If you believe that history and George Washington cannot tell a lie, then you’ll probably be surprised to learn that a number of the “facts” you were taught in school were as phony as the teeth of the first president of the United States.
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S STAND-UP ACT
Many myths have sprung up around the first president of the United States. Yes, he did have false teeth. No, they weren’t made of wood. No, he didn’t chop down a cherry tree and tell his father that he could not tell a lie. And, no, he did not throw a silver dollar, which hadn’t even come into existence at that time, across the Potomac River.
One of the most famous myths has been perpetuated by a well-known painting entitled “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” In this artwork, old George is pictured standing bravely in at the front of a tiny rowboat as it crosses a nearly frozen Delaware River. While it is acknowledged that Washington did cross the river, most historians agree that he would have been foolhardy to do so standing in a small rowboat, which would have surely tipped over. Instead historians believe the first president was either riding on a barge or a deep and wide Durham boat – both much less romantic, but much smarter forms of water transportation. Face it, though, Old George standing in the middle of a large, flat ferry barge is not nearly as stirring a sight.
“LET THEM EAT CAKE”
Taunting hungry peasants isn’t a good thing. Case in point: Marie Antoinette, the queen of France from 1755 to 1793, who supposedly dismissed her starving citizens’ complaints about lack of bread with a haughty, “Let them eat cake.” According to what many of us were taught in school, this really didn’t go over well with the masses and the phrase has made Antoinette the poster child for insensitive remarks.
But in reality, Queenie got a bad rap. The quote – which was actually, “Let them eat brioche” — is believed to have been spoken, in fact, by a different Marie — Marie-Therese, who was the wife of Louis XIV. Researchers have traced this incorrect attribution to Marie Antoinette to a 1931 children’s book. Unfortunately for Antoinette’s image, it has been widely repeated ever since.
A FLAT EARTH
For years, school children were taught that Christopher Columbus set off for the Far East in a westerly direction from England — which was opposite the convention thinking of the time– because he was the only one smart enough to realize the world was really round and not flat. Columbus, we were told, was sure that he could circumnavigate the globe and end up in the Far East, whereas his contemporaries thought they would fall off the edges of the flat world. This information was included in school textbooks as recently as the 1990s and is probably still included in some books to this day.
The truth is that most of Columbus’s contemporaries also knew that the world was round, and this fact had been known since the days of Aristotle. One of the real reasons Columbus was the first to attempt this circumnavigate of our planet was because he believed that it was actually smaller than the estimates of his time. Other explorers and countries were reluctant to take the risk of sailing ships into a vast ocean where they could possibly run out of food. And, in actuality, they were right. Columbus had seriously underestimated the size of the world. Luckily for him, though, he did accidentally stumble on the Americas where he was able to replenish his food supplies before he would have run out.
NERO AND THE BURNING OF ROME
A roaring fire and soft music – typically a good thing, right? Not so much if you’re the emperor of Rome and you’re playing the fiddle while the city is burning to the ground around you. But did it happen?
A huge fire that burned for six days and reportedly took out two-thirds of Rome did actually occur in AD 64 and Nero was the emperor; however, there is one big problem with this story: The fiddle hadn’t been invented yet. Most people believe that fiddles didn’t arrive on the scene until about the 11th Century.
Another legend has Nero singing and playing a lyre while the city burned, but most historians discount this version as well. Some believe that these stories sprung up after the death of the unpopular and extravagant Nero to ruin his name. The plan worked because even today many people believe that Nero mindlessly fiddled while Rome burned to the ground around him.
THE 300… OR SO
The battle of Thermopylae was the subject of a hit movie starring a ripped Gerard Butler, lots of special effects and gallons of blood. While the legend and the movie of these 300 brave Spartans would have us believe that they fought hundreds of thousands of Persians on their own, the truth according to a historical account written by Greek historian Herodotus was a little different.
The 300 Spartans that met the Persians on the last day of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC were actually part of a force of approximately 1,400 men that also included Thebans and Thespians. The basic fact of the story is true, however. These brave men, led by Spartan King Leonidas I, were vastly outnumbered by the Persians and though they fought bravely, all were eventually killed during the battle.
In 30 BC, Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, knew she was about to be taken to Rome and paraded through its streets as a prisoner. To avoid this humiliation, it’s been long believed that Cleopatra killed herself by allowing a poisonous asp to bite her.
But modern researchers now disagree with this popularly held concept. Instead, most believe that Cleo probably killed herself with a poisonous concoction. Ancient historians reported that the queen of the Nile died peacefully and that two of her attendants also died with her. This does not fit with death by snake bite. First of all, snake bite victims typically die in a lot of extreme pain, and second, historians believe that one snake would not have been sufficient to kill all three people in what would have been a relatively short period of time. Plus, the queen’s Roman guards were aware that she was possibly suicidal and were on the lookout for things that Cleo could kill herself with. It’s hard to believe that they would have missed seeing a big snake hiding in a basket of figs.
CATHERINE THE GREAT’S STALLION SEDUCTION
It’s surprising how some stories continue on long past the point where you would think any sane person would believe them but, as we all know, sex sells and so the tale of Catherine the Great dying while engaging in some interesting horse play keeps on trotting along.
Even writers of staid biographies about the tsarina often feel compelled to start their accounts by dismissing the rumor that Catherine had been crushed under a stallion during an amorous encounter. In reality, Catherine the Great died alone on November 5, 1796 of a cerebral hemorrhage. An article about this subject on the “Psychology Today” website points a finger at the French for possibly starting the scandalous rumor. Other historians blame jealous rivals who wanted to discredit Catherine because she was a powerful, single, reportedly sexually active woman
STONEHENGE WAS BUILT BY THE DRUIDS
For 800 years, Druids have returned to Stonehenge, their mystical temple, to celebrate the summer solstice. While many people believe that the Druids built this most famous of ancient stone circles and at one time some historians also claimed that they did, the truth is that the megalith monument was actually built about two thousand years before the Druids came to live in this area.
So who actually built Stonehenge? Aliens, of course. Just kidding. Actually, scientists aren’t exactly sure, but it is believed that possibly three different groups of ancient people worked on the site over many years.
CHOW MEIN AND MEATBALLS
The last time you slurped down spaghetti, did you think of Marco Polo? Many of us were told that the famous explorer was the one who discovered noodles while in China and then brought this awesome product back with him to Italy, where it quickly became a fan favorite.
The truth is that pasta was mentioned in Italian records long before Marco Polo returned from China. So where did this story come from? Apparently, the tale showed up in a publication called the “Macaroni Journal” in October 1929. The story recounted how a sailor named Spaghetti, who was with Marco Polo, learned how to make pasta by watching the Chinese cook it, and then the two brought the stuff back to Italy with them. A cool story, but totally untrue.
JESUS WAS BORN IN WINTER
We all know that Jesus was born on December 25th, right? Wrong. Admittedly, this may disturb some people as much as when they found out for the first time that there is no Santa Claus (oh, if you haven’t gotten THAT memo, our apologies).
The truth is that all of the evidence points to Jesus being born either in the fall or spring. The shepherds, for one thing, were spending the nights out in the field, which is something that historians agree they would typically only do during the spring, summer or fall. It is also highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary would have had to travel during the winter to register for taxes. These are just two of the reasons why historians and Biblical scholars believe that Jesus was probably born during the fall.
So why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th? This date was once a holiday celebrated by the Romans. When the church decided to find a date to celebrate Christ’s birthday, they settled on the December 25th, a date that pagans were already celebrating to make the transition a little easier because, as you know, nothing ticks off the masses more than taking away a holiday.