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February 9, 2013

Who would you visit if you had a time machine?


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.

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