5 Scenes From History That Everyone Pictures Incorrectly
Whether it takes the form of a somewhat historical film like Braveheart or an only slightly more fictionalized epic like Lord of the Rings, we do love watching some old-timey combat. Vikings, Samurai, Roman Centurions -- there's just something so much cooler about the way men fought back in the old days.
And, of course, we're about to tell you that almost everything you think about those old wars is completely wrong. In reality ...
Real Vikings Were a Bunch of Fussy Dandies
Quick, imagine a Viking. Even if you know your history enough to realize they didn't have horns on their helmets (which would be super inconvenient in battle), you're still imagining a hardened, filthy brute smelling of stale sweat and English corpses. These were the manliest of men, guys who fed on boiled lamb's head and treated their clothes in cow piss, for crying out loud. Vikings were grimy, gritty, poop-encrusted barbarians, and proud of it.
Well, yeah, if by "poop-encrusted barbarians" you mean "the most dedicated dandies of their time." With their carefully coiffed hair and trimmed beards, history's Vikings would have scoffed at Chris Hemsworth for looking like a Nordic hobo who spent a night in a dumpster.
"What woman would have me?"
It turns out, the only thing Vikings loved more than a fine day pillaging and slaughtering was the sort of personal grooming most of us modern people wouldn't dream of bothering with. Seriously, they were way, way into that shit: Pretty much every non-slave member of Viking society wore absurdly complex hair and beard styles they freely peacocked with to display their status in the community. Most owned elaborate grooming kits that included tweezers, razors, tiny scissors, and, presumably, the new album of that bone-horn player you've probably never heard about.
The humble comb alone was such an important part of Viking society that no warrior worth his mead left home without one. Women carried their elaborate combs in a special purse made solely for that purpose (yes, Vikings had purses), while the men kept theirs in special carrying cases slung from their belts (yes, Vikings had fanny packs). Those combs saw a lot of use, too. Vikings were the Dark Ages equivalent of greasers, constantly grooming their 'dos while somehow still managing to look badass.
"Rinsing with the blood of your enemies always gives you that extra bounce and volume."
Even their famous Nordic blonde hair wasn't always natural: Vikings were pioneers in seafaring, axe-murdering, and cosmetology alike, and their lightly colored manes and beards were often the product of bleaching. This practice also had a practical element: For several months of the year, everyone's bathtub was literally a block of ice, so bleaching one's hair and beard (and regularly combing them) kept lice and other unhygienic elements at bay. Don't think for a second there wasn't a beauty element involved, though. Vikings were totally all about lookin' fine: Even their most legendary kings were saddled with nicknames such as Harald the Fairhair instead of the more common but less awesome kingly monikers like "Great" or "Magnificent."
From the standpoint of a modern "Vikings were brutal barbarians" view, the end result of all this grooming, plaiting, and (presumably) nose-hair plucking was surprising: When they were not actively pillaging and raping, Vikings were actually quite a hit with the ladies all over the place, because they were just so goddamn fabulous.
Which makes everyone's Loki boners historically accurate boners.
Samurai Were Actually Embarrassed of Their Swords
Oh, come on. This, at least, just has to be bullshit. A quick Google image search of "samurai" returns a gazillion results, 99 percent of which depict the famed warriors with sword in hand. There are drawings about them using swords. There are photos. Hell, pajamas, katanas, and weird hairstyles were their whole thing: Samurai damn well lived by the sword. What else did they have?
Yes, the samurai did have an ancient tradition centered around a weapon. However, it sure as shit wasn't the sword. In fact, ignore every movie and video game about samurai, because they only carried swords as awkward last resort weapons.
"Only an asshole brings a sword to a bowfight."
Kyuba no michi, "the way of the horse and bow," was there centuries before any semblance of Bushido. It's exactly what it says on the tin: Samurai were all about flinging arrows at peasants from horseback. It makes sense, really -- they were professional soldiers, and in that line of business you quickly learn that only idiots fight the enemy at stabbing distance. Bows were revered over swords to the extent that many Japanese nobles actually downplayed their swordsmanship. After all, pointing out how great your sword skills were was basically announcing that you're a terrible archer. And saying "I'm a terrible archer" was more or less like saying "I'm neither a man nor a warrior."
"A real man knows how to shoot his shaft."
The introduction of firearms in the 16th century finally killed the samurai supremacy as mounted archers. As they left the battlefield and settled for a new life as bureaucrats and officials, their formerly reviled swords started taking on actual importance as elaborate status symbols. And because bows weren't really an option anymore, the sword became the go-to weapon of the honorable, sword-wielding, bushido following and completely fictional samurai they retroactively invented to feel better about their crummy desk jobs.
"Oh, and every samurai's sword is the same length as his dick too."
Gladiators Were Basically Fat Pro Wrestlers
Turn on Spartacus: Gods of the Arena or watch Gladiator and it's easy to get the impression that ancient gladiators were all either lethal bodybuilders or, at the very least, kinda-doughy-yet-vicious Russell Crowe-types. Of course they were in decent shape -- fighting to the death was their sole job description.
Well, that's what we used to think, anyway. Archaeologists recently dug up a whole pile of gladiator remains, and it seems the famed warriors of the arena would need to do some serious cardio if they ever wanted to grace the cover of Men's Health magazine.
Yes, we're saying it looks like gladiators were total fatties.
"Fuck you; it's water weight."
What we tend to forget about gladiator fighting is that it was ultimately show business. The Colosseum arena was big-time theater more than anything else, and being able to deliver a good show far outweighed sculpted abs. The Roman crowds wanted to see blood and displays of great fighting skill. And what really got the crowd going was when gladiators sustained bloody, spurty wounds, yet continued to fight. Gladiator schools were well aware of this, which is why they deliberately fattened-up their fighters so they could take (and dish out) showy, yet non-fatal flesh wounds.
The Colosseum didn't fall apart. They ate it.
If the crowd was satisfied and felt they'd seen a worthy performance -- meaning some bloodshed and gutsy swordplay -- the gladiators ran a better chance of becoming super popular instead of dying. In fact, unless you were a prisoner being fed to the lions or something, the chance of dying in the arena was only about 10 percent.
Basically, this means that fights between professional gladiators were a slightly more extreme version of modern pro wrestling: scripted fights, choreographed moves, and the occasional deliberate blading to bring on the blood.
But with a better life expectancy.
Cavalry Charges Were Surprisingly Ineffective
In medieval times, the cavalry was the equivalent of an army of Navy SEALs, each driving a tank that is somehow also a Navy SEAL. Devastating battles between two armies were fine and all, but everyone knew shit didn't truly get real until the cavalry came in. That's why the very word has come to mean an invincible force that drives the enemy away, and countless films and TV shows still depict horsemen as a game-changer that can plow through hapless foot soldiers like lines of bowling pins.
Hell, all the fancy knights and commanders rode on horseback. Surely they wouldn't have done that if the massive hooved hellbeast they're riding would somehow be a disadvantage?
A warrior who fought on horseback was truly screwed if the enemy knew what they were doing. In fact, English knights were well aware of this and regularly dismounted for battle.
"Luckily, your mothers were good practice for quick dismounts."
Cavalry was actually less of a battering ram and more like a sniping tool: Apart from intimidation tactics and chasing down fleeing enemies, they were best used to exploit the enemies' weaknesses, performing quick "run in, stab, run back sniggering" attacks on various gaps in formation and other tactical openings. But if some confident banner commander decided to try the old cavalry charge against an enemy formation, he was screwed. The second the group of war destriers bore into the enemy, they'd a) lose all momentum, and b) find themselves completely surrounded by a bunch of pissed-off enemies with pikes.
The thing is, horses are actually really, really bad at bulldozing armed soldiers. They're living, moderately smart creatures, so they don't always behave like the well-trained equines in movies: Actual war horses were a lot more likely to object to stuff like running into a group of pikemen that looks a whole lot like a spiked wall -- they'd stop at the moment of first impact, or more likely even before that.
"You want to what? Oh, fuck you and the me you rode in on."
As long as the enemy foot-soldiers held together (which they often did because tactics, shockingly, were a thing even back then) no cavalry charge was going to end with a trip to Trample Town. Instead, a mounted warrior would usually have to pull up before the enemy formation and pathetically flail at the enemy soldiers with his weapons before they stabbed his horse to death. As many a knight found out the hard way, the odds in such a situation are kind of stacked for the guys with lots of spears and their feet firmly on the ground.
Roman Armies Didn't Look Like the Movie Gladiator (or Even Wear the Same Uniform)
Although we might be hazy about the exact details of their costumes, we all have a pretty good idea of what Roman soldiers looked like.
Rome was, after all, an advanced civilization with a professional army, marching in disciplined ranks against hordes of filthy, disorganized armies. That's how they built their empire, right? Their super cool uniforms merely reflected their status as a wealthy superpower.
"You should see my codpiece."
If you had a time machine and were dumb enough to use it to visit a Roman battlefield, you'd find that only a fraction of the Roman army would remotely resemble what you probably think of as "Roman." That's because Imperial Rome's army was basically the ancient world's version of the French Foreign legion, only they didn't bother with matching uniforms.
When they found a guy in green they'd all merge to form the Mega-Centurion.
The Roman Empire was kind of a vast place. As their legions plowed through the ancient world, they usually wound up recruiting whoever they had been fighting and conquering to keep up their numbers. Basically, this ability to freely recruit made Rome the imperial equivalent of the New York Yankees: Sign all the big-name free agents, form a super team, and advance toward World Series/Mediterranean domination. The Romans gave every worthy prospect a generous offer: Join the team and gain a Roman citizenship. (The small print: If you don't, we kill you and your family.)
"Please take time to fully read our ToS. This shit's important."
This is why, at the height of the Empire's powers, your average classic Roman legion was likely accompanied by a cavalry of a bunch of Germans, Moors, or perhaps Thracians. The archers backing up the legions were maybe Syrian. The dudes milling around with slings may have been from Crete, and so on. Even the fighting equipment was influenced by former adversaries: The classic Roman short-sword seen in every movie about Rome ever, the gladius, was actually appropriated from the Spanish, and its full name was gladius hispaniensis.
The Roman army had absolute zero interest in offering each and every auxiliary unit the classic legionnaire uniform. There was simply no point in requiring enlistees to bleed for their new masters in an unfamiliar uniform -- it was much handier to let them use the one they already had. Saved on laundry costs, too.
"So did our no pants policy."
As a result, the more diverse lineups of the terrifying Roman war machine could look less like a lean, mean, uniform fighting machine and more like a particularly angry Gay Pride parade. This was further enforced by the fact that the auxiliaries didn't stay auxiliary for very long. As the Empire grew and its military resources were stretched, auxiliaries and their Roman commanders often fought independently of the actual legions. Many a Roman victory was won by troops from wherever, wearing random-ass uniforms that bore little to no resemblance to what we picture as the standard Roman uniform. This presumably caused many hilarious misunderstandings when classic Roman legionnaires entered the region and no one had any idea who the fuck they were.
J. is working on a book about sex, history, and money; you can message him here and help start a bidding war.
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Related Reading: Hey did you know the signing of the Declaration of Independence wasn't actually a big event? You're even picturing your favorite myths wrong. Loki is less suave villain and more guy who made horse-rape babies. And if these deleted scenes of Jesus kicking serious ass had made it into the Bible, we'd all live in a much cooler world.