Aug. 15, 2011 --
Marco Polo never made it to Asia, according to a team of Italian archaeologists. Rather, his stories of his travels to China were tall tales lifted from fellow traders he met around the Black Sea, the Daily Mail is reporting. Marco Polo, the legendary explorer famous for his epic journey into Asia, was just a "conman," according to the report. As years turn into centuries and history becomes more disconnected from its source, facts can become twisted, lost or discarded. In Marco Polo's case, the story seems to be of his own creation. But sometimes, even the most careful historians can lose sight of the truth. Some legends are apocryphal tales that merely add color to a famous figure. We've all heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. He didn't, but he did wear dentures. Other myths, however, are so central to the story of a historical figure that fact is not commonly separated from fiction. For example, Isaac Newton didn't discover gravity after an apple hit him on the head. However, since Newton often used apples as an analogy to explain gravity, the story became an often misrepresented part of his history. Explore some legends rooted in the heart of the history of Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte and many others.
If you have a Napoleonic complex, then your ambition is likely much greater than your stature. Named after the legendary general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the condition describes men of small build who have an inferiority complex and overcompensate for it. There's just one problem with that name: Napoleon wasn't short. In fact, his commonly attributed height, five feet and two inches, only holds true under an old French system of measurement. The equivalent using the modern standard is about five feet, six inches -- not particularly diminutive for a man of his era.
Benjamin Franklin deserves a lot of credit. He was one of the founding father of the United States, a major figure of the Enlightenment, a diplomat and much more. One achievement often falsely attributed to Franklin, however, is that he discovered electricity. Although an accomplished scientist who experimented with electricity, Franklin was not the first to describe or explore the properties of electricity and magnetism. The first description of magnetism traces back to nearly 2,600 years ago to Thales of Miletus who witnessed iron attracted to a loadstone but attributed it to the metal having a soul. The earliest attempts to explain this force with scientific explanations occurred several hundred years later. William Gilbert, an English scientist who lived during the 16th century and was praised by Galileo, established some of the basic principles of electricity and magnetism, including that the Earth itself produced a magnetic field.
The voyages of Christopher Columbus launched a new era of European expansion into the American continent. They brought a collision of worlds unprecedented in human history. Although story of Columbus's first voyage is fraught with embellishment, few myths have endured quite like the claim that his sailors believed the Earth was flat. According to the myth, the sailors believed after sailing for weeks without spotting land, they would fall off the face of the Earth. That, however, was not the case. In fact, Columbus's crew likely held onto the widely accepted belief that navigators grasped since ancient times -- that the Earth is in fact a sphere.
Did Albert Einstein, a pioneer of modern physics, the father of the theory of relativity, and one of the greatest minds in all of history, really fail math as a child? Not even close. In fact, by Einstein's own admission, he considered being a mathematician instead of a physicist. So where does this legend come from? According to Karl S. Kruszelnicki with ABC Science Online, it's a simple misunderstanding of the grading system when Einstein was a schoolboy. When Einstein was in school, the grading system ranked students on a scale from one to six, with one being the highest score and six being the lowest. Shortly after Einstein left, the system was reversed, with six being the highest score a student could receive. As a result, anyone looking at Einstein's grades after the switch would have been under the impression that Einstein was a poor student under the more contemporary grading system.
Did slave labor give rise to the Great Pyramids of Giza? Although it's a popular account of how these tombs to ancient Egypt's royalty built their final resting places, tombs of pyramid builders suggest that these workers were paid -- and respected for their work. First discovered by tourists in the 1990s and dating back to more than 4,000 years ago when the pyramids were built, the tombs suggest the builders were honored in ancient Egyptian society given their proximity to the pharaohs and the manner in which they were buried. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, created the myth that slaves built the pyramids, a legend further amplified in future fictional depictions in books and films.
After the suicide of her lover, Marc Antony, and the inevitability of defeat by the Romans, led by Octavian Caesar, Cleopatra took her own life by allowing a venomous snake to bite her. That's the widely accepted account of Cleopatra's final moments, but the real story may be more complex than that. In fact, a snake bite is a risky method of suicide with a high chance of failure, according to the author of "Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt." Plus, smuggling in snakes past Octavian, whose guards were on alert after he placed her on the equivalent of "suicide watch," would have been tricky. Furthermore, no snake was ever found. This version of events certainly adds drama to Cleopatra's death. But according to one German historian who enlisted the aid of a poison specialist for his study, a drug cocktail is the most likely culprit in Cleopatra's death. Cassius Dio, a Roman historian who lived 200 years after Cleopatra, described her death as calm and painless. Given that the symptoms of a snake bite include vomiting and respiratory failure, a drug cocktail seems more consistent with this version of events.
As a fire that would burn for five days tore through ancient Rome, emperor Nero fiddled as the blaze grew. Even Shakespeare referenced this account in "Henry VI." Although this story would be in keeping with the character of the mad emperor, it is likely untrue. Nero did have a musical gift and could play the lyre or the cithara. Stringed instruments resembling the fiddle, however, weren't invented until the 11th century. So if he sang and played during the blaze, it was likely on a different instrument. Whether Nero actually played during the blaze at all is subject to debate. Much of the history surrounding Nero in subsequent centuries was passed on by Christian writers. Nero launched a brutal wave of oppression against Christians under his regime, and the story of Nero playing a musical instrument while Rome burned may have been invented to illustrate his wickedness. Finally, Tacitus, a Roman historian when Nero was alive, the emperor was 30 miles away when the blaze first erupted.
When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was first unsealed in 1923, the boy king instantly became an international sensation. But as people involved with the excavation, from the workers all the way up to the principal financiers, began to die, rumors spread that a curse had been placed on the tomb for anyone who sought to disturb it. Although the "curse" of King Tut's tomb has been attributed to toxins and deadly bacteria, the fact is that the tomb was deemed no less sanitary than the rest of 1920s Egypt by Howard Carter, the man responsible for discovering the burial site. Furthermore, the deaths of those associated with Tut's tomb all have been explained by causes unrelated to the excavation. Lord Carnavon, for example, one of the financier's of the expedition, died long before archaeologists reached Tut's mummy.
Were Wolfgang Amadeus and Antonio Salieri such fierce rivals that it led the Italian composer to murder the German musical prodigy? Although these two did jockey for the same jobs as rival composers of their era, there is little evidence that the relationship between the two was especially acrimonious. Mozart had been known to lash out against Salieri; records from the era seem to indicate that Salieri was supportive of Mozart's work. The rumor that Salieri had poisoned Mozart, however, likely originated from Salieri himself. Long after Mozart died, an elderly and senile Salieri in 1823 "accused himself of poisoning Mozart." Guiseppe Carpani, a friend of Salieri, had a physician inquire into the matter, and Salieri was eventually cleared. The myth lived on, however. Written in 1830 just five years after Salieri's death, the opera "Mozart and Salieri" runs with this legend and details how a jealous Salieri plotted to destroy a gifted Mozart. Subsequent portrayals of the relationship of the two composers drew inspiration from this opera, and so the legend of the rivalry endured.
Lady Godiva was an 11th-century English noblewoman whose name lives one for one reason: According to legend, she rode through his husband's lands in Coventry, England, naked as a protest against oppressively high taxation. Medieval historians, however, agree that the ride likely never happened. The legend only came about 200 years after the death of Godifu, a noblewoman who is believed to be the inspiration for Lady Godiva. How the legend came about and why her name was attached to the story remains a mystery.