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Top 11 Myths or Urban Legends About Ancient History


It's a little harder to prove that myths about ancient history are false than it is to disprove myths about more modern eras, but the prevailing opinion is that the following ideas are wrong. Some, like what has been called the 1st Human Rights Document, remain controversial.

The following ideas about ancient history might more properly be called "urban legends" to signify that they are mostly modern ideas about ancient history.

In addition to the following list, there are plenty of myths the ancients wove into their history. To learn about these, start with Introduction to Greek Mythology.

1. Thumbs Up! - End of a Fight Between Gladiators

Mosaic of gladiators fighting at Bad Kreuznach.
Irene Hahn
It is believed that when the person in charge of a gladiatorial event wanted one of the gladiators to be finished off, he turned his thumb down and that when he wanted the gladiator to live, he pointed his thumb up. The editor's gesture signifying that a gladiator should be killed is not exactly thumbs down, but thumbs turned. This motion is thought to represent the movement of a sword.

2. Amazons Cut Off a Breast

Amazonomachia from the Louvre
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Amazons were probably not the one-breasted man-haters we think of when we hear the word. They are more likely to have been fully-breasted Scythian horse-riding warriors, judging from artwork, although Strabo does write that their right breasts were seared off in infancy.

3. Atlantis Was a Real Continent

Atlantis was used as a parable by Plato and possibly mentioned by Solon of Athens. Whether there might possibly have been a real lost continent of Atlantis or not remains open to debate, mostly among non-academics.

4. The U.S. Government Is the Direct Heir of Ancient Greek Democracy

Aside from the question of whether the U.S. is designed to be a democracy instead of a republic, there are countless differences between what we call democracy and what the Greeks did; furthermore, it is totally unfair to say "all Greeks voted" or to claim that those Greeks who didn't vote were branded "idiots".

5. Cleopatra's Needle

London Cleopatra's Needle
CC Photo Flickr User nikoretro
The pair of obelisks called Cleopatra's Needles, located on the Embankment in London and near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, were created for Pharaoh Thutmosis III, not the famous Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII) or any other. However, these ancient monuments may have been called Cleopatra's Needles from the time of Augustus, Cleopatra's nemesis.

6. 300 Spartans Defended Greece From Persia at Thermopylae

Battle of Thermopylae, Painted by Jacques Louis David in 1814. At the Louvre.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia
At the Battle of Thermopylae there were 300 Spartans who lay down their lives to give the rest of the Greeks a chance, but there were a total of about 4000 fighting under Leonidas, including willing Thesbians and unwilling Theban allies. Read more about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Also see The (4)300 Who Held Thermopylae

7. Jesus Christ was Born on December 25

Nativity of Jesus by Christus Petrus c. 1445-1450 at the National Gallery of Art.
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia
We don't even know for sure what year Jesus was born, but references in the Gospels suggest Jesus was born in the spring. Franz Cumont and Theodor Mommsen are partly responsible for popular beliefs that the god Mithras or Sol [perhaps Sol Invictus Mithras] was born on the winter solstice, said to be the rationale behind the date of Christmas. David Ulansey, Absolute Astronomy, and others say it was Sol Invictus, not Mithras, or at least not the Iranian Mithras. An ancient Armenian story of Mithras' virgin birth did not gain currency, but is interesting in comparison with Jesus.

8. Caesar Was Born by Caesarean Section

Hundred Greatest Men, The. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885.
The idea that Julius Caesar was born by Caesarean Section is old, but since Caesar's mother, Aurelia, was involved in his upbringing, and the surgical techniques of the 1st (or 2nd) century B.C. should have left her dead, it is unlikely that the story about Caesar's birth by C-section is true.

9. Judaism Borrowed Monotheism From Akhenaten

Akhenaten and Nefertiti
Akhenaten was an Egyptian pharaoh who put aside the traditional Egyptian pantheon of gods in favor of his own sun god, Aten. He did not deny the existence of other gods, as a monotheist would have, but held his god above the others, as a henotheist.

The date of Akhenaten may make it impossible for the Hebrews to have borrowed from him, since their monotheism could have preceded Akhenaten's birth or followed the return of traditional Egyptian religion.

Another possible influence on Judaism's monotheism is Zoroastrianism.

10. Caesar Said "Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war. . . ."

  • "Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword."

The quote is anachronistic in detail and spirit. There were no drums and all swords were double-edged. The idea that citizenry needed to be persuaded of the value of war is not from the first century B.C.

11. Latin is the Most Logical Language and Superior to Others

This is a hard one for me since I tend to buy into this myth, but Latin is not any more logical than any other language. However, our grammar rules were based on the grammar of Latin. Since English is, but should not be put into a Latinate mold, English comes out looking awkward. The specialized vocabularies we use in areas like law, medicine, and logic, tend to be Latin-based, too, which makes Latin seem superior.

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