Theodor Mommsen

Theodor Mommsen

[mom-suhn; Ger. mawm-zuhn]
Mommsen, Theodor, 1817-1903, German historian. Appointed (1848) professor of civil law at the Univ. of Leipzig, he supported the Revolution of 1848 and lost his chair because of his political opinions. He subsequently taught Roman law at Zürich and Breslau and, from 1858, ancient history at the Univ. of Berlin. After the unification (1870) of Germany he came to publicly oppose the policies of Bismarck. His greatest work is his History of Rome (3 vol., 1854-56; several English translations), a classic of historical writing. The fourth volume was never completed, but the fifth appeared in 1885. Mommsen's work, an unmatched re-creation of Roman society and culture, is based largely on his study of ancient coins, inscriptions, and literature. His liberal politics prejudiced his view of ancient history; his German contemporaries are clearly visible on his Roman scene. Although a great admirer of Caesar, he vigorously denounced Caesarism. Mommsen also wrote authoritatively on Roman law, notably in Römisches Staatsrecht (3 vol., 1871-76) and Römisches Strafrecht (1899), and on archaeology. He edited several volumes of the Monumenta Germaniae historica. Mommsen received the 1902 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (30 November 18171 November 1903) was a German classical scholar, historian, jurist, journalist, politician, archaeologist, and writer generally regarded as the greatest classicist of the 19th century. His work regarding Roman history is still of fundamental importance for contemporary research. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, and was also a prominent German politician, as a member of the Prussian and German parliaments. His works on Roman law and on the law of obligations had a significant impact on the German civil code (BGB).


Mommsen was born in Garding in Schleswig in 1817, and grew up in Bad Oldesloe, where his father was a poor Lutheran minister. He studied mostly at home, though he attended the gymnasium in Altona for four years. He studied Greek and Latin and received his diploma in 1837, with the degree of Doctor of Roman Law. As he could not afford to study at one of the more prestigious German universities, he enrolled at the university of Kiel in Holstein.

Mommsen studied jurisprudence at Kiel from 1838 to 1843. Thanks to a Danish grant, he was able to visit France and Italy to study preserved classical Roman inscriptions. During the revolution of 1848 he supported monarchists and worked as a war correspondent in then-Danish Rendsburg, supporting the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein and constitutional reform. He became a professor of law in the same year at the University of Leipzig. When Mommsen protested against the new constitution of Saxony in 1851, he had to resign. However, the next year he obtained a professorship in Roman law at the University of Zurich and then spent a couple of years in exile. In 1854 he became a professor of law at the University of Breslau where he met Jakob Bernays. Mommsen became a research professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1857. He later helped to create and manage the German Archaeological Institute in Rome.

In 1858 Mommsen was appointed a member of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, and he also became professor of Roman History at the University of Berlin in 1861, where he held lectures up to 1887. Mommsen received high recognition for his academic achievements: the medal Pour le Mérite in 1868, honorary citizenship of Rome, and the Nobel prize for literature in 1902 for his main work Römische Geschichte (Roman History)(He is one of the very few non-fiction writers to receive the Nobel prize in literature). Mommsen had sixteen children with his wife Marie (daughter of the editor Karl Reimer from Leipzig), some of whom died in childhood. Two of his great-grandsons, Hans and Wolfgang, are prominent German historians.

Mommsen worked hard. He rose at five and began to work in his library. Whenever he went out, he took one of his books along to read, and contemporaries often found him reading whilst walking in the streets.

1880 fire

At 2 a.m. on 7 July 1880 a fire occurred in the upper floor workroom-library of Mommsen's house at Marchstraße 6 in Berlin.. Several old manuscripts were burnt to ashes, including Manuscript 0.4.36 which was on loan from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; There is information that the Manuscript of Jordanes from Heidelberg University library was burnt. Two other important manuscripts, from Brussels and Halle, were also destroyed.

Scholarly works

Mommsen published over 1,500 works, and effectively established a new framework for the systematic study of Roman history. He pioneered epigraphy, the study of inscriptions in material artifacts. Although the unfinished History of Rome has been widely considered as his main work, the work most relevant today is perhaps the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a collection of Roman inscriptions he contributed to the Berlin Academy.

  • Roman Provinces under the Empire, 1884
  • History of Rome: Mommsen's most famous work appeared in three volumes between 1854 and 1856, and expounded Roman history up to the end of the Roman republic and the rule of Julius Caesar. He closely compared the political thought and terminology of the late Republic, with the situation of his own time (the nation-state, democracy and incipent imperialism). It is one of the great classics of historical works. Mommsen never wrote a continuation of his Roman history to incorporate the imperial period. Notes taken during his lectures on the Roman Empire between 1863 and 1886 were published (in 1992) under the title A History of Rome Under the Emperors. In 1885 a description of the Roman provinces in the imperial period appeared as volume 5 of Roman History (The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian). There was no volume 4. The work has also received some criticism, accusing him of "journalism", and in 1931 Egon Friedell argued that in his hands "Crassus becomes a speculator in the manner of Louis Philippe, the brothers Gracchus are Socialist leaders, and the Gauls are Indians, etc.
  • Roman Chronology to the Time of Caesar (1858) written with his brother August Mommsen.
  • Roman Constitutional Law (1871-1888). This systematic treatment of Roman constitutional law in three volumes has been of importance for research on ancient history.
  • Roman Criminal Law (1899)
  • Monumentum Ancyranum
  • Iordanis Romana et Getica (1882) was Mommsen's critical edition of Jordanes' The Origin and Deeds of the Goths and has subsequently come to be generally known simply as Getica.
  • More than 1,500 further studies and treatises on single issues.

A bibliography of over 1,000 of his works is given by Zangemeister in Mommsen als Schriftsteller (1887; continued by Jacobs, 1905).

Mommsen as editor and organiser

While he was secretary of the Historical-Philological Class at the Berlin Academy (1874-1895), Mommsen organised countless scientific projects, mostly editions of original sources.

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum

At the beginning of his scientific career, when he published the inscriptions of the Neapolitan Kingdom (1852), Mommsen already had in mind a collection of all known ancient Latin inscriptions. He received additional impetus and training from Bartolomeo Borghesi of San Marino. The complete Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum would consist of sixteen volumes. Fifteen of them appeared in Mommsen's lifetime and he wrote five of them himself. The basic principle of the edition (contrary to previous collections) was the method of autopsy, according to which all copies (i.e., modern transcriptions) of inscriptions were to be checked and compared to the original.

Further editions and research projects

Mommsen published the fundamental collections in Roman law: the Corpus Iuris Civilis and the Codex Theodosianus. Furthermore, he played an important role in the publication of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the edition of the texts of the Church Fathers, the Limes Romanus (Roman frontiers) research and countless other projects.

Mommsen as politician

Mommsen was a delegate to the Prussian House of Representatives from 1863–66 and again from 1873–79, and delegate to the Reichstag from 1881–1884, at first for the liberal German Progress Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei), later for the National Liberal Party, and finally for the Secessionists. He was very concerned with questions about academic and educational policies and held national positions. Disappointed with the politics of the German Empire, regarding whose future he was quite pessimistic, in the end he advised collaboration between Liberals and Social Democrats. Mommsen strongly disagreed with Otto von Bismarck about social policies in 1881, using strong language and narrowly avoiding prosecution.

In 1879, his colleague Heinrich von Treitschke (the so-called Berliner Antisemitismusstreit) began a political campaign against Jews. Mommsen strongly opposed anti-semitism and wrote a harsh pamphlet in which he denounced von Treitschke's views. Mommsen viewed a solution to anti-semitism in voluntary cultural assimilation, suggesting that the Jews could follow the example of the people of Holstein, Hanover and other German states, which gave up some of the special customs when integrating in Prussia.

Mommsen was a violent supporter of German nationalism, maintaining a militant attitude towards the Slavic nations.

Influence of Mommsen

Fellow Nobel Laureate (1925) Bernard Shaw cited Mommsen's interpretation of the last First Consul of the Republic, Julius Caesar, as one of the inspirations for his 1898 (1905 on Broadway) play, Caesar and Cleopatra. The playwright Heiner Müller wrote a 'performance text' entitled Mommsens Block (1993), inspired by the publication of Mommsen's fragmentary notes on the later Roman empire and by the East German government's decision to replace a statue of Karl Marx outside the Humboldt University of Berlin with one of Mommsen.

There is a Gymnasium (academic high school) named for Mommsen in his hometown of Bad Oldesloe, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.


Further reading

  • Wilhelm Weber, Theodor Mommsen (1929)
  • W. Warde Fowler, Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work (1909)
  • Mommsen, Theodor: Römische Geschichte. 8 Volumes. dtv, München 2001. ISBN 3-423-59055-6
  • Heuß, Alfred: Theodor Mommsen und das 19. Jahrhundert. Kiel 1956; reprinted Stuttgart 1996. ISBN 3-515-06966-6
  • Wickert, Lothar: Theodor Mommsen. 4 volumes. Frankfurt/Main, 1959?1980.
  • Rebenich, Stefan: Theodor Mommsen: eine Biographie. Beck, München 2002. ISBN 3-406-49295-9
  • Josef Wiesehöfer (ed.), Theodor Mommsen: Gelehrter, Politiker und Literat, unter Mitarbeit von Henning Börm. Stuttgart, 2005. (see review)
  • Anthony Grafton - Roman Monument (History Today September 2006)

External links

5 & 8 (vol. 6 & 7 do not exist) in German

  • Phönix aus der Asche Theodor Mommsen und die Monumenta Germaniae Historica

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