Weird History

Historical Figures Who Are Nothing Like The People They're Painted To Be  

Genevieve Carlton
58.1k views 12 items

Some historical figures seem larger than life, like Cleopatra, Gandhi, Marie Antoinette, and Mother Teresa. But sometimes these historical figures don't deserve their reputations. How do so many historical inaccuracies sneak into our textbooks? When we tell stories about our greatest heroes, we often leave out their dark side. Biopics ignore unsavory facts, like the dark period Mahatma Gandhi spent living in South Africa, and many movies get historical figures completely wrong.

The true personalities of historical figures are often nothing like their reputation. Some of the greatest villains in history weren't villains at all. Richard III, made famous by Shakespeare for his hunchback, didn't even have a hunchback - he was a victim of bad press. And many countries scapegoated female rulers for all of their problems, like Marie Antoinette, because they wanted to tear down powerful women (and it was easier than blaming the true culprit: often, it was the king). 

Marie Antoinette is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Historical Figures Who Are Nothing Like The People They're Painted To Be
Photo: Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Marie Antoinette often gets blamed for the French Revolution. People say she spent too much on her lavish, Versailles lifestyle, spent all her time partying, and bought too much jewelry. Oh, and then there's her most infamous quote: "Let them eat cake."

There's just one problem: she wasn't a villain at all. Marie Antoinette caught much of the blame from her angry subjects in the 1700s partly because she was a foreign queen from Austria and partly because she was a woman. She was called a b*tch, accused of affairs, and even put on trial for allegations of familial relationships.

The truth is, the queen was shipped away from home at the age of 14 to marry a king who didn't even speak her language, and she took unfair criticism for an entire aristocracy devoted to excess. Also, she never said, "Let them eat cake."

The fact that she and her husband, Louis XVI, didn't produce a male heir until 1781, 11 years after their marriage, also tarnished her reputation. While Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's sexual inexperience was likely the cause of their bedroom issues, many blamed the young Marie Antoinette for the lack of heirs.

Age: Dec. at 38 (1755-1793)

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria

Cause Of Death: Guillotine

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Mahatma Gandhi is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Historical Figures Who Are Nothing Like The People They're Painted To Be
Photo: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Mahatma Gandhi has a stellar reputation after successfully fighting for India's independence from Great Britain and advocating a nonviolent philosophy. But before he became a revered leader, Gandhi had a darker attitude. In 2015, a controversial book titled The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire claimed that Gandhi's years living in South Africa - from 1893 to 1914 - show his own discriminatory beliefs about Africans.

For example, in 1893, Gandhi wrote that a "general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are a little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa." He used the derogatory term "kaffir" when referring to South Africans, and advocated for segregating a community where Indians lived alongside South Africans.

Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, admits that his famous grandfather was "at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa's blacks," adding, "Gandhi, too, was an imperfect human being."

Age: Dec. at 79 (1869-1948)

Birthplace: Porbandar, India

Cause Of Death: Assassination by firearm

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Christopher Columbus is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Historical Figures Who Are Nothing Like The People They're Painted To Be
Photo: Sebastiano del Piombo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For years, Christopher Columbus was seen as the greatest explorer in history and was touted as the man who discovered the New World, but his sterling reputation is now tarnished. First, Columbus didn't discover the New World; there were already thousands of people living there. He wasn't even the first European to discover the New World, either - the Vikings beat Columbus by centuries.

On top of that, Columbus forced Natives into slavery and disfigured them as punishment for noncompliance. When he first met the Taino, Columbus wrote, "They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces... They do not carry arms or know them... They should be good servants.”

From the start, he was planning to exploit the Taino, enslaving them to collect gold and cutting off their limbs if they didn't meet his quotas. 

Age: Dec. at 55 (1451-1506)

Birthplace: Genoa, Italy

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Cleopatra is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Historical Figures Who Are Nothing Like The People They're Painted To Be
Photo: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons Images/CC BY-SA 2.5

Cleopatra was much more than a sex symbol: she was a brilliant and cunning ruler who was wrongfully depicted as a seductress by her enemies. Cleopatra became queen at only 18, and she had to protect her country against the Mediterranean's biggest power, Rome. During Rome's civil war, Cleopatra had relationships with two important leaders: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. 

When Mark Antony and Octavian, the future Augustus Caesar, battled it out for control in Rome, Octavian depicted Cleopatra as a temptress who seduced Mark Antony away from traditional Roman virtues. Unfortunately, Octavian's misogynistic depiction of Cleopatra overshadowed her brilliance. Cleopatra spoke up to a dozen languages, promoted scholars, and was educated in many fields, making her one of the most accomplished queens in history.

Age: Dec. at 39 (68 BC-29 BC)

Birthplace: Alexandria, Egypt

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