History does not always tell us what we want to know; sometimes it does not even tell us the names of those persons whose actions, words, and achievements comprise its substance. Much of ancient history is utterly anonymous. No one knows how the pyramids were built or the names of the architects of Stonehenge, or whether Homer actually lived or not. The lifestory of Jesus of Nazareth, although spelled out in four Gospel accounts, is shrouded in considerable mystery and speculation, as shown by the phenomenal success of Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code.
Even in relatively recent times, the identities of some well-known historical characters remain opaque and the subject of endless debate. Writers since the time of Voltaire have speculated over the identity of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, imprisoned by Louis XIV off the coast at Cannes in the south of France. Like all such mysteries, speculation has fanned what may have been a mundane sequence of events into something of far greater significance: in Napoleon’s day, the Emperor’s supporters spread a rumour that the masked man had actually been Louis XIV himself (an imposter having taken his place in Versailles), and that he had fathered a Bonaparte ancestor during his captivity.
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