Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen
|Fields||Classical scholar, jurist, historian|
|Institutions||University of Leipzig
University of Zurich
University of Breslau
University of Berlin
|Alma mater||University of Kiel|
|Notable awards||Pour le Mérite (civil class)
Nobel Prize in Literature
Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (30 November 1817 – 1 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 Lutheran minister. He studied mostly at home, though he attended the gymnasium Christianeum 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.)
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.
Mommsen had sixteen children with his wife Marie (daughter of the publisher and editor Karl Reimer of 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.
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.
A bibliography of over 1,000 of his works is given by Zangemeister in Mommsen als Schriftsteller (1887; continued by Jacobs, 1905).
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.
At the beginning of his 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.
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 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. Although he had supported German Unification, he was disappointed with the politics of the German Empire, regarding whose future he was quite pessimistic. Mommsen strongly disagreed with Otto von Bismarck about social policies in 1881, advising collaboration between Liberals and Social Democrats and using such strong language that he narrowly avoided prosecution.
In 1879, his colleague Heinrich von Treitschke began a political campaign against Jews (the so-called Berliner Antisemitismusstreit). Mommsen strongly opposed antisemitism and wrote a harsh pamphlet in which he denounced von Treitschke's views. Mommsen viewed a solution to antisemitism in voluntary cultural assimilation, suggesting that the Jews could follow the example of the people of Schleswig-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. In an 1897 letter to the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna, Mommsen called Czechs "apostles of barbarism" and wrote that "the Czech skull is impervious to reason, but it is susceptible to blows".
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.
"One of the highpoints of Mark Twain's European tour of 1892 was a large formal banquet at the University of Berlin... . Mark Twain was an honored guest, seated at the head table with some twenty 'particularly eminent professors'; and it was from this vantage point that he witnessed the following incident... ." In Twain's own words:
"When apparently the last eminent guest had long ago taken his place, again those three bugle-blasts rang out, and once more the swords leaped from their scabbards. Who might this late comer be? Nobody was interested to inquire. Still, indolent eyes were turned toward the distant entrance, and we saw the silken gleam and the lifted sword of a guard of honor plowing through the remote crowds. Then we saw that end of the house rising to its feet; saw it rise abreast the advancing guard all along like a wave. This supreme honor had been offered to no one before. There was an excited whisper at our table—'MOMMSEN!'—and the whole house rose. Rose and shouted and stamped and clapped and banged the beer mugs. Just simply a storm!
Then the little man with his long hair and Emersonian face edged his way past us and took his seat. I could have touched him with my hand—Mommsen!—think of it!...I would have walked a great many miles to get a sight of him, and here he was, without trouble or tramp or cost of any kind. Here he was clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men."
Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (30 November 1817 – 1 November 1903) was a German classical scholar, jurist and historian, generally regarded as the greatest classicist of the 19th century. 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.
THEODOR MOMMSEN (1817-1903), German historian and archaeologist, was born on the 30th of November 1817 at Garding, in Schleswig. After being educated at the university of Kiel he devoted himself to the study of Roman law and. antiquities. In 1843 a grant from the Danish government. enabled him to undertake a journey to Italy, which was to be decisive for his future career. There he began the study of Roman inscriptions, in association with other Italian and German scholars, especially Borghesi, de Rossi and Henzen.. His first work was directed to the restoration of the old Italian dialects, and the French government, which at one time proposed to undertake the task of compiling a complete collection of all extant Roman inscriptions, asked for his co-operation. When they gave up the project it was taken up by the Berlin Academy, which had recently completed the collection of Greek inscriptions edited by Boeckh. They had already made a grant to Mommsen, and in 1844 Savigny proposed that he should be appointed to carry out the great work. Many years, however, passed. before the plan was finally approved. Meanwhile Mommsen continued his work in Italy: he drew up a full memorandum explaining the principles on which a Corpus inscriptionum should be compiled, and on which alone he could undertake the editorship. As a specimen he collected the inscriptions of Samnium, and in 1852 published those of the kingdom of Naples. These works caused him to be recognized as the first authority in this field of learning. In 1847, however, he was obliged to return to Germany: he first went to Schleswig,. where during the Revolution he edited a paper in which he supported the claims of the Elbe Duchies; at the end of 1848; he was appointed professor of civil law at Leipzig. His work. there was interrupted by his political opinions. During 1848,, when the extreme party was in the ascendant, Mommsen supported the monarchy against the Republicans. With characteristic courage and independence, next year, when the Revolution had spent its force and Beust executed his coup d'etat, he protested, with many of his colleagues, against this act. In consequence he was summoned before a disciplinary court, and, together with Haupt and Jahn, dismissed from his professorship.
Mommsen found an asylum in Switzerland, and became professor at Zurich: he repaid the hospitality of the Republic by writing exhaustive monographs on Roman Switzerland, His spare time was occupied with the Roman History, the three volumes of which appeared between 1854 and 1856. His name at once became known throughout Europe. In this work,, with a true insight into the relative importance of things, he passed over with a few strong broad touches the antiquarian discussions on the origins of the city, on which previous historians. had laboured so long; but in place of this he painted with astonishing vigour the great political struggle that accompanied the fall of the republic. It was, above all, his new reading of old characters which demanded attention, if not always approval: Cicero, the favourite of men of letters, was for him "a journalist in the worst sense of the word"; Pompey, the hero of Plutarch and the Moralists, was brushed aside as a mere drill-sergeant; and the book culminated in the picture of Caesar, who established absolute rule in the name of democracy, "the complete and perfect man." The three volumes ended with the dictatorship of Caesar. The book has never been continued, for the volume on the Roman Provinces under the Empire, which appeared in 1884, is in reality a separate work. Mommsen was henceforward fully occupied: with work of a more technical nature. In 1854 the definite offer was made to him by the Academy that he should be chief editor of a Corpus inscriptionum, with full control, and in order that he might carry on the work he was appointed in 1858 to a professorship at Berlin. The first volume appeared in 1861; five of the succeeding volumes he edited himself, and the whole was executed under his immediate supervision and with the co-operation of scholars whom he had himself trained.
Enormous as was the labour, this task occupied only a small part of his extraordinary intellectual energy. He found time to write two larger works, the History of the Roman Coinage and the Romisches Staatsrecht, a profound analysis of Roman constitutional law, and Romisches Strafrecht, on Roman criminal jurisdiction. His Roman Provinces already mentioned gives a singularly interesting picture of certain aspects of social life under the empire. His smaller papers amount to many hundreds in number, and there is no department of Roman life and learning, from the earliest records of the Roman law to the time of Jornandes, which he has not illuminated. As secretary to the Berlin Academy for over twenty years he took a leading part in their deliberations, and was their spokesman on great occasions. His interest in political problems of the present was as keen as in those of the past. He was one of the founders of the Preussische Jahrbiicher, the most influential of German political periodicals. For many years he was a member of the Prussian Parliament. His political opinions were strong but ill-regulated. Intensely nationalist, he acquiesced in the annexation of his native land to Prussia, and in a public letter to the Italian nation in 1870 defended the German cause before the nation which had become to him a second fatherland; but he was of too independent a character ever to be quite at ease under Prussian government. Loving liberty, he hated its consequences; a democrat, he had and always expressed a profound contempt for the mob. Like many idealists, he was a severe critic of the faults of his own and other countries, and he added something to the increasing Chauvinism in Germany.
It was, however, above all, German scholarship which remained his first interest. There is probably no other instance in the history of scholarship in which one man has established so complete an ascendancy in a great department of learning. Equally great as antiquary, jurist, political and social historian, he lived to see the time when among students of Roman history he had pupils, followers, critics, but no rivals. He combined the power of patient and minute investigation with a singular faculty for bold generalization and the capacity for tracing out the effects of thoughts and ideas on political and social life. Partly, perhaps, owing to a philosophical and legal training, he had not the gift of clear and simple narrative, and he is more successful in discussing the connexion between events than in describing the events themselves. Though his History ends with the fall of the republic, his most enduring work has been that on the empire; and if he has not written the history of the empire, he has made it possible for others to do so.
Mommsen died at Charlottenburg on the ist of November 1903. His brothers, Carl Johann Tycho (1819-1900), a great authority on Pindar and Shakespeare, and August (b. 1821), who wrote chiefly on ancient chronology and Greek festivals, were also prominent among German scholars in their day.
The History of Rome (including the volumes of the provinces) has been translated into English by W. P. Dickson (the Provinces, revised by F. Haverfield, 1909); there is a French edition of his work on Roman Coinage. Many of his pamphlets and articles have been collected under the title Romische Forschungen. Of his other works, the more important are the Roman Chronology to the Time of Caesar (1858), a work written in conjunction with his brother August; his editions of the Monumentum Ancyranum and of the Digest in the Corpus juris civilis, and of the Chronica of Cassiodorus in Monumenta Germaniae historica, the Auctores antiquissimi section of which was under his supervision. A great part of his work is to be found in the German learned publications such as Hermes, Rheinisches Museum, &c. His Reden and Aufseitze and Gesammelte Schriften, i. ii., were published after his death. A full list of his works is given by Zangemeister, Mommsen als Schriftsteller (1887; continued by Jacobs, 1905). See also monographs by C. Bardt (1903) and Gradenwitz (1904, in the Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung fiir Rechtsgeschichte), and O. Hirschfeld, Gedeichtnisrede auf Theodor Mommsen (1904).