10 History Myths You Probably Believe

10 History Myths You Probably Believe

Rewriting History

1. Napoleon was short.

Napoleon in profile

Ok, he wasn’t a tall man, but during his autopsy Napoleon was measured to be 5 ft 5 (1.68 m). A lot of the confusion was created due to the fact that the French and British used slightly different measurements and the French inch was bigger. However, the concept was quickly embraced thanks to British propaganda and Napoleon went down as the angriest little man in history. Also, click here if you want to read about what happened to his penis after he died.

2. Einstein was bad at math.


This one still gets passed around a lot because we like to think that it’s ok to suck at math since even a genius like Einstein was bad at it once. Actually, he was quite proficient at math and physics from a young age. By age 12, he mastered complex arithmetic and started learning geometry and algebra ahead of his class and by age 15 he mastered calculus. The reason why this myth was started is that Einstein failed his entrance exam at a college in Zurich but he still received very good grades at math. He was also just 16.

3. The Salem witch trials didn’t happen like you think they did.

Salem witch trial

The town of Salem is famous for one thing – burning witches at the stake during its famous trials in 1692. However, if your sole information for what happened comes from Hollywood, you are guaranteed to get a few things wrong. For starters, the trials didn’t take place only in Salem, but rather several towns throughout Massachusetts. Moreover, out of the 150+ people accused of being witches during the Salem trials, only about 20 were executed for it and none were burned. Most of them were hanged and one was crushed with rocks. Finally, not all of the accused were women; men were condemned as witches also.

4. Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Great fire of Rome Nero

This makes a pretty good story which paints Nero as a complete madman and that’s why it still gets mentioned even today. Although Nero was by no account a pleasant guy to be around (especially if you’re Christian), this story is a myth. The best source for Nero we have is Tacitus, a Roman historian who was alive and lived in Rome at the time of the Great Fire in 64 AD. According to him, Nero wasn’t even in Rome when the fire started. He was in Antium and came back to the city as soon as he heard and started organizing relief and rescue efforts which he even allegedly paid for out of his own pocket. Even if this is not true, Nero wouldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned for a simple reason – the fiddle didn’t exist yet.

5. 300 Spartans fought the Persians.

Battle of Thermopylae 300 Spartans

The Battle of Thermopylae was not just 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas taking on the entire Persian army. Truth of the matter is that Leonidas did, in fact, have Spartans with him, but he also had Thespians, Myceneans, Thebans, Corinthians, Arcadians etc…you get the idea. The Spartans weren’t alone. Several sources mention the combined strength of Leonidas’ army and they all give different numbers so it’s impossible to tell which one is correct, but the lowest number provided by Herodotus is 5,000+ men while other sources place his army at over 11,000 men. Moreover, although ancient sources placed Xerxes’ army in the millions, modern estimates are much more conservative, ranging between 70,000 and 300,000 men.

6. Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride is all wrong.

Paul Revere

Again, the truth doesn’t always make for the best story and what we know about what happened that night is, indeed, a story. Specifically, it’s a poem called “Paul Revere’s Ride” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about 75 years after the actual ride took place. To be fair, Wadsworth knew all along that his poem was historically inaccurate. He took his liberties in order to create a legend and, in this sense, he succeeded. Now we all know of Revere and his famous ride but, up until then, he was a minor character in American history. His ride wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary. Out of the various mistakes and omissions that we now take as fact, the biggest one is the idea that Revere did this ride alone. He didn’t. William Dawes was with him all the way and they were eventually joined by Samuel Prescott, as well.

7. Viking helmets had horns.

Photo Credit: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet via Wiki Commons

Photo Credit: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet via Wiki Commons

Again, poets are the ones responsible for the confusion. They simply thought that helmets with horns on them would look more impressive and would be fitting of the primitive, war-mongering persona of the Viking in literature. In real life, though, their helmets looked just like any other helmet. Think about it. It would be pretty stupid to put horns on a helmet because it makes it much easier to knock off. Stylish, yes; practical, no.

8. Romans would vomit during a meal and keep eating.

Roman symposium

This revolting habit might suit our general idea of excess and decadence that characterized ancient Romans (the rich ones, at least), but it simply was not a custom practiced by them. Furthermore, it is said that this was done in a room called a vomitorium. Although this is actually a thing, it has nothing to do with eating. It is the name used to refer to stadium entrances and exits for the people.

9. Pilgrims looked how you think they looked.


If you ask someone to picture a pilgrim, he will inevitably think of someone dressed in all black with a large belt buckle and a big hat which is called a capotain. Supposedly, that fashion was all the rage with pilgrims i.e. the early English settlers. Artists are to blame here. It wasn’t until the 19th century that painters decided to portray pilgrims this way and the image simply stuck. What they really worn were normal clothes from the Elizabethan era.

10. Lady Godiva rode naked.


We’re really putting a lot of the blame for these misconceptions on artists so we might as well finish strong. The legend was that Lady Godiva, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, rode naked on a horse in order to convince her husband to lower taxes. While there was a real Lady Godifu in the 11th century who is allegedly the basis for the story, there is no mention of her ride for 200 years and those sources have been dismissed by modern historians. The image we all have of her is due to painters and sculptors who created many works of art based on her legend. There is simply no credible source to support the idea that she ever rode naked. Fun Fact: this legend is also the origin for the term “Peeping Tom”. According to the story, all peasants looked away from Lady Godiva out of respect except for one named Tom.


Want more myths? Here you go:

History Myths Part 2Science Myths. Sports Myths. Food Myths. Police Myths. Animal Myths Part 1. Animal Myths Part 2.