Of course, this is a continuation of my last post on how some historical figures tend to get some bad reputation for being misunderstood or not being fairly represented in mainstream history while some are too overrated for their own good. Some of them may have been bad by our standards like the Spanish Inquisition but by the standards of their time may have been just as terrible as other authorities, if not more humane. Others may have terrible reputations for being on the opposite side or for being a convenient scapegoat like Lucrezia Borgia or they were simply very unlucky rulers who got unceremoniously deposed like Richard III, thus with successors needing to justify their actions. Still, here is a list of historical villains who are probably not as bad as portrayed.
1. The Persians (especially Xerxes I)
You know them as: The bad guys from 300. Not to mention, they are the adversaries of the Greeks in any American class on the history of western civilization.
Why they might not have been that bad: If the Iranian outrage over 300 should tell you anything, it’s that Persians have been victims of unfair historical depictions for generations and they need not be. Sure they were itching to take over Greece and help start the Persian Wars, but in those days so was everyone. Of course, the Persians just happened to amass one of the largest empires in the ancient world and somehow got their asses kicked by the Greeks and Alexander. Yes, they were warlike, but so was any power entity with an empire. However, what we can say is that they were a rather sophisticated and progressive civilization with one of the oldest religions still in existence (albeit Zoroastrianism, though with much fewer followers as well as the faith of Freddie Mercury) and a empire with a government policy of tolerance toward other cultures and religions. If you read the Old Testament, they are seen as the only group of conquerors who the Jews seemed to get along with. Even Xerxes gets better press in Esther who may start out as a dick but does get better. His dad is a nice guy in Daniel who takes the prophet in after sacking Babylon. Of course, the Persians let the Jewish people return to their homeland, ending the Babylonian captivity. Yet, Xerxes wasn’t as nearly debauched as portrayed on 300 and certainly didn’t look like a reject from Cirque d’ Soleil. Also, he was never in Greece during the whole thing. In Iran, he’s seen as a hero and is very beloved that he’s known as “the Great.” Sure the Persians should probably have never fought the Greeks but, c’mon, they weren’t a terrible civilization.
2. King Richard II
You know him as: The cruel, vindictive, and irresponsible king in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Said to have suffered from mental illness and rule as a tyrannical absolute monarch but an incompetent one and a failure.
Why he may not have been that bad: Richard II is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and unlucky monarchs in history who gets his reputation because he was overthrown and possibly by people who didn’t like him. Also, his fall from power began the Wars of the Roses which put England in chaos for much of the 1400s. Though he may have seen as poster boy for medieval tyranny over several centuries after his death, modern historians have now reexamined the English monarch who probably was not as tyrannical or incompetent as previously depicted. And he may not have been mentally ill, though he did ascend the throne at the age of ten and was a rather religious man. Contemporary accounts and forensic science have said he was a smart, tall, and good looking guy and his portrait is one of the most accurate portrayals of a monarch to date. He was said to be a great patron of culture and the arts (he was great supporter of Geoffrey Chaucer). Not to mention, he tried to be a good king in the traditional medieval sense and really tried to do what was best for his country. He tried to avoid war with France so he won’t have to raise taxes on the peasantry (and the fact that a peasant’s revolt and the Hundred Years’ War was going on in his childhood, these policies seem to make perfect sense). However, what did him in was that his policies pissed off the wrong people (i.e. nobles and relatives) who wanted a war with France and though Richard knew they were a threat to his power, he didn’t do the necessary thing to stop them like a tyrant would (i. e. have them executed). Also, disinheriting and exiling his cousin Henry Bolingbroke was probably not a good idea even after his dad John of Gaunt died (who basically helped keep peace between the two). So while Henry was exiled he gathered a following of prominent nobles also fed up with him and together they overthrew Richard who later died in the Tower of London under mysterious circumstances. And he’s suffered a bad reputation ever since. So while Richard II may not have been a crazy megalomaniac he’s depicted as but his story is a good example of a decent leader pissing off the wrong people led to his terrible portrayal in the history books, especially when his successors had to go to great lengths to justify getting rid of him.
3. Ulysses S. Grant
You know him as: “The Butcher” who only won the Civil War for the Union because he had plenty of men to spare and was more willing to send his troops to their deaths, later to become a shitty president over a corrupt administration. Said to have also been a drunk.
Why he may not have been that bad: While Grant did send a lot of his soldiers to their deaths during the Civil War and wasn’t one of our better US presidents, he was a well loved figure while for much of his life since then and even after his death. Even his funeral and his tomb dedication had a great attendance turnout and for a long time was put in the same league with Washington and Lincoln. However, what does his historical reputation in is the rise of the “Lost Cause” school of history consisting of Pro-South historians who try to rationalize why a pure and civilized culture of theirs (in their eyes) succumbed to a great fall. In their minds, since Grant was largely responsible for winning the Civil War for the North, he’s the bad guy. However, while Grant’s relationship with alcohol has been debated, he certainly not a “butcher,” a terrible general, or as shitty of a president as he’s been depicted for a long time. Sure Grant may have graduated in the middle of his class at West Point and had a bad stint as as civilian before the Civil War, he was said to be a fairly good soldier and military officer who was calm under fire and a general who may have been ahead of his time. Sure he was willing to put his men in dangerous situations and knew he could replace the ones he lost, but he was good to his soldiers and they loved him. Not to mention, General Sherman was two years older than him and had spent his entire career in the military was happy to have him as his commanding officer, which is saying something. He won battles but he won them with the kind of tactics and strategy one would see from 20th century generals, which earned him a nickname of “The Butcher” but he was also known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant for his willingness to accept Confederate surrender without exposing them to humiliation, earning respect from allies and enemies alike. Off the battlefield, he wasn’t a violent man but one who was devoted to his family and had a rather sane mind as well as a good man holding many modern views. As president Grant was elected for two terms and tried to do things like protect African American citizenship, eliminate vestiges of Confederate nationalism and slavery, and defeat the KKK. He also tried to promote America’s image overseas and basically left office with a country more united than he was sworn in at a time when many US presidencies resulted in the opposite. Besides, most of the problems Grant faced as president had more to do with the context of his times and the political culture than anything to do with him personally. And after his presidency, he and his wife traveled the world to promote America’s image abroad and wrote his memoirs which mostly dealt with his time in the Civil War more than anything. Grant may have not have been a great president but he wasn’t the kind of general or man “Lost Cause” historians make him out to be.
4. William Tecumseh Sherman
You know him as: The general who burned down Atlanta and torched Georgia, thanks to Gone with the Wind. And just as an uncaring monster as Grant but more bloodthirsty and crazy.
Why he may not have been that bad: Sure Sherman was one of the most ruthless, vicious, and terrifying Union generals on the battlefield, but he did have a tendency to show mercy once the smoke cleared and was willing to let his defeated enemies go home without further molestation. Of course, he did torch Atlanta and brought the Civil War to Southern civilians but he believed that in order the North to win, then it was the Union’s job to make the war so terrible for the South that the Confederates would be less willing to fight and his strategy ultimately worked. Also, in the beginning of the war, Sherman was one of the few generals who guessed correctly it would last more than 90 days. Historians have said he was one of the most pragmatic Civil War generals ever and avoided many tactical mistakes and didn’t do anything unusually stupid. Not to mention, Sherman was willing to fight for his country despite suffering an earlier incident of PTSD. And like Grant, he was a seen as a father to his men. Now maybe Sherman didn’t fight like a 19th century gentleman, but he had his reasons.
5. Benedict Arnold
You know him as: If you’re American, his name is synonymous with vile and cowardly traitor who tried selling the fort at West Point to the British.
Why he may not have been that bad: Well, as an American, I’m very much biased about him since I’ve been taught to see the guy in the same league as Judas. So, yes, I do consider him a villain. However, before he betrayed his country, Arnold started out as a capable commander for the colonists’ side during the Revolutionary War and was largely responsible for winning Saratoga since his commanding officer General Horatio Gates mostly kept himself in a tent (this guy was useless). Still, perhaps one of the reasons why he betrayed his country was that he made many powerful enemies among the upper brass and congress that he wouldn’t be eligible for promotion or additional wages for his military service he deserved (though it was due to lack of money that the government could spare). To make things worse, other officers were receiving credit for his accomplishments. Of course, it didn’t help that Arnold married a daughter of a British sympathizer. Still, he only tried to sell out West Point when Washington wouldn’t let him resign in order to evade the dishonorable consequences. Sure Arnold was a traitor, but he should’ve gotten the credit he deserved which he didn’t, which might have led to him trying to sell West Point. In other words, Arnold turned traitor because he got screwed.
6. The Vikings
You know them as: The Norse and Germanic tribesmen from Scandinavia who are brutish and bloodthirsty raiders, plunderers, and killers. Also wore horned helmets.
Why they may not be that bad: While the term “viking” may refer to a Norse pirate, the Vikings were no more savage or prone to violence than any other people at the time and had a very sophisticated culture (as were all the other Germanic tribes). Also, they were explorers, traders, and fine craftsmen in their own right. Not to mention, they bathed frequently and treated their wives better (Viking women had more rights than many of their counterparts). As for the horned helmets, they only wore them for ceremonial occasions since wearing them during raiding and battle would be highly impractical (though they did wear their weapons all the time). However, the Vikings get their bad press since many of their targets tended to be monasteries (for obvious reasons) as well as other areas where at least one person could read or write (which the Vikings didn’t really do that much but they did have a system). And it doesn’t help their case that they considered themselves a race of warriors with a warrior religion and Valhalla. To consider these people as brutish and bloodthirsty killers would be like a compliment to them because such would get them into their Viking heaven. Sure the Vikings were bloodthirsty warriors but they were so much more than that and just as violent as everyone else.
7. The Waffen-SS
You know them as: The black uniformed clad Nazi soldiers in WWII films who are part of the elite, special forces organization of the German military where the soldiers would serve the front lines. Not to mention, they helped orchestrate the Holocaust.
Why they may not have been that bad: Sure they weren’t the Gestapo but even with the snazzy black outfits, the SS wasn’t really as feared elite, special forces organization as many WWII media make it out to be. In short, they were no more a threat to the Allies than non-SS divisions in the German Army. Some SS did distinguish themselves in combat but the only extra training an SS unit would receive that regular army units didn’t as ideological. In fact, it’s said that some SS units had worse combat training and equipment than non-SS units. Besides, they weren’t used as front line combat units until 1943 and before that their role consisted as bodyguards and internal security with their military role barely mentioned and thought of as a little more than thugs (in their own country). Though many of them certainly were Nazis and served in battle as well as were Hitler’s troops that helped exterminate millions of innocent people (they were under the command of Himmler after all and were deservedly banned in Germany after the war in 1945), they weren’t the kind of evil elite special forces organization of combat units you’d see in WWII films that have nothing to do with the Holocaust. Evil, yes, but they were just as defeatable soldiers as anyone else. Not to mention, the SS and the Gestapo weren’t the same thing.
You know him as: The bad Roman Emperor in Gladiator who kills his dad, has a thing for his sister, kills Russell Crowe’s family and puts him in slavery, and fought in the gladiatorial games before his death in the arena.
Why he may not have been that bad: Sure Commodous did fight in the arena but that’s one of the only accurate things about him from that movie. Of course, he may not have been a great Roman Emperor like his dad Marcus Aurelius but he didn’t have a thing for his sister (actually had her killed for conspiring against him), didn’t kill his dad (who died from natural causes), and didn’t die in the arena (he was strangled while bathing). In fact, Commodous and Marcus Aurelius most likely got along splendidly since they certainly have had to. For one, there was no official line of succession since many Roman Emperors either didn’t have any surviving sons or didn’t live long enough to have any. Before Marcus Aurelius most Emperors would usually choose and adopt their successors outside their biological families. Commodous’s succession was unusual since he was the first Emperor “born to the purple” and broke tradition by succeeding his father. Not to mention, Commodous ruled jointly with his father for four years before the old man’s death. In short, there is overwhelming evidence that Marcus Aurelius chose his son to succeed him. Still, his dad is known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors” for a reason since Commodous was actually considered a bad emperor for believing himself to be Hercules and renaming everything in the Empire including Rome after himself, which wouldn’t go well with Romans. Oh, and he did order one his slaves to be burned for making his bath too cold. Still, he only became the tyrannical dictator in history after several attempts were made on his life and before then basically did whatever he fancied and had a grand old time. Even so, none of this makes him as bad as most rulers in history even in Rome where it wasn’t unusual for Roman Emperors to have people in their lives trying to kill them (even by people charged with protecting them like the Praetorian guard or members of their own family). Still, he was more or less power mad and ignorant of responsibilities than anything though he did bring an end to the Pax Romana, devalued Roman coinage while simultaneously raising taxes which created a wave of poverty unseen since the Old Republic. Of course, that all may be senatorial bullshit but there’s a reason why he’s not considered a good ruler. Terrible ruler, yes, but not the Commodous depicted in Gladiator.
9. Ivan the Terrible
You know him as: The crazy Russian Czar who massacred the city of Novorgod and killed his own son in a violent rage. Also had a habit of torturing people in lots of brutal and deadly ways.
Why he may not have been that bad: Well, he’s certainly a villain and certainly wasn’t a pleasant ruler to reckon with but he was no more brutal or worse than most rulers of his time or even by Russian standards (though Russia was still a pretty shitty place). Still, what gives Ivan a bad rap is that he was a deeply religious man who acknowledged his treacherous deeds as a way of doing penance. Besides, he’s mostly remembered for transforming Russia into a multiethnic and multiconfessional state (meaning he probably didn’t kill anyone for being of a different culture or different religion once he’d already conquered them, which is saying something compared to many 16th century rulers in Europe like Cathy de Medici). Not to mention, he was a fairly competent Czar (as well as the first) who transformed Russia from a medieval state to a regional and emerging power (though it wouldn’t be modernized to some extent until years later and mostly took Siberia because nobody wanted it). He was even popular among the common people as well as a patron of the arts and founder of Russia’s first Print Yard. In short, he’s largely responsible for what Russia is today. Plus, he most likely died from natural causes at 54 (an old man by 16th century Russian standards). Brutal, crazy, unpredictable, and cruel, yes, but he wasn’t a ruler out of the ordinary. Also, the Russian war for “terrible” can also translate as “awesome.”
10. J. Bruce Ismay
You know him as: The guy whose company was responsible for building and commissioning the Titanic as well as a bullying prick who pressures Captain Smith to run the ship at full speed into an ice field and cowardly jumping into a lifeboat to save himself while there were still hundreds of women and children aboard the ship.
Why he may not have been that bad: Ismay didn’t really pressure Captain Smith to take the ship full speed (more or less was the Captain’s decision) though he wasn’t totally blameless. Titanic was an ill-equipped ship that didn’t have enough lifeboats for the passengers (and while it was sinking many of them weren’t filled to full capacity), had no searchlight, had a crew who wasn’t trained to handle emergency situations, and didn’t have anyone to keep watch equipped with binoculars. To make things worse, Captain Smith cancelled a lifeboat drill and the ship had received radio warnings of icebergs in the area that were ignored. Nevertheless, when Titanic did hit an iceberg, Ismay was diligent in helping load and lower the lifeboats and only took his seat after making sure there were no women or children there to take it instead. However, we know now that there were hundreds of women and children who went down with the ship who were mostly in steerage and some couldn’t get out anyway. Ismay probably had no idea of this and maybe was in a state of panic. Yet, many rich guys who survived the Titanic also suffered in their reputation for exactly that as well just because they should’ve been willing to go down with the ship instead unless all the women and children were on the lifeboats. However, since Ismay practically owned Titanic, his reputation took a deeper dive. Ismay may have bore some responsibility for the Titanic disaster since it came from his line but he wasn’t really a bullying prick nor a dirty coward as depicted.
11. King Edward I Longshanks
You know him as: The evil king in Braveheart who wanted to take over Scotland, threw his son’s lover out the window, ruled as a oppressive tyrant, and was a “cruel pagan.”
Why he may not have been that bad: Of course, Edward was a brutal conqueror abroad as well as an anti-Semite but you’d expect these things from almost any medieval king. Still, he didn’t throw his son’s lover out the window, was a pagan, nor ruled like a tyrant. In fact, he was a Christian no more or less devout than your average medieval king and certainly didn’t oppress his English subjects (foreign ones are a whole different matter). Furthermore, he was considered a social radical by medieval European standards since he set up Parliament as a permanent institution, set up a working system of taxation, and helped draft complex legislation which would help revolutionize England forever. Not only that but he initially went to Scotland to mediate a matter which almost caused a civil war. Of course, he did break his word anyway but any medieval king would do the same thing. Thus, sure Edward may have been a land grabber but he was a pretty decent king by medieval standards and no brutal than your average ruler at the time.
12. Genghis Khan
You know him as: The bloodthirsty Mongol conqueror who founded one of the largest empires of all time stretching from Hungary, India, and China. Known for riding with his barbarian Mongol forces and putting whole cities to waste while making a hell on earth for men, women, and children.
Why he may not have been that bad: Well, Genghis and his Mongol hordes were certainly not a group you’d want to mess with and of course, they would very much like to be known for that so your city could easily surrender. Still, much of what’s written by them were authored by their conquered subjects who kind of exaggerated their bloodlust. However, Genghis Khan wasn’t just a bloodthirsty conqueror. He also managed to unite the Mongol tribes who’ve been fighting against themselves for thousands of years, which at the time was almost unthinkable and all in the span of a couple of decades through skillful political maneuvers like attracting allegiance of other tribes and defeated enemies, giving those he defeated a share in the spoils of war, and basing promotions on merit than politics. Not to mention, his idea of conquering everything in sight was a primarily a team building exercise to keep the tribes from fighting each other with such conquest continuing after his death making the Mongols not only a powerful foe but also very rich and powerful in the process. Sure Genghis Khan and his Mongols weren’t the nicest guys, but at least he had rather unselfish reason to conquer mainland Asia.
13. The Spanish Conquistadors
You know them as: The cruel and barbaric mercenaries who mercilessly toppled two major Indian empires to satisfy their greed, enslaved a race of people, forced them to convert to Christianity, and committed some of the worst human rights abuses in the age of Exploration.
Why they may not have been that bad: Of course, as cruel and merciless as the conquistadors were they weren’t as evil as they’re seen in many depictions. As bad as they treated the Indians, they were more interested in using them as a labor force and assimilating them into their culture (well, as much as they could) than actually killing them. Furthermore, many Spanish Conquistadors took native wives and treated their mixed race kids as members of their families. Not to mention, they weren’t nearly as racist as their English colonial counterparts who discouraged Indian intermarriage and just saw them as an obstacle that kept them from taking their land (it’s not wonder that many Indian children by English settlers joined the Indian tribes). Of course, the conquistadors did wipe out 95% of the American indigenous population but it mostly through germs and in places where no Spaniard had stepped foot. Also, Cortes could not have brought down the Aztec Empire if he didn’t have help from the local Indian tribes who were already fed up with them despite that he probably did betray them in the end (unsurprisingly). Not to mention, the conquistadors conquered civilizations that were cruel conquerors in their own right who also treated their defeated subjects like shit. So many Indians really didn’t have it much worse than before but last least the Mesoamerican Indians didn’t have to worry about being captured in battle in order to have their heart ripped open from their chests. Seriously, both Spanish and Indians had their moments of savagery especially in Meso and South America. Sure the Spanish conquistadors were cruel, ruthless, and greedy, but they weren’t the only guys out for gold and were no more worse conquerors than those of other European nationalities or their indigenous foes. Besides, the English colonists stabbed the Indians in the back in much worse ways.
14. George Armstrong Custer
You know him as: The flamboyant, cowardly, and idiotic bigot who spent more time looking good for the camera than fighting. Sometimes seen as the lucky idiot at the right place at the right time or someone who gleefully orchestrated Indian massacres and got exactly what he deserved at Little Bighorn.
Why he may not have been that bad: Sure Custer wasn’t the Indians’ friend nor a model soldier who wasn’t above using women and children as human shields. And he was certainly flamboyant but many portrayals of him usually tend to exaggerate his shortcomings (even in movies like They Died with Their Boots On which portrays Custer in a more favorable light). Still, many of them tend to ignore the fact that despite graduating at the bottom of his class at West Point, Custer was a capable soldier and cavalry commander who actually fought bravely in battle and could even be considered a war hero (for his actions in Gettysburg during the Civil War when he held off the Confederate cavalry). And though he attained the brevet rank of general, his promotion was certainly not a mistake. Not to mention, despite his penchant for recklessness that incurred high casualties, Custer did manage to earn the respect and loyalty of his men. What did Custer in at Little Bighorn had more to do with his ego overriding his judgment in attacking a force that vastly outnumbered his (never a good idea). As for his attitude toward the Indians, Custer was no more racist or bigoted against them than anyone else at the time and he certainly didn’t kill Indians out of sadistic glee (he mainly killed Indians because it was part of his job). Sure Custer wasn’t a perfect soldier and was no friend to the Indians but he wasn’t an incompetent idiot, a sadistic bigot, or a dirty coward either.
15. Queen Anne Boleyn
You know her as: The scheming and manipulative woman who led Henry VIII astray from his wife Catherine as well as compelled him to break away from the Catholic Church. Also was said to be a major slut, have deformities, and stole Henry away from her sister, Mary. Not to mention, she was Queen Elizabeth I’s mother and got her head chopped off for being a major slut.
Why she may not have been that bad: Sure Anne may have had some ambition to some degree and was a highly intelligent beauty with a strong personality and independent streak as well as been partly the reason for Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church after the Pope wouldn’t annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (for understandable reasons that he was being held captive by Catherine’s nephew Charles V who certainly didn’t want his aunt cast aside) but she was more of a victim of circumstance than anything else. And she didn’t have a sixth finger or a third breast or else she would have never been presented to court in the first place. Yet, she certainly was in her mid to late twenties when she got involved with Henry VIII as well as in her thirties when she had Queen Elizabeth. Still, how much she had to do with Henry’s defiance of papal power is up for debate but she did have some reformist attitudes (so did Erasmus and Thomas More but they didn’t break away). Yet, Anne Boleyn wasn’t Henry’s only reason for wanting to an annulment from the Pope since he only broke away from the Catholic Church after he knocked her up but he also wanted to disinherit his daughter Mary, too (a simple divorce wouldn’t have done that). However, many historians agree that there is no evidence that she had sex with anyone other than Henry VIII and most of the charges against her leading to her beheading were mostly trumped up (her real crime being she had miscarried two boys). Her sister Mary on the other hand, had a reputation for being a major slut and already had a husband by the time she and Henry VIII were having their dalliance possibly resulting in two children Henry never acknowledged (though he wasn’t an entirely faithful husband to Catherine either). Besides, Mary had been recalled from the French court for her sexual exploits. Not only was Anne was a virgin until she was over thirty (which is unusual by 16th century standards), she had refused to sleep with Henry for years and had some regard for her chastity. And many historians think that Henry was more or less stalking her though she did go along with his attentions and eventually gave in (but not just because of love, ambition and pressure from her family could’ve been factors. After all, it wouldn’t be right to say no to a king). Nevertheless, Anne would pay her price as well as make plenty of enemies at court but led to her execution was something she just couldn’t control. An interesting woman in her own right, yes, but Anne wasn’t a scheming whore who might have suffered the penalty for doing what might’ve been expected of her. More of a convenient scapegoat than anything else.
16. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen
You know him as: The guy who killed his wife, chopped up and disposed her body in his basement, and ran off with his mistress on a ship only to be captured through wireless communication and convicted on forensic evidence (a first for the latter two). He was eventually hanged.
Why he may not have been that bad: Well, let’s just say the Crippen case may not be as open and shut case as it once appeared to be 100 years ago and there are plenty of gaping holes. Recent forensic scientists have examined the preserved remains with 21st century technology and have come up with findings that raise significant doubts whether Crippen killed his wife. Through DNA testing, they not only found that the remains found in Crippen’s basement weren’t Cora’s, but also that they belonged to a man. And they did plenty of test to make sure of that one. Then there’s the question of whether the remains found in Crippen’s basement was actually planted by the police as evidence who were under tremendous pressure to nab a suspect for such heinous crime (they didn’t want another Jack the Ripper case). Besides, if Crippen was so keen on getting away with killing his wife, why would he successfully dispose of her limbs and head while burying her torso in his cellar under his dining room? Surely anyone would know that this is a very stupid way to dispose a body, especially in the early 1900s. Then there’s the fact that the case didn’t become public until after the remains were found. Clearly something suspicious was going on in the investigation. Still, it’s growing ever more likely that if Dr. Crippen was responsible for killing anyone, it would’ve been due to his work in homeopathic drugs than anything. So as far as Cora’s murder, there’s a good chance he may be innocent after all.