Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures & Events
Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events

Khalid Elhassan - March 3, 2021

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
A young Temujin and a brother ganging up to kill another brother. Pintrest

16. Far From Swamping Their Enemies With Superior Numbers, the Mongols Won Despite Being Outnumbered

The Mongols relied on superior strategy, tactics, training, discipline, and speed. Contra the mistaken perception of their massive “hordes”, the Mongols won despite being numerical underdogs because they were professionals, and extremely good at the business of war. They consistently beat bigger opponents by leveraging their own strengths, while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses of their enemies. Adding up all the preceding, the result was the most effective, efficient, and terrifying military machine that the world had ever known. And it all began with Genghis Khan, born Temujin (1162 – 1227). With diplomatic maneuvering, backed by force when warranted, Temujin took over the Mongol clans, one at a time.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Statue of Genghis Khan in Ulaanbaatar. Medium

He ruthlessly eradicated tribal distinctions by exterminating the nobility, and combined the commoners into a single Mongol tribe, united by their personal loyalty to him. He then took on the rival Tatar tribe, defeated them, and executed all males taller than a wagon’s axle. By 1206, Temujin had destroyed all Steppe rivals, and united feuding tribes into a Mongol nation. That year, he called for a grand assembly, and revealed his vision, endorsed by shamans, that the heavens had ordained that he rule all under the sky. The Mongols proclaimed him “Genghis Khan”, meaning Universal Ruler.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
A Mongol army on the march. Imgur

15. Contra the Perception That Mongol Hordes Were Chaotic Barbarians, They Were Actually a Highly Organized and Well Oiled Military Machine

Genghis Khan organized the Mongols for war. He was a good judge of men, a great talent spotter, and his system was a meritocracy where the capable could rise, regardless of origins. He subjected the formerly fractious and feuding nomadic warriors to strict military discipline that was hard, but not overly harsh or unreasonable. And he drilled and trained them constantly. He then placed them in a well-organized hierarchical organization, with a clear-cut and effective chain of command.

Despite the perception that the Mongols were chaotic barbarians, their military was highly organized. Genghis Khan created a military structure based on decimals, with a hierarchy of ranks. At the base were squads of 10 men, known as an Arbans. 10 Arbans formed a company of 100, known as a Zuun. 10 Zuuns were combined into a regiment of 1000, known as a Minghan. 10 Minghans were formed into a division of 10,000, known as a Tuman. A separate imperial guard of 10,000 men protected the Khan and leading Mongol figures.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Charging Mongols. Pintrest

14. The Mongols Practiced and Trained Incessantly

All Mongols rode horses since they were toddlers, and were taught archery in childhood. As a result, they were prime cavalry material by the time they joined the Mongol army as young men. In the army, they underwent extensive and continuous training that transformed them into a mounted elite. They practiced the individual skills of archery and horsemanship almost daily. They also trained constantly to master unit tactics. They drilled in maneuvers, formation changes, rotations, advances, retreats, and massed archery, until they became second nature.

Roughly six out of every ten Mongols were light cavalry horse archers, while the remaining four were heavy cavalry, typically armored and armed with lances. A favorite battlefield tactic, for which they incessantly trained, was to whittle their opponents from a distance with arrows. Once the Mongol commander judged the enemy sufficiently weakened, a signal would be given for a charge, spearheaded by the heavy cavalry, in which Mongol horsemen slashed the survivors with sabers, or skewered them with lances.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Mongols exacting tribute of goods and slaves from subjugated Rus. Russia Beyond

13. A Decisive Mongol Victory That Came About As a Result of Constant Practice and Drill

Another tactic practiced constantly by the Mongols, and that runs against the perception that they were mindless warriors, was the feigned retreat to lure the enemy into pursuing them. Once they brought the foe giving them chase to a favorable ground, the Mongols would turn at a signal, and surround or counterchange their pursuers. An illustrative example was the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223, which began with a severely outnumbered Mongols leading a numerically superior army of pursuing Rus and Cumans on a nine-day chase across the Steppe.

When the Mongols reached the favorable ground at the Kalka River in today’s Ukraine, they turned on their foes. The result was a decisive Mongol victory that broke the Rus, and set the stage for their subjugation under what came to be known as The Mongol Yoke for centuries. It was a victory that owed everything to constant training and drill. Through such continual practice, Genghis Khan revolutionized warfare on the Eurasian Steppe. He transformed the nomads under his command from amateur warrior bands into a disciplined professional army, with an established structure and hierarchical chain of command.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Charging Mongols. Pintrest

12. Genghis Khan Created a Medieval Fighting Machine That Had Many Modern Traits

Genghis Khan built on the inherent strengths of the nomads – hardihood, excellent horsemanship, and martial skills such as archery. When those strengths were coupled with discipline and professionalism, the result was a formidable – and contra the perception of Mongol hordes as backwards, surprisingly modern – fighting machine. A Mongol military trait that seems remarkably modern was the wide flexibility and leeway afforded soldiers and officers in carrying out their orders. The Mongol chain of command communicated the overall objectives and the commander’s vision and aim. Subordinates were not micromanaged, and initiative was encouraged, so long as they carried out orders promptly and effectively served the overall plan.

Another modern trait was strategic flexibility. The Tumans of 10,000 Mongols usually operated independently, marching separately to sweep across and devastate wide swathes of enemy territory. They were kept in contact with each other and with corps or army commanders in charge of two or more Tumans by a steady stream of message bearing couriers. If a Tuman made contact with an enemy force too big to handle, the other Tumans could quickly be called in and concentrated into an army.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Giant Genghis Khan statue in Mongolia. Inc Magazine

11. Contra the Perception of Mongols Being Backwards Barbarians, They Introduced Innovations Centuries Before They Were Adopted in the Modern Era

Centuries after the Mongols’ heyday, Napoleon Bonaparte used a similar methodology of advancing on a broad front, with separate army corps making their own way, marching like the outstretched fingers of a hand. If and when a corps made contact with the main enemy force, it would engage to fix it in place, or otherwise operate in a manner that maintained contact. In the meanwhile, the remaining corps would rush in and concentrate upon the corps in contact with the enemy, transforming from a widespread advance like outstretched fingers, and into a solid fist.

The Mongols were anything but conservative when it came to war. Far from being wed to the traditional Steppe way of fighting, the Mongols were open-minded and receptive to adopting the military techniques of others, so long as they were effective. For example, there was no tradition of siege of warfare in the Steppe. Yet the Mongols successfully besieged numerous cities by employing Chinese, Persian, Arab, and European specialists. They learned how and incorporated engineering into their military establishment.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Grover Cleveland. White House History

10. The Wholesome Perception of an American President vs His Shocking Scandal

The name Grover Cleveland (1837 – 1908) comes up most often nowadays as an answer to trivia questions. He is best known today for being the only American president to serve two non-consecutive terms. He was elected America’s 22nd president in 1884, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College in 1888, then bounced back and was elected the 24th president in 1892. A Democrat reformer, Cleveland left his mark by fighting the day’s endemic political corruption and had a reputation for integrity and honesty.

However, that wholesome perception is belied by a seedier side. Cleveland was also known for surviving explicit scandals that would sink any Democrat today. With some exceptions, such as with Thomas Jefferson, most presidential perversions and scandals involved consensual hanky-panky, or boorish conduct amounting to workplace sexual harassment. Inappropriate behavior, but not violent criminal conduct. Not so with Grover Cleveland: his biggest scandal involved straightforward assault and shocking levels of corruption and abuse of power in covering it up.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Grover Cleveland and Maria Halpin. Rise Collaborative

9. A Presidential Scandal That Puts Other Scandals to Shame

It began on the evening of December 15th, 1873, with a chance street encounter in Buffalo between Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland. At the time, he was a prominent lawyer and former Sheriff of Erie County, which included Buffalo. Cleveland, a stocky six-footer who had been courting Halpin for months, invited her to dinner at a restaurant, and she accepted. After a pleasant meal, he escorted her back to her boarding house. There, however, the pleasantness stopped, things took a horrible turn, and Halpin’s perception of Cleveland was forever altered.

According to Halpin in an affidavit, the future president assaulted her “by use of force and violence and without my consent“. When she threatened to report the assault, the former Sheriff threatened her into silence. As her affidavit continued, Cleveland: “told me he was determined to ruin me if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again, and commanded him to leave my room, which he did“.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
A cartoon from the 1884 presidential election, about the Maria Halpin scandal. Wikimedia

8. Grover Cleveland’s Perception as a Reformer Survived a Serious Scandal

As Maria Halpin stated, a few weeks after she was assaulted by Grover Cleveland, she discovered that she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy in September of 1874. When she declared that Cleveland was the father, he used his connections to shut her up. He had the child removed from his mother’s care and placed in an orphanage and had Halpin committed to a mental asylum. She was quickly released after an evaluation concluded that she was not insane, and had only been institutionalized as a result of egregious abuse of power by corrupt political elites.

Because real life is not fair, and justice and karma are often a joke, Cleveland got away with it. His wholesome public perception survived Halpin’s accusations, and he went on to get elected Mayor of Buffalo, then Governor of New York, before running for president in 1884. News of the scandal and his illegitimate child came out during the presidential campaign, and his opponents attacked him for the contrast between his do-gooder public persona and his seedy private life. As seen below, he survived the scandal and won the election.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Frances Folsom. White House History

7. “Uncle Cleve” Went From Babysitting to Creeping

During the 1884 presidential election, Grover Cleveland’s campaign was dogged by chants from opponents, mimicking a baby crying “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?!” He won, however, and his supporters retorted with: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” Assault and fathering an illegitimate child upon his victim was the worst thing (that we know of) about Grover Cleveland. However, it was not his only pervy act. Another item from his personal life, which would amount to an icky scandal if it happened today, was the iffy relationship between Cleveland and his eventual wife, Frances Folsom (1864 – 1947).

Frances Clara Folsom, was born in Buffalo, New York, the only surviving child of Oscar Folsom, a lawyer and longtime close friend of Cleveland. At age 27, the future president met his future wife and future First Lady shortly after she was born. Cooing over the baby, Cleveland took an interest in Frances while she was still in swaddling clothes. He bought her a pram, used to babysit her as “Uncle Cleve”, and doted on her. Then things got creepy.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
The White House wedding of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom. Wikimedia

6. The President Who Groomed a Baby to Be His Bride

In 1875, Frances Folsom’s father was killed in an accident while racing his carriage. He left no will, so a court-appointed Cleveland to administer his deceased friend’s estate. That brought him in closer contact with Frances, and he became her new father figure and hero. Unlike Frances’ real father, who had been notoriously careless of both his life and his family, “Uncle Cleve” was dependable, attentive, and doting. He continued to dote on Frances as she grew up, and at some point, things went from doting to grooming: Cleveland took to sending her flowers, with notes saying “I am waiting for my bride to grow up“.

People thought Cleveland was kidding, but he was in deadly earnest. After he was elected president and while Frances was in college, Cleveland sent her a letter proposing marriage and fretted like a schoolboy while awaiting her reply. She agreed, and on June 2nd, 1886, as the Marine Band was conducted by John Philip Sousa, 21-year-old Frances Folsom wed the 49-year-old president in the White House’s Blue Room. To date, it is the only time a president was married in the White House or while in office.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Mao Zedong. Nuovo Lobs

5. In Jarring Contrast to His Perception as a Monster, Mao Zedong Had a Sensitive Poet Side

Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) led the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death, and after the communists won control in 1949, he ruled China from that date until his demise. During his time in power, Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions Chinese. They were killed outright by his followers, or starved to death because of Mao’s disastrous policies. However, there was more to Mao than a revolutionary and man of action. In jarring contrast to his well-deserved reputation as a monster, Mao was also a poet.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Chairman Mao. Retrographik

In addition to being a prolific mass murderer, Mao was also a prolific writer. Surprisingly, for a man so politically radical and revolutionary, he liked to write and pen verses in classical Chinese forms. It would be like a modern American anarchist who likes writing in the manner of Chaucer. As with most intellectuals of his generation, Mao’s education was based on a foundation of classical Chinese literature. However, while most of his contemporaries moved on to modern styles and themes, Mao stuck with the old when it came to literature and poetry.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
A young Mao Zedong, circa 1925. Wikimedia

4. Mao Was Actually a Decent Poet

Mao began composing poetry in his youth. Indeed, his image as a poet was a significant part of the Chinese public’s perception of Mao as he rose to power. He was actually considered a good poet. Not just by critics in China, who would have been foolhardy indeed to pan his poetry, but also by literary critics outside China and beyond Mao’s clutches. His poetry tended to be on romantic end of things, rather than the more modern realist genre and resembled the seventh to ninth century Tang Dynasty’s style.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
The Young Mao Zedong Statue in Hunan, China. Wikimedia

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

Mao Zedong – Changsha

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
A gold aureus depicting Nero and his mother. CNG Coins

3. This Emperor Was Horrible, But Contra His Perception, He Was Also an Artist at Heart

Nero was one of ancient Rome’s worst rulers. He was born in 37 AD, a nephew of the emperor Caligula, and grand-nephew of his successor, the emperor Claudius. Claudius fell in love with his niece and Nero’s mother, Agrippina. He married her and adopted Nero, naming him his heir and successor. Agrippina had Claudius poisoned in 54 AD, and her teenaged son became emperor. She dominated Nero during the first five years of his rule, so to escape her smothering embrace, he decided to murder her.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Agrippina crowning Nero. Pintrest

Nero tried to make it look accidental, such as with a roof designed to collapse and crush her. The roof fell on and crushed one of her maids, instead. Next, Nero gifted his mother a pleasure barge, which was rigged to capsize in the middle of a lake. Before Nero’s horrified gaze as he watched from a villa overlooking the lake, his mother swam from the sinking barge to shore like an otter. At his wit’s end, and dreading an awkward confrontation, Nero sent in some sailors to club her death with oars. With his mother out of the way, Nero was finally free to indulge his fantasies of… being an artist and Olympics champion.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Nero. Notibras

2. An Imperial Artist and Olympic Athlete

After freeing himself from his domineering mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses and indulged himself to the fullest. Fancying himself a talented musician, he threw exceptionally long concerts, during which he sang while playing a lyre. Few dared leave before completion, or display anything less than rapt attention. The performances were so bad that women faked labor in order to leave, and men faked heart attacks or death so they could get carried out. Still, that was nothing compared to Nero’s pursuit of his dream to become an Olympics champion. He kicked that off by having the games delayed for two years until he could visit Greece.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Nero. Wikimedia

Nero competed in chariot racing, and his competitors tried to throw the race by slowing down. Still, Nero failed to reach the finish line because he crashed and wrecked his chariot. The judges, combining sycophancy with fear of an unstable man who could have them crucified with a snap of his fingers, awarded him the victor’s wreath anyhow, reasoning that he would have won but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not even part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
Nero strumming a lyre and singing as Rome burns. The Daily Mirror

1. “Oh, What an Artist Dies In Me!

Nero spent extravagantly in pursuit of his hobbies and to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied. In the meantime, he left the business of running the government to incompetent and corrupt cronies who wrecked it. By 68 AD, the Roman Empire had had enough, and numerous rebellions broke out. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public and begging their forgiveness. He thought that if he sang for them while playing the lyre, it would “soften their hearts”, and he would be allowed to retire to an out-of-the-way province as its governor.

Facts That Contradict the Perception of Famous Historic Figures and Events
‘Nero’s Death’, by Vasily Smirnov. Times Literary Supplement

He composed a speech and wrote a song. However, he changed his mind after it was pointed out that he would probably be torn apart by a mob as soon as he was sighted in public, before he got the chance to orate or sing. While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be publicly beaten to death, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him. All hope gone, Nero decided to end his life. Unable to do it himself, he had a freedman stab him, crying out before the fatal blow: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!” The perception of him molded by time.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

British Library, The – Magna Carta, an Introduction

Burgan, Michael – Empire of the Mongols (2005)

Bushkin, Henry – Johnny Carson (2013)

Cracked – 5 Famous People Whose Entire Personality Was an Act

Daily Beast, May 23rd, 2011 – Grover Cleveland’s Sex Scandal: The Most Despicable in American Political History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Magna Carta: History, Summary, & Importance

Guardian, The, March 31st, 2011 – Dictator Lit: Saddam Hussein Tortured Metaphors, Too

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to 1700 AD (1997)

Jones, Dan – The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (2014)

Kanfer, Stefan – Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart (2012)

Las Vegas Sun, January 24th, 2005 – Carson Had Long Vegas History

Schickel, Richard – Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart (2006)

Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars

Tacitus – The Annals

Washington Post, July 3rd, 2014 – The First Celebrity First Lady: Frances Cleveland

Wikipedia – John, King of England

Wikipedia – Mongol Military Tactics and Organization

Wikipedia – Poetry of Mao Zedong