Theodor Mommsen

Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903): German scholar, the great organizer of the study of Roman history.

Theodor Mommsen
Theodor Mommsen

Like that other great innovator of the study of ancient history, Heinrich Schliemann, Theodor Mommsen was born in 1817 in northern Germany as a preacher's son. Unlike the archaeologist, young Theodor received a professional training as an Altertumswissenschaftler (a student of Antiquity in general). After reading classics and law at the university of Kiel, Mommsen received a Danish scholarship to visit Italy, where he studied inscriptions in the Kingdom of Naples.

He returned in 1847 and found a job as a journalist, got involved in the 1848 revolution, and even stood on the barricades. This was not his smartest career move, because when he later became a civil law professor in Leipzig, he was fired because of his earlier political activities. He found a new job at the university of Zurich (1852) and published his book on the Neapolitan inscriptions. Two years later, he was appointed at Breslau university and started to publish his Römische Geschichte (Roman History; 1854-1856), which made him famous.

In 1858, Mommsen was appointed in Berlin, where he became the general editor of a monumental work known as the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a collection of Latin inscriptions that is the foundation of all modern epigraphic research. Three years later, he became professor, a position that he was to hold for forty-five years.

Mommsen was one of the founders of the liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei (German Progressive Party). This can be seen in his main work, the Römische Geschichte, which is a highly political work. His view of the fall of the Roman Republic was colored by his deep rooted disillusionment with German liberal politics. The populares were, in Mommsen's view, a political party like his own party, and as a corollary, the optimates represented the Roman conservatives, who showed a remarkable resemblance to the Prussian Junkers.

Julius Caesar was, for Mommsen, the incarnation of the "heroic legislator" (an idea of the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau): the Roman politician had swept away the pieces of a corrupt nobility and had created an empire that served the needs of all of its inhabitants. In its constitution monarchy and democracy were balanced - something Mommsen would have appreciated in his own country. The fourth volume of the Römische Geschichte, which ought to have dealt with the Roman emperors, was never published, because it contained too much criticism of Wilhelminian Germany.

If, today, we see how much of Mommsen's description of the Roman Republic is political, it is because we are standing on his shoulders. What has remained is his enthusiasm and his idea that the study of the past actually matters to understand the present.

The great historian wrote many other works, like Römisches Staatsrecht (Roman Public Law; 1871-1888) and Römisches Strafrecht (Roman Criminal Law; 1899). He was the first to publish the Res Gestae divi Augusti, and prepared important editions of the Corpus Iuris. In Die Örtlichkeit der Varusschlacht (1885), he correctly identified the site of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. In an increasingly anti-Semitic world, his treatise 'Auch ein Wort über unser Judentum' (1880) was the embodiment of common sense.

In 1854, when he was 41 years old, he married Marie Reimer. Apparently, it was a love match. They had an exceptionally large family of sixteen children. Their daughter Marie was to marry the famous classicst Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Mommsen's son Ernst married to Clara Weber, sister of the famous sociologist Max Weber. Their son Theodor Ernst Mommsen became a well-known historian himself.

Theodor Mommsen was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1902. You only have to read the first chapter of the Römische Geschichte to understand why.


This page was created in 2006; last modified on 9 October 2020.