10 Horrible Historic Misconceptions That Won’t Go Away

Misconceptions

K. Hughes

It does not matter how many history classes we take, documentaries we watch, or books we read, we know nothing about history. After hundreds, if not thousands, of years of retelling and exaggeration, accounts of objects and events end up as little more than vague rumors riddled with inaccuracies. Even the most basic historical “facts” are subject to this “telephone-game” warping effect, leaving your average history textbook about as nonfiction as The Lord of the Rings. Prepare for a dose of cold, hard, history-shattering truth.

10Vikings

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What everyone knows they were:

Brutal Scandinavian barbarians decked out in horned helmets and the dried blood of their enemies. These filthy seafaring bandits terrorized ancient coastlines and spread fear to the far corners of the Earth.

What they actually were:

A merry band of primping pretty boys. It turns out that while they liked raping and pillaging, they loved cosmetology. It was not unusual for a Viking to carefully work his hair and beard into elaborate styles meant to show status. They even plucked their eyebrows. Hair bleaching was also common practice; lye obtained from ash was used to give these maritime monsters a head of glorious golden locks. It was so important to Viking culture to maintain these magnificent manes that men often carried small personal grooming kits attached to their belts. Archaeologists have even discovered tombs stocked with huge collections of grooming supplies; death is no reason to dress down.

9Velociraptors

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What everyone knows they were:

Extremely angry overgrown lizards. The Jurassic Park series taught us the stern lesson—repeatedly—that these sleek killing machines were the nightmare fuel of prehistory. When most people think “dinosaur,” they think of these scaly monsters.

What they actually were:

Extremely angry overgrown chickens. Much to the dismay of filmmakers and eight-year-olds the world over, recent findings indicate that these feared beasts of old were a bit less intimidating than previously thought. Not only were they significantly smaller than we imagine—only about the size of a small dog—but they were covered in feathers. Velociraptor arm bones have been found to have rows of quill knobs, the anchor points for the huge feathers used to form bird wings. So yes, the terrifying prehistoric beasts we thought we knew were really more turkey than T-Rex, but this discovery actually makes them more amazing, to science anyway. They now form an important link in the chain of evolution from dinosaurs to modern birds.

8Napoleon Bonaparte

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What everyone knows he was:

A borderline dwarf bent on world domination. Since his failed bid to conquer the Earth, Napoleon has been the butt of countless jokes about his stature. We have even named a height-based psychological condition after the furious Frenchman.

What he actually was:

Pretty much the same height as everyone else. Unfortunately, in Napoleon’s day, the French and English units of measurement used the same terms but were not equal in distance. This meant that his height of five feet two inches (1.6 meters) sounded laughable to his English enemies, even though his actual height—five feet six and a half inches (1.69 meters)—was roughly average for the era. To make matters worse, Napoleon tended to surround himself with extremely tall, intimidating Imperial Guards, creating the illusion that he was much shorter than he actually was. But history is written by the victors, and after his defeat, his enemies gleefully threw lies about the “insane dwarf” into every history book they could find.

7The Roman Army

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What everyone knows it was:

An unstoppable force of highly trained, highly organized elite warriors. Everyone is familiar with the image of Roman legions marching in rigid formation, their silver armor and weaponry striking fear into their barbarian enemies. It is easy to accept this as fact; Rome did conquer most of the known world, after all.

What it actually was:

A chaotic, confusing mashup of mostly amateur fighters. While legionaries were indeed highly trained warriors, the bulk of Rome’s military was composed of whatever ragtag bands of fighters they had conquered. As the Empire expanded, it became clear that there simply were not enough legions to go around, so the Roman army began recruiting filler soldiers from newly won regions. These auxiliaries often had useful skills particular to the area, like mounted combat or archery, but were poorly trained overall. They were treated as second-class soldiers and were never given uniforms, so they fought in their own armor. This means the average Roman fighting force probably looked about as intimidating and organized as a Where’s Waldo book.

6The Pyramids

pyramids

What everyone knows they were:

Gigantic rough sandstone monuments. From grade school onward, we are taught about the crowning achievement of the ancient Egyptians: the Pyramids. When told to think of Egypt, they are probably exactly what pop into your head. Like extensions of the desert itself, these sandy structures are elegant in their simplicity.

What they actually were:

Gaudy gold and white monstrosities. We have only ever known the Pyramids to be the jagged beige mounds they are today, so we tend to assume they were built that way. Originally, however, they were encased in a layer of brilliant white limestone blocks, which were seamlessly placed and polished to a blinding shine. The points were then plated with gold—these were meant to be the tombs of pharaohs, after all. But unsurprisingly, over four millennia of harsh desert conditions have stolen the garish outer layer, leaving behind only the inner sandstone base.

5Medieval Battles

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What everyone knows they were:

Epic bloody clashes of medieval might. The iconic image of two sprawling armies charging at each other, swords drawn, arrows raining down around them is something we are all familiar with. Films make millions treating us to glimpses of this legendary period in the history of warfare.

What they actually were:

Epic lazy picnics of medieval might. The huge battles we like to imagine did happen, but only extremely rarely. Soldiers were valuable things, and very few commanders were brash enough to gamble them on a risky open battle. More often than not, the armies of old preferred to stick to the much safer—if considerably less exciting—tactic of sieging. The invading force would simply surround the enemy fortress with all manner of deadly objects, set up camp, and wait for them to get hungry or bored enough to give up. Sieges could last a few days to a few years, leaving hardened warriors to twiddle their thumbs and look for something other than “castle” to say during “I Spy.”

4Ancient Greek Statues

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What everyone knows they were:

Elegant ivory-white masterpieces. Like so many other things, the Ancient Greeks knew what they were doing when it came to sculpture. So beautiful were their pure white statues that even now, thousands of years later, they remain a symbol of taste, class, and elegance.

What they actually were:

Tacky psychedelic nightmares. As it turns out, time and weather are perfect paint stripping tools. Recent tests on the marble statues of Ancient Greece reveal that not only were they originally painted, but they were painted in the brightest, most retina-searing hues imaginable. Unlike the restrained, meditative society we imagine, bright reds, blues, and yellows would have screamed from every corner of ancient cities. So why the confusion? In addition to the millennia of wear, archaeologists were known to scrub the last traces of paint from discovered sculptures—they just thought they looked better that way. A tragedy for history, but a victory for good taste.

3Gladiators

gladiators

What everyone knows they were:

Professional athletes of Ancient Rome. These lean, mean, Emperor entertaining, killing machines slaughtered their way through wild beasts and heavily armed opponents in Rome’s famed Colosseum, and they looked good doing it. After all, when every day on the job is a fight for survival, you had better be in shape.

What they actually were:

Big fat frauds. Literally. While people did die in these notorious deathmatches, the gladiator’s job was not specifically to kill the enemy—it was to put on a good show. This meant the ability to sustain big, dramatic wounds and keep on fighting was crucial. For a physically fit person, this would be a problem, but the Gladiators had a secret: fat. By packing on a nice blubbery layer of natural body armor, they could take all sorts of serious looking wounds without actually damaging anything important. They used this trick of the trade to rile up the crowd and make for better performances, although it meant they looked less like Chris Hemsworth and more like Chris Farley.

2Samurai

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What everyone knows they were:

Extremely skilled Japanese swordsman. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of Japanese history knows enough about these ancient warriors to recognize the “samurai sword”—the katana. These long, thin blades were their life, and they mastered their use in combat.

What they actually were:

Extremely skilled Japanese archers. Sure, they carried the famous blades and even used them on occasion, but they absolutely hated doing so. As it turns out, katanas were only meant to be weapons of last resort; a samurai’s real worth was determined by his skill with a bow. Living by the code of Kyuba no michi, or “the way of the horse and bow,” samurai preferred to begin and end every fight on horseback with a bow—not a sword—in hand. Resorting to swordplay was not only more dangerous than ranged combat, it was downright shameful. To a samurai, drawing his sword equaled failure as an archer, making him a disgrace to his entire order.

1Leonardo da Vinci

leonardo-da-vinci-vitruvian-man

What everyone knows he was:

A frail old Italian artist and inventor. The painter of the Mona Lisa has been given a very specific look by history and pop culture. Grey, stooped, and wiry, he always looks more or less like the mad scientist he sort of was.

What he actually was:

A ridiculously muscular Italian artist, inventor, and soldier. Of course, he ended up the kindly grandfather type we know and love, but most of his career saw him with a bit of a different look. After traveling with warrior bands and developing a passion for building his huge inventions with his bare hands, da Vinci was in pretty good shape. So good, in fact, people often stood in awe of his good looks and incredible physique. He was known to be extremely strong; he was rumored to entertain guests at parties by bending horseshoes with one hand. Of course, none of this takes away from his genius; it is just vaguely annoying. It would be like if those huge guys at the gym went on to win the Nobel Prize. It is just not fair.


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