Myth Busting Classical History

 

The Giza pyramid complex.

MYTH: The pyramids were built using slave labor.

TRUTH: It’s unlikely that the Egyptians made wide use of slaves to construct the pyramids. Hieroglyphs and archeological sites suggest that it was actually a potentially society-wide network of skilled ancient workers who were paid relatively well.

#Myths #AncientEgypt #Pyramids

The infamous Trojan Horse

MYTH: The Greeks used a Trojan horse to sack the city of Troy.

TRUTH: The only places that the Trojan horse is mentioned in antiquity is in the Aeneid, an epic poem written by Virgil hundreds of years after the supposed events; and The Odyssey, an epic poem written by Homer. Likely, this infamous subterfuge never actually happened.

#TrojanHorse #Troy #Homer #Virgil

The Spartans

Myth: Just 300 Spartans held off the Persian at Thermopylae for three days.

Truth: Indeed, there were only 300 Spartan soldiers guarding the pass at Thermopylae, but they had support from neighboring allies numbering over 5,000 soldiers. It is true however, that the Persian army was tens of thousands strong, perhaps even 100,000 in number. So a three day stand with less than 6,000 soldiers is still impressive.

#Spartans #Thermopylae

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Colossus of Rhodes 

Myth: The Colossus of Rhodes straddled the Greek harbor of Rhodes.

Truth: The Colossus of Rhodes was an authentic statue, but it did not straddle the harbor of the Greek isle of Rhodes. The 100-foot high statue of Helios was erected adjacent to the harbor in 280 BC. Artistic recreations showing the statue straddling the harbor are simply wrong. The giant statue toppled over during an earthquake in 226 BC, and its legend remains today.

#ColossusOfRhodes #ArtistRepresentations

Viking warrior

Myth: Viking warriors wore horned helmets

Truth: It’s difficult to tackle this because the image of the Viking warrior with his ax, dragon-headed boat, and horned helmet is one of the most iconic in European history. Almost every popular representation of a Viking has the horns. Unfortunately, there’s a problem… there were no horns!

#Vikings #HornedHelmets

Droit de Seigneur

Myth: Droit de Seigneur

Truth: Did lords really have the right to spirit newly married women away on their weddings nights, as Braveheart would have you believe? Well, no, not at all. This was a lie designed to slander your neighbors, and most probably didn’t exist at all, let alone in the way the film shows.

#DroitDeSeigneur #Slander

Nero throwing Christians to the lions

Myth: Nero Threw Christians to the lions.

Truth: There were a lot of crazy shows Romans saw at the Colosseum. The ones best remembered today are the gladiator fights and Christians being thrown to the lions. However, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that Christians were ever executed in the Colosseum, by lions or otherwise. The idea was spread mostly by Renaissance artists and writers.

Just to be clear, there have been Christians sentenced to damnatio ad bestias(condemnation to beasts). There have also been people who were killed by animals in the Colosseum. There just is no reliable proof that the two overlapped.

We know for a fact that Nero never did this for a simple reason: The Colosseum didn’t exist when he was emperor. Nero reigned until AD 68, and construction of the Colosseum didn’t start until four years later under Vespasian. Nero is often the emperor most associated with the act because, according to contemporary historians, he was the first Roman emperor to persecute Christians. Tacitus said that Nero blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. However, Tacitus wrote that Nero had Christians killed by burning, crucifixion, or being mauled by dogs. He makes no mention of lions.

#Christians #Nero #Colosseum

Gladiators

Myth: All gladiators were slaves

Truth: While it’s true that most gladiators were captives who’d been forced into this dangerous occupation, the lifestyle attracted plenty of freeborn citizens as well—including women. The appeal was plain to see: Like modern wrestlers, successful gladiators frequently became celebrities. A few of them even amassed small fortunes, since winning a big fight could mean taking home a cash prize.

Those who willingly became gladiators were usually impoverished people who sought the financial security that the profession offered. A good number of ex-Roman soldiers signed up as well. To receive training, they’d join what was known as a ludus—gladiator troupes that doubled as rigorous combat schools. The typical ludus was owned by a wealthy politician or former gladiator, who’d rent out his fighters for use in organized shows. Julius Caesar himself once ran a troupe which may have contained up to 1000 gladiators.

Eventually, the government cracked down on freeborn combatants. To help keep young aristocrats out of the fighting pits, the Senate issued an age requirementin 11 CE. This made it illegal for free men who were younger than 25 and free women who hadn’t yet turned 20 from joining a ludus. A subsequent ruling enacted in 19 CE barred all upper-class ladies from becoming gladiators. Then, in 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus officially turned this into an all-male sport.

#Gladiators #NotAlwaysSlaves #Women

Myth 2: Gladiator fights were to the death.

Truth: Historian Georges Ville has calculated that during the first century CE, out of 100 fights (and 200 gladiators), 19 gladiators died, giving a death rate of around 10 percent (approximately 20 percent for the loser). By the year 300 CE, however, these confrontations became deadlier. In Ville’s estimation, half of all the man-to-man gladiator fights around that time ended with the loser’s demise.

Even so, those odds still might seem low to contemporary movie fans—after all, in “sword and sandal” flicks, gladiator fights almost always result in at least one fatality. However, Ville’s numbers make a lot more sense when you consider the real-life economics involved. Gladiators were expensive, and if one died in combat or was permanently disabled, the venue paid a steep fine to the owner of his ludus. To help keep the body count down, fighters might receive first-rate medical attention after leaving the arena.

But with that said, the crowd often demanded death. Throughout Roman history, most gladiator duels concluded when one party was rendered too weak or injured to keep fighting. Defeated athletes could surrender by throwing down their weapon or shield, or the loser would extend one arm and point upward. At that point, the bested fighter’s fate would be decided by the presiding event chairman, or editor. Generally, his verdict could be expected to appease the audience, whose cheers and jeers helped determine if the fallen warrior lived to fight another day.

#Gladiators #MedicalAttention #SurvivalRate

Roman galleons

Myth: The romans made slaves row their war vessels.

Truth: In an iconic sequence from BenHur, we see a group of slaves being forced to row a Roman galley ship at increasingly demanding speeds. While a war beating drum sets the relentless tempo, wandering soldiers mercilessly flog those poor souls who collapse from fatigue. Though the scene is definitely compelling, it’s also inaccurate. Roman galleys were actually powered by paid and well-trained freemen unless absolutely necessary. Frankly, handing this job over to slaves would have been foolish—if a ship were captured, enslaved oarsmen might well side with the enemy and attack their masters.

#RomanGalleons #Slaves #PaidFreemen

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