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A Pretender Is Not Quite An Impostor

Nearly all of us have gone through a stage in which we pretended to be some person we admired - an athlete, a character from a book, an explorer, a movie star. Most of us never managed to convince anyone else of our new identity. Heroes die hard. History is full of legendary leaders and warriors as well as a few cultural icons who were so revered that, when they died, many people flatly refused to accept the fact.

Probably the most familiar example is the semi-mythical King Arthur. According to tradition, the wounded king was taken to the Isle of Avalon, where he lies in a sort of suspended animation, awaiting a time when the world needs him again. A similar legend surrounds the twelfth-century German king Frederick Barbarossa.

A more recent example is the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. Although he died in 1977, there are hundreds of Elvis sightings each year, in such unlikely places as Australia and Iraq. There's no shortage of Elvis impersonators, either. Still, if a seventy-something man in sideburns and a jumpsuit came forward claiming to actually be the king of rock and roll, most of us would be doubtful, at best.

Apparently people have not always been quite so hard to convince. There are dozens of accounts, from as far back as the sixth century BCE (A variety of systems of dating have been used by different cultures throughout history. Many historians now prefer to use BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini), out of respect for the diversity of the world's peoples.) of men and women successfully posing as some ruler who was assumed to be dead.

The passing of a particularly powerful monarch might bring forth a whole parade of pretenders. When Cambyses II, king of Persia, died in 522 BCE, his throne was seized by a man claiming to be Cambyses' brother, Bardiya, who had been murdered several years earlier. The impostor was murdered in turn, only to be succeeded by a second would-be Bardiya.

In 68 CE, the Roman emperor Nero, with his subjects rising up against him, committed suicide. But, according to the historian Tacitus, "Various rumours were current about his death; and so there were many who pretended and believed that he was still alive." Six months later an impostor surfaced who closely resembled the dead emperor; he even sang and played the lyre as Nero had. As he was gathering an army to attack Italy, two Roman ships appeared at his headquarters on the Aegean island of Cythnos. Although the false Nero tried to win their commanders over to his cause, they captured and killed him.

Two years later, a second Nero look-alike, whose real name was Terentius Maximus, attracted a sizable following. The king of Parthia (located largely in what is now Iran) agreed to help him launch an attack on Rome, but apparently their plan came to nothing. The Roman biographer Suetonius mentions yet another bogus Nero who appeared twenty years after the emperor's death and also conspired with the Parthians.

Naturally, the more recent a historical event is, the more information we tend to have about it. The few accounts that exist of the false Neros are brief and incomplete. By the fifteenth century, though, life in Europe was being pretty thoroughly recorded, both by chroniclers of the time and by various government officials. So we have a good deal of information about Jeanne d'Arc""better known, inaccurately, as Joan of Arc.

The first thing you should know is that a pretender is not quite the same thing as an impostor. An impostor, according to The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, is "a person who practices deception under an assumed character or name." A pretender, on the other hand, is "an aspirant or claimant" (as in a pretender to the throne). In other words an impostor is, by definition, lying, posing as someone he or she is riot. But a pretender despite the way the word sounds""is not necessarily pretending; he or she may well be the real thing.

Most of the famous pretenders of history have presented themselves as a long-lost member of some wealthy royal family. Clock maker Karl Wilhelm Naundorff insisted that he was heir to the throne of France; a Polish servant was accepted temporarily""as Russia's crown prince; many believed that a mysterious hermit was really Tsar Alexander I; a penniless mental patient tried to prove in a court of law that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia. Other pretenders have taken on the role of some heroic figure""Jeanne des Armoises, for example, claimed to be Joan of Arc.

It's hardly surprising that such cases so often involve illustrious identities. After all, what would be the point of proclaiming that you were the rightful heir of a pickpocket or a rag-and-bone collector? There are exceptions to that rule, though. Brushy Bill Roberts told people that, in his youth, he was the notorious outlaw known as Billy the Kid.

It's not always the pretender himself who makes the claim, either. Sometimes, as in the case of the enigmatic orphan Kaspar Hauser, it's thrust upon him. Or, as was the case with the notorious Man in the Iron Mask, it may even be a theory proposed by some historian or novelist long after the subject's death.

Although scholar Regine Pernoud boasts that history "is an exact science regulated by scientific method," the fact is that nearly every major event of the past has been interpreted by different scholars in very different ways. Pernoud says that "we cannot accept a mere supposition unsupported by any document." Unfortunately, historical documents aren't always complete, or even accurate, so they, too, are subject to interpretation. No matter how objective researchers may try to be, they naturally tend to accept those accounts that support their particular theories and dismiss those that do not.

In recent years, historians have turned more and more to forensic science - DNA profiling, computer photo analysis, etc. - as a means of prying into the past. But, these methods sometimes raise more questions than they resolve. In films, books, and TV shows, forensic scientists toss around the term DNA so casually that it's become familiar. But, few of us actually deal with DNA. A brief explanation of what it is and how it's analyzed may be in order.

DNA, an acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic material in our cells. It's made up predominantly of four chemical units called bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. The sequence in which these bases appear forms a pattern that makes DNA profiling, or DNA fingerprinting, possible. Since our cells contain about three billion of these bases, it's impossible to compare them all. Scientists break the DNA into fragments and analyze several sections in which the sequences of bases are repeated.

People who are closely related have matching sequences. This means that if the samples taken from one subject don't match the samples taken from a second subject, the two can't be members of the same family. However, if the two samples do match, it doesn't prove absolutely that the subjects are related. There's a small chance "" estimates range from one in several thousand to one in several million "" that people from different families will share the same DNA sequence.

The reliability of DNA fingerprinting is also limited by human error. According to the authors of The Cutting Edge: An Encyclopedia of Advanced Technologies, "Samples may be mislabeled; and if stored improperly, DNA may begin to break down. . . . Tissue samples may be contaminated by microorganisms or by tissues from other humans. If the DNA of a given sample mingles with foreign DNA, analysis of that sample will probably be flawed."

So, how can we ever really know the truth about a historical figure or event? Perhaps we can't. Perhaps the past is a puzzle that can never be completely solved, even by the experts. Because we place our faith mainly in facts, each generation has a generally accepted version of history, which appears in the textbooks of the time. That version is subject to revision, though, whenever a new piece of the puzzle is uncovered, or an old one is discovered to not quite fit.

Even if our picture of the past never becomes completely clear, that's not necessarily a bad thing. We humans need a certain amount of myth and mystery, to keep life interesting. As the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca put it, "Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate."

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