16 Famous Historical Figures Who Might Not Have Been Real

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By Darryl Henderson

Throughout history, people have been inspired by stories told about great historical figures, from army leaders marching troops into battle to rebels fighting back against the elite. However, fact often gets muddled with fiction, with some characters believed to be true having been completely falsified. Here are 16 examples.

King Arthur

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Tales of King Arthur’s exploits date back to the 800s, but historians have no substantial evidence of his existence. He has been mentioned in two medieval sources, however, both of which date to 300 years after he was supposed to have lived.


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The story of Mulan has been the subject of many adaptations since it was first featured in a 12th-century poetry anthology. Although an inspiring story of how a young woman led an army to victory, TIME Magazine suggests that nothing in the story can be historically substantiated.

Jesus Christ

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While it is widely accepted that there was no character in history with the capabilities of turning water into wine and changing weather patterns, there is still fierce debate as to whether the character Jesus Christ actually walked the earth. Some claim he is just an idea, and some believe him to have lived and died.

William Tell

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Swiss folklore idolizes William Tell in a similar manner to how the British put the likes of Robin Hood on a pedestal. Tell supposedly stood up against government tyranny before shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Britannica states that there is no evidence of Tell’s existence, with the story being widely distributed in folklore. 

Jack the Ripper

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Due to the fact he was never formally identified, there are still a handful of scholars who don’t believe that Jack the Ripper, the man accused of murdering five women in 1888, was real. The identity of the killer is yet to be found, with forensics experts still desperate to get to the bottom of the case.

Sun Tzu

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The ancient Chinese military text The Art of War has always been attributed to the philosopher Sun Tzu, although there is great debate surrounding his existence. Some believe that the book is a compilation of Chinese military strategies rather than the thoughts of one man.


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Remembered for shaping the fate of the Ancient Greek city of Sparta, Lycurgus is one of Greece’s most intriguing characters. As with most legendary figures to come out of Ancient Greece, his existence is subject to debate, mainly because, as History says, his biography is full of bizarre mythical occurrences.


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No, not that Homer. The Homer in question here is the Ancient Greek poet and philosopher who famously wrote the epic works Iliad and Odyssey. Not all scholars are 100% sold on Homer’s existence, believing his name was used by the Greeks as a way of compiling myths that were passed down orally through generations.


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Pythagoras’ mathematical theorem is still taught in schools today, although there are no first-hand sources suggesting that he existed or even came up with his theorem himself. Real or not, he is a legendary figure known for his immense fear of beans as well as for his mathematical prowess.

Betty Crocker

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You’ll likely recognize the name Betty Crocker if you’ve been down the home baking aisle at any supermarket in the Western world. It turns out that Crocker never actually existed and was thought up as part of a campaign by General Mills to appeal to the average American housewife of the 1920s.

John Henry

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American hero John Henry is best known for beating a steam-powered rock drilling machine in a drilling contest using a hammer, dying shortly after as his body gave out. He is often used as an inspirational figurehead of industry and hard work for American workers, despite being totally fictional.

Uncle Sam

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Uncle Sam, with his star-spangled top hat, has been used to personify the U.S. Government since the 19th century. He is most notably seen on army recruitment posters during times of conflict. There are many different guesses as to Uncle Sam’s origin, with many believing he was inspired by Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from New York.

Robin Hood

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The likelihood that Robin Hood never actually existed and is purely used as a metaphor for hope against adversity is strong. Stories of rebels getting one over on the wealthy elite have always proved popular, with the tale of Robin Hood being no different.

Kunta Kinte

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While a lot of the legendary book Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley is based on the truth, many of the characters are totally fabricated. Kunta Kinte, labeled ‘the slave who fought back’ by CNN, wasn’t the true name of the man that the book’s lead character was based on.


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The story of Moses has been told and retold many times, from being sent down a river in a basket to parting the Red Sea as though it were nothing. In real life, there is almost no evidence that such a character existed, and the biblical tale can easily be disproved. 

William Shakespeare 

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The great William Shakespeare was the brains behind some of the greatest tales of romance, tragedy, and comedy known to man. But was he real? There are no first-hand manuscripts of his plays, nor is there much-surviving information about his life. Some even believe that his works were written by an unnamed woman pretending to be a man.