Weird History
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Real Historians Answer Questions About Famous Historical Figures

Updated November 9, 2020 367 votes 108 voters 8.1k views10 items

List RulesVote up the answers that offer new perspectives on history's important figures.

Fans of history love to ask about the wheres, whens, whys, and hows of major events. Unfortunately, there isn't always an expert on hand to answer these burning questions. That's what makes the AskHistorians subreddit such an amazing place to visit. There, ordinary Redditors can finally get the real stories about famous figures they never learned in history class. 

The experts and academics of this forum have answered many queries about the notorious kings, powerful queens, and various royal figures of history. But what about people who weren't monarchs (or monarch-adjacent)? Was Miyamoto Musashi really the lethal warrior he's so often portrayed as? Did Joan of Arc really lead troops into battle? And was Machiavelli really so... Machiavellian?

Below is a selection of some of the most fascinating questions - and answers - about historical figures. Vote up the facts you never knew before!

  • Asked by Redditor u/TotalSpeech:

    Did Joan of Arc actually fight and lead an army in the battle of Orleans, or was she propped up as a figurehead?

    If I recall correctly, she was an illiterate girl whose only real education was in Catholicism. After apparently hearing the voice of God telling her that she's destined to lead France to victory, she convinced then-prince Charles to give her an army to take back Orleans, and that she would install him as king. And of course, she succeeded in both endeavors.

    Here's my question: in light of her limited education and experience, did she actually fight in and lead an army/devise tactics for the battle to retake Orleans? Or was she simply "given credit" for political, troop morale, and enemy intimidation purposes?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Asinus_Docet's answer:

    The idea of Joan fighting is not debated. Many written sources relayed the fact that she was properly armed on the battlefield and participated in the war effort. She got hit by arrows twice, at Orléans (in the shoulder) and at Paris (in the leg). She was fighting alright!

    Now, what about her commanding the troops? Kelly DeVries wrote a biography on Joan of Arc to argue that she was in fact A Military Leader (1999). However, he gives Joan too much credit, in my opinion. He states that Joan's rashness inspired other military leaders of her time when I actually observed in the 15th century chronicles that everything Joan "did," the other captains serving Charles VII were already doing - long before she came to the scene (attacking the enemy by surprise, being relentless, etc.). What mostly held them back was the politics behind the war. [...]

    Nevertheless, Joan certainly wished to act as a commander. She was quite bossy, and sassy too. She was never given any proper command title, but she certainly became a leading figure in the French army. Though she mostly became some kind of celebrity - people loved and/or hated her, she was on everybody's lips - she also acted as a proper commander. At Compiègne, when she was captured, she was actually insuring the retreat of "her" troops by staying behind. According to the chivalric art of war, a leader was always supposed to be on the front line, the closest to the enemy. Joan of Arc was also the most relentless "leader" at the siege of Paris. She was determined to take the city (which was defended by Burgundian soldiers - she hated the Burgundians). The duke of Alençon actually had to go and fetch her to take her away from the battle when everybody knew the day was lost. [...]

    In conclusion, there was a glass ceiling that she never could break. She never was a formal military leader. Moreover her military "career" was far too short for her to prove herself as an autonomous leader. She didn't have any military company of her own (any proper "captain" had his own band of brothers-in-arms). She always tagged along or she was placed, here and there, as a mascot - which enfuriated her. La Hire, Xaintrailles and others actually tried to replace her once she was dead with a random shepherd they found on some field or something. It led to an utter disaster of a battle that, to my knowledge, was only recorded by a Burgundian chronicler (but a reliable one). The endeavour was never repeated....

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  • Asked by Redditor u/venuswasaflytrap:

    Wikipedia says "Musashi is said to have fought over 60 duels and was never defeated, although this is a conservative estimate," but gives no source. Is this true?

    In particular are there any other sources other than Musashi's own account. It seems like a pretty bold claim...

    Answered by Redditor u/DJNimbus2000:

    According to William Scott Wilson's biography The Lone Samurai, Musashi did have around 60 confirmed duels, starting with his defeat of Arima Kihei at age 12 (stated as 13 in The Book of Five Rings, as infants were considered to be already one-year-old at birth in Japan at the time). That being said, much of Wilson's book is pieced together from varying sources, some conflicting. It isn't unreasonable to say the number may well be inflated.

    As far as what constitutes a victory changed for each duel, some were fought to the death, and others mere tests of skill against one another. Musashi was famous for often fighting with a bokken (a wooden practice katana), even against live swords. Some of these fights still ended in the [slayings] of his opponent, perhaps most famously Sasaki Kojiro, the Demon of the Western Provinces. Legend states that Musashi carved a boat oar to a bokken while in route to the duel, where he quickly struck down his opponent, and finished him off by caving in his chest. After this duel, Musashi's status as a swordsman was solidified, and he stopped finishing his duels with such extreme prejudice.

    From about 30 onward, he stopped [slaying] his opponents, instead proving his superior skill by not allowing his opponent to make any ground, and generally out moving them. Most opponents quit in frustration. This continued into his late fifties. Considering he started at age 12 with his defeat of Arima Kihei, and the variety of duels fought over his life, I personally believe the claim. I'd highly suggest reading Wilson's biography. It's considered one of the most complete and accurate biographies available on Musashi.

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  • Asked by Redditor u/parissyndrome1988:

    Is Tacitus the main reason historians accept Jesus's historicity?

    Even as a skeptic of Jesus's historicity, I find it difficult to explain away Tacitus's reference, since he says "our" prefect Pontius Pilate. Being a Roman senator and a dedicated historian I highly doubt he would reference an event one of his government's politicians did if they didn't actually do it, even if Jesus's execution was about 80 years before he wrote Annals.

    An excerpt from Redditor u/jasoncaspian's answer:

    The short answer is no: Tacitus is not the only or main reason why modern historians (whether atheist, agnostic, or Christian) believe the historical Jesus existed. [...]

    First, we need to address one key issue that most people don't understand... It needs to be known that we have practically no primary sources for many secondary (non-monarchs or major political figures) characters in antiquity. This is what the historical Jesus was (a secondary character in his day). If we simply say "we have no archaeological evidence, so he doesn't exist" then we need to say that Aristotle and Socrates did not exist because, like Jesus's story, we are left with written accounts that have been repeatedly copied through various generations.

    Now when it comes to the historical Jesus (and what we know of him), well it's simple in a few ways. The first, is that although the Gospels and other New Testament books were all written decades after Jesus died... they are independently attested. [...]

    Two of the Gospels deal with the birth of Jesus. Without going into too much detail, it's easy to make the argument that both Matthew and Luke did not get their information for this narrative from the same source. They are constantly at odds with each other over many specific areas of this story (example: in Matthew, Mary and Joseph already lived in Bethlehem and then had to move to Egypt and then, years later, move to Nazareth. In Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, traveled to Bethlehem for a theoretical tax registration, waited there for 32 days after Jesus was born, and then returned immediately to Nazareth).

    Most historians believe it is likely that both of them made up nearly all (if not all) of the parts to their stories because they were trying to fulfill the prophecies from the Old Testament. See, in the book of Micah, it was predicted that a savior would be born in the city of David (Bethlehem), so these writers wanted to make sure that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. But wait, they had a real issue to deal with. It was probably well-known that Jesus was from some small town called Nazareth, thus he didn't fulfill that part of the prophecy. So, to deal with this, early Gospel writers created these narratives to explain how this person from Nazareth could have still been from the city of David.

    If Jesus was a mythological figure that sprung up out of thin air, there would be no reason to say he was from Nazareth, they would have said he was from Bethlehem and just left it at that. This is what we typically see for made up figures. Keep in mind that this is one of dozens of examples where the writers did this to meet personal agendas of their time.

    What historians also find is that it is nearly impossible for a sect or cult to immediately spring up without a founding figure. After Jesus's death, the remaining followers were probably a group of people of about 20-30 people, and it expanded rather quickly - probably hitting the hundreds within the decade after his death and by 50 CE, they had spread throughout the Roman Empire. Most scholars believe that the book of Mark, written between 65-70 CE, was actually written in the city of Rome for a local church there. This type of growth and expansion is, by historical standards, incredibly fast. The rapid rate of growth suggests, for historians, that a real figure of Jesus existed, had a few followers who immediately disbanded after his death. Yet, for those whom remained, they started preaching about his life and resurrection, which was likely very enticing for their day. [...]

    Tacitus is often identified as the first Roman to discuss or mention the historical Jesus or his followers which is actually not correct. The first mention of Christians actually comes several years earlier, around the year 112 CE (although I've read one scholar claim it was maybe even during the decade before that) by a Roman governor. [...] [I]t's not much to go off of, but it is important that we have multiply attested sources talking about the rapidly growing Christian base at this time.

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  • 4

    Did Moctezuma Believe Hernán Cortés And The Spaniards Were Gods?

    Asked by Redditor u/forever_stalone:

    Why didn’t Moctezuma have Cortez killed when he entered Tenochtitlan? Wasn’t he already aware these were not gods but humans?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Ucumu's answer:

    The first thing I'll say is that the Spaniards being seen as gods is almost certainly a myth that was created after the conquest. You should check out these prior answers here and here for explanations of why it's bogus.

    This of course leads back to your question as to why they simply didn't [slay] them right out the gate. I'm not sure this is a question that is possible to answer. None of the accounts of the conquest that have been published provide a clear explanation as to his motivations. This is complicated by the fact that every single account of the conquest is extremely biased and doesn't really provide a neutral telling of events. Most are written as probanzas which were essentially petitions to the king of Spain to gain rewards or titles. As a result, they tend to wildly exaggerate the role of the conquistadors relative to native warriors in the conquest and stretch the truth to make their victory look miraculous. They tend to go out of their way to make Cortés look valiant, and make Motecuzoma look weak and indecisive.

    Take this as an example of the compounding problems: When did Cortés take Motecuzoma prisoner? Most accounts, such as from Cotrés himself, claim that the Spaniards stayed as guests for an extended period and only took Motecuzoma prisoner later once they felt their lives were in danger. On the other hand, Sahagun, who was writing decades later and drawing from the testimony of surviving Aztecs, pushes the claim that Cortés captured Motecuzoma almost immediately upon entering the city. If that's the case, then the answer to your question is pretty clear. He never got the chance; they were holding him hostage from the beginning. Assuming that's not the case, we're left with the scenario presented by Cortés, Diaz del Castillo, and others which describes the Spaniards being taken into the city and placed in one of the palaces in the city center. Motecuzoma initially greets Cortés as an honored guests and offers to house him in one of the palaces.

    Restall (Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, p.25) indicates that Cortés was actually a prisoner of Motecuzoma at this time, albeit under a kind of house arrest rather than a literal imprisonment. Placing Cortés in one of the palaces may have been an attempt to keep one's potential enemies close. This makes sense, in a way, because the biggest threat posed by the Spaniards came about through them forging alliances with enemies and rebellious subjects of the Aztecs. The use of welcoming, overly generous language by Motecuzoma may have actually been a largely symbolic display to make Motecuzoma seem more powerful. In this instance, Cortés seizing Motecuzoma was a bit like the inmates at a prison seizing one of the guards and holding him hostage. Other factors to keep in mind are that Cortés identified himself as an ambassador of a foreign monarch. For the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures, there was a rigid code of diplomacy which meant that attacking a diplomat of a foreign monarch was effectively a declaration of war....

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