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The History You’ve Got Wrong

28 March 2022

Regardless of who’s to blame - the media, education system, or simply under-reported new discoveries - there are some widespread historical “facts” that are just straight-up false. Have you been walking around the world believing any of these myths parading as so-called facts?

Check out this list of common historical misconceptions, and put your knowledge to the test.

1. Napoleon was not short

The image of Napoleon as a short-statured man has prevailed since the conqueror himself was alive. The idea has such a strong presence in our shared cultural consciousness that the term “Napoleon Complex” is even used to refer to small men who struggle with an inferiority complex.

However, in reality, Napoleon was not short at all. He stood at a respectable 5 feet 6 inches, a whole inch taller than the average male of his day. The myth is believed to have sprung from an affectionate nickname, “Le Petit Caporal” (The Little Corporal), which was then taken up by his enemies as a mockery.

While we’re at it, let’s dispel another myth surrounding the famous French commander - why he was always depicted with one hand concealed in his jacket. Myths persist that this pose was down to the famed general having some gastro-intestinal issue, an ulcer, or colon cancer. Some rumours even suggest that Napoleon had lost said hand in question!

In reality, Napoleon was depicted in this pose as a sign of gentlemanly restraint. Concealing one’s hand is a pose that has been indicative of honour and restraint for men as far back as the days of Ancient Greece.

2. Cleopatra was a pharaoh, but she wasn’t Egyptian

Speaking of Ancient Greece, let’s dispel a myth about one of its most famous citizens.  While Cleopatra is most likely Ancient Egypt’s most famous icon, she wasn’t in fact native to the land. In reality, she came from the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, who ruled over the land of Egypt following the conquest of Alexander the Great.

Rather than acclimatise to the land they ruled, the Ptolemaic dynasty in fact shunned the idea of integration, and actually refused to learn the Egyptian language. Cleopatra herself was, in fact, the first of her dynasty to learn the local language of the people she ruled over. In fact, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Cleopatra was reported to speak at least 9 languages - Ethiopian, Troglodytic, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Persian, Parthian, Egyptian, and her native Greek. It is also widely believed that she spoke Latin, although Plutarch never specified this.

The image of Cleopatra as fully Egyptian most likely arises from her choice of dress, as a reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis - an image that pervades to her contemporary media representation.

3.George Washington had many sets of teeth, but not wooden

There has been a long-standing historical myth that George Washington, founding father of the United States of America, established the republic while wearing a set of wooden dentures. While it is reported that the founding father indeed did have terrible dental hygiene, and wore multiple sets of dentures, none of these are believed to ever have been made from wood. Rather, from materials such as ivory, gold, and lead (that last one is now known to be poisonous!).

Historians’ best guess as to where this rumour first arose is due to Washington’s notorious penchant for strong port wine. The deep red tannins of the port likely stained his teeth, causing them to appear brown and grainy, just like wood.

4.Ancient Roman vomitoriums were not for throwing up

A “fact” that many of us may have come across throughout our years at school, was that upper-class, or Patrician, citizens of Ancient Rome would “purge” themselves between courses in a room named a vomitorium. While Ancient Romans certainly engaged in lavish and bizarre feasts, throwing up between courses was not in fact common practice.

That being said, the vomitorium was a very real space. But rather than being a place for the high and mighty to empty themselves for a second helping, a vomitorium was an entrance hall through which crowds would enter and exit Roman stadiums.

5.None of the Salem witches were burned

The infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 have gone down in history as a case of mass hysteria and the rampant persecution of women, but the perhaps most iconic image of this historical tragedy is, in fact, a complete myth. While twenty people were ultimately executed as witches, none of these victims died by burning at the stake.

In accordance with English law at the time, 19 of the accused were taken to the gallows and hung for their “crime.” One, a man named Giles Corey, was pressed to death with heavy stones for refusing to enter a plea. Beyond the executed, several others died while in jail, awaiting their trials.

The common misconception that the Salem witches were burned most likely comes from the horrifyingly common practice of burning witches that took place across Europe from the 15th to the 18th century. During these years, it is estimated that at least 50,000 people were executed for their supposed “witchcraft.” Although other execution methods, such as hanging and beheading, were often used, the burning of so-called witches was performed to prevent sorcery from beyond the grave.

Did you falsely believe any of the historical misconceptions on this list? If so, better you know the truth and can start correcting others and set the story straight!