Top 10 Myths and Urban Legends About Ancient History

Depiction of Pericles giving a speech in ancient Greece.

Phiipp Foltz/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It's a little harder to prove that myths about ancient history are false than it is to disprove myths about more modern eras. However, the prevailing opinion is that many myths and legends are wrong. Some, like the Cyrus Cylinder (which has been called the First Human Rights Document), remain controversial.

Some long-accepted ideas about ancient history might more properly be called "urban legends" to signify that they are mostly modern ideas about ancient history.

Along with these ancient urban legends, there are plenty of myths the ancients wove into their history.

01
of 10

Lucky Thumbs Up

Statues of two gladiators facing off in a public square.

kosta korçari/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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. When he wanted the gladiator to live, he pointed his thumb up. The gesture signifying that a gladiator should be killed is not exactly thumbs down, but thumb turned. This motion is thought to represent the movement of a sword.

02
of 10

Amazons Cut off a Breast

Amazons fighting in battle, full color depiction.

Statens Museum for Kunst/Hans Jordaens/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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.

03
of 10

Modern and Ancient Greek Democracy

U.S. Capitol building on a sunny day.

David Maiolo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

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 the democracy of the Greeks. It is totally unfair to say that all Greeks voted or to claim that those who didn't vote were branded as idiots.

04
of 10

Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park full color photo taken from ground level.
Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park, New York City.

Charley Lhasa/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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 VII. However, these ancient monuments may have been called Cleopatra's Needles from the time of Augustus, Cleopatra's nemesis.

05
of 10

300 Spartans

Painting depicting the Battle of Thermopylae.

Luvr/David Jak Lui/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At the Battle of Thermopylae, there were 300 Spartans who lay down their lives to give the rest of the Greeks a chance. There was a total of about 4,000 fighting under Leonidas, including willing Thesbians and unwilling Theban allies.

06
of 10

Jesus Christ Was Born on December 25

Nativity scene with Christmas lights in the background.

Jeff Weese/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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. An ancient Armenian story of Mithras' virgin birth is interesting in comparison with Jesus.

07
of 10

Caesar Was Born by Caesarean Section

Statue of Julius Caesar against a stormy sky.

5697702/Pixabay

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.

08
of 10

Judaism Borrowed Monotheism From Egypt

Busts of Nefertiti and Akhenaten, profile view.

Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

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, as 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.

09
of 10

Caesar Misquote

Statue of Julius Caesar by entrance to Caesars Palace casino and hotel on a sunny day.
S.

Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images

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 in Caesar's time. The idea that citizenry needed to be persuaded of the value of war is not true to the first century B.C.

10
of 10

Latin is the Superior Logical Language

Latin inscribed in stone.

webandi/Pixabay

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. The specialized vocabularies we use in areas like law, medicine, and logic tend to be Latin-based, which makes Latin seem superior.

Sources

"A Brief History of Human Rights." United for Human Rights, 2008.

"Mithraism." Absolute Astronomy, 2019.

"Mithraism." The University of Chicago, March 31, 2018.

Strabo. "Geography, I: Books 1-2." Loeb Classical Library, Horace Leonard Jones (translator), Volume I, Harvard University Press, January 1, 1917.