This is the fourth part in our weekly Fab Five Series, where I ask other bloggers, writers, podcasters and friends to give their five favorite historical figures. The criteria is up to them…so is the work!
I’m Sean Munger, a historian, teacher and author. I wrote the historical horror novel Zombies of Byzantium and I run a lot of history-related articles on my website, seanmunger.com. Big thanks to Aaron for letting me participate in the “Fab Five” series, which seemed like a lot of fun from the moment I heard about it! I’ve been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember. After spending years as a lawyer, I chose history as my second career, and I’m very happy to have made the choice.
My selection criteria for my “Fab Five” historical figures is pretty loose and undefined: people from history I’d most like to meet and have dinner with. It may be because of their own accomplishments, their own opinions and personality, or perhaps just the time they lived in. It’s so hard to narrow it down just to five, and if you asked me on any other day my list would probably be very different. But, at the time of this writing, here’s who I would enjoy meeting
The GenSek: Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR.
The only figure on my list who’s still alive, I’m astounded that Gorbachev doesn’t have more historical cachet in the world than he does. I believe Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He was incisive, innovative, and brave enough to seize the bull of history by the horns and do what he could to guide it, regardless of his own risks. Coming to power in the period of Soviet stagnation, Gorbachev recognized that the USSR had to modernize and reform, and he was willing to accept the thankless job of doing that amidst a government and power structure filled with spineless apparatchiks. Furthermore, the personal relationships he formed with Western leaders—Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush—became the basis of lasting change in the world and indeed a more peaceful order. If I had dinner with Gorbachev I would ask him when and how he decided upon his course of reform and whether he suspected it might lead, as it eventually did, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’d also ask him about what he thinks of the course Russian and world history have taken since he exited the stage (for the most part) in 1991. I think this would be a really fascinating conversation.
The Sage of Monticello: Thomas Jefferson.
For all of my life Jefferson has been one of my heroes. He was a true Renaissance man, embodying the 18th century passion for intellectualism that modern people would do well to imitate. Jefferson’s passions included architecture, good food, fine wine (I did a blog article on that), history, science, art and music. He lived through personal tragedy, including the deaths of his wife and two children, and always seemed a very poignant and human figure—never more so than when considered in his relationship with Sally Hemings, who, despite the context of the horrible institution of slavery in which it arose, was, I think, the love of Jefferson’s life. In talking with Jefferson I would like to explore his intellectual and artistic passions. I would probably ask very little about his time as President of the United States and perhaps not at all about the Declaration of Independence. Those questions are too obvious for a man as deep as Jefferson. What made him tick? What did he love so much about Monticello? Did he feel personally guilty about owning slaves and defending the slaveowning system, despite his moral conviction that slavery was evil? What was it like raising daughters as a single father in the late 18th century—a task difficult enough in the 21st? These are the things I would ask Jefferson.
The Director: Stanley Kubrick.
If offered a chance to sit down with anyone from history, I’d find it difficult to resist talking with Stanley Kubrick. This may smack of hyperbole, but I believe Stanley Kubrick may have been the single most intelligent American who lived in the 20th century. His knowledge and contemplation knew absolutely no boundaries. This is a man who could turn a rather pedantic poolside-reading horror novel (The Shining) into the greatest horror film of all time, and a melodramatic morality play (Barry Lyndon) into a living work of art, like an 18th century Luminist painting come to life. I would ask him about his famous meticulous nature, his very dark sense of humor, and his feelings on God and the universe. I’m one of those rare geeks who loves the Kubrick films everyone else hates (Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon) and can’t be bothered with the ones everyone is always quoting (Full Metal Jacket, Clockwork Orange). I’d love to talk with Kubrick, but I’d be afraid I wouldn’t even understand anything he might try to tell me—he was that smart and I’d probably just be wasting his time. If I did grok what he was saying, though, I’d be very confident that it would change my entire life as a writer and an artist. This would be a scary but gratifying interview.
The Evil Empress: Irene of Byzantium.
Of all the fascinating characters from Byzantium, it’d be so hard to pick just one to interview, but I might choose the Empress Irene. I find I have a very hard time getting into the minds of medieval people. They seem cold and compassionless, very difficult to relate to as human beings, and Irene—who had her own son blinded and put to death—was among the coldest people ever to chill the throne of Constantinople. Yet her passion to restore the veneration of religious icons after 100 years of Iconoclasm was very palpable. I find this dichotomy strange, so I’d love to talk to her just to try to understand her mind. What did she think about being one of the few women in pre-modern history to rule a world empire in her own right? What did she really think about her son? What was it like living in Constantinople in the late 8th and early 9th centuries? I’d ask her about her day-to-day life. What food did she eat? Was her bed comfortable? Could she sleep at night? What did she do to relax, if she ever did? These questions might be meaningless to someone who lived 1200 years ago, but the answers might be illuminating.
The Face in the Crowd: the unknown guy from “The Celebration of the Peace of Münster.”
To understand this choice you need to read this blog I wrote in October about a painting, created in 1648 by Bartholomeus Van Der Helst, called The Celebration of the Peace of Münster. This is a “company portrait” of a group of Amsterdam men, all rich and prominent, who formed a local company to go off and fight the Thirty Years War, which the Peace of Münster ended. (These guys probably didn’t see much fighting—maybe the war ended before they took the field). Anyway, there’s a figure in the back of a young, good-looking fellow with long hair and a plaintive expression. I would choose this person from history to meet if only to find out who he was. His name is not recorded, though he was probably a well-to-do citizen in 17th century Amsterdam.
What was life in that city like then? Did he see action in the war? What did he hope the future would bring for him? What was it like posing for this painting? Who are the other guys in the picture—did he know them well? This would be an interesting interview to give us a “slice of life” from a vanished time and place. The fact that the fellow is cute certainly wouldn’t hurt either!
Well, I hope you enjoyed my “Fab Five” selections, quirky as they are. Thanks again to Aaron and Yesterday Unhinged for the opportunity.
To check out more posts from the series visit its page here. It gives the rules for playing (none, really) and links to the previous posts.