10 Myths and Urban Legends About Ancient History

It’s a little harder to prove that myths about ancient history are false than it is to disprove myths about more modern eras. However, the prevailing opinion is that many myths and legends are wrong. Some long-accepted ideas about ancient history might more properly be called “urban legends” to signify that they are mostly modern ideas about ancient history.

Along with these ancient urban legends, there are plenty of myths the ancients wove into their history. Here are 10 myths and urban legends about ancient history.

Lucky Thumbs Up

It is believed that when the person in charge of a gladiatorial event wanted one of the gladiators to be finished off, he turned his thumb down. When he wanted the gladiator to live, he pointed his thumb up. The gesture signifying that a gladiator should be killed is not exactly thumbs down, but thumb turned. This motion is thought to represent the movement of a sword.

Amazons Cut off a Breast

The Amazons were probably not the one-breasted man-haters we think of when we hear the word. They are more likely to have been fully-breasted Scythian horse-riding warriors, judging from artwork, although Strabo does write that their right breasts were seared off in infancy.

Modern and Ancient Greek Democracy

Aside from the question of whether the U.S. is designed to be a democracy instead of a republic, there are countless differences between what we call democracy and the democracy of the Greeks. It is totally unfair to say that all Greeks voted or to claim that those who didn’t vote were branded as idiots.

Cleopatra’s Needle

The pair of obelisks called Cleopatra’s Needles, located on the Embankment in London and near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, were created for Pharaoh Thutmosis III, not the famous Cleopatra VII. However, these ancient monuments may have been called Cleopatra’s Needles from the time of Augustus, Cleopatra’s nemesis.

300 Spartans

At the Battle of Thermopylae, there were 300 Spartans who lay down their lives to give the rest of the Greeks a chance. There was a total of about 4,000 fighting under Leonidas, including willing Thesbians and unwilling Theban allies.


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