Top 10 Common Historical Myths

Top 10 Common Historical Myths
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Top 10 Common Historical Myths

Over the course of many years, we come to trust certain things to be historical facts when truth be told, they are definitely not. These historical errors have gone down through the ages and keep on misleading people. Subsequently, we are happy to present you the List Universe Myth Busters episode: Top 10 Historical Errors.

10. Abner Doubleday Invented Baseball

Abner Doubleday Invented Baseball

This very common Myth of baseball credits Doubleday with inventing the Game, as far as anyone knows in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. In 1905, a council was appointed to investigate the origins of the game, their conclusion was:

“the principal scheme for playing baseball, as per the best evidence possible to date, was contrived by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. 

the years to come, in the perspective of the a huge number of people who are devoted to baseball, and the millions who will be, Abner Doubleday’s fame will rest evenly, if not quite as much, upon the fact that he was its creator … as upon his brilliant and recognized career as an officer in the Federal Army.”

In fact, this conclusion depended on the testimony of one Man, who was of questionable credibility. Jeff Idelson of the Baseball Hall of Fame has said that baseball was not so much invented anywhere, but as far as history is concerned, the First written rulesof baseball were penned by Alexander Joy Cartwright for the baseball club The Knickerbockers.

On June 3, 1953, Congress authoritatively acknowledged Cartwright with inventing the modern game of baseball.

9. The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

Most ancient and even modern paintings of the now long gone Ancient Wonder of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes show him straddling the harbor entrance with ships entering the port underneath his legs.

The Colossus was a statue (the tallest in the ancient world) of the Greek God Helios, built somewhere in the range of 292 and 280 BC and standing at a height of 30m (100ft).

Contrary to the popular misconception that the statues legs were separated, the Colossus actually stood with his legs somewhat separated on one side of the entrance to the harbor.

This renders virtually all illustrations of the statue, incorrect. The picture above is a honest portrayal of his likely stance.

8. Witches were burnt in Salem

Witches were burnt in Salem

In 1692 and 1693, anti witch Mania hit Salem, Massachusetts resulting  in a series of preliminaries that lead to the deaths  of 20 accused witches.

More than 150 individuals were tried for the crime of Witchery. In opposition to the Contrary to the Popular Myth that the witches were burnt, they were, in fact, hanged to death. Of the 20, 14 were women  and 6 were men.

All were executed by this method with the exception of one man who died during judicial torture.

7. Lizzie Borden took an axe…

Lizzie Borden took an axe

Unfortunately this myth rears its ugly head quite often, and often no measure of effort is sufficient to disprove it to the true believers. Most importantly, Lizzie – she is well known through the children’s ‘ poem:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

In fact, her father was axed out 11 times and her step mother 18 or 19 yet that isn’t the real Myth– the real Myth is the belief  that Lizzie Borden perpetrated the crime at all. After a mere one hour of jury thought, Lizzie was found honest of the crime.

To give further weight to her innocence,shortly before her trial a second axe murder happened in the area. Additionally, Lizzie was found with no blood on her minutes after the crime occurred, and no murder weapon was ever found.

6. Salome Wanted John the Baptist Killed

Salome Wanted John the Baptist Killed

The Bible tells the story of Herod executing John the Baptist and giving his head as a present to his daughter  in reward for her dance at his birthday.

Most people mistakenly believe that Salome, the daughter, requested this out of anger for John denies her advances. It was, In fact, Herodias, her mother who wanted John killed, not Salome – she was merely the messenger.

And when the daughter of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the ruler said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. and he swore to her: Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my kingdom.

Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, What shall I ask? But , her Mother stated: The head of John the Baptist. Also, when she was come in immediately with haste to the ruler, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. Mark 6:22-25

This popular myth has been seen in opera , verse, and painting.

5. Edison Invented the Lightbulb

Edison Invented the Lightbulb

 In fact, Thomas Edison not only did not invent the lightbulb, he didn’t invent Many of the things credited to him. His shrewd business skills enabled him to steal, enhance, and patent numerous ideas before their original inventors were able to do. He was, in addition, a ruthless man who attempted to dishonor different inventors in order fame for his own.

Prior to Edison’s patent for the electric lightbulb in 1880, electric lightbulb had just been invented. In 1840, British Astronomer and Chemist, Warren de la Rue, enclosed a platinum coil in a vacuum tube and passed an electric current through it, Thus creating the world’s first light –  a full 40 years before Edison.

4. Pope Joan

Pope Joan

This specific myth has been dealt somewhere else on the site, yet it is fitting that it be repeated here. The legend reveals to us that a young woman dressed as a priest and went to Rome to study. In the long run she moved toward becoming Pope however but give birth to a child while in a papal procession, causing the crowds to murder her by stoning. In fact, there never was a Pope Joan.

The myth Seems to have begun around the 13th century from the writings of Martin of Opava (Martin Polonus), a Polish chronicler, and it generally places  Joan in the 9th century Papacy. Aside from Catholic writing, even enemies of the Catholic Church at the time (for example, Photius) make no mention at all of a female Pope. As indicated by the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“Between Leo IV and Benedict III, where Martinus Polonus places her, she can’t be embedded, Because Leo IV Died on 17 July 855, and instantly after his Death Benedict III was elected by the clergy and People of Rome; but owing  to the setting up of an antipope, in the person of the deposed Cardinal Anastasius, he was not consecrated until 29 September.

Coins exist which bear both the picture of Benedict III and of Emperor Lothair, who Died on 28 September 855; therefore Benedict must have been recognized as pope before the last-mentioned date.”

The recent resurgence in the belief in this myth is most like the result of Anti-Catholic and feminist impractical thinking, as per Philip Jenkins, author of The New Anti-Catholicism.

3. Lady Godiva Rode Naked

Lady Godiva Rode Naked

Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon honorable woman who is supposed to have ridden through the streets of Coventry naked in order to force her husband – Leofric (968– 1057) – to remove an unfair tax on his tenants. Both she and her Husband were generous to poor people and religious institutions in their time.

In 1043 Leofric established and endowed a Benedictine religious community at Coventry and it is believed  that his wife , Godiva, was the primary instigator of this. It is very possible that the legend has sprung from this particular event.

However, there is no doubt that her husband was an generous man with little need for compulsion. Interestingly, the legend of the Peeping Tom also arises  from this Myth as later versions of it portray a man, Tom, who peeped at Lady Godiva while she rode stripped, and was struck blind.

2. “Let them eat Cake”

“Let them eat Cake”

According to popular myth, Queen Marie Antoinette was heard to say: “S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” (“If they have no bread, let them eat brioche”) – referring to poor people.First of all even Queen Marie had made this comment, it would have not had the same meaning as it does today.

Laws at the time of her reign meant  that bakers, who run out of cheap bread, had to sell  their finer bread, (for example, brioche) at the lower price, in order to protect people from ruthless bakers who would make insufficient quantities of inexpensive bread in order to make a bigger profit.

That aside, the Queen did not say these words at all, they were actually written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book “Confessions” – written a number of years before Marie Antoinette becoming Queen. His exact  words:

“I recalled the make-shift of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche’. ”

The misattribution and perpetuation of this myth is most likely a result of Anti-Royal propaganda following the revolution in which she and her husband were murdered.

1. Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned

Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned

In July 18 to July 19, 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome occured. The popular myth surrounding this event is that Nero fiddled while he watched Rome burn, and later benefited by its burning by using cleared land for his new palace.

Suetonius and Cassius Dio said that Nero sang the “Sack of Ilium” in stage costume while the city burned.However, Tacitus’ account has Nero in Antium at the time of the fire. Tacitus said that Nero playing his lyre and singing while the city burned was just rumor. In fact, According to Tacitus, after hearing news of the fire, Nero surged back to Rome to organize a relief effort, which he paid for from his own funds .

After the fire, Nero opened his royal residences to give safe shelter for the homeless, and arranged  for food supplies to be delivered in order to prevent starvation among the survivors. In the wake of the fire, he made a new urban development plan. Houses after the fire were spaced out, built in brick, and faced by porticos on wide roads. Nero also built a new palace complex known as the Domus Aurea in an area cleared by the fire.

Incidentally, the violin (fiddle) would not be invented for a full 1,000 years after the Great Fire of Rome.


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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.