Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen
|Field||Classical scholar, jurist, historian|
|Institutions||University of Leipzig
University of Zurich
University of Breslau
University of Berlin
|Alma mater||University of Kiel|
|Notable prizes||Pour le Mérite (civil class)
Nobel Prize in Literature
Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (November 30, 1817 – November 1, 1903) was a German classical scholar, historian, jurist, journalist, politician, archaeologist, and writer, generally regarded as the greatest classicist of the nineteenth century. His work regarding Roman history is still of fundamental importance for contemporary research. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, for the quality of his historical writings, displaying a passionate commitment to his historical studies as well as the politics of his day. He was involved in the Revolutions of 1848 and was later 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, Schleswig, and grew up in Bad Oldesloe, where his father was a poor Lutheran minister. He studied mostly at home, though he attended gymnasium in Altona for four years. He studied Greek and Latin and received his diploma in 1837, graduating as a 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 revolutions of 1848 he supported monarchists and worked as a war correspondent (journalist) in Danish at that time Rendsburg, supporting the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein by his country and constitutional reform. He became a professor of law in the same year at the University of Leipzig. When Mommsen protested 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 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 scientific 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).
Until 2007, Mommsen was both the oldest person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first-born laureate; born in 1817, he won the second Nobel ever awarded at the age of eighty-five. The next oldest laureate in Literature is Paul Heyse, born in 1830, who won the Nobel in 1910. Since 2007, when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature, she is the oldest person who was ever awarded the prize.
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, also became prominent German historians.
Mommsen was dedicated to his profession. 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 while walking in the streets.
At 2 a.m. on July 7, 1880, a fire ignited 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 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 organized countless scientific projects, mostly editions of original sources.
At the beginning of his scientific career, Mommsen already envisioned a collection of all known ancient Latin inscriptions when he published the inscriptions of the Neapolitan Kingdom (1852). 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" (which in Greek means literally "to see for oneself"), according to which all copies (that is, 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 scientific 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 words and narrowly avoided prosecution.
In 1879, his colleague Heinrich von Treitschke (the so-called Berliner Antisemitismusstreit) began a political campaign against Jews. Mommsen strongly opposed antisemitism and wrote a harsh pamphlet in which he denounced von Treitschke's views. Mommson viewed a solution to antisemitism in the voluntary cultural assimilation of the Jews, suggesting that they could follow the example of the people of Holstein, Hannover 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.
Several of Mommsen's works became classics in their field, including books on Roman coins and the Roman legal system. "He was the general editor of, and chief contributor to, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the gigantic collection of Roman inscriptions published by the Berlin Academy (1867-1959). This work laid the foundations for a systematic study of Roman government, administration, economics, and finance."
His perspective on Roman history was colored by his experiences with the Revolutions of 1848, causing him to disdain the Roman Senate and Cicero in favor of Julius Caesar, whose leadership he clearly admired.  Fellow Nobel Laureate (1925) George 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.
Perhaps his most important legacy was his ability to bring to life the pages of Roman history in his writing, which was not only well-researched but also very well written. For his writing he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903. The Nobel committee was considering giving the award to Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, but apparently believed some of his later views to be too radical and settled on Mommsen instead. Mommsen was the second recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Sully Prudhomme, and the first non-fiction writer to receive the award.
There is a Gymnasium (academic high school) named for Mommsen in his hometown of Bad Oldesloe, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
All links retrieved January 24, 2020.
1901: Sully Prudhomme | 1902: Theodor Mommsen | 1903: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson | 1904: Frédéric Mistral, José Echegaray | 1905: Henryk Sienkiewicz | 1906: Giosuè Carducci | 1907: Rudyard Kipling | 1908: Rudolf Christoph Eucken | 1909: Selma Lagerlöf | 1910: Paul Johann Ludwig von Heyse | 1911: Maurice Maeterlinck | 1912: Gerhart Hauptmann | 1913: Rabindranath Tagore | 1915: Romain Rolland | 1916: Verner von Heidenstam | 1917: Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan | 1919: Carl Spitteler | 1920: Knut Hamsun | 1921: Anatole France | 1922: Jacinto Benavente | 1923: William Butler Yeats | 1924: Władysław Reymont | 1925: George Bernard Shaw
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