55 Ways You're Picturing History Wrong

Ever since 1978, when it became illegal to teach history in schools, all our knowledge on the subject has come from movies, TV shows, and vague chitchat. As a result, we're all buried under misinformation. For example, someone's been spreading weird rumors about how the education system changed in 1978. And if you want some more examples, here they are:

1. Gladiators 

Gladiators were fat. The spectacle of the arena was all about the fighters getting wounded, and trainers quickly learned fatter fighters stood a better shot of getting sliced without dying, so they fattened their fighters up. 

2. Buddha 

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When they think of Buddha, from Buddhism, a lot of people picture the fat laughing man whose statue they see in Chinese restaurants. But they're mixing up two people. Buddhism was founded by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and you'll see statues of this skinny man worldwide. That fat guy is Budai, a monk who lived 1,500 years after Buddha. 

3. Buying Manhattan

"The natives were tricked into selling Manhattan for $24 of beads!" says the common story. Well, no, there were no beads involved in the transaction. And the Canarsie Indians who "sold" the land didn't own or even live there. They got about $1,200 for it, which was more than just about anyone else got for the loss of indigenous land. 

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4. Cowboys Hats

American cowboys wore all kinds of hats. Bowler hats were most common. You'd also see sombreros or top hats. The one type of hat no one wore was the Stetson (the one we today call a cowboy hat). 

5. Jesse Owens 

Americans like to say that Hitler was so horrified by Jesse Owens' success at the Berlin Olympics that the uber-racist fled the stadium without shaking hands with him. Except Hitler actually didn't shake hands with any athlete at those Olympics. But he did congratulate Owens, which was more than FDR did

6. The Declaration of Independence

For details, read 5 Iconic Scenes from History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly
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7. The Vikings

While depictions oscillate between portraying Vikings as barbarian hordes or something more sympathetic, everyone agrees Vikings were rough and filthy. But they really spent much time on grooming, and a Viking man never left home without a comb in his purse

8. Roman Armies

A Roman army wasn't a block of unified men in uniform. They didn't wear the same uniform at all -- they were loose assemblies of people who came from various other armies. 

9. Prima Nocta

Prima nocta, or droit du seigneur, is the supposed practice by which a feudal lord would have sex with any bride on her wedding night. Except, there's no record of it actually happening anywhere. We just have a whole lot of writers speculating about it happening in horrible, foreign places they've never visited. 

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10. Cavalry Charges 

In a movie, when the backup army arrives on horses, they tear through the men or orcs on foot. But in reality, horses smartly refuse to plow through soldiers bearing pikes, so cavalry divisions would dismount before fighting. 

11. Samurai 

"Samurai swords" is a phrase you hear, meaning a katana or something. But samurai almost never used swords as a first option. They used bows for the simple reasons that bows let you kill even those who aren't in stabbing distance. 

12. William Shakespeare 

When people think "Shakespearean language," they think "fancy." But William Shakespeare's own accent was some sort of mixture of Irish and Appalachian, explaining some of his odder rhymes. 

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13. War Tech

For details, read 5 Bullshit 'Facts' Everyone Believes About WWII

14. The Moon Landing

You probably picture all of America in 1969 thinking landing on the Moon was the country's proudest moment. But the majority of Americans at the time, both before and after the landing, said they thought it wasn't worth the cost

15. American Cowboys

Cowboys are a Mexican invention. There were vaqueros in Mexico decades before settlers came even to Plymouth. By the 19th century, a third of cowboys in America were Mexican -- and one quarter were Black. 

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16. Romans

Also more diverse than you picture: Rome. The Roman empire included North Africa and the Middle East, and people traveled extensively throughout it. At least two Roman emperors were African

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17. The Fountain of Youth

Ponce de Leon never came to Florida in search of the fountain of youth. That idea came from a story years later by someone trying to discredit him.

18. The Pyramids 

The Pyramids weren't a bunch of rough stone steps like they are today. White limestone used to cover that stone skeleton, making the tombs smooth and blindingly bright

19. The Sphinx

Oh, and have you heard about how the Sphinx is missing its nose because Napoleon's men used it for target practice? Untrue. We have illustrations of a noseless Sphinx from as early as the 1600s

20. Greek Statues

For details, read 6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly
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21. The Incas 

The Incas, so the story goes, were so shocked by the sight of Spanish Conquistadors that they mistook the newcomers for gods, making conquest easy. Nope, that never happened, according to contemporary accounts. The Incas accepted them as ambassadors. 

22. Victorians 

The Victorians were prudes, we're told. They even covered their table legs out of modesty. In reality, Victorians had plenty of sex (and had some pretty creative porn). As for the table leg story, not only is it false, but it was originally a story the British invented about prudish Americans. 

23. Roman Orgies

On the other hand, Romans could be prudes. Despite the grand reputations that the occasional orgies earned, the average Roman insisted on having sex in total darkness and largely clothed

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24. Knights Templar 

Templars never controlled secrets or fought assassins. Mostly, they were bankers. They accepted money from pilgrims in exchange for slips of paper the pilgrims could use to buy food in churches. 

25. Guns

If someplace has little gun control today, you might liken it to the Wild West. But many towns had laws stricter than today -- in Tombstone, for instance, site of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, you had to hand your gun to the sheriff's office when you entered the town and could only collect it when you left. The O.K. gunfight happened because three cowboys refused to disarm. Marshals killed them. 

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26. William Wallace 

Wallace wasn't exactly a peasant farmer like in Braveheart. He was a wealthy landowner, and he fought in full armor. 

27. Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

For details, read 5 True Stories Behind Iconic Photos From History

28. Hitler

The Nazis crumbled with Hitler's suicide, says the popular legend, much like a movie villain's death always sends his minions fleeing. But Hitler had a successor, who led the Nazis for the remaining weeks until the Allies surrounded Nazi headquarters. 

29. The Olympics 

The ancient Olympics were the epitome of pure athleticism, without any of the corruption you see today ... or so people say. But athletes back then regularly tried to cheat with such performance-enhancing substances as magic potions (with limited effectiveness). Olympians made fortunes. One earned 100 times a soldier's annual salary for a single personal appearance. 

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30. The American Revolution

American kids are taught that the colonists won the war because they knew the land and fought like guerillas. This narrative seems to be stolen from how Vietnam beat America centuries later and has very little to do with the real Revolutionary War. 

31. Knights

Knights of the Middle Ages were less chivalrous warriors and more armed bullies. When they didn't have an organized war to fight, knights were just guys hankering for a fight, and they generally relieved themselves of their urges by entering villages and slaughtering peasants. 

32. The Nazis 

Somehow, the Nazis' ruthlessness turned into a reputation for ruthless efficiency. It shouldn't have. By most measures, Germany became less efficient once the Nazis took over. They were bureaucrats -- terrible bureaucrats

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33. Bank Robberies

Bank robberies are an essential part of every Western movie and video game. And yet, we have records of just eight Old West bank robberies over the course of 40 years. Banks weren't promising targets, as they usually stood on the same block as the sheriff's office. 

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34. Monks

For details, read 8 Filthy Jokes Hidden in Ancient Works of Art

35. Puritans 

The word "puritanical," meanwhile, means sexually repressed. And yet one-third of Puritan women were pregnant when they got married. The Puritans also had a habit of having sex in public

36. Ninjas

Ninjas didn't dress in black. They disguised themselves in whatever costumes best blended in. Even skulking at night, they didn't wear black, which would stand out like a silhouette. To hide at night, they wore dark blue. 

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37. Christians vs. Lions

Christians were not fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Early Christians saw persecution, but that was before the Colosseum had even been built. 

38. The Greatest Generation

Popular culture would tell you that the Greatest Generation volunteered to fight World War II, while their descendants had to be forced into Vietnam. But two-thirds of World War II American servicemen were drafted, while two-thirds of Vietnam ones were volunteers. 

39. The Library of Alexandria 

The burning of the Library of Alexandria really wasn't much of a tragedy. The library had already fallen into disrepair for centuries -- not due to fire but due to budget cuts

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40. Rasputin

Rasputin, so the story goes, had to be poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, AND drowned to kill him. That story's just as ridiculous as it sounds and originates with his murderer, who wrote a book painting Rasputin as larger than life to make the murder seem more justified. 

41. Jewish Sex

For details, read 5 Ridiculous Sex Myths From History (You Probably Believe)

42. Greek Democracy

Democracy lasted less than two centuries in Greece. Also, how democratic could it really have been when it had slavery, more slavery than anywhere else in the world? (Cue uncomfortable self-reflection.) 

43. Circle The Wagons

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Westerns would have you think that settlers faced constant threats from warlike natives. We do have records of up to 400 settlers dying in such clashes on the Oregon Trail. But for comparison, some 30,000 died from other causes during that same journey. 

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44. Pilgrims

No, the pilgrims didn't wear fancy buckled hats and shiny shoes. Who would want to farm all day dressed like that? 

45. The Good War

World War II was the one war where we did what was right and were all united behind the decision, right? And yet, many servicemen returned home to scorn instead of cheers. And Americans didn't so much oppose an evil ideology as just want our opponents eliminated, be they German or Japanese

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46. Martin Luther

Luther didn't actually nail 95 theses to a church door, as cool as that would have been. He didn't want to make his grievances public at all. He sent them privately to the pope in the form of a series of letters. 

47. The British Empire

You might picture the War of Independence as an underdog battle in which scrappy Americans somehow beat the biggest army in the world. But Britain only had 40,000 soldiers to oversee an American population of 2.5 million. Then France swept in, on America's side, with an army numbering 300,000

48. Cleopatra

For details, read 5 Historical Figures You're Picturing Almost Exactly Wrong
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49. Luddites 

Luddites did destroy machinery, but they weren't anti-technology, any more than Bostonians who dumped tea were anti-beverage. The Luddites were destroying machines as part of a protest for higher wages.

50. Ich bin ein Berliner 

According to the popular story, by calling himself a Berliner in his famous speech, JFK accidentally called himself a jelly donut. But that's not true. Even if "Berliner" is a name for a jelly donut, it was clear from the context what he meant ... and jelly donuts aren't even called Berliners in Berlin itself. 

51. Pocahontas 

Pocahontas was at most 12 years old when the Jamestown settlers came by. She was also bald and naked, as was customary for her tribe. Good then that she and John Smith didn't really fall in love.

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52. The Arms Race

The Cold War wasn't really the US and the USSR, neck and neck, each trying to outdo the other in weapons production. Early on, America had nearly 10 times as many missiles as the Soviets. And when the Soviets really ramped up production, the US actually cut back.

53. Martin Luther King

Listening to politicians today, you'd think everyone loved Dr. King. But not only was his civil rights message less popular than people today would like to admit -- his early criticism of the Vietnam War and his support for striking workers made him hugely unpopular. In his final months, his speeches drew boos

54. The Alamo 

The Alamo wasn't a heroic last stand that saved Texas. The rebels only stuck around there because they ignored smart orders, and defending the place didn't help the war effort at all. 

55. Chastity Belts

For details, read 5 History Myths Everybody Believed For Far Too Long