10 Insanely Inaccurate Historical Icons

Misconceptions

Liam James

Despite all our classes, books, and documentaries, it turns out that we know exactly nothing about history. After hundreds, maybe thousands, of years of retelling and exaggeration, “true stories” have an annoying tendency to end up as little more than vague rumors riddled with inaccuracies. Even the most basic historical “facts” are subject to this bizarre 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.

10 Vikings

The Vikings are believed to have been 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. However, it turns out that while they liked raping and pillaging, they loved cosmetology.

Yes, this horde of snarling man-beasts was really a merry band of primping pretty boys. 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 a 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—because death is no reason to dress down.[1]

9Velociraptors

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. Any third grader could tell you what a velociraptor was: an extremely unfriendly prehistoric lizard.

Unfortunately, though, any biologist could tell you what they actually were: extremely unfriendly prehistoric 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—they were covered in feathers.[2]

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.

8 Napoleon Bonaparte

Poor Napoleon Bonaparte. Since his failed bid to conquer the Earth, this psychotic borderline dwarf has been the butt of countless jokes about his stature. We have even named a height-based psychological condition after the furious Frenchman. Everyone just has far too much fun mocking him to let the fact that he was pretty much the same height as everyone else get them down.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, the French and English units of measurement used the same terms in his day. But they were not equal in distance. This meant that his height of 5’2″ in French units sounded laughable to his English enemies, even though his actual height—169 centimeters (5’7″)—was roughly average for the era.[3]

To make matters worse, Napoleon tended to surround himself with extremely tall, intimidating Imperial Guard soldiers, creating the illusion that he was much shorter than he actually was. But history is written by the victors. So after his defeat, his enemies gleefully threw lies about the “insane dwarf” into every history book they could find.

7 The Roman Army

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. After all, Rome did conquer most of the known world. There was nothing this unstoppable force of highly trained, highly organized, elite warriors couldn’t achieve.

Except existence, apparently, because the real Roman army was a chaotic, confusing mash-up of mostly amateur fighters. While legionaries were indeed highly trained warriors, the bulk of Rome’s military was composed of whatever ragtag bands of misfits they had conquered.[4]

As the empire expanded, it became clear that there simply weren’t 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 they 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.

6 The Pyramids

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

However, since we have only ever known the pyramids to be the jagged beige mounds they are today, we tend to assume they were built that way. Originally, though, they were gaudy gold-and-white monstrosities.[5]

Encased in a layer of brilliant white limestone blocks, which were seamlessly placed and polished to a blinding shine, the monuments were visible for miles. The points were plated with gold for good measure. After all, these were meant to be the tombs of pharaohs.

But unsurprisingly, more than four millennia of harsh desert conditions and generations of looters have stolen the garish outer layer, leaving behind only the inner sandstone base.

5 Medieval Battles

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. These epic bloody clashes of medieval might have become a representation of the entire era.

Too bad they were actually more like epic lazy picnics of medieval might. The huge battles we like to imagine did happen but only rarely. Soldiers were valuable things, and very few commanders were brash enough to gamble them on a risky open battle.[6]

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 the enemy 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.”

4 Ancient Greek Statues

Everyone has seen at least one of these elegant ivory 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.

But as it turns out, time and weather are the perfect paint-stripping tools. Recent tests on the marble statues of ancient Greece reveal that they were originally painted in the brightest, most retina-searing hues imaginable.

Unlike the restrained, meditative society we imagine, the bright reds, blues, and yellows of these tacky psychedelic nightmares would have screamed from every corner of ancient cities.[7] So why the confusion?

In addition to the millennia of wear, archaeologists were known to actually scrub the last traces of paint from discovered sculptures. They just thought the sculptures looked better that way. A tragedy for history but a victory for good taste.

3 Gladiators

Gladiators were the 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.

However, while people did die in these notorious death matches, the gladiator’s job wasn’t specifically to kill the enemy. It was to put on a good show. The ability to sustain big, dramatic wounds and keep on fighting was crucial.[8]

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, these big fat frauds 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. However, it meant that they looked less like Chris Hemsworth and more like Chris Farley.

2 Samurai

These extremely skilled swordsmen have come to symbolize medieval Japanese society. 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 the samurai mastered their use in combat.

But only in the movies. In reality, samurai were 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 (“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.[9]

1 Leonardo da Vinci

Photo credit: BBC

You are probably aware that Leonardo da Vinci was a frail, old Italian artist and inventor. The painter of the Mona Lisa is no stranger to history and pop culture, both of which have given him a very specific look. Gray, stooped, and wiry, he always looks more or less like the mad scientist he sort of was.

Of course, he did end up the kindly grandfather type we know and love, but most of his career saw him with a very different look. Da Vinci was a man of many hobbies, and it turns out that bodybuilding was nestled right between art and engineering.

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, that people often stood in awe of his good looks and incredible physique.[10]

He was known to be extremely strong. In fact, 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’s just vaguely annoying—as if one of those huge guys at the gym went on to win the Nobel Prize. It just isn’t fair.

 

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