games to gauge public feeling and try to ingratiate themselves with the plebeian masses. They would therefore often go with the decision of the people—whichever verdict was shouted loudest—rather than with their personal decision.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
Illustration of one of the convulsive hallucinations the theory tries to explain. Salem Witch. Pinterest

Myth 9) Salem’s residents were tripping throughout the Witch Trials

Trying to explain the mass hysteria that took hold of the residents of Salem, Massachusetts between the winter of 1692 and the spring of 1693 is no easy task. What lay behind the arbitrary executions of 20 people, either by hanging, by being left in prison, or, in one particularly grisly instance, by being crushed between two boulders, has been the focus of debate for centuries.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Salem Witch Trials were born out of a number of factors: misogyny, class tensions, land exploitation, puritanical repression… the list goes on. But in a perfectly human attempt to avoid this uncomfortable, human truth, we are sometimes drawn to theories that simplify what happened. One such theory is that vast swathes of Salem’s population were essentially tripping throughout the whole episode.

It suggested that they were experiencing the hallucinogenic effects of ergot poisoning, acting out the unwanted side effects the fungus causes when it infects rye bread. Ergot thrives amongst the damp conditions that would have characterized Salem in the months leading up to the trials. Ergot poisoning also brings about symptoms in those affected that are attested at the time: convulsions, the feeling of insects on the skin, vomiting, and hallucinatory delusions. What’s more, just as the summer months came and the harvest dried out, the madness loosened its grip on Salem’s residents.

Since its proposal in the 1970s, the theory has gained a lot of traction. As comforting as it may be, however, to remove free will from the actions of those who brought the accusations, the theory has been proven as just that: a theory. For a start, scientists convincingly refuted the theory in the wake of its publication. But as if often the case, the refutation failed to get as much press as the theory itself. Secondly, we would expect to see gangrene appear on the limbs—another effect ergot poisoning—in the limbs of those infected. Yet there is no evidence for this whatsoever.

Most importantly, however, ergot poisoning doesn’t account for the complete randomness of the Salem Witch Trials. If ergot poisoning were rife within Salem’s food supply, we would expect every member of an individual household to be suffering its hallucinatory effects. However, we know this wasn’t the case. Trying to pawn the murderous effects of social, cultural, religious, and gender-orientated complexities among Salem’s population on drugs might seem an easy, simple solution. But it distracts us from the bigger questions we should be bringing to the table; for events both past and present.

A Closer Look at 10 of History’s Most Pervasive Myths
“The face that launched 1,000 ships”: Helen of Troy, Sparta, or spurious mythological origins? The Independent

Myth 10) Helen of Troy was Trojan

The idea that Helen of Troy was originally from Troy falls apart when you apply logic. For if Helen were Trojan, it would make no sense for her to be abducted from her home and taken to… Troy. The “face that launched a thousand ships” was that of Helen of Sparta. Historically speaking this would make sense. Spartan women were supposedly among the most beautiful in the Greek world: tall, athletic, and well-fed, sharing the same meat diet as the male citizenry. We have no physical evidence for this (skeletal remains, for example). But we do have descriptions from Herodotus and Aristophanes that testify to their striking appearances.

Then again, historically speaking we have to ask whether Helen really existed at all, especially given her parentage and the story of her conception. Helen was one of the many semi-divine children fathered by Zeus. According to legend, she was conceived on a beach in the Southern Peloponnese after Zeus transformed himself (for reasons unknown) into a swan, and forced himself on an Aetolian princess called Leda who was unfortunate enough to be bathing there at that time.

Perhaps in an effort to give some marital legitimacy to this really a rather unsettling story, legend has it that the remarkably untraumatized Leda then returned home and slept with her husband, Tyndareus, on the same night. She eventually gives birth to two eggs from which two children emerge each. From the first hatch two semi-divine children, Helen and Pollux; from the second hatch two mortals, Clytemnestra and Castor. Most surprisingly, at no point does Tyndareus stop questioning this.

Known otherwise as the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux would go on to become protectors of the sea. Clytaemnestra would go on to marry Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and Helen would eventually marry his brother Menelaus, king of Sparta. Neither woman had particularly happy marriages. Helen—admittedly through a game of the gods rather than any fault of her own—ends up being promised to Paris of Troy, and we all know what happens next. After 18 years away from Sparta, Helen returned home with Menelaus and they lived (surprisingly) happily ever after.

Clytemnestra awaited the return of Agamemnon, but wasn’t too happy with him on account of the fact that he’d sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to the wind goddess Artemis (so the Greek ships could sail to Troy), thrown babies off Troy’s walls, and brought back the Trojan priestess Cassandra as a spoil of war. She got her revenge though, stabbing him to death in the bath.