4 Historical Figures People Often Misunderstand I Oxford Open Learning

4 Historical Figures People Often Misunderstand

Knowing history is a point of pride for many people. There’s a lot to be learned from the trials and tribulations of those who came before us. Learning about it all can be a show of respect for their plight, too. Many Americans, in particular, yearn to feel closer to their heritage, and value history on that basis too.

However, it’s also true that many nations only teach ‘their version’ of history in school. In 2021, an e-petition was launched calling on the government to teach more of Britain’s ‘colonial past’, for example, rather than just the nation’s successes in the World Wars. It received 240,000 signatures.

There’s also Russia, accused of drip feeding it’s schoolchildren with propaganda masquerading as school lessons. Sometimes, one’s understanding of history, and even current events, are heavily skewed.

So, where’s there’s gaps in historical education, it’s fair to assume there’ll be a few misunderstandings of key historical figures along the way. Below we’ll outline 5 of them.


Cleopatra has been a frequently misunderstood historical figure thanks to a series of inaccurate, and sometimes even downright offensive, Hollywood adaptations. Often portrayed as a manipulative and evil queen of Egypt, there’s far more to unpack here.

For instance, many films sometimes portray Cleopatra as being Egyptian. However, the reality is that she was Greek, descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty. However, Cleopatra did speak Egyptian, which was highly significant, given that the Ptolemies had only spoken Greek for nearly three centuries. Still, her mastery of Egyptian made her beloved in the eyes of many, and it’s also believed she spoke around ten other languages, too.

It’s often been said that Cleopatra was most famed for her beauty. However, as her multilingualism proves, there was far more to her than met the eye. Al Masoudi, a 9th Century Poet, once wrote that Cleopatra had written many books about medicine and other scientific inquiries. She was also a naval commander, leading several Egyptian ships alongside Mark Anthony in a battle they both lost.

Arabic history also paints Cleopatra as great monarch and powerful ruler only, whereas the Romans try to create a picture of Cleopatra being a seductive, sinful temptress. These ideas continue to clash today as an ‘oversimplifying’ Hollywood might show, but hopefully a more complete picture of Cleopatra will begin to be more commonly understood.

Winston Churchill

To some (and most likely older Brits), criticising Winston Churchill is almost unthinkable. He led Britain to victory during World War Two, as everybody knows, and for that, he reached ‘untouchable hero’ status in the hearts and minds of many.

However, in 2020 his iconic statue in Parliament Square was defaced, branded with the words ‘was a racist’. The incident occurred during a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest, and after petitions were launched to remove statues of controversial people around London. Today, the statue now has around-the-clock police protection during protests and marches that support racial inequality and women’s rights.

While we’re not going to take a position on whether such statues should be defaced, it is worth looking into the evolving public perception of Winston Churchill now that more of his deeds are becoming more well-known.

For example, it’s since come to more people’s attention that Churchill believed white protestant Christians were above white Catholics, and that Africans were beneath Indians. John Charmley, author of Churchill: The End of Glory, asserted that “Churchill saw himself and Britain as being the winners in a social Darwinian hierarchy.” Obviously, the obsession with racial eugenics and hierarchies here is deeply problematic.

There are also a few recorded instances of Churchill advocating for the use of the ‘M Device’, an exploding shell containing the highly toxic gas, diphenylaminechloroarsine. He is recorded as having once declared, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” before proceeding to criticise his colleagues for their “squeamishness” when voicing their opposition.

While his wartime premiership is lauded over by many, it’s also worth noting that Churchill’s second crack at being prime minster during peacetime was deeply disappointing in the eyes of many. He’s also alleged to have ‘rated women out of 1000’ at parties, which is an act not very compatible with modern values, too.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is often portrayed and thought of as a kind, older leader, gut-wrenchingly betrayed by those closest to him. His supposed smarts are frequently mentioned, too, as well as the adoration his people had for him.

Part of this reason for this characterisation of Caesar is that he was considered ‘not as bad’ as his contemporaries, at least in terms of favourable characteristics. Compared to them, he was considered merciful and even charitable. He favoured the common people over the corrupt oligarchs, going so far as to publicly champion the former’s cause against the rich. So, even today, some liberals think on Caesar favourably…

In 58 B.C.E, Caesar became governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Caesar conquered Gallic tribes by two strategies; exploiting their existing rivalries and by force with his Roman troops. When the governor of Transalpine Gaul died, this province was also designated to Caesar. Today, all of this is an area of land that comprises of France and Belgium. Governing for 8 years, Caesar acquired plunder from Gaul, enslaved millions, and significantly bolstered his military prowess. Much of this he did with the aim to settle personal debts at home, which would thereby further his own political aspirations.

In 49 B.C.E, Caesar then used his riches to defy senate demands to cross the Rubicon, marching his army from Gaul into Italy, and triggering a civil war between himself and his chief rival, Pompey. Caesar triumphed, emerging from the chaos he caused and becoming a de-facto dictator as he enlarged his senate and cemented his power.

As his ambitions and power grew exponentially, Caesar would openly declare himself a dictator in 44 B.C.E. He’d be assassinated by his political rivals and would-be successors less than a year later, who feared that Caesar aspired to kingly status and unlimited power. So, with all this context, we can see Caesar was not a good person, or a particularly smart leader in the end, given his ambitions alienated those around him. It’s also easy to see why his rivals might wish him gone. Perhaps his status as a martyr has better aided some people’s more (ill-judged) favourable views toward him today?

Captain Edward Smith

Captain Edward Smith was captain of the Titanic. That ill-fated voyage was meant to be his last before he enjoyed his retirement. However, since the disastrous incident, public perception of him as evolved through the years.

In the immediate aftermath of the iceberg crash, newspapers wrote that Captain Smith was a hero who remained at post in the wheelhouse right up until he drowned.

Then came the rumours, of which there were many. Some who survived in the lifeboats testified that Captain Smith was seen helping with collapsible boats, while others said that he swam with a baby in his arms, depositing it in a lifeboat before allowing himself to drown. Others placed him on the bridge as the boat sank.

More rumours came, but this this time they were less benevolent. One was that the White Star liner company chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, pressured Captain Smith to maintain the Titanic’s high speed in dangerous waters. Others claimed Captain Smith was an indifferent and reckless individual, one who remained highly egotistical right up until he ran the Titanic into the iceberg. He was also accused of ignoring other ship’s ice warnings.

To this day, many people will remark variations of ‘how do you not see icebergs that big?’ or ‘how to stupid do you need to be?’ by those who don’t understand the conditions Captain Smith was faced with.

However, multiple historical accounts and British inquiries show that Captain Edward Smith was a highly efficient mariner who cared deeply for his passengers. Reviews of the circumstances highlight that Captain Smith had to contend with outdated best practices aboard the Titanic. One British inquiry exonerated him, noting that he did nothing other responsible captains wouldn’t have done.


History is often seen as ‘indisputable cold hard facts’, when like many other schools of learning, it’s always in a degree of flux. New records come to light, and our ever-changing modern values sometimes lead us to examine historical figures under a new lens. No doubt there are many more misunderstood historical figures worth examining, but hopefully with the ones we’ve listed, you can see how public perceptions of these people can evolve over time.


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