If you are a regular reader of my blog posts, you know I like history. Our past has always fascinated me, and has become a passion, especially since I have become an author.
You might also know, from time to time, I will point out inaccuracies about history which we commonly think of as fact. I sometimes might seem harsh about my commentary on those who wrote the history, but now I am going to be more lenient toward them.
To make a point, I want to travel back to a moment my childhood.
When I was in grade school, I think in the fourth grade, we saw a movie about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It showed the President Lincoln refusing to accept some paper from some senators riding with him in a train; and instead wrote the speech down on a paper bag that he had carried his lunch in.
After he gave his address, he felt disappointed because few people were clapping for his speech. Later in the movie, he visited a hospital across the street where he spoke to a soldier who was blind in an injury he had received at the battle. During this conversation (the president did not reveal himself to him), this young soldier said the speech was more than just a speech, and clapping would be like clapping after a sermon.
First, there are soooooo many inaccuracies with the account featured in the above movie, and I am not going to get into them right now. This movie was spooned fed to kids, as more of a propaganda film to promote into them a sense of patriotism, and respect for the office of the president and in our government. If I remember we even had a test afterwards.
I bring the movie about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because many people believe this was the way it happened. They do not realize the speech by Lincoln was received with mixed reviews depending on the person’s politics. It was not until after his assassination that people from that time finally looked back at his work and realized that indeed this was a great speech.
The movie itself was melodramatic crap at its highest level; guess what? So is history, or at least how it is presented to us.
We all remember the quote, “History is written by the victors”, and this in itself is attributed to several people, from Winston Churchill to the cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.
Although it is simple to say that the ones who win wars are the ones who write history; it should also be considered those who are LEFT to write history, write it. This is important to remember, even today.
Imagine yourself in an ancient world; the monarchy is perceived as being in power by the right of God. By not agreeing with the monarchy you were arguing over religious doctrine and you could be deemed as a heretic, both of these options often resulted in death.
Imagine now, you are one of the lucky people who could read and write (now you understand why monks were often the only ones allowed to learn this craft), and you are employed by your monarch to write the tales of recent battles.
Do you write the truth, about how your king was safely behind your defenses protected by thousands of his soldiers, or do you modify the truth and describe how he rallied his troops by riding in the front lines to face the enemy?
Now, imagine you are on the losing side and was lucky enough to escape to a neutral or friendly country? Do you write how the victors boldly fought, and that prominence was on their side? Or do you write about how their win was somehow due to a failure of a discredited general who betrayed his country, and that after winning the victors murdered innocent civilians.
So let us look at a good example of how history was modified and changed. Probably one of the best examples of this in ancient Greece is the Battle of Thermopylae. We know this battle because of movies like 300, which shows 300 Spartans holding off a Persian army consisting of over a half of million or more Persians.
First, we now know the Persian army consisted over around 100.00-150,000 soldiers (to be honest this was a very large army at that time). The exaggeration of the Persian army itself is something of a myth written by Greek historians, as was the fact they were held at bay by only 300 Spartans.
At the Battle of Thermopylae, there were more than just the Spartans that were defending the area. There were approximately 7,000-10,000 Greek soldiers at Thermopylae (meaning Hot Gate). Being at this “Hot Gate” meant the Persians had to funnel their forces into one spot, this meant there larger numbers had little effect on overrunning the Greeks.
As the legend goes, the Persian’s had located a path behind the Greek lines. The Spartan commander Leonidas stayed behind to guard their retreat. This is a normal battle strategy; it allows the majority of your army to escape without being routed as they retreated.
The army which remained did not only consist of just the 300 Spartans, but included other Greeks, such as 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans soldiers. The history of this battle was written by Greeks who wanted to show an overwhelming Persian army, being frustrated by a handful of Spartans, who gave their lives for their cause. I am not saying that the Spartans should not be given the credit, or recognition for this battle, I am saying by limiting the story to them only, you are dishonoring the others who also stayed and gave their lives for this conflict.
So why did the Greek historians make such a dramatic change to history? Propaganda is the plain and simple answer. Historians at the time were the news, their accounts of battles were told and retold in squares and taught to children in schools (similar to our movie about Lincoln). To wage war, you must persuade the people, and to do this you must vilify your enemies and make your soldiers saints and martyrs.
Next Week, we will continue this journey about historians and fact. This will include a modern example of how we must change facts to persuade the population.
If you have enjoyed my writings on this blog, may I ask you to please purchase a copy of “Legend of the Mystic Knights”. As many of you know my publisher is going out of business, this means my novel may not be available until sometime. This may be your last chance to buy this novel.