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February 9, 2013

Who would you visit if you had a time machine?

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — One of the little treats for a history buff working at a daily newspaper is the “Today in History” nugget we run on Page 2 each day. It’s always neat when a little event and quote can take you back in time, even if this time-traveling occurs only in your head.

But for me, that’s never sufficient. As odd as this might sound, I’d do almost anything for a time machine. Fortunately, for me, Nobel Prize-winning MIT physicist Frank Wilczek in 2012 postulated that such a machine could run on what he calls “space-time crystals.” I’d elaborate, but the articles I found were crammed with impenetrable, esoteric jibberish about “periodicities of time” and “quantum entanglement.”

I can’t make any sense of that — but I can start working on my itinerary. I’ll avoid the heavyweights such as Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte, since our most eminent historians deserve first crack at those folks. So here are a few historical B-listers for whom I have some questions when I get my turn with the machine:

• Herodotus (c. 484 — 425 B.C.), Greek historian.

The “Father of History” was a trailblazer who wrote during Western civilization’s halcyon days. His The Histories is filled with colorful vignettes; of Egyptian pharaohs making fart jokes (2.162.3) and pot-smoking Scythians (4.73-75), to name but a few.

Herodotus’ contemporary and arch-frienemy Thucydides, the grim Athenian known for pioneering the realpolitik school of thought, wasn’t shy about the fact that he was the more accurate and meticulous historian of the two. But we’re talking about using a time machine to meet interesting people, so I’m going with Herodotus for his joie de vivre. Thucydides, if you can tolerate him for a day, you’re welcome to join us.

• Julia Domna (170 — 217 A.D.), Roman empress.

Arguably ancient Rome’s most powerful woman, Julia Domna has some similarities to current First Lady of Syria Asma al-Assad. Both were beautiful, both were born in the city of Homs and both rose to the height of power in societies torn apart by civil war. But unlike Asma, Julia was a brilliant thinker whose administrative skills made her an invaluable asset to the royal family. She even had her face minted on coins, an extremely rare honor for a woman of her era.

Her story, however, has a sad ending. When her sons Caracalla and Geta inherited the throne, the former had the latter murdered, only to be lynched by his bodyguards a few years later. Her life destroyed, Julia starved herself to death at age 47.

• Ziryab (789 — 857), Arabic poet, musician, chemist, stylist and consultant.

In his day, he epitomized refinement and elegance across three continents. He established what may have been Europe’s first music conservatory, and is credited with popularizing deodorant and toothpaste. He revolutionized clothing, hairstyles and cuisine during a largely stagnant period of European history. He is The Most Interesting Man in the History of the World. Stay thirsty, Al-Andalus.

• Anna Komnene (Dec. 1, 1083 — 1153), Byzantine princess, physician and historian.

Anna Komnene was fascinating for many reasons, but she’s most famous as perhaps the earliest female historian whose work is extant. The daughter of Emperor Alexius I, Anna was married at 14 to prince Nikephoros Bryennios, who was widely assumed to be the imperial heir. As a brilliant scholar who studied math, medicine, history, politics and military strategy, she’d have made a fine empress. But her younger brother nudged her aside after Alexius I’s death and accused her of treason, so Anna was forced to spend the last 35 years of her life in a convent under house arrest.

In another era, Anna might have been an Elizabeth I or a Catherine the Great. But in a corrupt and poorly organized society that didn’t make the best use of its women, her immense talents were wasted. Fortunately for us, Anna made the best of her boredom by writing The Alexiad, a timeless and insightful work that illuminates an otherwise dim era.

• Alexander Kerensky (May 4, 1881 — June 11, 1970), Prime Minister of Russia, June 1917 to November 1917.

This man has a lot of explaining to do, as his handling of the so-called Kornilov Affair ranks as one of history’s great blunders. After the abdication of Czar Nicholas II of Russia on March 15, 1917, Kerensky rose from relative obscurity to lead the provisional Russian government. But with revolutionary fervor still gripping St. Petersburg, Commander in Chief Lavr Kornilov ordered a troop detachment to move toward the city, he claimed, in case his boss Kerensky faced a sudden emergency. Misreading this and fearing a coup, Kerensky panicked, opening the state arms cache to the Bolsheviks of the St. Petersburg Soviet and begging for help fending off what was probably an imaginary takeover attempt.

This fateful, irreversible step left Kerensky hated by nearly all Russians — the Bolsheviks because they disliked him by default, and everyone else because he enabled the Bolsheviks.

Was Kerensky a fool, or just the type who cracks under pressure? Pack your bags; there’s only one way to find out.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.