16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life

Steve - June 29, 2019

The history of humanity is the history of stories. Fantastical feats of strength by legendary warriors, tales of daring romance, and of great sacrifices or devilish betrayals, mankind is fascinated by a good story. However, when it comes to ancient history, the lines can be difficult to draw between fact and fiction. Whilst Arthur likely did not receive a sword from a woman living in a lake which made him King of England, nor Jesus resurrect himself after being put to death by the Romans, simply because one aspect of a story is untrue does not invalidate the existence of the primary characters themselves. Instead, and most commonly, these abstract and unrealistic individuals are couched in some semblance of real-life, borrowing from persons from history and subsequently embellishing them, sometimes beyond recognition, for the purposes of creating a good narrative.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Ballads of bravery, part of the at least partially true Arthurian mythology, by Lorenz Frolich (c. 1877). Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 16 historical characters from ancient mythology who actually did exist, in some form or another, in real life:

16. Home to a legendary race of beings, Hyperborea was a powerful land belonging to the mythology of Ancient Greece but is believed to have probably merely been Ancient China

A mythological race of beings, often depicted as giants, who supposedly lived in far-off distant lands beyond Thrace – a historical region of Southeastern Europe – the Hyperboreans were one of several legendary beings in Greek mythology. Inhabiting a utopia, where the sun allegedly shone for twenty-four hours a day, the Hyperboreans were purported to possess a vast military might as well as being immensely technologically advanced. Traditionally located somewhere within the Arctic Circle to accommodate for the rumored unusual day-night cycle, several historians throughout history, starting with Herodotus, have sought to designate a particular land as Hyperborea.

Although Siberia remains a promising candidate, with references to reindeer in the legends of the Hyperboreans suggesting at least a sub-arctic environment, a recent scholarly inquiry has instead coalesced around a plausible alternative. Noting Herodotus placed Hyperborea beyond the Massagetae and Issedones people – both of whom inhabited Central Asia – subsequent analysis has consequently asserted the legendary people lived beyond the Dzungarian Gate: a prominent mountain pass stretching from Manchuria to Afghanistan and separating China from Central Asia. Given the technology, ethnic, and cultural differences highlighted, it is believed likely the mythical race was, in fact, early inhabitants of Xinjiang in Ancient China.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Illustration of “The Enchanter Merlin” from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, by Howard Pyle (c. 1903). Wikimedia Commons.

15. A persistent character from the Arthurian legend, the figure of Merlin is actually the product of an amalgamation of two real-life individuals from the fifth and sixth centuries

One of the most famous and prominent figures in the Arthurian legend, Merlin serves as an enchanter or wizard seeking to aid the eponymous king. Born of a devil intended as the Anti-Christ, Merlin becomes a close advisor but is eventually undone by his own lust and innate evil. Tricked by one of his female students after teaching her all of his knowledge, Merlin is trapped within a magical prison and left to die. Although seemingly entirely fictional, after removing the fantastical components of the Arthurian legend, the character of Merlin is surprisingly founded upon a combination of two separate historical individuals.

Amalgamated by 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written in 1136, the person known to audiences today as Merlin is actually a merging of Myrddin Wyllt and Ambrosius Aurelianus. Wyllt, a prophet and madman associated with the town of Carmarthen in Wales, is believed to have been a wise hermit who fled into the forest following the Battle of Arfderydd during the late-6th century. Meanwhile, Aurelianus was a war leader of the Romano-British who fought against the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century. Becoming a popular rendering of the duo, Monmouth’s character became immediately successful in folk literature, enduring since as a composite legend under a single moniker.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Priam killed by Neoptolemus, as depicted upon an ancient amphora (c. 520-510 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

14. The legendary King of Troy during the Trojan War, Priam is believed to have been a rebellious Hittite who overthrew the previous ruler and claimed the lost city for his own

Appearing in Homer’s Iliad, Priam reigns as the ruler of the city of Troy at the time of the Trojan War. A minor, but nevertheless important character in the story, Priam notably pleads with Achilles for the return of his fallen son’s body after Hector is slain in battle. Killed himself during the Sack of Troy, whereupon the Greeks disguised in a wooden horse breach the walls of the impregnable city, Priam is butchered upon the altar of Zeus in defiance of the gods. Fathering supposedly as many as fifty sons, although initially regarded as a fictional creation, with the increased support for the historical existence of Troy itself, belief in Priam has equally grown.

Supported by the Manapa-Tarhunta letter – written by an eponymous client king to an unnamed Hittite king in around 1295 BCE – the ancient text has offered archaeologists and historians vital information concerning the possible location of the destroyed city. Of particular interest, the letter references a rebellious lord named Piyaramadu – not dissimilar to Priam – who had seized the settlement at Wilusa, a location considered one of the most likely locations of Troy, and claimed it for his own. Adding further credence to the similar name, the letter mentions the new ruler has a son – Alaksandu – which is suggestively similar to one of the names of a son of Priam in the Iliad.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Portrait of Croesus, as depicted on an ancient amphora (c. 500-490 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

13. Initially thought to have been entirely apocryphal, Croesus of Lydia is now considered to have been a real monarch as well as one of the wealthiest persons of his time

A legendary monarch of immense wealth, Croesus’s fortune was sufficiently vast to attach the figure to the phrase: “rich as Croesus” throughout the ages. Referenced by countless authors across the centuries since, including Isaac Watts and Leo Tolstoy, in spite of the enormous mythos constructed around himself, Croesus is widely believed today to have actually been a real individual. Mentioned in Herodotus’s Histories, one of the earliest works of academic history, Croesus is suspected of being a descendant of Gyges: a member of the Myrmnadae Clan who seized power over Lydia – an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor – by murdering Candaules.

Vying for the throne upon the death of his father, Croesus emerged victorious from the struggle and immediately executed all members of the opposing faction. Continuing his family’s longstanding wars throughout Asia Minor, Croesus subjugated a vast territory from which to exact tribute. Credited with being the first to issue gold coins with standardized purity, gifts sent by the legendary ruler to the Oracle at Delphi were held in such regard as to be preserved. Despite being considered for a long time as mythical, Croesus now serves as a chronological bookmark to denote an entire period of Greek history.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Statue of Cincinnatus at his plough in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wikimedia Commons.

12. Offering inspiration to a beleaguered George Washington, the legend of Cincinnatus – a Roman general who accepted power reluctantly only to surrender it once the crisis ended – is accepted as being founded in historical truth

Born, according to traditional accounts, in 519 BCE during the last decade of the Roman Kingdom, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a Roman patrician and military leader who ascended to legendary status by the time of the Roman Empire. Opposed to the plebian reforms of the mid-5th century BCE, Cincinnatus retired from the city to his estate west of the Tiber to become a farmer. However, during a time of great emergency, Cincinnatus reluctantly returned to serve as dictator in either 458 or 457 BCE. Surrendering his power upon achieving a swift victory against the enemies of Rome, Cincinnatus was called on once more in 439 to assume the mantle of command again in a time of trouble.

Debated for centuries, the truth behind the legend of Cincinnatus has remained a disputed aspect of Roman history. Serving as an outstanding example of humility and civic leadership, offering inspiration to George Washington millenniums later, many older historians decried the character, who has since given his name to countless places around the world, as a fictitious creation of an ideal ruler. However, recent investigation and corroboration strongly suggest that, at the very least, the bare bones of Cincinnatus’s tale to be accurate, with Livy – among others – recording the events of his life contemporaneously.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Paris with apple, by Herman Wilhelm Bissen (c. 1830-1840). Wikimedia Commons.

11. Paris of Troy – the chief cause of the Trojan War following his elopement with Helen, Queen of Sparta – was most likely a real individual who participated in the legendary conflict

Appearing throughout several stories of Greek mythology, Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, is one of the best-known figures from ancient legend. Winning the affections of, or in some narratives kidnapping, Helen, Queen of Sparta and wife to King Menelaus, the actions of Paris laid the foundations for the Trojan War. Persuading his elder brother, Agamemnon, to attack in retribution, Menelaus sought the recovery of his wife and vengeance against Paris and his family. Responsible for the slaying of Achilles according to Homer’s Iliad, shooting the demi-god in the heel with an arrow to fulfill Thetis’ prophecy, Paris did not survive the conflict he started.

Mortally wounded by Philoctetes during the Sack of Troy, Helen pleads at Mount Ida for Paris to be healed but is rebuffed by the angry deities. As with discussions concerning the historicity of his father, Paris has been the subject of sustained scrutiny. Nevertheless, attested to in several Hittite sources, including the Manapa-Tarhunta letter like Priam, Paris is today widely believed to have existed as a genuine prince of Troy. Whilst the divine interventions littered throughout the Homeric tradition naturally embellish his story, and although it is unknown whether Paris did indeed steal Helen from Menelaus, his existence is no longer seriously questioned.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Battle of the Amazons, by Peter Paul Rubin (c. 1617-1618). Wikimedia Commons.

10. A race of legendary female warriors found in Greek mythology, the Amazons remained disputed until modern archaeological discoveries breathed new life into the claims

A tribe of warrior women from Greek mythology, the Amazons were regarded as among the greatest and most legendary warriors of the ancient world. Believed to be descendants of Ares, the God of War, and Harmonia, the Goddess of Harmony, these women supposedly dedicated their lives to the perfection of martial prowess. Appearing prominently in several of the most famous Greek narratives, most notably during the Trojan War where Queen Penthesilea was allegedly slain by Achilles, for the preponderance of history the existence of the Amazons has been a scorned aspect of the Greek mythological canon. Enduring skepticism to become a generally accepted truth, by the Dark Ages the Amazons had fallen into mere legend.

Although some historians, such as Palaephatus, contend the Amazons was merely a product of human error, with enemies mistaking men for women due to their clothing, shaved beards, and long hair, others have provided alternative theories commonly involving Asia Minor. Supporting the latter, recent archaeological findings have uncovered numerous burial sites of female Sarmatian warriors – with the Sarmatian themselves long associated with the Amazonian mythology. With as many as twenty percent of all warrior tombs in the ancient territory containing women, this discovery has provided new impetus to believe in the Amazons as real historical individuals.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
King Midas with his daughter, from A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Illustration by Walter Crane (c. 1893). Wikimedia Commons.

9. A prominent figure from Greek mythology, King Midas – granted the power to turn all he touched into gold – was likely an immeasurably wealthy ruler of Phrygia during the late-8th century BCE

Perhaps the most famous ruler from Greek mythology, King Midas reigned as a monarch of the ancient world and is commonly associated with the territory of Phrygia. Frequently depicted as the adopted son of King Gordias, Midas is possessed with an insatiable lust for wealth. Rescuing the satyr Silenus, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the young ruler asks in reward for the power to change all he touches into gold. Initially delighted in his newfound ability, Midas soon realized the damnation his greed has brought about. Unable to eat, and inadvertently murdering his beloved daughter, Midas is eventually offered mercy by the gods after repenting his avarice.

Despite the fantastical absurdity of the legendary and allegorical narrative, the individual of Midas himself was actually a real person from antiquity. A King of Phrygia and son of Gordian, dating from the late-8th century BCE, Midas married a Greek princess, Damodice, to expand his trading empire into Europe. Amassing a vast fortune, Midas, as referenced in Assyrian sources as well as those of the Greeks, soon became the envy of his neighbors and attracted undesirable attention. Attacked by the Cimmerians, it is believed Midas was compelled to commit suicide by drinking bull’s blood during the Sack of Gordium.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
An engraving of an image shown on a Vendel era bronze plate was discovered in Öland, Sweden, depicting a berserker about to decapitate his enemy; date and author unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Legendary Viking warriors who transformed into beasts, berserkers were soldiers from ancient Scandinavia who are believed to have existed between at least the 8th and 11th centuries

Great warriors appearing throughout the Norse Sagas, berserkers were soldiers who possessed the ability in battle to transform themselves into bestial forms and endure inhuman levels of pain. First recorded by the Romans, meeting Trajan’s column in Dacia in the 2nd century BCE, berserkers supposedly served as the elite vanguard of Harald Fairhair during his unification of Norway in the late-9th and early-10th centuries. Following these immense exertions, such warriors would subsequently enter into a prolonged period of weakness, lasting for several hours or even days, during which time they could succumb from the ordeal.

Although the literal transformations into other animal forms defy reality, the physical existence of berserkers themselves has remained a disputed aspect of Norse history. Appearing repeatedly throughout historical records, most descriptively from the Byzantine Empire, most scholarship has generally accepted the foundational truth of the legend and sought to explain the phenomenon. Whilst controversial, many interpretations suggest the inducement of the berserker strength via the voluntary consumption of powerful hallucinogenic drugs. Most likely henbane, a poisonous plant from the nightshade family, seeds from the deadly plant have been repeatedly found in Viking warrior graves across Denmark. Increasingly regarded with fear, by the 12th century CE, most Viking legal codes outlawed berserkers as a danger to society.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
A depiction of the legend of Gyges illustrated in the act of finding the magic ring Ferrara; author unknown (c. 16th century). Wikimedia Commons.

7. Whilst not using magic to achieve his objectives, the ancient story of Gyges of Lydia follows the broad narrative of a usurping founder of a new dynasty in Asia Minor

Appearing in Plato’s Republic, Gyges was supposedly a shepherd from Lydia – an area of modern-day Turkey – who discovered a golden ring buried in a cave following an earthquake. Granting the wearer the power of invisibility, Gyges used the ring to seduce a queen, murder his king, and usurp control over the realm. Using the story to allegorically demonstrate the inherently unjust nature of mankind, requiring laws to govern out freedoms to prevent anarchy, despite the unrealistic components of Plato’s narrative, Gyges of Lydia is widely regarded as a real historical figure from antiquity.

The founder of the Mermnad dynasty of the Lydian monarchy, although the dates of his reign are uncertain it is generally believed Gyges ruled between 687 and 652 BCE. Previously serving as the bodyguard of his predecessor, Candaules, whom he assassinated to seize the throne, his action had been approved in advance by the Delphic Oracle as a means to prevent civil war erupting in the troubled state. Consolidating his kingdom and expanding into neighboring provinces, Gyges successfully repelled the rampaging Cimmerians and ushered in an age of prosperity and strength for the waning kingdom.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Tapestry showing Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, wearing a coat of arms often attributed to him (c. 1385). Wikimedia Commons.

6. Whilst not winning a sword from either stone or lake, nor accompanied by Merlin, Arthur was likely a Romano-British ruler from the Dark Ages who helped repel Anglo-Saxons from the British Isles

A central figure in the mythology of the British Isles, serving as a crucial character in the origin myth of the country itself, King Arthur is a legendary monarch from the Dark Ages who supposedly ruled over Britain. Accompanied frequently by his many knights, the Arthurian legend has since become embellished in the centuries after with the gradual inclusion of the Holy Grail, the magician Merlin, and the magical realm of Avalon. Becoming one of the most prominent romantic figures in Middle Age literature, although waning in popularity in recent years, Arthur remains one of the most identifiable figures of ancient mythology.

Long debated by scholars, the historical basis of King Arthur remains uncertain. Although some historians contend Arthur never existed at all, the prevailing opinion has coalesced around the opinion that he likely did but we nevertheless know little about his life. Both the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae reference Arthur as a genuine historical figure, leading the Romano-British against the invading Anglo-Saxons during the late-5th and early-6th centuries. His involvement at the Battle of Badon, in particular, is supportable but also exemplifies the problematic nature of the historical narrative, recording he personally slew an unreasonably large 960 men.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
The Shepherd finds the Babe Semiramis, by Ernest Wallcousins (c. 1915). Wikimedia Commons.

5. Whilst only ruling for a few years instead of for forty, Semiramis was a real monarch of the Neo-Assyrian Empire who ascended following the death of her husband

The wife of Onnes and Ninus, Semiramis was a legendary Lydian-Babylonian who later ascended to the throne of Assyria following the death of her second husband. Born to noble parents, according to the legendary narrative Semiramis was abandoned at birth and discovered by the royal shepherd. Leading soldiers during the Siege of Bactra, King Ninus fell in love with Semiramis and asked for her hand. Reigning supposedly for more than four decades, conquering much of Asia during this time, Semiramis is held responsible for the restoration of Babylon and construction of many great works of the ancient world.

Although many of the accomplishments of Semiramis stand clearly in the domain of mythology, there is no denying the historical foundations of the ruler. Named Shammuramat, the wife of Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria, Shammuramat served as regent of the enormous Neo-Assyrian Empire from 811-806 BCE until her son came of age. Ruling during a time of political uncertainty, her stabilization of the turbulent empire earned Shammuramat particular reverence leading to her veneration as a mythical figure.

Launching successful military campaigns against the Greeks and Persians, Shammuramat cemented her legacy within ancient mythology, albeit under a different name, as one of the earliest and most accomplished female rulers from antiquity.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Woodcut of Robin Hood and Maid Marion (c. 17th century). Wikimedia Commons.

4. One of the most popular and enduring characters from English folklore, Robin Hood was most likely a real individual – or at least a composite – dating from the 13th century

A heroic and legendary outlaw from English folklore, Robin Hood remains one of the most iconic individuals from popular mythology. Commonly accompanied by his band of Merry Men, as well as his lover Maid Marian, stories involving Robin typically following a linear pattern of rebelling against the corrupt Sheriff. Returning from the Crusades to discover his land has been stolen, Robin, a skilled archer, embarks on a campaign of unrest and armed dissent to resist the corrupt official and uphold the rule of the absent King Richard. Becoming a popular figure during the Late Middle Ages, entering the mainstream by the 15th century, the historicity of Robin Hood remains disputed.

A common name in Medieval England, spelled Robyn, and with “Hude” meaning an individual who wore a head-covering, the frequency with which a “Robin Hood” is named in legal proceedings is somewhat unhelpful in determining the truth behind the mythological narrative. Garnering at least eight references during the mid-to-late 13th century on the legal rolls of England, it is highly likely that an individual thwarting the law in a similar manner to the legend existed. In particular, Robin of York, dating from 1226, bears a striking resemblance, being stripped of his assets, declared an outlaw, and who subsequently became a bandit.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Tullus Hostilius defeating the army of Veii and Fidenae, as depicted in a seventeenth-century fresco (c. 1601). Wikimedia Commons.

3. The legendary third King of Rome, the existence of Tullus Hostilius is supported by a moderate amount of historical evidence sustaining the core framework of his story

The grandson of Hostus Hostilius, who had fought and died alongside Romulus during the Sabine invasion of the newly-founded Rome, Tullus is believed to have succeeded Numa Pompilius in approximately 673 BCE. Although his legend bears similarities to that of Romulus himself, including being raised by shepherds, doubling the citizenry of Rome, and waging wars against Fidenae and Veii, historians, whilst disputing some components of his narrative, broadly support the historicity of the individual himself. Reigning until 643, two particular moments of his tenure stand out as historically accurate fact supporting his claim to existence.

First, the construction of the original Roman Senate House: the Curia Hostilia. Dating to the seventh century BCE and located on the northwestern edge of the Forum, the otherwise inexplicably named building manifestly borrows its nomenclature from the foremost ruler of the day. Secondly, and most famously, Tullus oversaw the destruction of the rival settlement of Alba Longa. Subjugated by the warlike Tullus, the contest was ultimately decided by a battle of three champions. Becoming a vassal state of Rome, its ruler, Mettius Fufetius, later betrayed Rome leading Tullus to order the raising of the town, evidence of which event has since been found by archaeologists.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
Statuette of Imhotep in the Louvre, Paris (c. 332-30 BCE). Wikimedia Commons.

2. One of only two commoners to be posthumously deified in Ancient Egypt, Imhotep was granted his divinity more than one thousand years after his actual death as the god of medicine

Remembered today chiefly as the titular character of The Mummy and its subsequent modern remakes, Imhotep was for thousands of years one of the most prominent gods of the Egyptian pantheon. Serving as the god of medicine, Imhotep, regarded as the brother of Amenhotep, enjoyed temples and offerings in his name throughout the Nile Delta. Despite this tremendous level of worship, Imhotep was actually once a mere mortal man. Born in approximately the 27th century BCE, although very little is known about the life and times of Imhotep, it is thought the future god served as chancellor to the Pharaoh Djoser.

Considered responsible for the Djoser pyramid, suggesting an architectural prowess, two ancient inscriptions can be found on a pedestal of a statue of Djoser attesting to the existence of Imhotep. Not mentioned again for almost twelve hundred years, Imhotep, who also served as the high priest of the sun god Ra, suddenly exploded into posthumous glory. Becoming only one of two commoners to be deified, Imhotep, for reasons unknown, developed a cult stemming from his alleged medical skills during life. Venerated throughout the New Kingdom and Late Period, his popularity only waned into obscurity during the rise of Greco-Roman medical influence in Egypt during the late-1st millennium BCE.

16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life
The Baptism of Christ, by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior (c. 1895). Wikimedia Commons.

1. The leading figure of the Christian mythology, Jesus of Nazareth was undeniably a real individual who existed during the first millennium of the Common Era

Allegedly conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ forms the central character of the Christian religious mythology, as well as serving as a more minor figure in Islam. Baptized by John and forming his own ministry, according to the Bible Jesus gathered a following of believers and preached throughout the Roman province of Galilee until he fell afoul of the local authorities. Betrayed and turned over for punishment, Jesus was put to death by crucifixion, before rising again after death three days later. Despite the fantastical claims associated with the life of Jesus, including several miracles including raising the dead and curing leprosy, historians today are virtually united on the question of whether or not he was a real person.

Born in 4 BCE, Jesus of Nazareth’s existence is testified both in early Christian sources, notably the canonical gospels, but also third-party writings. Most prominently, the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus provide a detailed and independent account of his existence, with the former offering corroboration on Pilate’s crucifixion order and the latter of Jesus’ ministry and political activities. With only a fringe community of historians continuing to dispute the existence of an individual similar to that of Jesus, it should be noted nevertheless this provides no proof of his alleged miracles and religious significance.

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