20 history myths busted

Think you know your history? Much of it might not actually be true…

MUSSOLINI IN MADE THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME

How fascist propaganda built a myth of perfect commuting

As far as defences of fascist dictators go, «Yes, but he made the trains run on time» has to be one of the most strangely humdrum. Perhaps that’s why it so often goes unchallenged, but it’s simply not true. There are many reports that the Italian train system during Mussolini’s reign was actually quite inefficient, with people often kept waiting for trains that sometimes never came. So how did this rumour come about?

Well, because fascist dictators know a thing or two about propaganda. The train system had certainly improved but it was far from perfect. What’s more, the improvements had started before Mussolini assumed power in 1922, but Il Duce was more than happy to take credit for it. He knew the importance of spreading an impression of a country that ran like clockwork and the supposedly perfect train system was a great example. What we can say is, «Yes, but he did build the striking Milan train station.»

Origins

Desperate to show that Italy had been transformed into a smoothly running machine under his dictatorship (both to the country’s inhabitants and to the rest of the world), Benito Mussolini took credit for the improvements to the train system that had already began before he took power. In reality, he had little to do with it and they still didn’t run on time.

A KNIGHT NEEDED A CRANE TO MOUNT HIS HORSE

CIRCA 13TH-14TH CENTURIES

While protecting the wearer, medieval suits of armour also had to be lightweight in order to grant the knight flexibility when riding and in battle. Armoured suits greatly ranged in design but generally weighed around 27kg (60lb), which would not have hindered the wearer from mounting his steed unaided.

WITCHES WERE BURNED AT SALEM

1692

Of all the men and women found guilty of witchcraft in Salem, MA, 19 were executed by hanging, one was crushed by stones, but no one was burned at the stake. Though burning was an official form of execution in parts of Europe, by the end of the 17th century the practice was far less common.

NERO FIDDLED WHILE ROME BURNED

64 CE

Emperor Nero could not possibly have played the fiddle while his capital city burned down, as violin-style instruments weren’t invented until several hundred years later. In fact, Nero was not even in the city when the fire started and he hurried back to Rome to take personal control of efforts to put out the inferno.

THUMBS-UP MEANT MERCY FOR A GLADIATOR

3RD CENTURY BCE-5TH CENTURY CE

There was a range of different ways Roman crowds called for either the sparing or death of a fallen gladiator. Though a thumbs-up signal could have been used, it more likely represented death than mercy, symbolising the suspended sword of the victor. A thumb pressed to the heart is also thought to have been used to call for death.

Feminists burned their bras in the Sixties 1968

There are no records of feminist activists burning their bras as an act of protest, though this myth endures as an icon of the movement. At a picket of the 1968 Miss America pageant, hundreds of feminist activists intended to burn a stack of feminine objects, but were stopped by the police.

ROMANS VOMITED DURING FEASTS

8TH CENTURY BCE-5TH CENTURY CE

Given the name, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a vomitorium served an obvious, if unpleasant, purpose for the Ancient Romans. However, this was nothing more than a large passageway through which people entered or exited an amphitheatre, literally spewing forth from or into the room as the word’s connotations suggest.

NAPOLEON WAS SHORT

1769-1821

Napoleon Bonaparte was in fact average or above average height for the time, measuring around 1.7 metres (5.7 feet) at the time of his death. This confusion is often put down to French inches being larger than British inches in the period, as well as some elements of the British press being keen to belittle the French emperor — quite literally.

ANNE BOLEYN HAD SIX FINGERS

CIRCA 1501-1536

It’s highly unlikely that Henry VIII would have chosen a woman with such an obvious deformity to be his queen and there’s no evidence to suggest that Anne Boleyn had any more digits than the usual ten. She had many enemies at court who spread similarly malicious rumours, some of which would eventually lead to her execution.

GEORGE WASHINGTON HAD WOODEN TEETH

1732-1799

Washington did wear sets of false teeth during his life, but they were actually constructed out of more practical materials, such as lead or ivory. Rumours the founding father wore a wooden set could have emerged due to the gradual discolouration of the dentures, which he had to frequently maintain.

300 SPARTANS HELD BACK THE PERSIANS AT THERMOPYLAE

480 BCE

The Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps the most famous against-all-odds encounter of all time. However, although King Leonidas is famed for withstanding the Persian invaders with a mere 300 soldiers, records show a far larger number of Greeks — ie 6,000-7,000 — took part in the battle.

1755-1789

“LET THEM EAT CAKE”

Marie Antoinette lost her head in the Revolution, but did she utter those famous words?

As France inched ever closer to the brink of revolution, the royal family were perceived as being utterly clueless and indifferent to the suffering of their people. So much so that the French queen, Marie Antoinette — renowned for her style and notorious for her profligate spending — is supposed to have replied to news of the workers’ lack of bread with the immortal words, «Let them eat cake.»

But this never happened. From rumours of treachery to promiscuity, Marie Antoinette has long been the victim of bad press. The evidence shows the queen was not dismissive of her subjects’ suffering but keenly aware of it. Not enough to alter the way she lived, mind you, but she donated to charitable causes and wrote many letters urging her fellows to find a solution to the hardships faced by the vast majority of the population. However, the public had turned against Marie Antoinette, as her lavish lifestyle stood in sharp relief to a nation that was in dire poverty.

The first instance of the famous phrase was worded differently, but was indeed spoken by a member of the French royal court — albeit one who died close to a century before Marie Antoinette was supposed to have uttered it.

Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV, was reputed to have said, «Let them eat the crust of the pate» (la croute de pate). The phrase was repeated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher and author of such works as The Social Contract, in his autobiography Confessions, which he began writing in 1764, when Marie Antoinette was just nine. Rousseau wrote about a ‘great princess’ who was told that the peasants had no bread and replied, «Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.»

The statement remains most popularly attributed to Marie Antoinette despite the facts to the contrary, perhaps because it perfectly encapsulates the perception of the spoiled woman who was representative of an unfair class system which was on the verge of being brutally turned on its head.

Origins

Allegedly a retort to a message that the workers had no bread, «Let them eat cake» is a catchy riposte that actually was first used nearly 100 years before Marie Antoinette lost her head. The philosopher Rousseau attributed it to ‘a great princess’ and the false assumption was made and has stuck ever since.

STOCKBROKERS JUMPED FROM THE WINDOWS IN THE WALL STREET CRASH

1929

Only two fatal jumps took place on Wall Street in 1929 in the two months after the Crash, which heralded the beginning of the Great Depression. Many rumours of market speculators falling to their deaths were merely press sensationalism. Though many related suicides did occur in the following months and years, they were by various methods and in different parts of the USA.

LADY GODIVA RODE NAKED THROUGH COVENTRY

11TH CENTURY CE

It may be the most famous act of public nudity, but there’s no reason to believe Lady Godiva’s nude trip took place. Though she died in the mid-11th century, accounts of her ride didn’t surface until some 200 years later, casting serious doubt over its veracity.

JFK said: «I am a jelly doughnut» in Berlin

26 June 1963

John F Kennedy’s proud statement “Ich bin ein Berliner» (“I am a Berliner») is commonly believed to have been a mistake, referring to the Berliner doughnut in Germany. However, Kennedy’s inclusion of the word ‘ein’ was intended to give a more figurative rather than literal edge to his statement and is grammatically sound.

STOCKBROKERS JUMPED FROM THE WINDOWS IN THE WALL STREET CRASH

1929

Only two fatal jumps took place on Wall Street in 1929 in the two months after the Crash, which heralded the beginning of the Great Depression. Many rumours of market speculators falling to their deaths were merely press sensationalism. Though many related suicides did occur in the following months and years, they were by various methods and in different parts of the USA.

VAN GOGH SLICED OFF HIS EAR

1888

As well as his iconic paintings, Vincent van Gogh is famous for cutting off one of his ears. In fact, he only cut off a portion of his ear lobe, but went on to suffer a period of mental turmoil afterwards. It was during this time that he painted one of his most famous masterpieces, The Starry Night.

DR GUILLOTIN INVENTED GUILLOTINES

1789

Despite lending his name to a new model of the decapatation device, Dr Joseph Guillotin was not the machine’s inventor, with one in Ireland dating back as early as 1307 CE. In fact, Dr Guillotin wanted to banish the death penalty and, in the meantime, was fighting for more humane forms of execution when he designed his guillotine.

CIRCA 2500 BCE

SLAVES BUILT THE PYRAMIDS

We all know the pyramids were built with slave labour — weren’t they?

The pyramids are one of the most staggering achievements of architecture and engineering. Many believed Greek historian Herodotus’s claim in 450 BCE that they were built by 100,000 unpaid Israelite workers, forced into astounding feats by the cruel pharaohs and their slave drivers.

But, in fact, the men who built the pyramids were not from Israel, nor were they slaves; they were labourers from Egypt.

While many historians have believed the slaves story to be nothing but a popular myth for some time, it wasn’t conclusively debunked until 2010, when a team of Egyptian archaeologists uncovered tombs of the men who died while constructing the pyramids. The fact that they were given a ceremonial burial shows that they were afforded much more respect than slaves would have received, although the condition of their bones shows that they had a short life span and suffered from arthritis due to the back-breaking nature of their work.

Origins

It’s a falsehood that has been around for a long time. Herodotus perpetuated it when he wrote about his visit to Egypt in 450 BCE; the Book of Exodus refers to Israelites building works for the pharaoh; and Menachem Begin, the former Israeli prime minister, claimed that pyramids were built by Israelite slaves when he visited Egypt in 1977.

336 CE

JESUS WAS BORN ON 25 DECEMBER

Have we been celebrating Christmas on the wrong day?

Any study of the life of Jesus is bound to be contentious, raising a multitude of questions before any progress has been made, but there is evidence to suggest that he did once live and that he was crucified by the Roman prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. Things become more clouded, historically speaking, when we attempt to pin down the precise dates of his life.

Because although we can be fairly confident in saying he lived and died, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that 25 December is anything more than another day in the calendar. Even the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI has disputed the exact birth date of Christ, suggesting that the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus may have made an error in his calculations.

The Pope agreed with the popular belief that Jesus was, in fact, born between six and four BCE. While we can make an approximation of the year of Jesus’s birth, pinning down the day proves somewhat more difficult. This is because the Bible does not provide any dates for this event — or even a season. The closest thing to a clue we get is the shepherds tending their flocks by night, which suggests that the weather is cold.

The decision to anoint 25 December as Christ’s birthday stems from around 300 CE, when Christianity was still trying to establish itself as the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.

The Christian leaders observed the popularity of the pagan rituals and realised they needed to create their own annual celebration. The appointed date of Christmas is extremely close to the pagan celebration of Yule, which occurs on 21 December, and directly overlaps with the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Iranian celebration of the birth of Mithras, the Sun of Righteousness. After some debate about whether the day should be glorified at all, the first celebration of Christ’s birth took place in Rome in 336 CE.

Origins

Church leaders needed to combat the popularity of pagan rituals that were still rife throughout the Roman Empire, so they decided to create their own celebration. In 336 CE it was finally agreed that 25 December would be appointed as the day Christ was born.

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