10 Popular History Myths Debunked
Updated September 9, 2022
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A major goal of education is the debunking of miseducation. That means spotting and correcting the many myths emanating from the internet, folk wisdom and word of mouth. We have all been taken in, at some point or another, by a modern myth. Fortunately, we're here to help you with a new series debunking many of these modern myths. This installment aims to clear up some commonly held misconceptions in the field of history. The truth, as they say, shall set you free.
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There are many history myths that just won't go away. Some times, a myth is just garbled truth, mispoken facts and disordered details. Other times, a myth is simply guessing, or even deception, touted as historical fact. Even some history teachers are unwittingly teaching some of these myths as facts. Read on and see if you have fallen for any of these history myths.
1. More people are alive today than have died throughout history
It has been suggested that about six billion people have died since the time the Egyptian pyramids were built. That would be about a billion fewer than the number of people on earth today. But, even if we used the most conservative dating methods for the age of the earth (young earth theories attribute an age somewhere between 6,000-10,000 years to the earth), the pyramids were still a relatively “late” event. There would have to have been many millions of people, perhaps billions of people, who died before then. Our current global population just can't keep up. Moreover, one has to exclude infanticide, which has a relatively long history and yet is often overlooked or explained away in formal reporting. That phenomenon is sure to throw off this comparison. It is true, however, that life expectancy is generally improved in many parts of the world, though not by that much.
2. Flat earth
Occasionally, a poorly informed history teacher might suggest that Christopher Columbus was trying to prove to a skeptical world that the earth wasn't flat but round. Unfortunately, this teacher has fallen for one of the most baseless myths about ancient people in history. Hardly anyone in history seriously thought that the earth was flat. It's a modern myth that the ancients somehow believed in a flat earth. Even the ancients could see that the twilight glow during sunrise and sunset formed an arc over the horizon. They could also see that the top of an incoming ship at sea, viewed from the shoreline, appeared before the rest of the boat. These and other clues suggest a curving landscape consistent with a spherical earth. If you're not persuaded by the evidence, check out the Flat Earth Society. You'll fit right in. Meanwhile, be sure to avoid buying a ticket for an around-the-world cruise. It's just a scam organized by round-earth profiteers.
3. The Death of Catherine the Great
One of the more colorful history myths revolves around the death of Catherine the Great. Of course, everyone dies eventually, but rarely is that death attributed to bestiality. The Russian Queen, Catherine the Great, actually died in bed of illness--a rather boring and conventional means of passing. But the rumor mill somehow lit ablaze over accusations that she died crushed under a horse with which she was attempting to mate. Rumors are hard to retrace, but one suspected source of this myth is French aristocracy, who were known rivals and who had been faulted for previous sexual slanders. Besides the equine accusation, another false rumor claimed she died after cracking her toilet with her massive girth.
4. Jesus was born on December 25th
The winter solstice was celebrated by the Romans from December 17 to 25. This yearly festival included gift-giving, family time, and revelry. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 4th century, the traditional Roman holiday date was appropriated by the Christian church as a parallel holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Easter was already a holiday, so a holiday was needed to celebrate the date when Jesus born. Later, the feast of St. Nicholas was assimilated into the festivities, since St. Nicholas famously distributed gifts on December 25. But there are no records suggesting that Jesus was actually born on that day or its equivalent in the Jewish calendar. There's no unanimity on the official date, but many scholars believe the historical Jesus was born between 6 and 3 BC, probably some time between spring and fall.
5. George Washington chopped down a cherry tree
One of the most famous American legends is that George Washington, as a 6-year-old boy, chopped down his father's cherry tree. When asked about it, so the story goes, he said with the utmost virtue, "I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet." This event never happened, but was invented by early Washington biographer, Mason Locke Weems, to illustrate the remarkable virtues of that remarkable man. Washington was a legend in his time, and books and stories by Weems sold like hotcakes. Weems, who was also an itinerant minister, drew attention to Washington's private virtues with this uncorroborated story.
6. Hitler created the Autobahn
Germany is famous for beer, engineering, Hitler, and the Autobahn. Hitler had no connection with beer or the Autobahn. He was also not an engineer. He was a teetotaler who didn't create Germany's “Federal Motorway.” Hitler could not have overseen the Autobahn since it was already in existence in 1931, two years before her became chancellor. Hitler's rise to power and the development of the Autobahn did happen at almost the same time, but they occurred in the wrong order for Hitler to take any credit.
7. Just 300 soldiers held off the Persians at Thermopylae for three days
This epic battle scene rose to modern fame through the Frank Miller-produced action flick 300.” In that fanciful flick, six-packed Adonises wield spears, swords and shields fending off Persian ghost ninjas from their beloved city of Sparta. Granting the obvious artistic license taken with the story, even the conservative retellings are sometimes mistaken. 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.
8. Mussolini made the trains run on time
The trains were never widely or uniformly on time in Mussolini's era. This myth probably arose from the mountains of fascist propaganda promoting Mussolini's exploits beyond reality. Trains were a major part of commerce and travel so prompt, efficient train systems would have been a major selling point for any statesmen who could truthfully claim it. But in this case, it just wasn't true.
9. Julius Caesar was born by caesarian section
Caesar was born by natural birth in the customary way. The Caeserian section surgical birthing procedure draws its name from the Lex Caesarea (law of Caesar) which stated that a child is to be cut from the womb if the mother died during childbirth. Apparently, the ancient world had precedent for C-section births, though it's unknown if the procedure had a statistically significant survival rate for the mother.
10. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas
The New World was new to Columbus, but it may have already been discovered by the ancient Norse missionary, Leif Erickson (i.e., “Eric's son,” his father was Eric the Red). Historians generally agree that Leif Erickson first landed on Canadian shores almost 500 years before Columbus arrived in the Bahamas. Erickson was converted to Christianity by King Olaf I in what is now Norway. He set sail as an explorer and merchant, but also to evangelize unsaved nations. Attempting to reach Greenland, he sailed off course and landed in Helluland, Markland, which he called Vinland (perhaps Nova Scotia). He spent a season or two in North America before returning to Greenland, where he later ascended to the throne. Others may have preceded Columbus and even Erickson.
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11. The Colossus of Rhodes straddled the Greek harbor of Rhodes
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.
12. The Island of Manhattan was purchased for $24 worth of beads
It is true that the Island of Manhattan was purchased from Native Americans, but there's no mention of what items were involved in the trade. The money equivalent was 60 guilders, or roughly $1000 today. The same amount was paid for Staten Island. That amount is still pretty low, by our understanding, but some historians point out that the Native Americans may have had a different understanding of “land ownership.” To them, the cost was more like rent, since they believed that land, air, and waterways could not be “owned” as property.
13. Old southern homes had unattached kitchens for fear of house fires
There's a certain logic here, but it doesn't work because old Northern homes had attached kitchens. Why the difference? Heat. Kitchens would get very hot, and since there was no air conditioning in the colonial era, and the southern states could get very hot during the spring and summer months, they built their kitchens separate from the living quarters. Meanwhile, northerners often wanted to share the warmth of the kitchen in the living quarters because of cold outdoor temperatures. So they built their homes with attached kitchens.
14. Most men in the colonial era wore wigs
Wigs and powdered hair were in fashion at the time, but only about 5% of the population wore them. Wigs were expensive and were mainly worn by lawyers, statesmen and women of the gentry class. Wigs were ill-suited for blue collar jobs. And most people couldn't afford a wig even if they wanted one.
15. In the medieval era, people used spices primarily to mask the flavor of rotting meat
In the days before refrigeration, there was a shorter “shelf life" for perishables. But spices were not used to hide the flavor of rotting food. Spices were much too expensive for such use, which would ultimately not prevent diners from the stomach ailments that accompany eating spoiled food. Instead, spices were used to embellish high-quality foods.
16. Marie Antoinette once said, “Let them eat cake.”
According to legend, prior to the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, bride of King Louis XIV and queen of France, was notoriously indifferent to the plight of the masses as they cried out for bread amidst a looming famine. There was no bread, and she allegedly responded: "Let them eat cake." This story is unsupported by the facts, for the phrase “Let them eat cake” was previously ascribed to others. Moreover, even though the queen's lifestyle was immaculate, she was quite generous to charitable causes, and she recognized the plight of the masses. She was well-educated and intelligent and would have known better than to say something so inflammatory to a biographer or journalist.
17. The Salem witch trials burned people at the stake
This myth conflates different stories about witches. There were European witch trials in which convicted witches were burned at the stake, but no such burnings occurred in America during colonial times or later. The Salem Witch trials of 1692 predated the standard judicial procedures we know today, including trial by a jury of peers, presumed innocence, and Miranda rights. Most notably the trials never revealed how the defendants were even able to commit the occult acts for which they were accused. In the end, some 20 people were executed, 19 by hanging and 1 by pressing (in a large vice). No one was burned at the stake.
18. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb
Contrary to popular belief, the light bulb, a mainstay of modern life, ubiquitous in the developed world, had been around years before Thomas Edison ever created one. Edison's contribution was to improve on it. Previous versions were unreliable, expensive, and didn't last very long. Up to 20 others independent inventors were doing the same thing as Edison at the time, trying to build a better light bulb. Edison's version of the light bulb improved on the filament, used a sealed vacuum bulb, and had a lower voltage than others at the time. The result was a marketable product that could last for hours. Edison's design has been improved upon over the years. Today standard incandescent bulbs can last for years, even this one that's still burning after 100 years! Stay tuned. Government rules have banned most incandescent bulbs due to their low efficiency. Light-emitting diodes produce light much more efficiently than incandescent bulbs and will one day supplant them.
19. Albert Einstein was bad at math
The irony of this myth is that legendary physicist Albert Einstein forged the revolutionary Theory of Relativity. While he was a poor student who failed to pursue subjects that didn't interest him, Einstein excelled in mathematics and its applications in physics, which seems kind of obvious when you say it out loud.
20. Nero fiddled while Rome burned
This myth is only true metaphorically speaking. Nero was a vicious tyrant who was notoriously indifferent to the suffering of his people. But he did not literally play the fiddle during the great fire in Rome (64 AD), because the fiddle originated in the 11th century, about 1000 years after Nero. Perhaps the myth traces to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about unconfirmed reports that Nero sang while watching the city in flames. In reality, when Nero found out about the fire, he rushed to provide relief. But, that didn't stop his citizens from accusing him of intentionally starting the fire. He was suspected because he later used the razed land for some of his own building projects. He was never able to escape those conspiratorial rumors, since he'd lost all trust from the people. Instead, Nero blamed the fire on a small but growing Jewish-religious sect: Christians.
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21. Magellan circumnavigated the globe
Famed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and a crew of 260 men set sail in September 1519 with the goal of sailing around the world. Today he is often credited as successfully doing so, but he only made it about halfway. He was killed in the Philippines during a skirmish on the Island of Mactan. His second-in-command completed the voyage. His expedition succeeded but Magellan himself did not. He planned and began the expedition, and only 18 of his crew returned to Spain.
22. The women of Cullercoats dragged a lifeboat two miles through a blizzard to save the crew of the Lovely Nelly
In Northeast England lies the town of Cullercoats, the site of a great and tragic lifeboat rescue which saved every crewman aboard the Lovely Nelly except one injured cabin boy. This event is one of the most famous rescue missions in English history. On the first day of 1861, the Lovely Nelly found itself in a torrential blizzard. The storm was so bad that the life brigade, a support team for the Coast Guard, wasn't able to launch a lifeboat. According to the story, popularized in part by John Charlton's famous 1910 painting, "The Women" [of Cullercoats], it was the women of the city who dragged a hefty lifeboat two miles so they could save the crew. Charlton's painting gave roots to the myth, for it depicts an all-woman crew dragging the boat with ropes and heroic determination. But there was more to the story. Both men and women from the town were involved, and they used horses to pull the boat on that famous night of January 1, 1861.
23. The Council of Nicea determined which books would be in the Bible
One of Christianity's most famous myths is that the Christian Church Council of Nicea in 325 CE (Nicea I) determined which books were to be included in the Bible. This myth was popularized in part by Dan Brown's skeptical novel, The DaVinci Code where he goes as far as to suggest that there was a historical Jesus who married Mary Magdalene (who was never a prostitute) and fathered a child with her. He also attributes a great deal of early church theology about women and scriptural authority to the influence of the heavy-handed Emperor Constantine. It is true that the Roman Emperor Constantine had a famous conversion to the Christian faith, and he played a noted role in calling the first official ecumenical (i.e., "universal") council of the Church. And it is true that this council was in Nicea, a city in Bithynia (modern-day Turkey). But, ignoring for the moment the obviously controversial claims about Jesus, Dan Brown's account is flatly mistaken about what happened at Nicea. The council convened to discuss the Arian controversy, not the Canon of Scripture (Canon refers to the rule or standard whereby books are considered inspired by God). The Arian controversy was a theological dispute championed by Bishop Arius, who had been teaching that Jesus wasn't always divine and was divine only in a different sense from Yahweh God. Today, the doctrine lives on as Arianism and is considered unorthodox. Meanwhile, it was not until 367 CE that Athanasias first offered the list of books now known as the Athanasian Canon—the 27 books of the New Testament (Matthew through Revelation). And even then, the councils that confirmed that list as official were in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), not Nicea I (325). In short, this myth about the books of the Bible was off by about 70 years. Mr. Brown can be forgiven, however, because he is a novelist and not a historian.
24. Everyone was killed at the Alamo
Perhaps the most famous battle in U.S. history is the fall of the Alamo. "Remember the Alamo!" as the saying goes. The declaration has inspired Americans ever since to display the same level of sacrifice and bravery exhibited by those who fell at the Alamo. General Santa Anna and his Mexican army slew all of the Alamo's defenders the morning of March 6, 1836, but not all of those inside the Alamo's walls died. Around a dozen women and children survived. They were present during the 12-day siege, and they were spared as non-combatants.
25. Wall Street suicide jumpers
In the great stock market crash of 1929, countless bankers, brokers, and investors lost fortunes. But, the rate of suicides actually declined--a common phenomenon after tragic events. We aren't quite sure why this is, but one explanation is that great tragedy awakens people to the value of life, namely how fragile and brief it is. Another theory is that people surrender a felt sense of entitlement—and subsequent disappointment—and instead buckle down, work harder, trying to find ways to press on. Whatever the reason, the suicide rate did not increase after the 1929 crash. Even when people did take their lives, window-jumping was only reported in two cases.
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