10 Common Misconceptions About the Ancient World

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For thousands of years now humans have been doing their best to record the history of what happened before them. This insistence on preserving the past allows us to build on prior knowledge, learn lessons from things that have happened long ago, and teaches us about the ancient cultures that went before us. However, through time, misunderstandings, and sometimes people with agendas, the past often becomes blurred or indistinct, and people get only a very confused picture of what actually occurred. The history of the ancient world is often misunderstood, and much of it occurred differently than most people have been led to believe.

10. The Library Of Alexandria was Quickly Destroyed in a Giant Fire

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The stories you’ve heard are that the destruction of the Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest tragedies of the ancient world. The library had stood for centuries, a bastion of learning where we stored knowledge for the future, and then one day, the city was overrun and the unthinkable happened. The invaders ordered the library destroyed and it was burned to the ground. Very little was saved and much of the accumulated knowledge of the ancient world was lost forever. Many people think of the story as a sad commentary on how humans often value power and money over knowledge. However, the truth of that matter is that the popular story about the Library of Alexandria is totally false.

While the library was eventually ordered destroyed by invaders, this was hardly the Library’s first brush with danger. For the long years it stood, the Library was subjected to multiple fires, due in part to the volatile nature of the worlds’ borders at the time, and how often people were at war. However, historians believe that even more than war, it was budget cutbacks that slowly destroyed the library over time. As different leaders ended up in charge of the city over the years, they tended to care less and less about the upkeep of the library or the pursuit of important knowledge. By the time the library was finally destroyed, most of what was kept in the library were spiritual texts and little else – the rest had long ago been sent to other libraries in the ancient world where it would be cared for better, or had been lost or destroyed in some way years previous.

9. We Have Fully Discovered the Pyramids at Giza

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The Pyramids at Giza are one of the most well-known monuments in the world, and are still considered a wonder of the ancient world. There have been countless documentaries, and other specials focused on the pyramids, the meaning they had for the Egyptians, and most importantly, how they were built. The truth is that to this day there is still no one consensus agreed upon by archeologists or historians of any kind as to exactly how they were constructed. However, despite the fact that we are no closer to being sure how they did it, most people assume that we have fully explored the pyramids at Giza and are now making our theories based on that evidence.

Unfortunately, while modern archeology continues to provide us with new insight, there is actually much to discover still. The Pyramids at Giza have many secret passageways, and rooms, some of which we only just recently discovered exist for sure, and others that we could only guess at the existence of in the past. Finding our way into these rooms could be quite a challenge, as it might not be possible to enter many of them without doing damage to the interior – something the Egyptian authorities would likely desire to avoid. One French architect who has extensively studied the pyramids believes there could be multiple hidden chambers remaining that are very large, which could mean untold mysteries still await us inside the Great Pyramids at Giza.

8. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were Built by King Nebuchadnezzar

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Most people have heard of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of the wonders of the ancient world – an amazing city in a desert area, with beautiful gardens all over the city and walls. Somehow, this wondrous paradise was kept alive with an advanced irrigation system that would have perhaps even rivaled the best that anyone has used today. However, some people in recent years started putting a damper on the beauty of the gardens, claiming that there is a strong possibility that the whole thing never existed, and was just made up as a fanciful story by writers at the time. The reason is that while Babylon was one of the first civilizations to record things, they never recorded anything about having a city full of hanging gardens. Nor is there any evidence in any historical records at the time that Babylon had any such thing. People have started to believe that there never were any Hanging Gardens, but it turns out they may have been looking in the wrong place all along.

After many years of research, a Dr. Dalley from the University of Oxford discovered that the fabled hanging gardens were actually built by the Assyrians in the nearby city of Nineveh, under the rule of King Sennacherib. Not only did she discover evidence that the Hanging Gardens were actually built by the Assyrians, but she also found the source of the confusion. Eventually the Assyrian’s under Sennacherib sacked and took over the city of Babylon, renaming much of his own city of Nineveh to reflect the names of the Babylonian Gods. Dalley believes this is the main reason people got the confused impression that the hanging gardens were from Babylon, as from that day forth, Nineveh came to be known as another Babylon.

7. Napoleon and His Men Shot Off the Sphinx’s Nose

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The Sphinx has not had its nose for a very long time, and while it is definitely a great historical loss, the reason is different depending on who you ask. The popular story goes that Napoleon and his men were on a sort of tour of conquest heading through Egypt, when they decided to camp by the great pyramids for a while. While they were there they decided to practice their soldiering skills, and someone got it into their head that they should do some cannon fire aiming practice. Of course, considering there weren’t a lot of other good targets around, they decided that the Sphinx’s face would be perfect for the job – the resulting target practice destroyed the Sphinx’s nose and forever marked out Napoleon and his men as buffoons who would deface a historical artifact for a stupid reason.

However, while Napoleon did stop by Egypt, the story about his men and the Sphinx is entirely apocryphal. We know the story is not true because artistic drawings dated well before the time of Napoleon already showed the Sphinx clearly missing his nose. While there is no historical consensus as of yet, some sources claim that it happened many centuries ago when Egyptians were praying to the Sphinx for a better harvest. A Muslim was offended because they were praying to a Sphinx instead of his God, so he vandalized the nose of the Sphinx to spite its face, and was punished with death for his actions.

6. Da Vinci Dropped Iron Balls from the Tower of Pisa

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Back in the ancient days a widely believed theory proposed by Aristotle was that objects with different weights would fall at very different speeds. The stories go that Da Vinci went to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and dropped two objects of much different weight, as a demonstration of his opposing theory to his students and surrounding crowds. When both objects landed at the same time, it proved Aristotle wrong in one of the most dramatic scientific demonstrations of all time. Unfortunately, while the story is certainly fanciful and interesting, there is no reason to believe that it is at all true.

Da Vinci did propose something similar as a thought experiment to his students when arguing his point, but apart from the exaggerated claims of one student, there is no evidence he actually went to the effort to do any such thing. However, while Da Vinci may not have performed the experiment himself, there is reason to believe that the scientists Simon Stevin and John Philloponus both beat him to the theory and actually tested some form of the experiment hundreds of years before Da Vinci himself came up with the whole thing. This does not detract from Da Vinci or his genius – his ideas and inventions were still groundbreaking, but the claim about the Leaning Tower of Pisa was likely nothing more than the embellishment of a star struck student who went on to become his unofficial biographer.

5. The Ancient Amazons Were Man Haters

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Most people think of the Amazon warriors of legend as a secret, fierce, women-only group of nomads that used their great skill with the bow to take down their enemies. They were known to be extremely brave and capable fighters, and their beauty entranced the men of Greece. For the longest time historians were not sure if they even existed, because the stories about them were so fanciful. The tales claim that the Amazons were a truly women-only society, and that they would occasionally have sex with men from a village that they made a deal with, and would send back any male children that were birthed, castrate them, or just leave them to die. Some stories even suggest that Amazon women cut off one of their breasts so they could fire arrows better, and that this is even the origin behind their name.

Despite some people being unsure if they existed, historians have recently discovered evidence that there were a real people that the Greeks came to call Amazons, it’s just that many of the tales about them are either exaggerated or wildly inaccurate. The people they discovered archeological evidence of were called Scythians and many of the men and women were buried with war gear, meaning that it wasn’t just a female society, and it wasn’t just women who fought in battle either. In fact, it’s likely the wild stories started among ancient Greek writers due to how strange the idea of women fighting with bows on horseback was to their societal views. While these women were certainly capable killers of men, there is also plenty of reason to believe they loved and fought beside men, did not do anything untoward to their male children, and there is no evidence whatsoever that they cut off one of their breasts to improve their archery skill – it really wouldn’t be a benefit anyway.

4. The Ancient Egyptians Visited the Grand Canyon

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In the early 1900s a story was published in a newspaper claiming that a team of archeologists funded by the Smithsonian had been checking out caves in the Grand Canyon, places that almost no one ever looked at, and discovered something incredible. They found ancient Egyptian ruins in the cave, suggesting that the Egyptians had managed some form of sea travel advanced enough to make it all the way across to such a far continent – although a small cave would suggest little more than a scouting expedition. More recently, these claims have resurfaced in the media and popular mindset, likely due to the recent popularity of the ancient aliens theories, which always heavily feature the ancient Egyptians.

However, while it would be really cool to think that the Egyptians actually managed such a feat – the historical implications would be amazing – there is actually no evidence that there was any such expedition. The Smithsonian has always denied that the two “archeologists” in the news story ever worked for them or went on such a trip, and have stated flat out that they do not believe there was ever any ancient Egyptian activity in the Americas. Some people who wish to believe it have claimed that the Smithsonian has covered up multiple pieces of evidence over the years in order to push the narrative that the Egyptians were never here. This would be silly of course, as if they ever had been here, we would likely have more hard evidence of it by now – even if there were some ham handed cover-up effort. And it also seems likely someone would have passed on knowledge of how to find this amazing cave of artifacts if it were real.

3. The Placement of the Easter Island Heads is an Impossible Mystery

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You have probably heard before of the famous heads, also known as Moai, that show up all over Easter Island. The statues are enormous constructions of extremely heavy rock and weigh tons, and yet the ancient people managed to move them incredibly long distances to place them on the shore, and all over the island, without any advanced technology at all. For the longest time the prevailing wisdom was that we simply had no idea at all how they managed to do it. Some people took this as proof that it must have been advanced technology of some sort, instead of primitive tools. Of course, once people started theorizing about them using things beyond primitive tools, it wasn’t long before conspiracy theorists were suggesting it was the work of ancient alien visitors.

However, a recent study by interested archeologists has yielded strong evidence as to how they actually did it, and it didn’t require any advanced technology at all. The experts who have been studying the statues believe that they were designed on purpose so they could be moved long distances. They theorized that the large bellies and the oddly proportioned base allowed people to easily push the statue into a state of imbalance, and then rock it back and forth, almost walking it across the ground to where they wanted it to go. While this may sound rather absurd, the archeologists were able to confirm their theory in real time. They successfully had 18 people move a five ton replica of one of the statues several hundred meters in a short space of time, using only ropes. While we can’t say for sure this is exactly how they did it, as we weren’t there to witness it, it’s clear that the task could be performed without advanced technology.

2. The Romans Salted Carthage So Nothing Would Grow There Again

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The tale goes that near the end of the Third Punic War, the Roman General Scipio finally defeated Carthage, and decided to make sure they were well and truly punished for their defiance. He had their fields all plowed under, and then sowed them with salt so that nothing would grow there again. He then took all of the remaining people and made them slaves, destroying their civilization forever. This tale is fairly easy to believe, because the Roman Empire of the time is still looked back on by many as a vast and unfeeling machine. There is also reason to believe that salting the earth is a technique that has been occasionally used in history as a way to punish defeated enemies.

However, the claim that the city of Carthage was plowed under and salted after its defeat bears no real historical evidence. The claims that the city was thus ruined were not even written until the 19th century, and no one but the historian who made the claim has ever suggested that such an action actually occurred. The more important truth here though is that it would perhaps not even be that effective as a permanent means of messing with your foes anyway. Given the right conditions, soil that was salted could meet the proper conditions for growing plants again before long, so it would hardly be a permanent ruination of the land to begin with.

1. The Vikings Used Human Skulls as Mugs

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The Vikings were known for performing daring raids across the European coastline, terrorizing villages, and scaring Europeans into giving them money in order to avoid being raided further. They went on countless raiding expeditions, securing slaves and resources and then heading back to their homeland with their hard won loot. They were known for being brutal and skilled warriors in combat, but perhaps the most fearsome claim about them was how they allegedly drank their booze. The legends say that the Viking warriors were so metal that they would drink their alcohol from the skulls of their defeated enemies – making them one of the most terrifying groups to ever pillage anything.

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However, it turns out that the whole “drinking from skulls” thing was likely nothing more than a mistranslation. What the Vikings actually used were drinking vessels made from the horns of animals. When a scholar was trying to translate an old Viking death song, he misunderstand a line that included the phrase “the curved tree of skulls”, to mean actual human skulls instead of animal horns. Due to how few people could read the original text that was being translated, the error was not caught for a very long time and made its way into the popular mindset. Unfortunately, as cool as it may sound, there is no evidence in the archeological record that any Vikings drank from the skulls of their foes.

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5 Comments

  1. Sorry for my English; I’m from Ukraine.
    You have a very interesting blog. But in the 6th paragraph mistake – this occurred with Galileo, not Da Vinci.

  2. It wasn’t Da Vinci who dropped the balls to disprove Aristole’s theory, it was Galileo. Of course, whether or not he dropped those balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa is apocryphal.

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