These Lies Are Ancient History: 6 Enduring Myths Get Disproved

The Independent (Gerald Butler in 300)
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When it comes to the ancient world, it can sometimes be harder to disprove myths and prove facts due to a relative lack of evidence when compared to tales from the Middle Ages and modern era. There are myths which we can say are nonsense with near certainty and there are plenty of instances where fact and fiction get confused in the mists of time.

Ancient empires such as Egypt, Rome and Greece fascinate us because they thrived in a time so long ago that it almost feels as if these people lived on a different planet! In this article, I will look at 6 great myths of the ancient world that you may have believed once upon a time.

Prezi.com
Prezi.com

13 – The 300 at Thermopylae

You should know by now that Hollywood movies are economical with the truth when it comes to depicting historical events. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the blockbuster 300 is filled with more fiction than fact yet it still enraged a number of historians with expertise in the ancient world. The movie earned approximately $465 million at the Box Office and made the Battle of Thermopylae one of the most famous battles in ancient history.

This particular myth suggests that 300 Spartan warriors stood against hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The numbers of course are completely incorrect; while there were only a few hundred Spartans in the battle, they were aided by thousands of Greek allies.

It should be noted that even today, not everyone agrees on the number of combatants. Herodotus suggests there were 5,200 Greeks, Diodorus says 7,400, Pausanias says 11,200 while modern historians believe it may have been as many as 20,000 and no fewer than 7,000. On the Persian side, Herodotus claimed there were 2.5 million soldiers while recent estimates place their army in the 70,000-300,000 range.

Either way, the Greeks were comprehensively outmanned but they cleverly ensured the battle took place in a narrow pass between the sea and the mountains. This significantly reduced the impact of the Persian’s numerical advantage. Had the battle taken place on an open field, it would have been a quick and easy win for the Xerxes led Persian force. Instead, the Battle of Thermopylae lasted three days.

For the first two days, the Greeks held firm and used the phalanx formation to comfortably block the pass. The story of the traitor Ephialtes appears to be true although Herodotus said the treacherous Greek tribesman did not want to join the army and betrayed his countrymen solely for money. He told the Persians of a hidden path that would enable them to outflank their enemy. Ephialtes was ultimately murdered a decade later by a man called Athenades who was later honored for this deed by the Spartan authorities (even though the killing was for a completely unrelated reason according to Herodotus.)

It is also a myth that the entire Greek army died at Thermopylae. Once Leonidas realized the betrayal, he dismissed most of his army barring approximately 1,500 men who stayed behind to form a last stand. There were probably 300 or so Spartans in this group along with slaves, Thespians and Thebans. All of these men died trying to hold off the huge Persian army but those who had been dismissed were able to successfully flee and fight another day.

A couple of final points. Leonidas almost certainly did not have a face-to-face talk with Xerxes as there is no record of this among any of the ancient historians. Finally, the Spartans did not take to the battlefield dressed as the ancient world’s version of the Chippendales with leather underwear and a red cape. Spartan warriors wore several kilograms of iron equipment although they did wear red garments over their armor as a means of frightening their opponents.

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  • Philip Hernandez

    There were several story cycles centered on the Trojan War, most of which are lost to us. The Trojan Horse itself may stand in for some dramatic means by which someone in Troy managed to smuggle some of the Achaians in. Siege warfare was so primitive then that a walled city was usually taken by treachery. Recent research indicates that some of the details in the Iliad of how the chariots were used were factual. Homer, whoever he was, apparently took the verbal traditions (already in verse for easier memorization) and wrote them down. The Iliad itself gives some indications of a traditional military campaign, including arrangements for more supplies, and the reduction of territories supporting the Trojans. A ten-year war seems unlikely, but it if took time to get at Troy, and if there was opportunity for the leaders to return to their territories once in a while to take care of business, a prolonged war is more plausible. Matters like the sons of Theseus coming of age and joining in the final battles, as mentioned in later stories, would also make sense.

    All in all, a good analysis of common stories. History does mention that the men of Thespiae did stand beside the Spartans, but the Thebans fled.

    • Hi Philip,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article and offering your insight. Evidence suggests there was a conflict of some sort, how long it was is very much open for debate.

      The trouble with ancient history is that we hardly ever get the true story; perhaps that is why we are so fascinated by it!

  • R. Montalto

    Nero “reduced the price of corn”? The was no corn in Europe in ancient times. Europeans were introduced to corn when Columbus encountered it in what is now Cuba.

    • The term ‘corn’ is typically used in ancient Rome in relation to cereal grains rather than the ‘maize’ you are thinking of. It is a British English term.
      ‘Corn’ is used in this way in a number of academic texts such as ‘Nero: The End of a Dynasty’ by Miriam T. Griffin and ‘The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources’ which is edited by Barrett, Fantham and Yardley.

      • Corn , is mostly a American usage . in most of the world it means grain .. of some type .. although that is probably changing …

  • Aki

    I’m not too sure with the Mithraic connection. While I think the use of the solstice & the feast of Sol Invictus as the marker for Jesus’ birth has support, but I don’t think the connection with Mithra is that concrete. Has it been shown that Mithra & Aurelian’s Sol Invictus are the same? I don’t recall Mithra ever being a solar deity.

    • Hi Aki,

      It does seem to be a topic of controversy. A lot of evidence of Mithra worship was purposely destroyed. Mithra is described as a Babylonian sun deity in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities. The connection with Jesus is probably tenuous with, you guessed it, disagreement amongst researchers!

  • Eric Hayes

    My knowledge of Mithras, limited, is that he was the God sun of a deity, lived about 30 years. Was executed and returned to life 3 days later. I believe that’s the Mithras tie in. The similarities with Jesus life.

  • Igor

    They wore red to mask the blood of injured