10 Historical Myths That People Still Believe

July 4, 2024 | Samantha Henman

10 Historical Myths That People Still Believe


There are some stories that we hear repeated on TV or in movies or books that just seem to gather more steam as time goes on—but some are so compelling that people refuse to stop re-telling them, even after they’re been debunked. For some reason, people still believe these historical myths to be true, even though they’ve been proven wrong.


Catherine The Great

Catherine the Great had immeasurable power and influence—as well as enemies. Between her naysayers and the men who shaped the history books, choosing to downplay or belittle her, it’s no wonder that a vicious rumor spread about the ruler.

Catherine the GreatAlexander Roslin, Wikimedia Commons

Catherine The Great’s Final Moments

For centuries, people whispered that Catherine the Great died while she was doing the deed…with a horse. Others said she died on the toilet. However, that’s an easy misunderstanding. She passed on after having a stroke, in the toilet—AKA, another word for bathroom.

Catherine the GreatRomanov Empire, Picryl

The Flat Earth Theory

Okay, while we’re not here to argue with conspiracy theorists, one thing that people commonly think is that Medieval people believed the world was flat, and it took Isaac Newton to prove them wrong. But that’s not actually how things went.

Portrait Of Sir Isaac Newton - between 1795 and 1827John Scott, Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Misunderstandings

People in the Medieval era did not believe the earth was flat. Because they could see the curve of the horizon from any high viewing point, they already knew it was round, and didn’t need a fancy math guy to tell them that.

Flat EarthUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


Napoleon became Emperor of France and attempted to conquer Europe with such passion and vigor that people joked it was because he was, ahem, lacking something.

Tsar Paul I of Russia factsJacques-Louis David, Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon’s Height

Get your mind out of the gutter! Though the armchair psychologists of the world claimed that Napoleon’s conquests were due to insecurity over his short stature, even leading to the proliferation of something called “Napoleon syndrome,” the man was actually 5’7” tall, which was average for the time.

Napoleon By BellangeBellange, Wikimedia Commons

Viking Helmets

This one appears in picture books, TV shows, movies, stage plays, cheap Halloween costumes…the idea of a Viking wearing a horned helmet. Well, it couldn’t be further from the truth. So how did it all come about?

Warrior VikingFotokvadrat, Shutterstock

The Origin Of The Horned Helmet

Though sources differ, many believe the image of a Viking helmet having horns was popularized in the 19th century. Some attribute it to artists, while others claim they were made by a costume designer to be used in a Wagner opera in the later half of the century.

Nicholas Roerich, Guests From OverseasNicholas Roerich, Wikimedia Commons

Captain Cook

Many people believe that famed explorer Captain James Cook was the first European to visit Australia in 1770. He named the area where he landed Botany Bay, sparking a centuries-long myth about the “discovery” of Australia. However, someone beat him to it.

Captain James CookNathaniel Dance-Holland, Wikimedia Commons

The Real First

Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon landed in Northern Australia in 1606, a whole 174 years before Cook.

Willem JanszoonRijksmuseum, Wikimedia Commons

The Bridge of Sighs

This landmark in Venice is beautiful and instantly recognizable. Many people believe that it’s so-named for the sighs of the prisoners who had to walk across it to the Venetian palace to stand trial—but that’s a bit fantastical.

The Bridge of SighsCzapp Árpád, Pexels

A Bridge By Any Other Name…

In fact, it was a poet who gave the bridge its poetic name. Lord Byron came up with the name after a visit to Venice.

The Bridge of Sighsjustinls, Flickr

The Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal, a funerary mosque, built to honor his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. However, a dark myth has followed the construction of this Wonder of the World.

Mumtaz MahalUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Beauty of the Taj Mahal

Rumors spread that when Shah Jahan laid eyes on the completed Taj Mahal, he was so overtaken by its beauty that he blinded the architects, engineers, and artists involved so that they couldn’t build anything to compete with it. There is no foundation to these rumors.

Taj MahalVyacheslav Argenberg, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Influence of Caesar

People attribute the origin stories of many things to their names—in particular, Caesar salad and the cesarean section have fallen victim to this. While Caesar salad came in 1924, many, many centuries later, many still believe that the surgical procedure was named for Julius Caesar and say that he was the first baby to be born by cesarean section.

Julius Caesar, as depicted in  Rome in roman clothesHBO, Rome (2005–2007)

The Real C-Section

There is absolutely no way that the ancient Romans had the surgical acumen or technology for a baby to be born by C-section. Instead, it’s more likely that the name comes from the Latin word caedere, which means “to cut”.

Julius Caesar, as depicted in  Rome in roman clothesHBO, Rome (2005–2007)

Christmas Is Jesus’s Birthday

When we grow up—especially if you go to church or a Christian school—you learn that Christmas centers around the birth of Christ, and it’s easy to infer that it’s therefore the day he was born. Same thing with years—he was born in year O, right? Well…

ChristmasBrett Sayles, Pexels


It’s a lot more complicated that it seems. The evidence is too incomplete to actually know the real date Jesus was born. Additionally, most scholars believe he was born around 4 to 6 BC.

JesusGerard van Honthorst, Wikimedia Commons

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is often portrayed as a spoiled if hapless queen whose lack of awareness of the plights of her subjects led to her violent demise. Part of this has to do with one infamous statement: “Let them eat cake”.

Marie AntoinetteColumbia, Marie Antoinette (2006)

The Truth About Let Them Eat Cake

It’s believed that when Marie Antoinette learned the French people were starving, she said “Let them eat cake,” which caused a wild uproar over her perceived lack of awareness. Some people tried to write it off by claiming she meant a form of bread. In fact, that exact phrase had been misattributed to other out-of-touch royals before, including one of her predecessors, Maria Theresa of Spain. There’s not actually evidence Marie Antoinette ever said it.

Marie Antoinette portraitJean-Étienne Liotard,  Wikimedia Commons

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