My Top-5 Historical Misconceptions

Lots of people have been doing lists of popular misconceptions, so I wanted to make one myself. Originally, this started off as a top-10, but it got a little Western centric so I decided to limit it only to five most interesting topics for me personally. If you’ve made your own lists of misconceptions, please share, I love this sort of stuff.

5. William Wallace was never called Brave Heart

I actually covered this already in my 10 Most Important Historical Errors in Braveheart blog, but I decided that it was more fun to have this here than some depressing facts about the Elephant Man (whose first name wasn’t John).

The Scottish freedom fighter, played by Mel Gibson in the epic 1995 historical war movie, Wallace indeed was never called by the title of Brave Heart unlike the movie suggests. He also didn’t wear a kilt or blue face-paint into battles, his wife was called Marian not Murron and he never married in secrecy to prevent his wife’s virginity being taken away by those dastardly English and their sick primae noctis principle (in fact, primae noctis was probably never a real thing to begin with).

The person who donned the name “Brave Heart” was actually Scotland’s eventual king and Wallace’s contemporary, Robert the 17th Bruce. However, he only acquired this nickname after his death when his heart was carried by a trusted general in a box around his neck into battle. Therefore, Robert’s “brave heart” lead the Scots to battle. As noted in my original blog about the movie, Gibson probably picked Braveheart as the movie’s title because it sounded more catchy that The Adventures of William Wallace and his Merry Men.

4. Jesus wasn’t born on December 25 in the year 0 BC, BCE, AD or CE

I should expect any reasonably educated individual to know this, but I think there’s always room in any top-10 for a Jesus entry. Famous founder of the Christian faith, a believer in peace and tolerance at a time when things were nasty and people tended to kill each other on the drop of a hat and, of course, the purported son of God (or Jehovah as he would have said).

Obviously, commemorating the birth of Jesus was as important to early Christians as it would have been to commemorate his death (on Passover/Easter), but for the longest time there weren’t reliable records for the actual birth-date of Jesus. December 25 was originally a Roman holiday, dedicated to the Sun to ensure that the winter would not be too harsh. When Emperor Constantine the Great eventually converted to Christianity, December 25 of course became the “Mass of Christ” or Christmas.

As for Jesus’ birth-year, most historians now agree that Jesus was probably born around 5 BC/BCE. However, I don’t think we can blame the early Christians for guessing his birth-year incorrectly since the first Gospel (Matthew) was written almost 20 years after Jesus’ death. In fact, for a split-group of Judaism with no historical records at their disposal, I don’t think a five-year discrepancy is even that big of an error.

3. Before Christopher Columbus discovered America, people didn’t think the Earth was flat

I do feel a bit bitter that John Green beat me to this one, but I wanted to include it anyway because I think Christopher Columbus serves as a living (well dead, but you know what I mean) example that we as a humanity aren’t nearly as clever as we think.

It’s easy to dismiss that people living in Columbus’ day were all undeveloped, poor and dirty folk who lived in an irrational fear of burning in Hell after their death and falling off the edge of the Earth.

In truth, people have known the Earth to be round probably since the time of the Ancient Egyptians and the Ancient Greeks were even the first ones to make (surprisingly) accurate mathematical calculations on the size of the Earth. This was possible because of the very easily observable fact that the mast of an arriving ship is the first thing to appear on the horizon, and the Greeks and Egyptians of course performed a great deal of their trade by ship.

2. Hitler was not gay, secretly a Jew or missing a testicle

Here’s a tip for anyone having to do a class presentation or a term-paper on Hitler. 99% of the “facts” you find on Hitler online are almost certainly either false or very colourful interpretations of Adolf Hitler’s life. In fact, the number of people speculating on Hitler’s sexuality is ridiculous; people have suggested that Hitler was into every kinky thing on the planet from little boys to people peeing on him. I take the advice of a legit historian who once said that any theory about Hitler’s sexual deviancy usually says more about the person making the theory than it does about Hitler.

Hitler’s supposed Jewish ethnic roots are also based on extremely shaky evidence. While it would be hilarious to some (very sick) people that Hitler, one of the primus engines of the holocaust, was himself Jewish or at least partly Jewish – the whole matter becomes less funny when you consider that we are all essentially of African origin if you look far enough into our past.

I like to end on Hitler’s missing testicle since this one gets repeated to the point that it’s already made it into our popular imagination. Firstly, the reason we have very little reliable knowledge about Hitler’s health is because the ass-hats who found Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies in Hitler’s bunker decided to drag his body into a ditch, cover him with petrol and light him up. Hitler’s burnt corpse was then recovered by the Soviets and an autopsy was conducted after which the Soviets did what they did best and disposed of the body. The mythical missing testicle was supposedly mentioned in this Soviet medical report, but now Russian historians believe that the missing testicle was only added to the report as part of anti-fascist propaganda.

1. Nero did not play the violin as Rome burned

Let’s take this one from the top. Yes, there was a Roman Emperor called Nero. Yes, Rome has burned on more than one occasion. Yes, Rome burned during the summer of 64 AD/CE – during Nero’s reign. However, the popular image of Nero playing the violin as Rome burned is one of those bizarre brain-fart logic statements that both intentionally and unintentionally has taken on a life of its own.

Firstly, let’s get the simply fact that the instrument, known as the violin, was not invented until the 16th Century out of the way. The idea of Nero playing the violin comes from the misinterpretation of the expression “to fiddle about”, which in the common lexicon of today would mean the same as “to fuck about”, meaning as doing absolutely nothing useful (although I’m afraid of how people’s imaginations would work if the expression “to fuck about” had existed at the time this expression of Nero was first made up). So obviously, a lot of people have seemingly taken the whole expression too literally, to the point where they actually believe Nero was playing the violin during The Great Fire of Rome.

As to whether Nero actually fucked about while Rome was burning, the evidence is very conflicting. Historical records from either around the time Nero’s reign or shortly after his death are what put forth the claim that Nero failed to stop the fire, but many historians believe that the Roman Fire was simply too out of control for Nero to intervene though he tried his best to organise its extinguishment. As to why the historical records would lie about Nero’s efforts, the most likely explanation is that they were written by his political enemies after his death.