These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved
These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved

Patrick Lynch - October 28, 2016

When it comes to the ancient world, it can sometimes be harder to disprove myths and prove facts due to a relative lack of evidence when compared to tales from the Middle Ages and modern era. There are myths which we can say are nonsense with near certainty and there are plenty of instances where fact and fiction get confused in the mists of time.

Ancient empires such as Egypt, Rome and Greece fascinate us because they thrived in a time so long ago that it almost feels as if these people lived on a different planet! In this article, I will look at 6 great myths of the ancient world that you may have believed once upon a time.

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved

13 – The 300 at Thermopylae

You should know by now that Hollywood movies are economical with the truth when it comes to depicting historical events. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the blockbuster 300 is filled with more fiction than fact yet it still enraged a number of historians with expertise in the ancient world. The movie earned approximately $465 million at the Box Office and made the Battle of Thermopylae one of the most famous battles in ancient history.

This particular myth suggests that 300 Spartan warriors stood against hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The numbers of course are completely incorrect; while there were only a few hundred Spartans in the battle, they were aided by thousands of Greek allies.

It should be noted that even today, not everyone agrees on the number of combatants. Herodotus suggests there were 5,200 Greeks, Diodorus says 7,400, Pausanias says 11,200 while modern historians believe it may have been as many as 20,000 and no fewer than 7,000. On the Persian side, Herodotus claimed there were 2.5 million soldiers while recent estimates place their army in the 70,000-300,000 range.

Either way, the Greeks were comprehensively outmanned but they cleverly ensured the battle took place in a narrow pass between the sea and the mountains. This significantly reduced the impact of the Persian’s numerical advantage. Had the battle taken place on an open field, it would have been a quick and easy win for the Xerxes led Persian force. Instead, the Battle of Thermopylae lasted three days.

For the first two days, the Greeks held firm and used the phalanx formation to comfortably block the pass. The story of the traitor Ephialtes appears to be true although Herodotus said the treacherous Greek tribesman did not want to join the army and betrayed his countrymen solely for money. He told the Persians of a hidden path that would enable them to outflank their enemy. Ephialtes was ultimately murdered a decade later by a man called Athenades who was later honored for this deed by the Spartan authorities (even though the killing was for a completely unrelated reason according to Herodotus.)

It is also a myth that the entire Greek army died at Thermopylae. Once Leonidas realized the betrayal, he dismissed most of his army barring approximately 1,500 men who stayed behind to form a last stand. There were probably 300 or so Spartans in this group along with slaves, Thespians and Thebans. All of these men died trying to hold off the huge Persian army but those who had been dismissed were able to successfully flee and fight another day.

A couple of final points. Leonidas almost certainly did not have a face-to-face talk with Xerxes as there is no record of this among any of the ancient historians. Finally, the Spartans did not take to the battlefield dressed as the ancient world’s version of the Chippendales with leather underwear and a red cape. Spartan warriors wore several kilograms of iron equipment although they did wear red garments over their armor as a means of frightening their opponents.

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved
The Radical Catholic (Painting of Nero watching as Rome burns by Alphonse Mucha)

14 – Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned

This is one of the best known myths of the ancient world. The saying has a double meaning: It suggests that Emperor Nero sat in his villa a few miles away while the city of Rome burned to the ground and also outlines the fact that he neglected his duty. There was unquestionably a fire in Rome in 64 AD which was during the reign of Nero. The extent of this fire isn’t truly known as the main account of it comes from Tacitus who was only about 8 years old at the time and wrote his account many years later.

According to Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts remained intact as up to 70% of the city was destroyed in the fire. Three of the districts were completely destroyed while up to half of the city’s one million residents were made homeless. There are a number of famed Roman historians who would have lived through the fire such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch yet the latter doesn’t mention it at all and the former only mentioned it in passing.

A letter from Seneca the Younger to Paul the Apostle is a first-hand account of the fire. In it, Seneca says only four blocks were burned including 132 private homes. While he also said the fire lasted six days, his account suggests there was far less destruction than what Tacitus would have us believe.

As for Nero’s role; the notion that he completely ignored the fire appears to be false; as does the idea he may have started the fire. There was a rumor that Nero stood on his private stage and began singing while the fire raged. Some people believed the rumor because Nero was a music lover and had previously entered music competitions.

In reality, there is evidence that shows Nero initially acted in the way a ruler should in the midst of a disaster. He was in his villa at Antium which was 50 km away from Rome and according to Tacitus, Nero immediately travelled to Rome when he heard of the fire. He led the relief efforts and apparently opened his own gardens which acted as a temporary shelter for homeless citizens. As well as ordering the construction of emergency shelter, he reduced the price of corn and provided people with food.

Nero didn’t help his reputation in the aftermath however. As he was getting the blame for the incident, he quickly looked for a scapegoat and found one in the shape of the city’s Christian population. They were persecuted and executed ruthlessly by the emperor but even this didn’t help the accusations go away. He built a palace on top of land that was freed because of the fire; this made it appear as if he had planned the fire to ensure the land became available. The cost of rebuilding the city bled the treasury dry so Nero devalued the Roman currency which was an extremely unpopular move.

Obviously, Nero couldn’t have played the violin as per the legend since the class of instrument to which the violin belongs wasn’t created for another 1,000 years. The closest instrument to the violin available at the time was the cithara but there is no concrete evidence that Nero was idle during the fire or that he started it. In fact, ancient historians agree that he reacted in a manner befitting an emperor; at least in the immediate aftermath of the fire. As for who actually started it; no one knows. It’s likely that it was an accident and began in a shop that sold flammable goods.

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved

15 – The Trojan Horse

This is another remarkable historical myth that some people took as fact once upon a time. It says that during the Trojan War, the Greek soldiers were able to take the city of Troy after 10 years of fighting by hiding inside a wooden horse. The Greeks created this horse and offered it as a token of peace to their foes. Yet the horse was hollow and large enough to conceal Greek soldiers. The Trojans took the gift and brought it into the city. Once they were asleep, the Greeks inside the horse came out and opened the gates to the city. The rest of the Greek army stormed the city and slaughtered the Trojans in their beds.

To be fair, it was long assumed that the city of Troy itself was a myth. That is until a German businessman and archaeology lover, Heinrich Schliemann, actually found evidence of the city’s existence at the Turkish site of Hissarlik in the 1870s.

Our sources for the story of the Trojan Horse are Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey. Homer’s works were created in around the 8th century B.C. and were composed orally. Little is known of Homer other than the fact he did exist and we don’t know who finally wrote down these epic poems. Virgil lived in the first century B.C. and his Aeneid is modeled on Homer’s work.

The tale of the Trojan Horse should not be taken literally. A number of historians believe the ‘Horse’ was actually a battering ram or siege machine which was used to smash down the walls of Troy. This piece of equipment may have been in the shape of a horse and the ‘peace offering’ might have referred to a boat carrying a peace envoy.

There is even doubt over whether the Trojan War ever happened although some evidence has come to light. Classical sources state that the Trojan prince Paris eloped (or kidnapped) Queen Helen of Sparta. Her husband Menelaus convinced his brother Agamemnon (king of Mycenae) to go to war to get her back. The result was a decade long war which only ended thanks to the Trojan Horse trick.

Eratosthenes said the war took place from 1194-1184 B.C. although modern sources believe it could have happened during an 80 year period from 1260-1180 B.C. Archaeological excavations at the site of Troy uncovered skeletons and charred debris which are dated to 1180 B.C. Certainly, Troy was a real city that suffered destruction. Its ruins would have been visible for centuries so perhaps this is what inspired Homer to create his story of the Trojan War.

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved

16 – Jesus Was Born on 25th December

In a way, it doesn’t really matter that Christmas Day has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God in the Christian faith. It has become a time of year when Christian families get together; perhaps for the only time that year. Men, women and children sometimes travel thousands of miles to meet their loved ones. As a result, the fact that Jesus Christ wasn’t born on 25th December is probably irrelevant but it is a great historical myth so it must be tackled.

Biblical scholars readily acknowledge that Jesus Christ was not born in December and the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that his birth has been assigned to every single month in the calendar by different authorities! In the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph were traveling to Bethlehem when Jesus was born and shepherds had their flocks in open fields at that time. Since the weather in that region would be cold (with possible snow) at that time of the year, no shepherd would keep his flock in a field. The text also says a Roman Census was taking place. The Romans would never hold a census in winter.

So why do we celebrate Christmas on 25th December? As it happens, the celebration of Christmas began up to 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. There are sources which suggest that a celebration for pagan gods took place near the time of the winter solstice in Egypt and Syria. In around 400 B.C., the Mithraic religion (worship of Persian sun god Mithras) is probably responsible for creating the foundation of what we call Christmas today. In the Julian calendar, the 25th of December was deemed to be the date of the winter solstice and was also the ‘nativity’ of the Sun.

According to Sir James Frazer, the Christian Church deliberately chose to celebrate the birth of its founder on the 25th of December. The idea was to transfer the devotion that ‘heathen’ peoples had for the Sun onto he who was known as the ‘Sun of Righteousness’. It appears as if the decision was made by Roman Emperor Constantine in 323 AD who effectively ‘took’ the day from the cult Sol Invictus. This led to some confusion among Christians; many of whom condemned celebrations during that period. The decision made by Constantine seemingly goes against the Book of Deuteronomy which says that God warned against the adoption of pagan customs to honor Him.

It should be noted that the first suggestion of the above ‘transfer’ of Christmas Day was not mentioned until the 12th century. Since the date was set according to the Julian calendar and we have been using the Gregorian calendar since 1582, it’s obvious that this date will be completely different now. There is also the small matter of Jesus being born years before we thought which of course has ramifications with the whole AD and B.C. timelines but that’s a story for another day!

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved
AncientWorldWonders (Pyramids at Giza)

17 -Slaves Built the Pyramids

This is one of the longest lasting myths in history as evidence to debunk it was only found in the 1990s. Until that point, it was assumed that the Egyptians used slave labor to build their magnificent pyramids. The myth goes back to at least the 5th century B.C. which is when the Book of Exodus was probably completed. The book explicitly states that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. Although there is no mention of the pyramids in Exodus, it was widely believed that these slaves were the builders of the remarkable ancient structures.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, was writing at around the same time as the completion of Exodus and he wrote that 100,000 slaves were used to complete the pyramids. However, he didn’t mention Israelites at all. This evidence was all that was needed to keep this myth alive for over 2,400 years. History books mentioned the whole ‘slaves built the pyramids’ thing as fact while Hollywood movies depicted the Egyptians as cruel tyrants who whipped their slaves. In 1977, Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that his forebears built the pyramids, not the Egyptians.

The myth was dispelled thanks to archaeological excavations of the sites near the pyramids at Giza which began in the 1990s. This huge project started after a tourist found some graves belonging to the pyramid builders in 1990. The digs found tombs dedicated to Egyptian citizens who had worked on the pyramids. A large proportion of these tombs date back to the 4th Dynasty (2575 – 2467 B.C.). The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu, was completed near the middle of the Dynasty in 2530 B.C. While the tomb shafts were relatively modest and the bodies had not been mummified, there were jars full of beer and bread for the afterlife. The way the bodies were positioned and the proximity of the tombs to the pyramids strongly suggest these builders were not slaves.

Further archaeological evidence revealed that the workers were actually recruited from poor communities in Egypt and worked in three month shifts. Herodotus’ figure was also way out as there were approximately 10,000 workers who ate reasonably well. It took around 30 years to build a pyramid and while evidence suggests these workers died fairly young, they were definitely not slaves. While the work was tough, it was probably still a better life for these laborers than what awaited them back in their impoverished homes. They were also honored for their work which would have been a big incentive back in ancient Egypt.

These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved
YouTube (Depiction of Atlantis)

18 – The Lost City of Atlantis

We can blame Greek philosopher Plato for this particular myth. He wrote about a city called Atlantis in around 330 B.C. and said the founders were half human, half god. According to Plato, Atlantis existed 9,000 years before him and consisted of a group of islands with an abundance of silver, gold and other precious metals. It also supported a range of exotic flora and fauna.

In the modern era, we have the notion that Plato spoke of Atlantis as a utopian civilization but in reality, he described it as a technologically advanced but morally bankrupt empire that tried to take over the world by force. One version of the story suggests that the ancient Athenians stood up to the Atlantis Empire. Another version says the Gods became angry with the nature of the empire and sent a night of terrible fire and earthquakes that caused Atlantis to sink to the bottom of the ocean, never to be seen again.

Speculation over where Atlantis could be found has been rife for centuries. Dozens of places have been suggested as possible locations including the Atlantic Ocean, Turkey, Germany, Bolivia, Antarctica, Malta and the Caribbean! This is despite the fact that Plato outlines where the city lies. He said it was in the Atlantic Ocean beyond ‘the pillar of Hercules’. This would place it near the Strait of Gibraltar yet no trace has ever been found.

There is a possibility that a real island inspired Plato to create his tale. A contender is the archipelago of Santorini in the Aegean Sea which was devastated by a volcanic eruption approximately 3,600 years ago. There was a highly advanced Minoan civilization living on the island at the time and it disappeared at around the same time period as the eruption. Santorini was an island at that point in history but was destroyed by the volcanic eruption which also set off tsunamis and blew an immense amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The result would have been cold, wet summers which ruined the harvests and led to the rapid decline of the Minoans.