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10 Common Misconceptions About The Ancient World Persisting in Public Perception

Have you ever wondered what the ancient world was really like? Do you believe dinosaurs are reptiles? Will you argue to the death about gladiators? It’s time to set the record straight and unveil the fascinating truths that have been hidden behind myths for far too long.

So let’s reveal the whole truth about the appearance of dinosaurs, the color of the pyramids, and the peculiarities of Roman hygiene.

10 Dinosaurs Looked Like Reptiles

In popular culture, dinosaurs have the appearance of giant bipedal reptiles with scaly skin, like modern crocodiles. This is how they are, for example, presented in Steven Spielberg’s film Jurassic Park. And, at the time when the film was filmed, such an image was considered quite scientific. But modern paleontological finds show that dinosaurs were more like birds than lizards.

Most of them had feathers—even the famous Tyrannosaurus rex, aka the T-Rex!

This is actually not that surprising since birds evolved from dinosaurs. So the terrible lizards, in reality, looked like huge, toothy, clawed, wingless chickens or kiwis, moved accordingly, and had bird-like habits. Oh, one more thing about the monstrous roar that scares viewers in films: Dinosaurs instead purred and cooed like doves.[1]

9 Ancient People Followed a Paleo Diet

Recently, many healthy lifestyle fans have been inclined to think that returning to the diet of our distant ancestors helps to become healthier. The popular Paleo diet contains only what ancient hunters and gatherers could obtain: meat and fish, vegetables and fruits, and greens and nuts. It contains no milk, grains, or legumes.

However, in reality, the modern Paleo diet has very little in common with the diet of Palaeolithic people. It contains too much meat and fish, whereas ancient gatherers had problems with these products. But plants, on the contrary, are not added enough. In the distant past, people even ate those roots, flowers, and herbs that we would definitely consider inedible. For example, water lilies and thistles.

Even if you try, you will not be able to reproduce a real Palaeolithic diet since, over the millennia, the plant world has changed, and the current fruits and roots are not at all similar to those that surrounded our distant ancestors.

Not to mention that it was difficult to prepare such complex dishes, which the modern diet abounds in, in the absence of ovens and multi-cookers.[2]

8 The Egyptians Wrote in Hieroglyphs

Ask any person what they associate ancient Egypt with, and they will name pyramids, pharaohs, and hieroglyphs—mysterious drawings that served as writing and depicted household items, gods, animals, birds, and other things. The Egyptians used them for almost 4,000 years.

However, one should not assume that they wrote in hieroglyphs all the time. According to researcher Rosalie David, these complex designs were used only on special occasions. The Egyptians believed that if something was written in this way, it would come true. As a result, hieroglyphs had a magical purpose.

In addition, writing with these signs all the time takes too long and is difficult. Therefore, the Egyptians had everyday, so-called hieratic and later demotic writing. This is a cursive type of letter that looks more like something using regular “letters.” [3]

7 The Pyramids Have Always Been Sand Colored

By the way, more about ancient Egypt. In films about Egypt, the pyramids are always depicted in their modern form—covered with yellowish sand. But the thing is that under the pharaohs, the pyramids were snow-white!

They were built from white limestone, and the polished surface of the stone reflected the sun’s rays so well that it was difficult to look at. A fragment of the cladding of the Great Pyramid of Giza shows the true look of the pyramids.

Over time, the polished stone became uneven and covered with sand. And if you think the Great Pyramid looks impressive now, just imagine what it was like when it was still white and shining in the sun.[4]

6 The Ancient Greeks Wore Togas

Usually, people imagine the ancient Greeks either as muscular athletes or as grey-bearded philosophers (also of athletic build), dressed in some kind of rags or loose cloth—directly over their naked bodies.

If you take a look at Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Socrates, you will understand what we are talking about. Those especially interested in history may even remember the name of this rag-like blanket: a toga.

But the truth is the Greeks didn’t wear togas. They were invented by the Etruscans, who called this clothing tebenna. Later, the Romans borrowed it and gave it its current name—toga. The Romans most often painted togas in different colors and complemented the background with patterns. And white versions, “candidates,” were worn by applicants for public office—hence the word “candidate.”

The Greeks preferred to clothe themselves using draped fabric in various styles, including the chiton, peplos, and himation. But they were not worn on the naked body. Clothing was worn over underwear—perizoma, a loincloth worn by men or women—or other garments.[5]

5 In Greek Myth, Pandora Opened the Box

In mythology, the curious Pandora, the first woman on Earth, opened the casket handed to her by Zeus, where all the troubles of the world were kept. Realizing what she had done, she slammed the box, but it was too late: only one hope remained at the bottom.

Since then, the expressions “box/casket/Pandora’s box” have become common nouns. But in the real myth that the Greeks told each other, there was no box. Instead, Zeus handed Pandora a pithos, a large ceramic vessel for olive oil.

When Erasmus of Rotterdam translated Hesiod’s story about Pandora into Latin in the 16th century, he confused pythos with another Greek word, pyxis (“box”). And because of this mistake, the idiom “Pandora’s Box” was born.[6]

4 Gladiators Always Fought to the Death

When people talk about gladiatorial battles, they imagine that warriors fought to the last drop of blood amid the shouts and hooting of the crowd. However, research shows that gladiators actually did not die as often as is commonly believed.

Professor Michael J. Carter states, “The death of your gladiator in the arena means a huge loss of investment.” Before the games, people who wanted to participate in them rented gladiators from the trainers. And if the fighter died, the sponsor was forced to pay almost 50 times the rental cost.

The training and preparation of a gladiator cost his owner a pretty penny, too. Therefore, the fighters were well taken care of, and after the fight, the loser was not finished off but treated for any injuries. It is believed that out of every 10 fights, only one ended in murder.[7]

3 Gladiators Had Perfect Abs

One more thing about the regulars of the Colosseum. Thanks to movies like Spartacus, Gladiator, and Centurion, we imagine arena fighters as muscular, handsome athletes, often half-naked.

But real gladiators could hardly be called every girl’s dream because their muscles were covered with a trembling layer of subcutaneous fat. Research by anthropologists from the Medical University of Vienna, who studied the remains of fighters, showed that they consumed little animal protein but ate a lot of legumes and grains rich in carbohydrates.

The historian Pliny also claimed that gladiators were nicknamed hordearii—”barley eaters.” This diet helped build fat, and it protected against injury. Gladiatorial fights did not always end in death, but they were still bloody and cruel.

And a well-fed fighter had a better chance of avoiding damage to internal organs when struck with a sword. So the gladiators were definitely not guys with perfect bodies.[8]

2 The Romans Had Excellent Hygiene

Some argue that if the Roman Empire had not collapsed and its achievements were not forgotten in the Middle Ages, they would now be colonizing the galaxy. Judge for yourself: The Romans had water pipes, sewers (“cloaca”), baths, and aqueducts. And in the Middle Ages, people would throw chamber pots out of windows. What a degradation in the course of humanity.

However, Roman hygiene is greatly overrated. Archaeologists know that ancient Roman people often suffered en masse from intestinal parasites, fleas, lice, and diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and cholera.

Yes, the Romans had steam baths and public toilets. But the water in the former was rarely changed, and the toilets were dirty. Also, rats often bit people there in the most unexpected places. For intimate hygiene, reusable sponges on sticks were used—xylo sponges. After use, they were thrown into a tank of dirty water, waiting for the next visitor.

The Romans also rinsed their mouths with urine to keep their teeth clean and used it as an ingredient in some medicines. Moreover, according to the Roman poet Catullus, both human and animal fluids were used.[9]

1 People in the Past Were Much Shorter

Some are inclined to idealize the past and argue that thousands of years ago, Earth was inhabited entirely by tall giants. Others believe that in ancient times, people were short. But as archaeological research shows, the planet’s population used to be about the same size as we are now.

The average height in the human population fluctuates. People become taller and shorter—this happens due to changes in living conditions. Over the past 150 years, the average human height in developed countries has increased by about 3.9 inches (10 cm). Before that, it was decreasing—from about 5’8″ (173.4 cm) in the early Middle Ages to almost 5’6″ (167 cm) in the 17th–18th centuries.

These fluctuations are associated with people’s nutrition and health status. So growth increases only when living conditions improve, not just over time.[10]

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Written by Peckham

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