Read an Excerpt
We Americans, I have discovered, do not just get our own history wrong. We get everybody else's wrong as well.
Think Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Think Catherine the Great was Russian? Think King Arthur lived in a castle? (Think there really was a King Arthur?) Think Cleopatra was beautiful? Americans think these things are true, but they aren't.
Take almost any famous event of world history, from the Trojan War to World War II. The version we learned in school or at the movies was often cockeyed or bogus.
The plain fact is we have been flimflammed: We have been conned into believing that the pagan barbarians who overran the Roman Empire held civilization in contempt. We have swallowed the old line that English liberty can be traced to the signing of Magna Carta. And we have been duped into believing that the English endured the Blitz with a stiff upper lip.
These are the facts: Most barbarian tribes converted to Christianity, intermarried with the Roman elite, and joined the imperial army to defend the empire from its enemies. Magna Carta gave new rights only to England's powerful barons. And during the Blitz the English complained and were bitter; and many turned to crime.
Much of our history is topsy-turvy. Captain Bligh, a genuine hero, is made out to be a sadistic menace. Edward VIII, an open Nazi sympathizer, is remembered as the noble king who gave up his crown for the love of a woman. Hirohito, an ally of the Japanese militarists, is thought of as the shy marine biologist in glasses who hated war.
It would be going too far to say that our heads are completely filled with lies.It is simply that in many cases history is written by the victors and is filtered through the prism of their prejudices. Take the Spanish Inquisition. Why is it thought to have been one of the lowest, meanest, most reprehensible forums of injustice in human history? Not because it was, but because English Protestants wrote the history books.
Why are the Dark Ages regarded as dark? Because the Renaissance humanists hoped to leave the impression that they had rescued the world from gross ignorance.
Why did historians for so long ignore sex and history? They didn't use to, but Victorian historians took the sex out.
Why is Richard III depicted as a mean hunchback with a withered arm? Because Shakespeare wanted to make Richard's Tudor successors look better by comparison.
I'm asked a lot of times if it isn't a good thing that we have myths. Sure it is. The myths tell us who we are and what values we cherish, and every society has them. And if we didn't have them, some critic somewhere would be sure to say there's something wrong with us for not having myths like other people do.
But if everybody has myths, why bother debunking them? The answer is plain enough: we ought to know the truth about things.
The truth can be painful, but it must be faced. We need to know that Winston Churchill initially wanted to appease Hitler and that Franklin Roosevelt appeased Mussolini. We need to know that German P.O.W.s died by the thousands in American prisons at the end of World War II and that this information was concealed from the public. We need to know that footage in the old newsreels was often faked.
How do you know you can trust me to tell you the truth?
Actually, you shouldn't trust me. Indeed, you shouldn't trust anybody who writes history. We are all full of it. Despite the work of thousands of Ph.D.'s, truth in history is as difficult to ascertain today as it ever was. This is a fact. That's why this book is so valuable. For the author of this book (me) admits that what you have here is my version of the truth. It is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth--as I see it.
Truth, in short, is relative. It is in the eye of the beholder. But in saying this I am not saying there are no facts in history. There are. The Holocaust is a fact. The Americans who said in a recent poll that it's possible the Holocaust did not take place are wrong.*
Much of the stuff in this book, I know, sounds like I made it up. I didn't. The information is in buried the works cited in the source notes.
If the stories I tell seem crazy it is because, as my friend Bernard Weisberger says, life is crazy and people do damn fool things.
Some may think it's absurd to take on the history of the world. It is. But fortunately this book doesn't really cover all of world history, just the world history with which Americans are already familiar. Limiting the book in this way considerably narrows the areas that need to be dealt with.
What Americans mostly know about, of course, is European history, and of European history, what Americans mostly know is English history. There is a simple explanation for this. It was the descendants of the English who first decided what Americans should know about history. Naturally, they tended to favor their own kind.
* According to a 1993 poll conducted by the Roper organization, twenty-two percent of Americans believe it's possible the Holocaust never happened; another twelve percent said they did not know if it did.
Way Back When
Alexander The Great
The Fall Of The Roman Empire
The myth about the Trojan War is that there was one. There wasn't. At least there wasn't one that we know of. In the thousands of years that have elapsed since Homer's epic appeared, nobody has ever produced any evidence that the war he described took place. All the faithful have going for them is hope. (We don't even know if Homer was real. See below.)
That Troy once existed is true. Indeed, from archaeological evidence unearthed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there would appear to have been at least nine Troys piled one atop the other (located in what is now Turkey). But there is no proof there was ever a war between Greece and Troy involving a beautiful queen named Helen, a big wooden horse, or a hero weakened by an Achilles' heel.
Presumably Greeks and Trojans fought each other at one time or another. After all, they were human. And there must have been some reason the Trojans built the huge walls surrounding their city. But there's no archaeological evidence that an army ever planted itself outside the walls of Troy, let alone a huge Greek army that is supposed to have numbered 110,000 soldiers.
Much of the story, at any rate, is patently implausible. That the war lasted ten years is inconceivable; army discipline never could have been maintained that long (no other war at the time is known to have lasted more than a few months). And nobody believes that the Greek soldiers camped out on the beach all those years, their Greek kings right along with them. The business about Helen--that she'd supposedly eloped with a Trojan prince and that the Greeks went to war to get her back--is attractive but unsubstantiated. Besides, it's unlikely she ever would have eloped. FitzRoy Raglan, an expert in world history, reported that he could find "no instance" in history "in which a queen has eloped with a foreign prince, or anybody else."
Anyway, nobody knows if Helen ever even lived. To be sure, tradition has it that the beauty whose face "launched a thousand ships" actually lived and actually served as queen. But tradition also has it that she was the daughter of Zeus and that she was "hatched from a swan's egg."
As for the story of the Trojan Horse, nothing substantiates it. Out of the thousands of objects that have turned up in repeated excavations of Troy, not one lends any credence to the existence of a big wooden horse.
Those who claim the story of Troy is true insist it doesn't matter if some of the details are implausible or unsupported. What counts are the plausible details. But by this method any poem could be found to be historically sound. Just because a poem includes a real person or two doesn't mean the poem is about a real event. Yet this is the kind of argument apologists for the Homeric epic have advanced.
Thucydides believed that the story of Troy was true. But Thucydides lived more than eight hundred years after the war supposedly occurred and was in no better position than we are to vouch for its accuracy. Probably he just wanted to believe it was true.
Homer has long been credited with the story but nobody knows who he was, where he lived, whether he really existed, or how he possibly could have come by reliable information about Troy's early history. If he lived it was in the eighth or ninth century b.c., some four centuries after the war he described was fought. Chances are we know more today about the real Troy than Homer would have.