"You mean this Roman coin I bought marked 55 B.C. isn't authentic?"
Mar 30, 2009
There is no shortage of books now in print that correct what their authors perceive to be distortions of historical facts such as Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong in which James Loewen offers what he believes to be the "truth" about various subjects that include Christopher Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, and the War in Vietnam. When authors use the term "lies," they suggest intent. That is true of Loewen's book and it is also true of William Weir's History's Greatest Lies: The Startling Truth Behind World Events Our History Books Got Wrong. My own opinion is that there are significant differences between a lie and an opinion. For example, there is no doubt that troops led by Mexico's president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, eventually defeated the Alamo's defenders led by Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis on March 6, 1836, but opinions are sharply divided as to what exactly happened that day and during the previous eleven days. Perhaps no one will ever know what Paul Harvey so frequently referred to as "the rest of the story."
At one point while reading this book, I expected to rate this book only Four Stars because, in my opinion, Weir sometimes confuses opinion (i.e. speculation, albeit plausible) with fact. ("History lies? Well, maybe sometimes it exaggerates, or oversimplifies." At least that's true of those who identify themselves as historians.) However, by the time I finished reading the final chapter, I decided to give it the highest possible rating because of Weir's lively and lucid writing style while providing and discussing an abundance of historical information that enabled me to learn a great deal more than I previously knew about Nero, Ramses II, the Goths, Robert the Bruce, Hernan Cortes, Galileo, Paul Revere, Jesse James, the "Earp Gang," the Elders of Zion, Harold Lasseter, and John Dillinger. Weir also devotes a separate chapter to the Bastille, the Philippine Insurrection, and what may yet prove to me "the unconquerable Afghanistan." Here are a few of Weir's corrections and clarifications:
Myth: "The emperor Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned."
Reality: "Nero was indefatigable in his efforts to quell the fire and provide relief aid to the people."
* * *
Myth: "The physicist Galileo was condemned and imprisoned by the Roman Catholic Church because his work conflicted with the teachings of the Bible."
Reality: "His trial for heresy was the culmination of a campaign to discredit him that was spearheaded by his enemies and rivals - and inflamed by Galileo's own hubris."
* * *
Myth: "During his midnight ride in 1775, Paul Revere warned the local militia in Massachusetts of the coming of the British."
Reality: "Before Revere was able to warn the militia, he was captured by the British."
* * *
Myth: "Jesse James was an American version of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor."
Reality: "Jesse James was a Confederate vigilante who killed and stole without mercy, giving nothing back to the poor."
* * *
Myth: "The Philippine War of 1899-1902 was an insurrection, and the United States' enemies were the savage, `unstoppable' Muslims called Moors."
Reality: "Under neither international nor national law did the United States own the Philippines when the war started, and the Filipinos fighting the Americans were civilized Christians."
As Weir clearly indicates while discussing each of these and other contradictions, the truth is often much more interesting - if not always stranger - than fiction. However, it seems basic to human nature to perpetuate, even cherish and steadfastly defend legends and myths as well as partial-truths. William Weir wrote this book to eliminate "some of the biggest misconceptions about historical events, explain how these misconceptions were born, and at the same time tell some fascinating stories." Other than the concern previously noted, I think he succeeds quite well.
Meanwhile, in the minds and hearts of many, Nero will continue to play a musical instrument of some kind while Rome burns, Paul Revere will ride throughout the night to warn as many people as possible that "the red coats are coming," and Wyatt Earp will establish law and order within a western frontier where none existed before. Therein is the basis of their immortality, at least for a while longer.
Lies = No. Commonly believed Myths = Yes While the title is a bit misleading the history that it delivers is well thought facts. Some of the "lies" are pretty widely known to be myths i.e. Paul Reveres' ride, John Dillinger's "Death:, and that Jesse James was not some sort of Robin Hood. Other snippets of history are lesser known and the "lie" is a little more engrained. What "Histories Greatest Lies" is a bit of misnomer … more
In one of my favorite "Peanuts" strips (collected in The Complete Peanuts 1965-1966), Lucy is sitting in front of the TV with a mug in her hands. Linus asks her "Well, how do you like the hot chocolate I made for you?" Lucy replies "It's terrible! It's too weak! It tastes like some warm water that has had a brown crayon dipped in it." Taking the mug back, Linus tries a sip. "You're right," he says. "I'll go put in another crayon." That's what my reaction to this book is like. … more
A better title for William Weir's latest volume might be "History's best-known lies," given that most of the misrepresentations detailed here have been thoroughly aired in the past. Anyone who has read a little beyond school books or tuned in to PBS from time to time knows that Nero didn't own a fiddle, that Wyatt Earp was a questionable character, that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a fake, and on and on. Unfortunately, the author utilizes pull-quotes throughout … more
Professionally, I am an independent management consultant who specializes in accelerated executive development and breakthrough high-impact organizational performance. I also review mostly business books … more
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