Follow TV Tropes

Following

Historical Villain Upgrade / Common Cases

Go To

Real-life historical figures commonly given villain upgrades.


  • At least in the US, Benedict Arnold, who is considered a vile, cowardly traitor, but started out as a very capable American commander during The American Revolution. However, he had made himself powerful enemies (many of whom were in Congress) during the war, and it all ended when they managed to convince Congress and the upper brass that he would not deserve or need any of the promotions or additional wages for his military service (while he deserved them, there was often not enough money that the government could spare). To evade dishonorable consequences, he even attempted to resign, which Washington rejected. In retaliation, he tried to sell the fort at West Point to the British, and now monuments that would depict him as a hero in the US only depict his boot, the foot that was injured in a major battle he had fought for America.note  It's worth noting that the British he defected to despised him as well, both because they did not at all respect traitors (even ones helping their side) and because he was apparently a massive Jerkass on a personal level that was an absolute chore to deal with. Him botching the commands he was given didn't help.
  • Advertisement:
  • La Malinche, a Nahua woman who had an affair with Hernán Cortés and helped him in his conquest of the Aztec Empire, is seen by many in contemporary Mexico as a traitor for helping the Conquistadors to subjugate "her people." Often unmentioned and downplayed are that (a) before she met Cortés she was a slave — her stepmother sold her into slavery in childhood, whereas Cortés trusted her and financially supported her after the conquest, and (b) she wasn’t even an Aztec — she came from a town called Paynala before she was sold into slavery in another town. So she can't accurately be classified as a traitor — and in fact the Aztec Empire was vehemently hated among the other tribes and towns in Mexico. Cortés won these people over very easily, and it seems a bit unfair to condemn La Malinche for siding with him and others of her own people against the people who enslaved her.
  • Advertisement:
  • One of the best-known examples is the composer Antonio Salieri, contemporary to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. History records that he was Mozart's (and Ludwig van Beethoven's) friend and collaborator, and also a mentor to Mozart's youngest son Franz. Various works of fiction, going back at least to the mid-19th century, portray him as Mozart's Arch-Enemy and secret murderer. The most famous example is the play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, which was adapted into a multiple-Oscar-winning film. While Salieri might not have been quite as good as Mozart by most reckoning, he was still a fantastic composer. The basis for viewing Mozart and Salieri as enemies comes from a few letters by Wolfgang and his father that gripe about Salieri receiving a desirable commission, though this is only natural for professionals competing for the same business. It's also at odds with the fictional version, which has Salieri as The Resenter toward Mozart, who is oblivious to Salieri's ill-will toward him. The reason why Salieri was vilified was basically Italophobic German nationalism, who wanted to promote German musicians as greater than Italians like Salieri and others.
  • Advertisement:
  • The historical and legendary figure Ja'far ibn Yahya al-Barmaki, vizier to Harun al-Rashid, hasn't been given a Historical Villain Upgrade exactly ... but try finding an evil vizier in a story set in "Arabian Nights" Days whose name isn't some spelling of Jafar. Likely more due to sloppy research. Ad Avis in Quest for Glory and the cartoon character Iznogoud could be considered a Historical Villain Upgrade of Ja'far. More generally, the position of vizier itself has had something of a historical villain upgrade, to the point that it even has its own trope. While there have certainly been plenty of examples of scheming and traitors among top advisers, most people who have held such trusted positions did so because they were, in fact, trustworthy.
  • Rasputin the Mad Monk is generally considered nowadays as a relatively harmless, if highly sleazy, eccentric religious figure, but during his life he was thought to hold the imperial family in thrall via strange supernatural powers.note  Therefore, most media depict him as a raving madman at best, an Evil Sorcerer at worst. The fact that he was apocryphally described as supernaturally resilient didn't help his reputation either. The original account of his murder was written by Prince Felix Yusupov, who supposedly organized the assassination; it was deliberately inaccurate (and changed whenever Yusupov was short on funds), but it's the one everyone remembers. In movies, games, and TV shows, he's presented as a kind of Evil Sorceror (Anastasia); in the Marvel Universe, Rasputin was a mutant; etc.
  • King John of England, villain of the Robin Hood stories. While John certainly deserved some of his reputation (he was a bad general and very good at alienating the nobility), he was far from the craven usurper depicted in the later legends. He also wasn't an illiterate lackwit, as some popular folklore depicts him, having written many books on law and being considered one of the premier legal minds of his age, so much so that his judgement had often been sought prior to his kingship in regards to legal disputes. He is also recognized as the founder of the modern British navy. There's also the fact that he is popularly Overshadowed by Awesome relative to his brother, Richard the Lionheart, who came to be seen as a hero after his death, on account of his martial prowess never mind his much-criticized warmongering which led him to burn through the English treasury, which basically left John a mess of a kingdom. John was a mediocrity and since his reign led to the Magna Carta, he obviously came to be the Designated Villain, i.e. the weak king that led to expansion of Parliamentary rights. But he was not the worst king nor the most tyrannical.
  • Richard III. He didn't betray his elder brother Edward. He might or might not have murdered any of his family members. He definitely wasn't nearly as deformed as he's generally portrayed (though exhumation of his skeleton in 2013 revealed pronounced scoliosis, so his hunchback wasn't a complete fabrication). Who really killed his young nephews, the "Princes in the Tower," is unclear — Richard definitely kept them in a Gilded Cage before their disappearance, and had them declared illegitimate in order to claim the throne, and they disappeared forever nearly two years before Richard was killed at Bosworth, but the details of their deaths remain a mystery.
    • The main culprit for Richard's smear campaign is William Shakespeare's play about him, which was written over 100 years after his death and was basically created for the benefit of the direct descendant of the guy who overthrew him — Shakespeare based his play off a published 'history' that was written by one of Richard's deadliest enemies, who was then made Bishop of Canterbury after Richard's death by Henry Tudor.
    • Notably averted by the University of York, where a popular legend credits him as the first person to propose establishing a university in York. The first formal proposal that we know of came during the reign of James I over a century after Richard's death, and the university itself opened in 1963; still, Richard's ties to York at least make the legend plausible.
    • Most historians also stress his incredible legal reforms during his time at the Council of the North and furthermore his very active monarchy which in its brief rule, passed far more legal statutes than King Edward IV and led to the poor being given the right of bail.
  • George III of Great Britain is popularly remembered by Americans as a tyrant, mostly due to the way he was portrayed by pro-independence propaganda. In reality, he had virtually nothing to do with the policies that so annoyed the colonists, but as the sovereign, he received all the blame. As a king, he is actually deemed by history as a rather good one, at least before he lost his mind in his later years. Personally, he had little interest in politics, preferring agriculture and tea. When he met the first American minister to Britain, John Adams, he stated that he was "the last to consent" to independence, but wished the US well as an independent country and hoped Britain and the US would get along in the future.
  • China's first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi gets this a lot, owing to his historical reputation as a brutal tyrant (albeit an effective one). He's the Big Bad in Bridge of Birds, in which he is also immortal and has magic powers. His Expy in World of Warcraft, Emperor Lei Shen, fares no better, given demonic lightning powers and Nazi-style racial theories to make him look more evil. Additionally, the Emperor in the film Hero is based on him, and is sort of an uneasy mix between this trope and Historical Hero Upgrade- he wins, and many thought the film had the odd lesson of "an imperfect government is better than civil war."
  • While Empress Dowager Cixi is hardly a saint, the traditional view of her is of an Evil Matriarch thanks to the media. There's still a lot of debate on how much of this is true and how much of this came from Chinese politics using her image as a scapegoat: more than one biographer depicts her as an Iron Lady who could be very cruel or selfish at one moment (like amassing a huge personal fortune in times when Imperial China was falling down, and being the number 1 suspect behind her nephew's death by poisoning) and very kind at the other (like thanking a nurse who took care of her when she was ill by releasing her from footbinding and making sure she healed completely).
  • In films featuring Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I gets this treatment. If the film is about Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, Mary Tudor, and/or Philip II of Spain will be treated this way.
    • Queen Elizabeth: The Golden Age bombed in Spain precisely because of this trope. Spanish audiences were insulted with its depiction of Philip II (a remarkably pious man) as — quoting one critic — "a cackling, Spanish Doctor Doom." And its prequel, Elizabeth, certainly followed the formula insofar as both her sister Mary and the Catholic Church at large were concerned.
    • This trend stretches back to Schiller's play Mary Stuart (1800) and even earlier.
    • The 1940 German film Das Herz der Königin ("The Heart of the Queen"), viewed by many critics as an anti-British propaganda movie, portrays Mary (Zarah Leander) as a beautiful saintly martyr (she sings, too), while Elizabeth is a bitter malicious dried up spinster who will stop at nothing to make her cousin miserable and eventually murder her.
    • The BBC miniseries Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot treated Mary far more sympathetically than Elizabeth. Ironically, it portrayed James I, the main character, as quite a Jerkass.note 
  • Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, also tends to get hit with this a lot. While she certainly had a temper and was capable of holding a grudge, everyone near-universally agrees that she wasn't guilty of the charges of treason, incest and adultery at her trial.
  • Thomas Cromwell is another convenient Tudor villain for carrying out some of Henry VIII's more tyrannical acts, such as the execution of Anne Boleyn and the Dissolution of the Monasteries — at best he was portrayed as an amoral Yes-Man, at worst outright evil. He's been given more nuanced media portrayals in the 21st century (most famously in Wolf Hall). This might be due to Values Dissonance as the narrative of an intelligent Self-Made Man garners much more interest than it used to.
  • Mary I, better known as Bloody Mary, older sister of Elizabeth, gets this near universally (her nickname reflects that). However, though her government did burn a number of Protestants for heresy, it was no worse than what Elizabeth did to Catholics. This included being hanged, drawn and quartered for the "crime" of harboring a priest, or being a priest oneself and administering the sacraments to closet Catholics in the country. It was also a crime to not attend Anglican services if you were a Catholic (although that would only get a fine). Mary's crimes were commemorated by later Protestant works, such as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. They did not care about Catholic persecution by Elizabeth. At the time, no one had the concept of religious freedom except for a tiny radical minority. Further, while Mary did restore Catholicism, she did not reverse all of her father's (Henry VIII) reforms, recognizing the reality of the situation, making English Catholicism its own religion.
  • The Spanish Empire as a whole gets into this in Anglophone media, if you see the Cross of Burgundy in a film that does not have the characters in question being Spanish themselves then nine out of ten those characters are villains who are either zealots or brutes. This, of course, was the result of the Spanish Empire being so powerful both in Europe and overseas and with so many enemies in various fronts (the Dutch, the French, the English, the many, many Protestant German princes) that it was often subject to slander and evil propaganda, the Spanish have a term for this: La Leyenda Negra (The Black Legend). The actions of some of the conquistadors were indeed horrendous towards the Indigenous population, but people often forget two things: (a) the Emperor was pissed off at these enough to send armies to get the conquistadors in line and gave legal protection and equal rights to them as a Spaniard in Spain once the vice-royalties were established (much more than what happened in the Thirteen colonies), (b) the disastrous depopulation of the American natives was more the product of disease rather than warfare.
  • Louis XVI of France (king during The French Revolution) is generally seen as either a tyrant or an oaf, and few media will ever depict him as anything else. His actual problem was that he was too weak and indecisive a ruler, while a stronger one might have been able to prevent the revolution. Louis XVI's actual policies, which include positive and enlightened measures (e.g. in favor of Jews in the Alsace and of potato-farming) and military and political successes (victory over the old enemy across the Channel in the War of American Independence) also tend to be forgotten. Even in America, where if France's role is acknowledged at all it gets credited entirely to the Marquis de Lafayette.
    • Conversely, the French Revolutionaries as a whole get this, especially Maximilien Robespierre, who eventually came to be seen as proto-Lenin and -Stalin. Critics point out that he was a man of great integrity, to the point of being described as L'Incorruptible and that he had in fact argued against the War with Austria that escalated the Revolution and made France a target of invasion. He had initially opposed the death penalty. He was loved in his lifetime as a champion of the poor and the working class and did much to clear out the corruption in the military and society, and furthermore alongside the Committee of Public Safety and the National Convention, he participated in the 1794 Decree to outright abolish slavery by law and dispatched agents to the Caribbean to enforce it, and moved against pro-slavery lobbyists, ordering several of their arrests. Even critics of the Reign of Terror point out that Robespierre justified it as a wartime necessity only and in fact tried to moderate the excesses of the very people who later stabbed him in the back and guillotined him.
  • There are several conspiracy theories surrounding the Illuminati, who are often portrayed as a group trying to take over the world and create a Big Brother-style dystopia. However, in their time (end of the 18th century, not before, not later), they weren't too different from your regular Brotherhood of Funny Hats. Their New World Order was in fact referring to a republican government and laws based on fundamental human rights (think of the French Revolution). Indeed, this is how the conspiracy theories on them got started: in 1798 a royalist wrote a book blaming the French Revolution on Freemasons and the Illuminati, which then grew steadily over the years.
  • The entire Rothschild family often gets this. In various media, works of fiction, and especially conspiracy theories (and not just anti-Semitic ones), they are portrayed as the leaders of The Illuminati or some equally sinister Ancient Conspiracy with plans to either Take Over the World by establishing a tyrannical New World Order or to kill everyone on earth and reduce the world's population to less than a billion debt slaves For the Evulz. This is seen in the short film The American Dream which portrays the Rothschilds (referred to as red-shields) as tentacled horrors ruining the economies of America and England through wars, central banking and the Federal Reserve For the Evulz.
  • In the same vein, 19th-century Freemason Albert Pike also gets this. In real life he isn't really well known outside of Freemasonry circles, but once again works of fiction and conspiracy theories portray him as the man who planned and engineered the concepts for the two world wars and a apocalyptic third one-all in the 1870s, all of wars which will bring about a Satanic One World Empire, all of these plans being recorded in a letter. The reality is that the letter was forged from an unknown source, through hoaxer Leo Taxil is the most probable culprit.
  • The 1932 novelization of the mutiny on the HMAV Bounty, and the 1935 and 1962 film adaptions, depict Captain William Blighnote  as a ruthless autocrat. Among other things, he is variously shown to have keelhauled a man, flogged a man to death, deprived his men of water until they succumb to dehydration, etc., none of which occurred in reality. Indeed, most who served under him regarded him as rather tame in terms of actual punishment, and a comparison to other contemporary captains seems to support this. For the most part, he seems to have been guilty of nothing more than arrogance, frequent shouting, and giving conflicting orders, much to his crew's frustration. For his day, he would have been considered fairly strict, but fair, and not as strict as he could have been. Modern historians place the blame more on the crew's long vacation in the tropics, causing them to become overly sensitive to discipline; a lesser emphasis is placed on his tendency towards relentless micromanagement and acerbic wit. The 1984 film The Bounty takes a revisionist and more historically accurate view of Bligh, depicting both his good and bad points, along with the part most depictions completely omit: his almost 4,000-mile long voyage to safely reach Timor in the boat he and the loyal crewman were set adrift on, a remarkable feat by any standard.
  • The serial killer called Jack the Ripper (assuming he was only one person and was indeed a "he", and that the murders were even related at all) was never identified, and only committed five murders. They were tragic, of course, but there were far worse serial killers both before and since then, so much that a case like this would hardly get any attention in modern times. Still, the fact that the brutal murders were never solved make people depict him as the worst Serial Killer in history, and the case is a favorite among fiction writers, who often tend to portray him as far more than any mortal man in their depictions. (For specific examples, see his own Trope page.)
  • Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first Commissioner of Baseball. Firstly for the allegation that he had dealt with the Black Sox scandal in a ham-handed and unfair manner (aided by pro-Black Sox portrayals in films like Eight Men Out or Field of Dreams), with the greatest scorn coming for his treatment of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (who didn't participate in rigging the World Series but was not completely innocent since he still took money from the cheaters and kept his teammates' actions secret). This ignores how hated the participating players in the Scandal were at the time, and the implications the scandal held for all of baseball. Secondly, it's often been claimed that Landis was the sole reason for baseball's "color barrier", even to the extent of claiming the Ohio-born-and-raised Landis was an old-school Southern racist. Landis himself stated that the question was up to the owners (most of whom at the time were against integration), and invited black sports reporters to make their case to them. There was also the rather important (up until Branch Rickey said "screw it," and all the other owners followed suit) question of what compensation would be due to Negro League teams in exchange for drafting all their best players; the Negro League teams were profitable business entities in their own right and at the time of integration were predominately owned by African Americans.
  • RMS Titanic:
    • The relatively blameless J. Bruce Ismay, the president of the shipping lane, is often portrayed as an arrogant, bullying prick who forces Captain Smith to run the ship full speed into an ice field and then act like a sniveling coward who hops aboard the first available lifeboat. While it's perhaps easy to see where this reputation comes from — jumping into a lifeboat to save yourself while there's still hundreds of women and children aboard the ship is perhaps not going to cast you in the bravest or manliest of lights — the truth is a bit more complicated, with eyewitness accounts suggesting Ismay was diligent in helping load and lower the lifeboats and only took his seat in one after making sure that there were no women or children there to take it instead. There is also absolutely no evidence Ismay had any influence over Captain Smith's operation of the ship and he had no reasons for the ship to arrive in New York faster than scheduled, seeing that Titanic would not beat any speed records even if it crossed the ocean a day faster. It seems that he was simply a scape goat for the general public, who were desperate to make sense of the tragedy and find a villain as a way to get catharsis.
    • The entire staff and crew of the Titanic tend to get this with respect to how the Third Class passengers were treated. One is unlikely to learn in a fictional treatment of the disaster that Third Class accommodations aboard White Star's ships in general and Titanic in particular were well above average for the time, including their own set of cooks to prepare food and stewards to serve it. It is also not true that the officers loading the lifeboats were biased in favor of First Class passengers. Rather, the reason that Third Class passengers took proportionately higher casualties is because their cabins were the farthest from the lifeboats and many got lost in the corridors below deck, and even with this fact Third Class women were much more likely to survive than First Class men. Some adaptations, including the James Cameron version, portray the Stewards deliberately locking Third Class passengers below deck to prevent stampeding, which also probably never happened; the gates did exist, but due to health and immigration laws at the time requiring Third Class to be separated from First and Second. These gates could be opened in case of emergency, and never directly barred the way to the main deck, but in their panic the Stewards forgot to open most of them.
  • Lizzie Borden, who was tried — and acquitted — of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892, is almost universally demonized in the media, where she tends to be portrayed as an unhinged psychopath. In truth, this perception of her was due to the brutal nature of the crime itself, ostracism from her community, and the intense media attention given to it. While her guilt or innocence continues to be debated, she definitely was not on the same level as most other notorious killers. Her motive, if guilty, apparently stemmed from a family dispute. Also, few people remember that Lizzie was an avid animal lover all her life and upon her death left most of her estate to a local animal shelter.
  • Richard Nixon is an unusual example — he gets this treatment in many, many works but rarely ones that deal directly with his original term of office. We say "original" because the upgrade tends to occur in Bad Future alternate timelines where America has become a Dystopia (such as Watchmen or Back to the Future Part II). We know they are dystopias because one of the features is that Nixon is still President, usually on his totally unconstitutional third, fourth or fifth term, implying he's running a de facto dictatorship. While he's rarely the Big Bad of these settings (in fact he's usually The Ghost), it still fits this trope that the writers thought that Nixon would a) so much as attempt something like this, and b) use his Presidency as further evidence that the setting is a Crapsack World (they are Crapsack, of course; its just a bit much to think that Nixon is one of the main reasons for it). Played for Laughs in Futurama where in the distant future he's a Head in a Jar Large Ham Card-Carrying Villain (and once again, President, though this time via Loophole Abuse rather than outright corruption).
    • Averted, for once in X-Men: Days of Future Past, in spite of common portrayals in fiction relaying the public opinion of him after the Watergate scandal. He treats the growth of the mutant population as another issue to solve as Commander-In-Chief instead of resorting to Fantastic Racism, and chooses to discontinue the Sentinel program after a few mutants prevent his death at the hands of Magneto.
  • Oda Nobunaga has basically become Japan's go-to guy whenever a series needs an Evil Overlord. While Nobunaga was clearly not a very nice man in Real Life, it is very unlikely that he was ever literally the king of Hell like many series like to claim. Indeed, he knew that uniting Japan would benefit the people; he didn't particularly care, but he knew. In that sense, he's a good deal like Otto von Bismarck—and the only things that people ever bring up about Bismarck are his genius and cunning. He may have been a ruthless badass during his lifetime even among the already vicious Lords of Japan, but modern works tend to take this to ridiculous (and often evil) extremes.
    • Many of his positive actions include tolerating Christians, open borders, modernizing the military and generally attempting to kick start a Japanese Renaissance. Though all of that can be filed under Pragmatic Villainy — tolerating Christians meant he could buy rifles from them, open borders enabled him to hire foreign mercenaries, modernizing his military is self-explanatory, as is his desire for a modern empire rather than a pre-Renaissance one. And while by modern standards these are seen as good things, at the time they were hated by many Japanese traditionalists.
    • Almost all depictions of Oda Nobunaga tend to gloss over or be vague about why specific conflicts involving him started. For example, it's pretty inconvenient for Nobunaga's villain status to point out that Asakura-Asai conflict was started because Ashikaga Yoshiaki, whom Nobunaga has just aided to become shogun and was keeping in power, formed a secret anti-Oda alliance with the Asakura with the intention of launching a sneak attack because Yoshiaki realized Nobunaga knew he was the only thing keeping Yoshiaki in power and was more than willing to use that to his advantage when dealing with him. While Asai Nagamasa's aid of the Asakura is portrayed as being done out of a sense of duty, he was in favor of remaining neutral. It is generally accepted that his aid of the Asakura was the result of advice he received indicating the Oda were almost certain to lose and the Asai were trying to be on the winning side. Even with the worst historical portrayal of Nobunaga, there was more going on than his villainous portrayals generally show.
  • As alluded to in the Literature section, almost any adaptation of The Three Musketeers will dump the original novel's moral ambiguities and do this to poor Cardinal Richelieu.
  • Amakusa Shiro joins Nobunaga in villainous portrayals in Japanese media, albeit with the caveat that he's usually depicted as a once noble person who sold his soul to the devil for revenge in his dying moment.
  • Yagyu Munenori ranks up there along with Amakusa and Nobunaga in terms of being vilified in Japan. In general, he is an excellent swordsman as well as a shrewd politician. However, he's also a guy who dedicated his life and sword to protect others, he even wrote a book titled "Life-Giving Sword" to further boost that. Since politicians are often turned into Acceptable Targets and his son Mitsuyoshi is often romanticized as someone who disdains politics, Munenori is often turned into an antagonistic evil swordsman AND Sleazy Politician that was the cause of Mitsuyoshi losing an eye or also portrayed as an Evil Counterpart to Miyamoto Musashi, another romanticized Master Swordsman (the two never met). This is an often widespread trope usage on Munenori. Kind of hard being a politician and a father of a folk hero who's thought to be anti-politics (even if Mitsuyoshi eventually returned to political stage after being kicked out).
  • American Commodore Matthew C. Perry is famously remembered for making the then-isolationist Japan open its ports for trade to all of the West, but his negotiation tactics weren't so nice: his threats of using his "Black Ships" to reduce the then-capitol Edo to ashes was what coined the term "Gunboat Diplomacy". While it's likely his threats were just chest-puffing and his only real intention was to start trade between Japan and America, it definitely worked at scaring the Japanese: a fear that persists even to this day, as most Japan-produced media portray Perry as a violent megalomaniac who sought to outright conquer Japan—if not the entire world as well.
  • Tokugawa Ieyasu is usually portrayed to be less evil than Nobunaga, but there was a time when his once strong Shogunate that ruled Japan for 200 years or so while isolating the country from outer world grew weaker in power and then the American ships under the aforementioned Perry came, forcing Japan to open its border and then a chain of events led to the Meiji Restoration where Japan enjoyed advances in technology and research much better than the times of Tokugawa's isolationist policy. Thanks to this, the Tokugawa shogunate (not just Ieyasu himself) is often villified as a group of Obstructive Bureaucrats that was only interested in personal power and ruling Japan with iron fist, making people suffer. Former oppositions of Ieyasu especially during the late Sengoku Period, especially Sanada Yukimura and Ishida Mitsunari, tend to be upgraded into tragic folk heroes status, trying to prevent Ieyasu's rise to power, only to be tragically thwarted by his dastardly cunningness, and it didn't help that the biggest figures of Meiji Restoration originated from the regions that got the short end of the stick after the Battle of Sekigahara due to Ieyasu's machinations, so the anti-Tokugawa propaganda worked for their favor.
  • Agustín de Iturbide, liberator of Mexico, tends to get this treatment for two main reasons: the first being him fighting as a royalist against the insurgency, which has since been characterized as the heroes; and the second is him having himself crowned The Emperor of Mexico and dissolving Congress. A lot of nuance is ignored for both of these actions. In truth, Iturbide was all for independence, but the beginning actions of the insurgents were so atrocious (basically an ethnic war against Spaniards and killing innocent civilians, down to women, children and the elderly) that he couldn't sympathize with them. Eventually, he started his own movement for independence and accomplished in seven months what the insurgents couldn't do in eleven years. The insurgency's atrocities didn't stop them from getting a Historical Hero Upgrade, much to the detriment of Iturbide's reputation. Him being criticized for making himself emperor also ignores the fact that he was enormously popular with the masses and only accepted the throne reluctantly because of overwhelming public support for the idea. In fact, he outright rejected previous attempts to make him the monarch of an independent Mexico. Due to the Congress failing at its task of writing a new constitution for México, Iturbide dissolved Congress and replaced it with a smaller organism made up of the same representatives. This movement, intended to bring an end to power struggles, would be used by his detractors to forever brand him as a despot. Up to this day, in Mexico his actions are largely unknown or attributed unjustly to others, a fate which many an impartial historian has decried as incredibly unfair, denying him the recognition for his deeds of making his nation free, giving it a name (México) and creating its famous flag and coat of arms.
  • The Norse and other Germanic tribesmen tend to suffer from this, with the media often depicting them as brutish, bloodthirsty and violent raiders, plunderers and killers. Sometimes even in media in which they're meant to be the protagonists! In reality, they were no more savage or prone to violence than any other people at the time, with a very sophisticated culture. Most media fails to acknowledge that the "vikings" are not even a culture of their own, but a specific profession (that is, pirates — which is roughly what "viking" in Old Norse actually means — although since pirates were typically "brutish, bloodthirsty and violent raiders, plunderers and killers" anyway, the depiction of the viking raiders themselves is not too far off), while the Norse people they were a part of were in some ways more advanced culturally than their European contemporaries — if nothing else, they had better hygiene than other Europeans and women were closer to formal equality with men in their society.
  • With the polarized view of American foreign policy worldwide, as well as the backlash at said foreign policy, it is uncommon to see this trope applied to every single president of the US in countries with an extremely negative view of US foreign policy.
  • Government corruption tends to reflect badly on the person who headed the affected governnment at the time, even if they were more honest than their subordinates. In the US, for example, the administrations of Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding set then-new benchmarks for corruption and they were regularly ranked among the country's worst presidents for decades afterwards. Later, their (admittedly timid by modern standards) pro-civil rights stances would be rediscovered and applauded by a more receptive audience.
  • Thomas Edison often gets this in works about Nikola Tesla. While Edison did indeed have a Jerkass streak in Real Life, he is often given sole blame for Tesla's never getting some of his inventions out, even the ones that just didn't work (understanding of the laws of physics were much less complete in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than they are today, and some of the theories underlying Tesla's later failed inventions have since been proven incorrect) or that Tesla never actually intended to be used.note  Though it is true the pair did share an intense one-sided rivalry on Edison's part, who used his influence with the American business community to limit Tesla's opportunities, and slandered his alternating current, making Edison's direct current (a less efficient form) the standard model. At least until Edison's other rival George Westinghouse bought a license to Tesla's patent and gave alternating current the financial backing it needed to compete with Edison's direct current on the open market.
  • The entire country of France gets depicted this way in the context of World War II, with the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys and French Jerk tropes being combined. Partly in reaction to the myriad stories of French maquis (resistance fighters) bravely defying the Germans, a "black legend" of sorts has arisen claiming that most French people not only didn't put up a fight, but actually welcomed the Germans and became Nazis themselves. The truth is somewhere in between: those relatively few French who did oppose the Nazis were at best passively resistant; but most French people, whether resistance fighters or not, were not happy about being occupied. The French Army was also forced to surrender because Paris had already been invaded and the Nazis threatened to blow the city up. Also, most of the French who cooperated with the fascist Vichy government during the war had held fascist beliefs to begin with, and were to some degree using the invasion as a pretext.
    • The Vichy French Navy also stubbornly maintained the government's official neutrality, despite the government making that neutrality a sham and despite being directly attacked by the British. When the Nazis finally lost patience with this and tried to seize the Vichy ships, the entire fleet was scuttled.
  • Older works about The American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, such as The Birth of a Nation, do this to Representative Thaddeus Stevens as a matter of course. He'll be portrayed as a fanatical, vengeful villain obsessed with further punishing the poor, defeated South. What did he do that was so bad? Well, that was the truly heinous act of getting Congress to grant civil rights and suffrage to the newly-freed black people. How could anyone do something so horrible? He was one of the few (even among abolitionists) who actually believed in racial equality, and was in a long-term relationship with his black maid when both those things were condemned (and even considered criminal) by nearly everyone. Newer works, like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, portray him much more positively and accurately.
  • This is a common tendency when depicting some of the more notorious Emperors in Roman History. This wasn't helped by the fact that histories of the Roman Emperors were often written by their critics once they were dead — some of which decades, if not centuries after the fact — who had no compunction against simply inventing negative stories about them.
    • Emperor Caligula gets this a lot, even on this very wiki. Most sources agree that he was a terrible emperor, although modern historians have come to question whether this wasn't exaggerated. Also, most sources agree that he was a very good emperor in the first six months or so of his reign, and that he then went insane. Philo of Alexandria, for example, claimed that he became mad after nearly dying of a serious illness in the eighth month of his reign, leading modern historians to speculate that he may have suffered brain damage as a result of a prolonged high fever. In short, while he may have indeed done bad things, those things are probably exaggerated, and were probably not entirely his fault.
    • Emperor Nero has a reputation for, at best, playing the lyre during the Great Fire of Rome, or at worse setting the city on fire deliberately. In fact the most reliable source on the fire, Tacitus, states that Nero hurried back to the city to oversee the relief efforts, paying out of his own pockets quite generously. Although his actions immediately following this; taking advantage of the situation by clearing out 100-300 acres of the burnt-out city to built his lavish Domus Aurea, quickly extinguished whatever good will he earned from this gesture. It's generally regarded by historians that much of Nero's reputation as a monster comes from his having favored the common people and having disdain for the aristocracy, which didn't sit well with the aristocrats who wrote all the historical accounts since the common people tended to be illiterate.
    • To a lesser extent, Augustus is also at the receiving end of this in some works. They tend to play up his perceived cowardliness (which he earned due to his frequent bouts of sickness forcing him to not participate in battles), sociopathy, and keen skill in manipulating people. Common Historical consensus on the man agree that he was an extremely ambitious man with a mind for politics over warfare (which is no slight against him; Roman politics were a jungle of conspiracies, corruption, and assassinations), was very loyal to those who chose to side with him (as seen with his long relationship with Marcus Agrippa), managed to drag Rome out of decades of civil war and turn it into an Empire which lasted for five centuries, and was capable of both extreme acts of leniency and stunning acts of cruelty to make it happen.
    • Emperor Commodus almost certainly did not assassinate his father, Marcus Aurelius, to become Emperor: most evidence points to the Antonine plague doing him in, and there's no evidence that Aurelius intended for anyone else to succeed him. He was certainly a terrible emperor as well, but claims that he single-handedly ended the Pax Romana and was the cause of the Empire's eventual destruction is also an exaggeration: he certainly accelerated the decline, but the growing conglomeration of Germanic tribes to the north, Rome being ravaged by the aforementioned plague, and economic meltdowns caused by hyper-inflation are also to blame, all of which happened without Commodus' involvement. Even a second Marcus Aurelius or Trajan would've been hard-pressed to counter those trends.
  • Speaking of the Ancient Romans, they also play host to another common upgrade that is not a person or a group, but a concept: paterfamilias, which gave a Roman father absolute authority over his children, including the right to kill them. While obviously extremely harsh by modern standards, this principle has given rise to the portrayal of Roman fathers in modern media as cruel tyrants over their families who brutalize their children for minor imperfections. The consensus among actual historians is the far less lurid story that the overwhelming majority of Roman dads loved their kids just as much as parents from any other culture did, and the invocation of the more extreme tenets of paterfamilias was likely extremely rare, and typically done only in the case of the child committing a serious crime such as themselves murdering a family member.
  • Early-20th-century cult leader Aleister Crowley was certainly a controversial figure, but he was clearly not into Hollywood Satanism, did not have magical powers, didn't fit the Aristocrats Are Evil Trope (even if he was evil, he was not an aristocrat) and wasn't a vampire, contrary to works by people like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and many others, mostly in comic books.
  • Porfirio Díaz is best remembered as a hypocrite who championed liberalism in the early years of his political career and then became a dictator. After The Mexican Revolution, some Mexicans even began to depict him as evil incarnate, spreading stories like the one that as a boy he maliciously set his brother on fire. In truth, while Díaz did become an authoritarian, he consistently tried to govern benevolently. Earlier on in his administration, he was very a effective leader, breaking the power of Mexico's infamous brigands that were a plague on travelers and setting up the country's infrastructure so it would benefit the nation for years to come. The problems that started later on were largely a result of him going senile and being increasingly Surrounded by Idiots and yes-men. His main flaw was that he had Condescending Compassion for the lower classes. He's also remembered for his snobbery and self-hating racism in powdering his face to appear more white; while the face-powdering may or may not be true, there is no evidence that Díaz ever tried to hide or had anything but pride in his mestizo heritage.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli was commonly given historical villain upgrades in late Renaissance works, including Shakespeare and Marlowe. In fact his reputation was so bad that "Nick" may have become a name for the Devil because of him. Dated History has largely discredited this one, though; almost any recent fictional portrayal of him is more sympathetic.
  • Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) of Judea might not have slaughtered all those babies in his mad quest to find the infant Jesus, which is recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew (though some historians suggest this is because having at most a dozen babies killed in one small town was considered too insignificant at the time to merit much attention). However, he did massacre members of his own family out of paranoia (one theory being that Herod was certifiably insane). Despite this, a growing number of Israelis are attempting to rehabilitate his reputation. In addition to benefiting from My Country, Right or Wrong and N-Word Privileges (although Herod was of course a Roman puppet and racially only a half-Jew), these Israelis argue that Herod was probably the best possible ruler they could have had under the circumstances. Only an accommodationist like Herod would have been able to persuade the Romans to be as tolerant of the Jewish religion as they managed to be (in a compromise, Herod had to design a temple that included both Jewish and pagan iconography). Also, following the collapse of the Jewish kingdom after the reign of Solomon and especially after the Babylonian exile, Judea had not only declined in glory but had become a cultural backwater — and Herod did all he could to modernize Judean society.
  • Sir Alexander Leslie is often said to be the source of the poem, "There Was a Crooked Man." Said Crooked Man is depicted as being quite evil in various media. What was so crooked about Sir Alexander Leslie? He negotiated peace between Scotland and England.
  • Edward Teach/Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, is commonly depicted as the most bloodthirsty and dreaded pirate of all time, when he's not being alleged to have had supernatural powers and/or an indestructibility to put Rasputin to shame. How many people did he verifiably kill with his own hands during his sea-borne reign of terror? Precisely none. He and his crew did kill several King's men in a broadside and subsequent exchange of small-arms fire in 1718, but that was in the battle where Teach himself was killed. Basically, his whole image as a merciless killer was a brilliant display of bluffing, that scared targeted ships' crews and town garrisons into surrendering without a fight.
  • For a given definition of "historical", prehistoric animals often get this in media that features them. The most common victims include Tyrannosaurus rex, dromaeosaurs like Velociraptor and Deinonychus, Pteranodon and (thanks to a certain movie) Spinosaurus. Expect either T. rex or Spinosaurus to be depicted as the "Ultimate Killing Machine" and possibly even fight each other brutally for that title (something that could never happen in life because they didn't live in the same place or time period, and even if they did, large predators tend to avoid fighting each other and instead attempt to scare off the other with threat displays). Deinonychus/Velociraptor (usually treated as one and the same) will often be depicted as scaly, Super Speedy, highly intelligent pack hunters that can take down prey ten times their size (later studies suggest that deinonychosaurs were covered in feathers, fairly poor runners, not pack hunters and not all that smart—not to mention that prey their size or bigger could easily kill them). Pteranodon (usually labelled a "pterodactyl") will almost always be depicted as an ugly, wyvern-like monstrosity that exists solely to pluck unfortunate prey from the ground with eagle-like talons (Pteranodons were strict fish-eaters with fairly weak feet that weren't built for grasping, and they were probably quite beautiful and almost certainly vibrantly colored). Many of the writers who invoke this tend to forget that prehistoric animals were ... well, animals and just trying to survive. For more examples, see the Prehistoric Monster trope.
  • Aaron Burr has been the victim of this since his own time, for killing the first American Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton; for this, he is often portrayed as a violent, bloodthirsty, and highly entitled jerkass. In real life, Burr was often described as being a rather nice person, up until about 1804, and he was quite literally generous to a fault, nearly bankrupting himself on multiple occasions and pawning his possessions to give money to those in need. One of the reasons why his duel with Hamilton shocked so many people was because, supposedly, Burr was usually so cheerful and easygoing.
  • In popular culture, Ramses II is frequently depicted as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, more frequently than any other Pharaoh. Less commonly, he gets depicted as the Pharaoh of the Oppression. Scholarly consensus is that he was almost certainly not the Pharaoh of the Exodus (which is generally agreed upon to have happened earlier in the New Kingdom's history), and there's no evidence that an entire ethnic group was enslaved under his reign (so he almost certainly wasn't the Pharaoh of the Oppression either). Historical evidence says that, far from being a Nepharious Pharaoh, he was one of Ancient Egypt's greatest rulers.
  • Since the American War in Afghanistan began in 2001, it has become the fashion to depict the 1980s-era anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas as some sort of proto-Taliban (more egregious examples will even call directly these guerrillas "the Taliban", even though the Taliban hadn't even been founded yet at that time), showing them to be little more fanatical fundamentalist terrorists. In reality, the anti-Soviet guerrillas of the '80s were a politically diverse bunch that included democrats, Shia groups, and even Maoists. As a whole, they were much more moderate and far less violent than the Taliban. This is partly because the Taliban practice Pashtun nationalism, and are largely restricted to the south and east of the country, while the anti-Soviet front in the 1980s basically comprised the bulk of the country. There's a reason why the modern Afghan government and military, which is actively fighting the Taliban, is actually stock-full of veterans from anti-Soviet rebel groups.
  • Joseph McCarthy has few defenders today, and even the most stringent anti-communists generally dislike him. However, he frequently gets Mis-blamed for excesses of the era that he had nothing to do with, such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (he was a senator) and The Hollywood Blacklist. McCarthy is often thought of as the originator of militant anti-communism in the American government during the Second Red Scare, but the means he used didn't originate with him — he merely took them Up to Eleven. While McCarthy was certainly damaging in many ways, he was the one who fueled up the fire, not the one who started it.
  • Ty Cobb had a reputation as a violent racist for many years. However, this unflattering image of Cobb was subsequently discovered to be largely the result of forgery and falsifications by his first biographer, sportswriter Al Stump. While Cobb did get into a few fights, his reputation for violence is heavily exaggerated, and he wasn't the only baseball player of the era who did so. Cobb was also a philanthropist who founded a hospital and an educational foundation. As for his alleged racism, he grew up in a family of abolitionists and was a major supporter of integrating baseball. While he did attack a heckler who accused him of being half-black, he was angry about the implied insult against his mother rather than the allegation of him being mixed-race.
  • Rodrigo Borgia is often depicted as the archetype of the corrupt and evil churchman, and sometimes as a proto-mafia don. And he was corrupt. But the level of corruption he got up to was pretty much par for the course in his era. The reason he is remembered for his corruption when many of the corrupt notables of the age were arguably even worse was because of all the corrupt notables of the day, he was the only one to become Pope. As such he looked much worse than he actually was because people held him to a higher standard.
  • William Tecumseh Sherman is frequently remembered as a war criminal who devastated the American South — particularly Georgia. However, while it's true that he attacked civilian supplies and infrastructure, the damage he did was almost entirely limited to property. The number of civilians killed by his army was vanishingly small. Sherman's objective was to end The American Civil War as quickly as possible by attacking the Confederacy's morale and economic assets, not wantonly slaughter Southerners. While there are legitimate reasons his total war was and is so controversial, he was a far cry from the mass murderer many remember him as.

Top

Example of:

/
/

Feedback