7 Shocking Historical Facts That Defy Conventional Wisdom

Santayana once said: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” What he meant is that if people do not learn from past mistakes, they will go down disastrous paths trodden by others before them. But some historical facts we remember well; and they still lead us down roads of ignorance: we remember them incorrectly. Misremembering events in history is less dangerous than making another war; but knowing them right is pleasant. Here are some corrections.

1.Eve's Apple

We know the story of our fall from grace. The Book of Genesis, Quran, and Milton masterfully relate to us how Satan bamboozled the inexperienced woman into eating a fruit and how she convinced Adam to partake of it as well. The consequences of Eve's and Adam's surrender to Satan's con are well known to us, just as is the type of the fruit they ate. Apples are associated in our memories with the story of the Original Sin. Yet nothing in The Genesis points specifically to an apple. It is a nameless fruit there.

2.Newton's Apple

We know the story of how Newton discovered the Law of Gravity: the scientist was slumbering the afternoon away under an apple tree in his garden. Then an apple from it fell on him and made him see how all objects gravitate towards the earth rather than jump up to the sky. Yet whether this is how Newton indeed discovered the Law of Gravity is historically undocumented. The first time we see this story written is in Voltaire's essay on Newton. He could employ his artistic imagination to tell it beautifully rather than truthfully.

3.Van Gogh's Ear

Of course, we heard the pitiful life story of the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh. Although his work had far-reaching influence on the 20th century art, during his life time, Van Gogh succeeded in selling only one of his paintings. He was poor and had frequent bouts of mental illness and anxiety. During one of such periods of mental disturbance exacerbated by the quarrel with Gauguin, he chopped off his ear. Even though we have his self-portrait with the bandaged ear, Van Gogh did not cut it all off: only its earlobe.


It is a well-known fact from Napoleon's biography that he was unattractively short. Modern psychologists even see in his undeveloped height the cause of his overweening ambitions. It is as though Napoleon had an inferiority complex because of his height and tried to compensate for this defect by conquering the world. Yet, in reality, rumors about Napoleon's shortness are idle. Napoleon was 5"7 (168cm), a height above average in France in his time. He was called short by his contemporaries rather because of his rank in the army, not because of his height.

5.Nero and His Fiddle

When we want to emphasize that people occupy themselves with something trivial during disastrous events, we say that they fiddle while Rome burns. This expression refers to the Roman Emperor Nero who supposedly played the fiddle during the Great Fire of Rome in 64. This is a popular legend, which is not substantiated historically. If Nero played an instrument, it could not be the fiddle: it was invented only in the 10th century. At best, Nero could play the lyre. Second, Tacitus says that during the Great Fire in Rome, Nero was 30 miles away from Rome, in Antium.

6.America's Independence Day

Everyone considers the 4th of July the day when, in 1776, America became an independent country. Historically, this is not so. It is true that on the 4th of July in 1776, American founders signed the Declaration of the Independence. Yet America did not become independent because of their signature on the declaration. The war for America's independence continued for four solid years after that. It is only in 1783 that the founders finally signed a peace treaty between the United States and the English King George III.

7.Jesus's Birthday

Some people celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, on the 25th of December. Yet there is no reference to the date of Jesus's birth in the whole Bible or in any book whatsoever. This day was probably chosen for his birthday by people, because on this day the Greeks celebrated the birthday of a god born of a virgin, too. This day was also marked as a shepherd's day. These two  coincidences with the history of Jesus Christ could be decisive in the choice of a date for his birthday.  

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