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

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.