8 Lies Your History Teacher Probably Told You

Christopher Columbus discovered America. Vikings wore horned helmets. Hitler was a vegetarian. Sounds familiar? Those widespread historical misconceptions may have been sown into your brain as soon as you reached school age. But it’s never too late to learn! Let’s debunk some of them.

Pyramid workers weren’t slaves

We usually portray pyramid builders as slaves whipped on a daily basis and struggling to make ends meet. However, although slavery did exist in Ancient Egypt, the workers of the Valley of the Kings were actually well-paid laborers with working conditions far above average. On the construction site of the Great Pyramid of Giza (the only Wonder of the Ancient World still standing), some even went on strike to ask for more garlic in their daily food ration. Their claims were heard; and that was some 4,000 years ago!

ancient egyptian workers not slaves misconceptions
Bas-relief on the tomb of Rekhmire, Thebes. (Source: Center for Online Judaic Studies)

The fact that pyramid workers were well-treated is made clear by Egyptologists: both the drawings found inside Egyptian temples and the graves in which the labourers were buried (containing items like bread or beer) prove that they were far more precious that anything on the construction site, let alone architects and… garlic.

Neron didn’t fiddle while Rome burnt

Nero was a vicious Roman Emperor — he got his own mother assassinated five years into his reign — but one may argue that being cruel and merciless was part of the job requirements. He was also accused of playing the fiddle while a devastating fire swept through Rome. The Roman historian Suetonius (Life of Nero, 38) recalls:

“For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs. […] Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in “the beauty of the flames,” [Nero] sang the whole of the “Sack of Ilium,” in his regular stage costume.”

The blaze itself did happen, as many historical sources corroborate it, in 64 AD. And it was a big deal: two thirds of the city were reduced to ashes! However, it is belived that Nero was missing when the fire started. Upon hearing the news, the Emperor immediately came back to dispatch rescuers and Vigiles (firefighters).

Robert,_Hubert_-_Incendie_à_Rome_-
Hubert Robert, The Fire of Rome, ca. 1771. (Credit: MuMa Le Havre/Public domain)

The musical instrument he supposedly played did not exist at the time anyway — fiddles were introduced well into the 11th century… So it is highly likely that Suetonius’ claim was a rather avant-garde piece of fake news, aimed at bringing into disrepute the most powerful man of the time.

Vikings weren’t that epic, really

Here’s a typical Hollywood viking: beardy, brawny and wearing an unmistakable horned helmet. You may forget about that last feature, however: there is absolutely no evidence (engraving, historical text or archaeological discovery) that ever proved the existence of horned helmets in the wide variety of Scandinavian items. We probably owe this misconception to Richard Wagner, the German opera composer who drew inspiration from Norse mythology and widely popularized the image.

Vikings_Arkeologisk_museum_Stavanger,_Norway_2015-05-27
Vikings probably looked more like this (which is by no means less scary). Diorama exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Stavanger, Norway. (Photo: Wolfmann via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Let’s kill another bird with that stone: Vikings did not drink from the skulls of their defeated enemies. That misconception is based on a translation mistake from the skaldic poem known as Krákumál, written in the 12th century: it encouraged warriors to ‘drink beer at once from the curved branches of skulls’. Some misinterpreted this as a sign that Vikings clinked human skulls together, while the poem simply meant animal horns, usually cattle or goats. However, archaeologists did find human skulls used as drinking glasses, but from an older (and darker) period: the Palaeolithic.

The Middle Ages featured progress and prosperity

The medieval period is undoubtedly the black sheep of human history. Thinking about it without historical insight, one usually pictures narrow streets littered with trash and excrement, bloody executions, torture, obscurantism — all in all not a great time to be alive, right? Even the name itself (from Latin medium aevum) suggests that the era was a mere transitional age, caught in a vice between Antiquity and Renaissance. Actually, even the term Renaissance (litterally, ‘revival’) implies that history was somewhat brain-dead through the ‘Dark Ages’, and that its rebirth occured in the 15th century!

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A medieval university illustrated in a 14th-century manuscript. People slept during class before modern times.

You may throw those stereotypes away: medieval times were a time for progress (obviously overshadowed by wars and epidemics) which proved decisive in the history of mankind. Division of work, opening of trade routes across the world, development of schooling (especially in monasteries) and cultural boom contradict the image of a retrograde, dark era.

Columbus rediscovered America

This common misconception is so widespread (even among scholars) that the date 1492 remains a historical hinge, closing the Middle Ages and opening on the Renaissance era. However, the Italian explorer was not the first European to discover America. Viking expeditions certainly preceded him as soon as the 10th century, with the memorable journey of Erik the Red; recent archaeological excavations in Newfoundland, Canada, have unearthed a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows.

1280px-I._E._C._Rasmussen_-_Sommernat_under_den_Grønlandske_Kyst_circa_Aar_1000
Viking longships have certainly dropped anchor in America before Columbus’  schooners. (Painting by Carl Rasmussen, 1875 via Wikipedia/Public domain)

It is also rumored that an Irish monk, Brendan the Navigator, was the first European to reach America between 530 and 550. Coup de grâce to Columbus’ posterity: the Italian captain never set foot on continental North America, only exploring the Caribbean and South America. Oopsie.

The Storming of the Bastille wasn’t heroic

Bastille Day — July 14, 1789 — marked the spark of the French Revolution, soon to spread across the continent and overthrow long-lasting monarchies. The prison was a symbol of monarchist abuses and arbitrariness: that’s why people who tore it apart were considered heroes. History books usually picture them as free-spirited revolutionaries, releasing hundreds of prisoners from the darkness of their cells… However, only seven people were imprisoned at the time (King Louis XVI had even considered razing the prison to the ground since it had become useless and expensive).

Prise_de_la_Bastille,_H._Jannin,_Musée_de_la_Ré&volution_française_-_Vizille
An idealized image of the Storming of the Bastille. (Source: H. Jannin, Musée de la Révolution Française via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The 14th of July was also a bloody day. The governor of the prison was slaughtered by the crowd despite its promise to spare his life (his head was then cut off by the butcher’s apprentice and shown around the city). That was the beginning of the end for Marie-Antoinette, her first step from the court to the courthouse. All in all, the Storming of the Bastille was a day of blood and anger, not of freedom and heroism. But it took down a symbol and gave birth to a will that would ultimately drive the monarchists away.

Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t short

Napoleon (1769-1821) was a French military commander who was remarkably smart — and, by all accounts, ridiculously short. His body was measured shortly after his death; it turns out Napoleon was 1,69m (5.54 feet) tall, which was about the average size in 19th-century France. So why does everybody keep thinking he was that short? The French perspective is that he was always surrounded by brawny bodyguards and hussars, which would make the Emperor look shorter. Plus, his own soldiers affectionately nicknamed him ‘the Little Corporal’. The English, Napoleon’s sworn enemies, also played a part in popularizing that misconception; they took perverse pleasure in mocking him, portraying him as a midget so as to make a dent in his prestige…

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The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver’. This caricature features George III, King of England, holding a miniature version of Napoleon. (Credit: James Gillray, 1803 via MET)

Adolf, eat up your broccoli!

So goes the popular belief: Adolf Hitler, one of the worst butchers in history, was a vegetarian. That claim is widespread among carnivores who have good fun mocking vegetarians for their poor choice of role models… But is it true anyway? As far as the Nazi general staff is concerned, the Führer did follow a veggie diet — lots of vegetables were indeed served at his table for lunch and dinner. Even Hitler’s food tasters remember the asparagus-filled plates that the dictator would eat up… However, his diet did not stem from any ethical values; rather, from the advice of his doctor! Hitler had recurrent stomachaches and flatulences, so it was thought vegetables would improve his condition. But that did not prevent the Führer from eating sausages or roasted pigeon, two meals he was mad about!

 

 


References

  • Suetonius, The Life of the Twelve Caesars (1914), Loeb Classical Library.
  • John Loyd & John Mitchinson, The Book of General Ignorance (2006), Faber&Faber.
  • Eric Cline, Trois pierres c’est un mur… Une histoire de l’archéologie (2018), CNRS.
  • Pierre Monteuil, Fausses vérités et vrais mensonges de l’Histoire (2016), Jourdan.
  • Claude Quétel, L’histoire véritable de la Bastille (2006), Larousse.
  • History Staff, “Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned?” History.com, 20/11/2012.
  • Sarah Pruitt, “6 Reasons The Dark Ages Weren’t So Dark” History.com, 31/5/2016.
  • Robert Wilde, “Was Napoleon Bonaparte Really Short?” ThoughtCo, 22/10/2019.

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