Movies, television, and good old-fashioned word of mouth (sometimes in the form of misinformation) have been instrumental in muddying the waters between the average person’s understanding of famous media portrayals of ancient societies and what they were actually like. This has caused quite a few misconceptions about everything from Caesar’s last words, to whether or not aliens seeded life on Earth to flow from the mouths of everyday people all around the world (as well as plenty of people who would like you to think that they’re an expert when really they’re just some supremely meme-able guy with weird hair with no formal education).
Here are 10 misconceptions about ancient societies…
10. Julius Caesar’s Last Words
Ask anyone what Julius Caesar’s last words were, and they’ll probably say something to the effect of “Et tu, Brute?” But according to an ancient Roman historian named Gaius Suetonius Traquillus, Caesar’s last words would have been “kaì sý, téknon” which in Greek means “And you, child.”
However, that’s assuming we know what Caesar’s real last words were, and frankly, we really don’t. Writers like William Shakespeare, in particular, have long speculated on the famous emperor’s final words, but the results are just that: speculation.
But the quote mentioned earlier (amounting to “You, too, my child?”) may be pretty close to what his last words actually were. Suetonius reported that this was Caesar’s reaction to seeing Brutus among the crowd of conspirators in his biography “The Life of Julius Caesar.”
Still, there is still a strong debate as to what the original Greek “kaì sý, téknon” actually meant, as ancient Greeks and Romans did not use question marks. So there’s no telling whether this was meant as a threatening statement, or a heartbroken question.
9. Aliens Built the Pyramids
In July 2020, Elon Musk joined the masses of people who have been duped by a myth propagated by shows like Sightings (deep cut right there) and Ancient Aliens (basically the History Channel’s entire identity at this point) when he tweeted that the pyramids were built by aliens.
Egypt’s Minister of International Co-operation Rania al-Mashat was quick to invite Elon to visit Egypt so that he could be shown the definitive proof that, no, the pyramids were not built by aliens.
The fact is this rumor is easily disproved by the fact that we’ve discovered the tombs of the people who literally built the pyramids. This is a discovery which happened in the ’90s even, so it’s not even new knowledge.
Just to set the record straight, the pyramids were built by Egyptians (not Jewish slaves, as another popular myth asserts) and they were paid in beer. And, yes, you’re probably not alone in thinking that pyramid builder sounds like an awesome job now.
8. Vikings Wore Horned Helmets
Contrary to popular belief, there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that Vikings wore horned helmets as is depicted in popular media. In fact, most Viking warriors wore simple skullcap helmets, which would have been designed to absorb impacts. Horns certainly wouldn’t have helped an ancient Viking warrior if their opponent attempted to crack their skull with an ax, sword, or club.
But that isn’t where the disparities between fiction and fact end. Most of us who aren’t scholars or archaeologists have a twisted view of the Vikings as battle-hardened, bloodthirsty warmongers, but this simply isn’t true. Though there is certainly evidence that the Vikings could use particularly brutal means to achieve their goals, plenty of Vikings lived peaceful lives as farmers and traders when they weren’t out pillaging and being pirates (which is basically what the word Viking is based on means).
7. Caligula Made His Horse A Government Official
Even we’ve been duped by this one, so don’t feel bad.
Most people know of Caligula as a madman who tortured Rome, but while some of this is definitely true, it turns out that modern scholars actually reject the notion that Caligula was as crazy as we originally thought.
This is because most of the writings, especially those concerning his desire to make his favorite horse, Incitatus, a government official, were written by writers who lived decades after Caligula was assassinated.
In fact, many of the things we think are true about Caligula are mere sensational fabrications. The truth is far more interesting, some might say, as he was the product of an abusive family member (who just happened to be emperor) and his loyalty was constantly scrutinized. Caligula went to bed every night wondering if he might be awakened by the guards and sentenced to an early execution.
This was an age where senators were often sentenced to death for the simple act of wearing a ring featuring the emperor’s likeness while they used the bathroom.
Caligula was bedridden for weeks after being declared emperor and historians seem to agree that he was likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The fact that Rome continued to function without him is thought to have contributed to how he conducted himself and shows that he likely feared that Rome might figure out that they didn’t need an emperor at all if he didn’t prove how necessary he was.
However, Caligula did love his horse, and maybe even a little too much, but there is no real evidence that he ever wanted to make his horse a government official.
6. Egyptians Practiced Human Sacrifice
Hollywood and pop culture have long depicted Egyptian Pharaohs as being buried with their retainers and household when they died, and as a result, this depiction has influenced how the public sees ancient Egypt.
But how did this belief originate?
Well, it turns out that this myth is actually based on a kernel of truth, but one that has been twisted and overblown. There is evidence that ritual sacrificed was conducted in Ancient Egypt during the rule of Naqada II (basically what they consider to be the prehistoric era) during the period of (3500-3200 BCE).
Archaeologists discovered decapitated bodies at multiple cites that are thought to have been cemeteries. However, there is far clearer evidence of human sacrifice in the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt.
But most academics seem to agree that after the first dynasty ended, and future Pharaohs moved their sacred burial ground from Abydos to Saqqara, ritual sacrifice pretty much ended. But some scholars argue that it was never practiced after the prehistoric period.
5. Romans with British Accents
It’s common to see Romans speaking with British accents in film and television and more often than not they’re portrayed by Brits as well (not just so-called Fake Brits sporting an easily spotted fake accent), but the truth is we don’t know how Romans and Greeks sounded. The reason why this seems to be the go-to take on Romans on the big screen comes down to audience perception (and studios feeding that perception).
According to TV Tropes, American and British audiences find Old English dialects and accents to be more “authentic” rather than contemporary ones. This is thought to be inspired by the works of William Shakespeare which took place in Rome. This is ironic, considering that Shakespeare would have sounded a lot more like an American living on the East Coast (mixed with a healthy amount of Irish and stereotypical pirate) than modern-day Brits.
4. Vikings Had a Unified Empire
The Vikings never really had a unified empire. In fact, the word Viking comes from the old Norse word Vikingr which basically meant pirate. Vikings were Scandinavian sailors from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Most of them were farmers, tavern owners, shop keepers, and only perpetuating their Viking habits when they felt the need to do some pillaging.
Most Vikings would leave their farms during the off-season, do their pirating, pillaging small towns and churches, and be home in time for harvest. Though, some Vikings loved their part-time occupations so much that they became full-time pirates.
It was much more like a career choice than the description of a unified people.
3. The Aztecs Lived in a Thick Jungle
Contrary to popular belief, the Aztecs did not live in a jungle environment. They lived in Central Mexico, so their environment was mostly comprised of wet marshes and tall mountains.
In fact, for an Aztec to be able to visit the jungle, they would have had to travel at least a week by foot to the south of their main territory.
This attribution of jungle environments to the Aztecs seems to come from people confusing or lumping the Maya and Incas into the same group of peoples, but just as the Greeks and Spaniards were definitely not the same culture, these three ancient civilizations were also very different from one another.
Now it is true that there is quite a bit of jungle iconography in Aztec mythology, but this is because they viewed the jungle as a mysterious and mystical place, much like the western world viewed the Orient in the 19th century.
2. Native Americans Had a Unified Culture
Movies and TV tend to paint Native American culture with a thick brush, assuming that they basically all had the same culture, and many people outside of scholarly studies know that this isn’t true. Before the Europeans arrived here, there were more than 600 different tribes of Native Americans, each with their own traditions, customs, and religions.
In fact, corporations, movie studios, and even the US Government and military have taken part in propagating many of the myths that surround Native American peoples. From cigar boxes featuring Native American likenesses, cigarettes, to the Apache Longbow Helicopter, the US has used their culture as a marketing tool more than anything else.
The National Museum of the American Indian has been trying to change that perception since 2018’s unveiling of an exhibit dedicated to debunking popular myths and exposing the truth behind many misconstrued historical events like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears, and the life of Pocahontas.
The exhibit is still up for anyone who wants to see it, at least until 2022.
1. The Sumerian Religion is About Aliens Seeding Earth
The idea that the Sumerian religion depicts humans being created by some mysterious aliens (known as the Anunnaki) who lived (or live, if you’re a conspiracy theorist) on an alien world called Nibiru, was first popularized by author Zechariah Sitchin in 1976.
Because Sitchin had no formal education in Semitic languages, his translations were full of errors. The Sumerian and Akkadian religions are myths comprised of complex stories, polytheistic relationships between gods and goddesses that are quite similar to Greek and Roman deities, but none of those myths have a thing to do with aliens.
That hasn’t stopped shows like Ancient Aliens and popular late-night talk radio programs from discussing these ideas as if they’re verifiably true, though. Ancient Aliens is especially egregious because it blatantly lies to its viewers under the pretense that it’s hosted on the History Channel of all things, and does so with such abandon that it seriously seems like the show’s writers are making everything up as they go.
A 2012 episode of the show focused on trying to tie the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs with aliens, suggesting that something did in fact happen to the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, then obviously it must have been aliens (this meshed together with CGI animations of dinosaurs running away from alien spacecraft).
Basically, it’s all bunk, and Sumerian mythology is a whole lot more interesting than people think.