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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 Gardingmarker in Schleswig in 1817, and grew up in Bad Oldesloemarker, where his father was a Lutheran minister. He studied mostly at home, though he attended the gymnasium Christianeummarker 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 Kielmarker 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 Rendsburgmarker, supporting the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein and constitutional reform. He became a professor of law in the same year at the University of Leipzigmarker. When Mommsen protested against the new constitution of Saxonymarker in 1851, he had to resign. However, the next year he obtained a professorship in Roman law at the University of Zurichmarker and then spent a couple of years in exile. In 1854 he became a professor of law at the University of Breslaumarker 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 Berlinmarker 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.)

Not all of Mommsen's library was completely destroyed by the fire; His version in Roman History v4 was damaged but preserved
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, Cambridgemarker; There is information that the Manuscript of Jordanes from Heidelberg Universitymarker library was burnt. Two other important manuscripts, from Brusselsmarker and Hallemarker, were also destroyed.

Mommsen had sixteen children with his wife Marie (daughter of the publisher and editor Karl Reimer of Leipzigmarker), 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.

Scholarly works

Theodor Mommsen in 1863

Mommsen published over 1,500 works, and effectively established a new framework for the systematic study of Romanmarker 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.

  • Mommsen's History of Rome: His most famous work appeared as three volumes in 1854, 1855, and 1856; it 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 ancient Republic, especially during its last century, with the situation of his own time, e.g., the nation-state, democracy and incipent imperialism. It is one of the great classics of historical works. Mommsen did not write a promised next volume to recount subsequent events during the imperial period, i.e., a volume 4, although demand was high for a continuation. Immediately very popular and acknowledged internationally by classical scholars, the work also quickly received criticism.
    • The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian (1885), published as volume 5 of his History of Rome, being a description of all Roman regions during the early imperial period.

  • 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.
Theodor Mommsen in 1881
  • Roman Criminal Law (1899)

  • Monumentum Ancyranum

  • 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 career, when he published the inscriptions of the Neapolitanmarker 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 Marinomarker. 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 Representativesmarker 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 Empiremarker, 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 Holstein, Hanovermarker 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 Viennamarker, Mommsen called Czechs "apostles of barbarism" and wrote that "the Czech skull is impervious to reason, but it is susceptible to blows".

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 Broadwaymarker) play, Caesar and Cleopatra.

Noted naval historian and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan formulated the thesis for his magnum opus, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, while reading Mommsen's History of Rome.

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 Germanmarker government's decision to replace a statue of Karl Marx outside the Humboldt University of Berlinmarker with one of Mommsen.

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

Mark Twain

"One of the highpoints of Mark Twain's European tour of 1892 was a large formal banquet at the University of Berlinmarker... . 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... ." Here, in Mr. Clemens' 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."


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)

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