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Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903)


German classical scholar and historian, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. Mommsen's best known work is Römische Geschichte (3 vols. 1854-56). Although Leo Tolstoy's name was mentioned among the most prominent candidates for the prize, the Nobel committee couldn't accept his radical views, and Mommsen was the one awarded. Tolstoy died in 1910 without receiving the most famous acknowledgment in literature.

Mommsen's greatest interest was in Roman law, but he also participated in contemporary politics. "Bismarck has broken the nation's backbone," he wrote when Bismarck made Berlin the political capital. "The injury done by the Bismarck era is infinitely greater than its benefits... The subjugation of the German personality, of the German mind, was a misfortune that cannot be undone."

"Keine Kunde, ja nicht einmal eine Sage erzaehlt von der ersten Einwanderung des Menschengeschlechts in Italien; vielmehr war im Altertum der Glaube allgemein, dass dort wie ueberall die erste Bevoelkerung dem Boden selbst entsprossen sei. Indes die Entscheidung ueber den Ursprung der verschiedenen Rassen und deren genetische Beziehungen zu den verschiedenen Klimaten bleibt billig dem Naturforscher ueberlassen; geschichtlich ist es weder moeglich noch wichtig festzustellen, ob die aelteste bezeugte Bevoelkerung eines Landes daselbst autochthon oder selbst schon eingewandert ist." (in Römische Geschichte, Book 1)

Theodor Mommsen was born in Garding, Schleswig, but he grew up in Oldesloe (now Bad Oldesloe), a spa in Holstein 45 kilometers from Hamburg. His father, Jen Mommsen, was a Protestant minister. Sophie Krumbhaar, his mother, came from Altona.  Bcause there was no money to send Theodor and his brothers Tycho and August to school, they received their early education at home. Mommsen's father encouraged  his sons to read German classics, Latin texts, and such authors as Victor Hugo, Byron, and William Shakespeare. His only formal schooling Mommsen received at the Gymnasium Christianeum at Altona, where he came into contact with literary romanticism and became a radical liberal.

Mommsen studied philology and jurisprudence at Kiel, and passed in 1843 the State Examination, which allowed him to practice law. During these years he published a collection of poems, Liederbuch dreier Freunde, with his brother Tycho and Theodor Storm. Mommsen's poems from 1836-37 record his break with the Lutheran Christianity of his ancestors: "Erst war ich Christ, / Darauf Deist, / Dann Atheist." Later he declared of being "homo minime ecclesiasticus." After graduating from Kiel he worked for a year as a teacher in a boarding school in Altona. From 1844 to 1847 Mommsen pursued archaeological studies in Italy, where his aim was to find and collate unpublished Latin inscriptions. In 1848 he became a professor of law at Leipzig University. During the revolution of 1848 he edited a liberal newspaper, the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung.

In 1851 Mommsen was dismissed from his post for having participated in an uprising in Saxony. Though notoriously bad lecturer, he was appointed  Professor of Roman Law at the University of Zurich, where he wrote most of the History of Rome. He then worked as professor of Roman Law in Breslau (1854-1858), after which he served as professor of ancient history at Berlin until his death. At the age of 41 he married Marie Reimer, the twenty three year old daughter of his Leipzig publisher. They eventually had sixteen children. 

Mommsen served as a member of the Progressive party in the state parliament of Prussia from 1863 to 1866 and again from 1873 to 1879. After the unification of Germany, Mommsen sat in the German imperial parliament. In 1882 he was tried and acquitted on a charge of slandering chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) in an election speech. In opposition to Bismarck, who  had said that "only a completely ready state can permit the luxury of a liberal government," Mommsen wanted to combine national unity with freedom (eine Synthese von Einheit und Freiheit). He had been an ardent supporter of the unification process, but did not accept its side effects, the bureaucratic centralism and uncritical obedience, the "German slave mentality".

Mommsen also attacked the anti-Semitism that he found among many of his colleagues. The conservative nationalist, scholar and journalist Heinrich von Treitschke published in 1879 a study on anti-Semitic movements, and defended the natural rejection – inherent in the German national psyche – of foreign influences. Next year Mommsen with over 70 influential figures protested against anti-Semitic incitement. He wrote that Jews are Germans and that racist hatred will come to an end sooner or later – not only religious tolerance will return to normal but there will be real respect for the distinctiveness of the Jewish culture.

Mommsen produced an enormous quantity of texts – there are over 1 000 entries in the bibliography of his writings compiled by Karl Zangemeister and Emil Jacobs in 1905. Mommsen was devoted to scientific research and his profound knowledge of auxiliary science in historical studies was unique. An influential figure, he was also able to arrange his favorite students university appointments. From 1873-95 he was permanent secretary of the Academy. Mommsen formed in 1853 the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a project which still continues, and helped to edit the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. In addition, Mommsen himself edited several volumes of late antique texts. Mommsen died on November 1, 1903, in Charlottenburg.

Mommsen's first three volumes of The History of Rome, written in vigorous and lively style, spanned the Roman republic from its origins to 46 B.C. The work brought Mommsen acclaim throughout Europe, but he was also accused of "journalism": turning the real state of affairs upside-down. In this and other works Mommsen boldly drew parallels between modern times and ancient Rome. Egon Friedell sees in his Die Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (1927-31) that in Mommsen's hands Crassus becomes a speculator in the manner of Louis Philippe, the brothers Gracchus are Socialist leaders, and the Gallians are Indians, etc.

Mommsen never published the fourth part, partly because he could not write the story of humankind under the imperial authorities, it was alien to his "liberal republican sentiment", and moreover, contemporary political issues did not provide him the great constitutional themes he was concerned  throughout his life. And it has been said that the crucial issue was possibly his negative stand towards Christianity. However, as a part of his teaching responsibilities at Berlin University, Mommsen gave a number of lectures on the history of Rome under the Emperors. The manuscript for the final volume, was destroyed by fire in 1880.

Notes compiled by two of Mommsen's students on his lectures between 1863 and 1886 were later collected as A History of Rome Under the Emperors, to give a view of Mommsen's interpretation of the imperial age. The book, published in 1992 was considered a tremendous discovery. Mommsen admired Gibbon's colorful Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but his approach to the period was different – individual characters did have a central place in his thought. With a few exceptions, all the Emperors were ineffectual and dreadfully mediocre from Vespasian to Diocletian, according to Mommsen.

For further reading: Theodor Mommsen als Schriftsteller by Karl Zangemeister and Emil Jacos (1905); Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work by W. Warde Fowler (1909); Theodor Mommsen by Wilhelm Weber (1929); My Recollections by V. Wilamowitz-Möllendorff (1930); A History of Historical Writing, Vol. 2, by James W. Thompson (1942); Theodor Mommsen und das 19. Jahrhundert by Albert Heuss (1956); Orpheus Philologus by L. Grossman (1983); Problems of the Roman Criminal Law by James Leigh Strachan-Davidson (1991); Theodor Mommsen Und Adolf Harnack: Wissenschaft Und Politik Im Berlin Des Ausgehenden 19.Jahrhunderts by Stefan Rebenich. Hardcover (1997)

Selected works:

  • Liederbuch dreier Freunde, 1843 (with Tycho Mommsen and Theodor Storm)
  • Die Schweitz in römischer Zeit, 1853
  • Römische Geschichte, 1854-56 (3 vols.) - History of Rome (4 vols., tr. William P. Dickson, 1862-75) / History of Rome: An Account of Events and Persons from the Conquest of Carthage to the End of the Republic (tr. Dero A. Saunders and John C. Collins, 1958)
  • Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 1861- (ed., 15 volumes came out in Mommsen's lifetime)
  • Digesta, 1866-70 (ed., 2 vols.)
  • Römisches Staatsrecht, 1871-1888 (ed.)
  • 'Die Katakomben Roms: Vortrag', 1871 - 'The Roman Catacombs'  (in The Contemporary Review, vol. XVII, 1871)
  • Die Provinzen Von Caesar Bis Diocletian, 1885 (vol. 5 of The History of Rome) - The Provinces of the Roman Empire (2 vols., tr. William P. Dickson, 1886)
  • Römisches Strafrecht, 1899 (ed.)
  • Theodosiani Libri XVI cum Constitutionibus Sirmondianis, 1904 (ed. with Paul M. Meyer)
  • Reden und Aufsätze, 1905 (ed. O. Hirshfeld)
  • Rome From the Earliest Times to 44 B.C., 1907 (compiled by R.F. Pennell)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1959 (ed. Eugene F. Rice, Jr.)
  • Römische Kaisergeschichte, 1992 (ed.  Barbara and Alexander Demandt) - A History of Rome Under the Emperors (introduction by Thomas Wiedemann, English translation by Clare Krojzl, edited by Barbara and Alexander Demandt, 1992)
  • Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, 2000 (by Theodor Mommsen, et al.)

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