Mommsen, Theodor

views updated Jun 11 2018


MOMMSEN, THEODOR (1817–1903), German historian and legal scholar.

Theodor Mommsen was the most productive and influential German historian of Rome and legal scholar of the nineteenth century. Mommsen, the son of a Protestant pastor, studied history and law at the University of Kiel, earning his doctorate at age twenty-five with a dissertation on Roman law. His legacy lies in his publications, the organizing of scholarly projects, and the politics of his time. After several years gathering ancient inscriptions in Italy, he became professor of jurisprudence at Leipzig (1848). He was dismissed in 1851 with his colleagues Otto Jahn (1813–1869) and Moriz Haupt (1808–1874) for protesting against the Saxon monarch. He received asylum at Zurich in Switzerland, continued to Breslau as professor in 1854, and in 1858 became research professor at the Berlin Academy. He was secretary of the Academy from 1874 to 1895. In 1861 he became professor of Roman antiquities at the Friedrich Wilhelm University (now the Humboldt University) in Berlin, where he remained for the rest of his life. He divided his time between research, the direction of international scholarly projects, and teaching—a duty, not a pleasure.

Mommsen's most widely known major work is his three-volume history of Rome from its beginnings until 46 b.c.e. (1854–1856), with a further volume on the provinces appearing first in 1885. There are some sixteen editions and translations in many languages. In 1902, this work won him the Nobel prize for literature. Not until Winston Churchill (1874–1965) would another historian be so honored. A lively narrative did much to make a remote subject attractive. The unification of Italy under Rome anticipated the unification of Germany under the Prussian Emperor. Mommsen was a convert to the Totatitätsideal, the conviction that one must master and use all extant evidence to reconstruct what had really happened. This meant not just ancient historians but ancient inscriptions, archaeology, numismatics, and topography (he walked through most of Italy). He lived at a time when scientific excavations were beginning and masses of new material becoming available. Philosophy plays a decisive role in Greek history. Mommsen saw that for Rome it was rather constitutional law. He began the modern, systematic study of Roman law with his Römisches Staatsrecht (1871; Roman civil law) and Römisches Strafrecht (1899; Roman penal law). Mommsen's biographers have been puzzled about why he never published a history of the Roman Empire. He writes that he lacked in old age his youthful naivete that he knew everything. And surely the inescapable fact that the innovating force of the empire was Christianity was repugnant to the apostate pastor's son. A fortunate discovery of careful lecture notes taken by an assiduous student has allowed Alexander Demandt to restore work Mommsen never published.

A brilliant organizer, Mommsen won funding that encouraged international cooperation on vast projects. With his colleague, the church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), he introduced the concept of "the big business of scholarship," that is, enlisting teams from various nations for projects that one person could never accomplish alone. After 1853 he directed the precise, scientific publication of thousands of Roman inscriptions, indispensable for understanding the Roman past. This became the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, repeatedly cited by scholars. He invigorated the Monumenta Historiae Germanica, a collection of writers and documents that form modern knowledge of medieval German history. In 1890, supported by William II (1859–1941), he successfully urged the foundation of the Römisch-Germanische Kommission, to consolidate research on Roman remains within Germany. This resulted in the careful study of the limes, the wall separating Roman Germany from the barbarians. He began the Prosopographia Imperii Romani, an invaluable collection of all known Romans in the empire with the evidence attesting them. This allows reconstruction of political networks, ethnic studies, and much else. His contributions to the study of Roman law were lasting, especially his Corpus Juris Civilis and Codex Theodosianus. With the liberal theologian von Harnack, he began in 1891 the Church Fathers Commission, for editing the work of the Greek Church Fathers.

Like many great historians, Mommsen took an active part in the politics of his day. He served in the Prussian Landtag and the Reichstag. He gained national prominence through his conflicts with Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) and his defense of German Jews against the nationalistic anti-Semite Heinrich Gotthard von Treitschke (1834–1896). He was a talented poet, a friend of Theodor Storm (1817–1888). And he sired sixteen children, twelve of whom survived him and whose descendants have kept the Mommsen name famous in modern historical scholarship. His wife was Marie Reimer, daughter of Mommsen's publisher. His industry and brilliance inspire all who read his books.

See alsoHistory; Philhellenic Movement; Ranke, Leopold von; Treitschke, Heinrich von.


Primary Sources

Mommsen, Theodor. Römische Geschichte. 5 vols. Berlin, 1854–1885. Numerous reprints and translations.

——. Römisches Staatsrecht. Leipzig 1871.

——. Römisches Strafrecht. Leipzig, 1899.

——. Reden und Aufsätze. Berlin, 1905.

——. Gesammelte Schriften. 8 vols. Berlin, 1905–1913.

——. A History of Rome under the Emperors. London, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Calder, William M., III, and Robert Kirstein, eds. "Aus dem Freund, ein Sohn": Theodor Mommsen und Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff Briefwechsel 1872–1903. 2 vols. Hildesheim, 2003. The annotated correspondence between Mommsen and his son-in-law the Hellenist, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.

Demandt, Alexander. "Theodor Mommsen." In Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Ward W. Briggs and William M. Calder III, 285–309. New York, 1990. The best treatment in English.

Wickert, Lothar. Theodor Mommsen: Eine Biographie. 4 vols. Frankfurt, 1959–1980. The standard biography.

Zangemeister, Karl. Theodor Mommsen als Schriftsteller: Ein Verzeichnis seiner Schriften. Hildesheim, 2000. The comprehensive bibliography of all writings by and about Mommsen.

William M. Calder III

Theodor Mommsen

views updated May 23 2018

Theodor Mommsen

The German historian and philologist Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) ranks among the greatest of 19th-century historians. Most of his work was devoted to the study of ancient Rome.

Theodor Mommsen, the son of a poor but scholarly Protestant minister, was born at Garding in the duchy of Schleswig on Nov. 30, 1817. After receiving his early schooling at home and at a gymnasium in Altona near Hamburg, he attended the University of Kiel (1838-1843), studying law. Mommsen was much influenced by the lectures of Otto John and by the writings of Friedrich Karl von Savigny; his interests became focused on the classical world, and he wrote his dissertation on Roman associations and made a study of Roman tribes.

In 1843 Mommsen received a traveling scholarship from the Danish government and a small grant from the Berlin Academy for study in Italy. There he became acquainted with Bartolommeo Borghesi, an outstanding scholar of Latin inscriptions, who had a profound influence on Mommsen's future. During this time the plans for the monumental collection of Latin inscriptions (Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum) took shape, and it was published under the auspices of the Berlin Royal Academy of Science after 1861. As a sample for this task, Mommsen collected the Samnite inscriptions and the Inscriptions of the Neapolitan Kingdom, which he published in 1852, dedicated to Borghesi.

In 1847 Mommsen returned to Schleswig, where he supported the independence struggle of the Elbe duchies from Denmark by editing and writing for the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung, an organ of the provisional government. After the failure of this independence movement he accepted the chair of Roman law at the University of Leipzig (1848) but was dismissed from his position in 1851 for his support of the liberal cause during the revolution.

Before leaving Leipzig for an appointment at the University of Zurich in 1852, Mommsen had come to the attention of the publisher Karl Reimer, who persuaded him to write a popular but scholarly Roman History. The first three volumes, in addition to monographs on Roman Switzerland, were begun in Zurich and completed at the University of Breslau, where Mommsen taught from 1854 until 1858. This work, published between 1854 and 1856, describes the history of the Roman Republic to the advent of Caesar's dictatorship and made Mommsen's name famous throughout Europe. Plans for a fourth volume on the imperial period were never carried out. Instead he published a fifth volume, Roman Provinces under the Empire (1884), utilizing the Latin inscriptions collected for the Corpus inscriptionum.

Appointed editor for the Corpus inscriptionum in 1854, Mommsen received a professorship at Berlin (1858), where he remained for the rest of his life. These 45 years were filled with scholarship of stupendous proportions but of the highest quality. In addition to his continuing work on the Corpus inscriptionum, Mommsen published Römisches Staatsrecht, 3 vols. (1871-1888; Roman Constitutional Law); Römisches Strafrecht (1899; Roman Criminal Law); Reden und Aufsätze (1905; Speeches and Essays); and Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols. (1905-1910; Collected Writings); and he participated in the Monumenta Germaniae, in studies on the Roman Limes and on numismatics, and in the Thesaurus linguae Latinae. In 1902 his unique position in the world of scholarship was recognized by the award of the Nobel Prize for literature; he was the first German to achieve this honor.

In public life Mommsen intermittently served in the Prussian Parliament (1863-1866 and 1873-1879) and in the German Reichstag (Imperial Diet) (1881-1884) and was a cofounder of and contributor to the Preussischen Jahrbücher, one of the most influential German political journals. A political liberal and patriot, he found much to criticize, both in his own country and abroad. He was torn between despising Bismarck and taking pride in his national accomplishments.

Mommsen died at Charlottenburg, a suburb of Berlin, on Nov. 1, 1903.

Further Reading

An excellent modern, although abridged, translation of the third volume of Mommsen's Roman History is in Dero A. Saunders and John H. Collins, The History of Rome: An Account of Events and Persons from the Conquest of Carthage to the End of the Republic (1958), which contains a good introduction to and evaluation of that work. Studies in English on Mommsen's life and work are in W. Warde Fowler, Roman Essays and Interpretations (1920), which describes Fowler's personal acquaintance with Mommsen, and in James Westfall Thompson and Bernard J. Holm, A History of Historical Writing, vol. 2 (1942), which includes a good bibliography. □

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