Lies, Damned Lies and History: A Catalogue of Historical Errors and Misunderstandings

Lies, Damned Lies and History: A Catalogue of Historical Errors and Misunderstandings

by Graeme Donald


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ISBN-13: 9780752452333
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/01/2010
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Graeme Donald is the author of Fighting Talk and Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis.

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Lies, Damned Lies and History

A Catalogue of Historical Errors and Misunderstandings

By Graeme Donald

The History Press

Copyright © 2009 Graeme Donald,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6235-6




So little is known of Boudicca, Boudicia (d.60 or 61), or whatever you want to call the lady, that it is perhaps not pushing the matter too far to question whether she ever existed outside the minds of a couple of historians writing years after the alleged events. Perhaps they just invented some sort of ferocious bogey-woman under whose umbrella they could cluster a series of events known to have taken place but of which they knew little.

Boudicca – we shall stick with that form for the purposes of this entry – has been so many things to so many people, the first feminist, and so forth, that it is difficult to know where to begin. Always depicted in film as a flame-haired Xena-type with a body like an angry polecat barely contained in leather strappy-bits, the image we all have of her is taken from the over-imaginative statue on Westminster Bridge, this showing a wild-haired battle-vixen clutching her two wronged daughters aboard her scythe-wheeled chariot of war. Let's take that chariot first; no -one with even half a brain would use a chariot in war; the Romans, who knew a thing or two about the efficiencies of slaughter, never used them for anything other than pomp or racing. Battles did not take place on manicured lawns and the wheel/axel-making technology of the time was laughable. A chariot would not have lasted ten minutes on rough terrain and all aboard would have had to hang on for dear life instead of throwing spears or firing arrows with deadly accuracy. At the end of the day, a chariot is useless without its horsepower and that could be taken out at the drop of a hat by archers. As for wheel-scythes, they are pure fiction.

And so to the lady herself. The standard version of the tale is that she was an Iceni queen who took over after her husband, Prasutagus, either died or was poisoned by her, depending on what you read. Not long after this, the Romans announced that they were to annex the kingdom and, when she objected, they gave her a good flogging and raped her two daughters. This alleged brutality turned her into a whirlwind of revenge which engulfed three cities and countless Roman squaddies. But how do we arrive at this yarn with nothing written of such events at the time? We do not even know this woman's name; however you spell the term it is a corruption of 'boudeg', the Brythonic for 'victory' which could instead be a title or a name invented for a fictional character to suit the attributed deeds. It is a bit like the woman in the Bible who supposedly wiped the sweat from Christ's face as he made his way to the killing-ground only to be left with the image of his face on her cloth; she is referred to as Veronica, a name meaning the true image, yet how could her parents have known she would be doing this in later life and christen her accordingly? (The matador's drawing of the cape across the bull's face is also known as a veronica, taken from this same legend).

The first reference we have to the alleged Boudicca is in the writings of the Roman Tacitus (56–117) but he was about four years old when Boudicca was inflicting the ravages attributed to her. The only other source is Dio Cassius who, not even born until 164, was even more removed from her supposed time of prominence and likely relied on that same Tacitus as a primary source. Both were writing under the watchful eye of their Roman paymasters so you may draw what conclusions you should from that. All that said and done, the year 60 or 61 most certainly did see an uprising against the Romans with the settlements/cities of Colchester, St Albans and London the subjects of significant attack – even the archaeological evidence bears that out. But was there a Boudicca? At the risk of sounding trite, perhaps people simply got the wrong end of the stick after observing the Iceni horde cheering some priestess who, having issued suitably encouraging prophesies of success, was hailed with cries of Boudeg! Boudeg!


The notion that this statue once straddled the entrance to the main harbour of Rhodes is a medieval fantasy which, fuelled by countless paintings and etchings, is pretty much the image held today. In fact, the Colossus stood somewhere to the side of the harbour so it gained admittance to the Seven Wonders of the World club under false pretences.

After the death of Alexander the so-called Great in 323 BC, his over -vaunted empire fell apart like the house of straw it was, leaving his generals grabbing whatever fragments they could before falling to war amongst themselves. Ptolemy got Egypt, and, having cemented a pact with Rhodes, found himself at loggerheads with another of Alexander's heirs, Antigonus Monophthalmus, who, in 305 BC sent his son to lay siege to that island. But junior botched the job and had to flee the next year when Ptolemy turned up to send him packing sans half his fleet and all his siege equipment. The Rhodians gathered up all that had been abandoned and held an auction to raise funds for the building of a massive statue of Helios, their sun-god. Completed in 280 BC and made in the main from the re-forged iron and bronze of the abandoned weapons, the finished statue stood about 30 metres high at an unknown location near the harbour entrance – but not for long. Hardly the most durable of the Seven Wonders, it collapsed in the earthquake of 226 BC, snapped off at the knees by the first tremor, and there it lay in pieces for the next 800 years until the Muslim warlord Muawiyah I captured Rhodes in 654 and sold the shattered bits and pieces as scrap to 'a Jew from Emesa'.


Despite its name, the Colosseum was not the largest of the Roman arena or stadia; properly called the Flavian Amphitheatre it was not even referred to by that other name until the year 1000, this 'nickname' inspired by its proximity to the Colossus of Nero, a 40 metre-high statue that was pulled down in the fourth century so that the bronze could be recycled. Although the Flavian could accommodate crowds of about 50,000 it was dwarfed by the Circus Maximus which, on high-days and holidays, held something in the region of 500,000, and it was the specially structured passageways of these two arenas that enabled such massive crowds to exit quickly that gave birth to the myth that the Romans had special rooms where they could throw up between courses to make room for even more food. The much-misunderstood vomitoria were, in the case of the Colosseum, the eighty passageways and underpasses through which the entire 50,000 audience of a Colosseum full-house could exit in less than fifteen minutes, this giving the impression that the building was regurgitating its contents back into the city. Rome was certainly a place of excess and many did indeed round off the evening's entertainment doubled up in the shrubbery, but this was never a deliberate ritual in rooms designed for such behaviour. The myth seems to be one of relatively recent origins, first noted in print in Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay (1923), a comic novel making reference to massed hurlings in 'the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter'. In the relevant entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, the proper definition is put forward before the myth is explored. Using Huxley's error as illustration, the text imposes a corrective 'erroneously: A room in which ancient Romans are alleged to have vomited deliberately during feasts'.

And talking of feasts, the Colosseum is best known today as the venue where lions routinely snacked-out on Christians in their thousands. The trouble with that popular image is that it never happened; the whole story was a load of Papal bull calculated to call a halt to the wholesale theft of the masonry, fixtures and fittings by dodgy architects and landscape gardeners who were treating the place like a free-for-all builders' yard. It is clear that even in the Middle Ages the Colosseum meant nothing to Christians, it by then having been used as everything from a fortress to a quarry. Pope Pius V (1566–1572) seems to have been the one to start the ball rolling by declaring that pilgrims to the city should take away with them handfuls of Colosseum sand which, he proclaimed, was impregnated with the blood of countless Christian martyrs – but still no mention of lions. His was very much a minority view and one not shared by the rest of the Vatican hierarchy who continued to sanction varied and secular use of the place. Pope Sixtus V (1585–1590), a confusing name if ever there was one, was prevented only by his own death from turning large sections of the place into a maze of sweatshops to produce woollen goods to flog to the pilgrims. In 1671, Cardinal Altieri announced his intention to turn the place into a bullfighting area. This proved a step too far in the eyes of some, particularly one Carlo Tomassi, who countered Altieri's announcement with a pamphlet hailing the Cardinal's plans a profanation of what should be considered a sanctuary. So successful was the Tomassi campaign that Pope Clement X (1670–1676) eventually had to bow to mounting pressure and order the external arcade to be sealed off and the whole place declared a sanctuary.

The thefts of the Colosseum's very structure ceased overnight as pinching a few stones now became an act of desecration likely to attract the unwelcome attention of clerics with big piles of firewood – for the time being, the place was safe. However, about a century later, by which time the Church had largely lost the power to reduce transgressors to small piles of ash, the theft problem returned – proof-positive that capital punishment does indeed concentrate the minds of the un-godly. To save the place from further desecration Pope Benedict XIV (1740–1758) had Stations of the Cross erected throughout the Colosseum and proclaimed it dedicated to the Christians martyred therein. Everyone jumped on the new bandwagon: artists who plied their trade to the visiting pilgrims immediately began churning out depictions of pious Christians standing calm in their faith before salivating lions and baying crowds of suitably surly pagans. And that was that; thenceforth all and sundry were convinced that Christians were fed to the lions in the Colosseum.

In fact, it is not known if anyone was ever thrown to lions; the arena was all about spectacle and a man-versus-lion bout would not long entertain the crowd. Common criminals and some prisoners of war were pitted against animals, but most such incidents seem to have involved nothing more exotic than wild dogs. Apart from Nero, who most certainly did persecute Christians in his private gardens to entertain his dinner-guests, there does not seem to be any evidence that Christians were routinely singled out for their entertainment value in any arena – suffer they certainly did, but no more than any other minority group. Christians were by no means unique or the preferred dog's dinner as the Romans were quite happy to toss anyone to the dogs for a good laugh. Anyway, in 367 the Emperor Valentinianus banned the use of Christians in the arena, although the embargo did not apply to non-Christians who continued to top the bill in all of the city's arenas. So, far from bearing the main brunt of Roman persecution, Christians in fact got off lightly; the poor old gladiator would have to fight on for another forty years or so.

Since the general concept of the nature and outcome of the gladiatorial games is largely based on films such as Spartacus (1960) and Gladiator (2000) it is perhaps no surprise that there are more than a few misconceptions attached to the tradition, which was not Roman but Etruscan and, initially at least, never intended for the entertainment of the mob. The custom of voluntary mortal combat was an Etruscan funereal rite intended to provide bodyguards for the departed in the afterlife. As the Harpies played some dirge and sang of immortality, three or perhaps four pairs would fight it out to see who got to go on the trip of a lifetime, so to speak. Although distorted in mythology to creatures of foul unpleasantness, the original Harpy was chosen for her beauty and musical talent, appearing at funerals naked save for a feathered cape representative of the vultures that would devour the corpse and transport the soul into the heavens. Their name was taken from the Greek harpazein, to seize or pluck, either in reference to the feeding nature of the birds they represented or for the harps they plucked. Either way, the use of funereal gladiators is first recorded in the Rome of 264 BC when three pairs fought over the grave of Junius Brutus.

Properly called munera, such tributes to the dead began as low -key and very private affairs but, with time, they began to get out of hand as the families of the elite vied to hold increasingly impressive funerals; 'your dad only had six pairs fighting on his grave, well, we gave my dad eight' and so forth. Although the numbers inexorably rose, still by the time of the Dictator Julius Caesar (he was never Emperor; Augustus was the first to carry that title) the main focus was on the deceased party with the fights held in their honour. In 65 BC Julius Caesar honoured his father, by then twenty years dead, with a contest between 320 pairs of combatants – he had wanted more, but the Senate, still not over the memory of Spartacus' all-Italian tour of 73 BC, imposed restrictions on the number of slaves and prisoners of war who could be 'tooled-up' at any one time. In 46 BC Caesar again organised such a private function to honour his daughter, Julia, who had died in childbirth eight years before, with protracted and elaborate munera played out to a gory conclusion about her tomb. Far from being enjoyed by howling spectators, Caesar's munera were criticized for their extravagance and the unacceptable number of deaths involved, and that's not the kind of sentiment one was likely to hear often in ancient Rome.

Throughout the Republic, munera were always funded and organized by the family concerned, but the aforementioned rivalry, overlaid by lashings of political ambition, began clouding the original purpose of showing respect for the dead. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor from 27 BC until AD 14, decided to curb the excesses and place all such events under the authority of the Praetors who had their orders to limit such shows to two days a year with no more than sixty pairs at any one event. (This would eventually swell to twelve days a year, still far short of the weekly occurrence of popular imagination). Even as late as the turn of the second century, Tertullian (160–220) would lament in his On the Spectacles (?198): 'this class of entertainment has passed from being a compliment to the dead to being a compliment to the living'.

But human nature is programmed to debase all it creates and so, inevitably, by the rule of Trajan (98–117) military victories and triumphs were celebrated with anything up to 5,000 pairs. By this time munera had become the 'Games' and very much the province of the howling mob who sat cheering and jeering at fights every bit as arranged and 'choreographed' as WWE bouts. Throughout the day the crowd was worked by hucksters selling wine, snacks and memorabilia; a day at the arena was no different to a day at a modern football match, apart from the fact that one was far less likely to get killed – at the Colosseum, that is. On the plus side, as far as the combatants were concerned, their lot had dramatically improved. While death was the required outcome at all munera this was not so at the Games; top -flight gladiators were far too valuable to be pitted to their death. The top dogs fought no more than a couple of times a year and spent much of the time touring the country putting on shows and inviting the local wannabes to try their hands with wooden swords. Furthermore, not all gladiators were slaves or POWs, many men – and women, for that matter – opted to fight in the arena for the sex and money. Commerce piggy-backing on the reputation of famous sportsmen is nothing new; gladiators ate and drank for free, wherever they went, in establishments happy to offset that cost against the additional trade their celebrity attracted, and clothes, shoe and weapon-makers bid against each other for the honour of kitting out such men for free. And then there was the toga- totty – women of quite elevated status fell over each other in the rush to bed the latest favourite – the gladiators were the football stars of their day.

Sure, some were slaves pressed into such service but if they fought well and survived, for sometimes as little as three years, they were rewarded with their freedom. Many such men, having so won their freedom, opted to stay on in the arena and rack up a fortune. Far from the Hollywood portrayal of gladiatorial contest, these were not undignified mêlées glorifying wholesale butchery, there were seven categories of fighter and only certain styles were pitted against each other. The Retiarius, for example, who fought with a net and a short trident, could only fight the Secutor who was heavily armed and wore a sleek helmet unlikely to become snagged in the net. All gladiators fought in accordance with strict rules enforced by the two referees who had to be present at all times. Much of the training was geared to methods of subduing, not killing, an opponent; defeat through death was far from the norm. A recent study of 200 fights of the first century revealed that only nineteen ended in death and that even in the most violent of these fights simple surrenders outnumbered deaths by 3:1. On average, with a 90 per cent survival rate, the gladiator fared much better then those in the crowd, over half of whom would not, for one reason or another, live to see their twentieth birthday; death was then very much a part of daily life. The only vanquished gladiators who were finished off in the arena had either fought badly or shown signs of cowardice but the notion of thumbs-up signals calling for them to be spared and thumbs down calling for a killing is a very modern invention. Gladiators who had fought well but incurred fatal injuries were removed from the arena to be finished off with a hammer-blow to the head in their quarters so as not to upset the crowd.


Excerpted from Lies, Damned Lies and History by Graeme Donald. Copyright © 2009 Graeme Donald,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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