Theodor Mommsen

From New World Encyclopedia

Theodor Mommsen

Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen
Nationality German
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,[1] 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.

1880 fire

Not all of Mommsen's library was completely destroyed by the fire; His version in Roman History v4 was damaged but preserved

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.[2] Several old manuscripts were burnt to ashes, including Manuscript 0.4.36 which was on loan from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge;[3] 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.

Scholarly works

Theodor Mommsen in 1881

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.

  • Roman Provinces under the Empire, 1884
  • History of Rome: Mommsen's most famous work appeared in three volumes between 1854 and 1856, and exposed 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 late Republic, with the situation of his own time (the nation-state, democracy and incipent imperialism). It is one of the great classics of historical works. Mommsen never wrote a continuation of his Roman history to incorporate the imperial period. Notes taken during his lectures on the Roman Empire between 1863 and 1886 were published (in 1992) under the title, A History of Rome Under the Emperors. In 1885, a presentation of the Roman provinces in the imperial period appeared as volume 5 of Roman History (The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian). There was no volume 4. The work has also received some criticism, accusing him of "journalism," and in 1931 Egon Friedell argued that in his hands "Crassus becomes a speculator in the manner of Louis Philippe, the brothers Gracchus are Socialist leaders, and the Gallians are Indians, etc."[4]
  • 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.
  • Roman Criminal Law (1899)
  • Monumentum Ancyranum
  • Iordanis Romana et Getica (1882) was Mommsen's critical edition of Jordanes' The Origin and Deeds of the Goths and has subsequently come to be generally known simply as Getica.
  • 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).

Theodor Mommsen at work, from a painting in the university library of the Humboldt-Universität, Berlin

Mommsen as editor and organizer

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.

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum

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.

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 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.[5]

Mommsen was a violent supporter of German nationalism, maintaining a militant attitude towards the Slavic nations.[6]


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."[7]

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. [7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.


  1. NNDB, Theodor Mommsen. Retrieved September 20, 2008.
  2. Arno Mentzel-Reuters, Mark Mersiowsky, Peter Orth, Olaf B. Rader, and Phönix aus der Asche. Theodor Mommsen und die Monumenta Germaniae Historica (München und Berlin, 2005), 53.
  3. M. R. James, The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge: a Descriptive Catalogue. Retrieved September 20, 2008.
  4. Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto, Theodor Mommsen. Retrieved September 20, 2008.
  5. New York Times, Prof. Mommsen and the Jews. Retrieved September 20, 2008.
  6., Letter by Mommsen. Retrieved September 20, 2008.
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Nobel Prize, Biography of Theodor Mommsen. Retrieved September 20, 2008.
  8. Heiner Müller, Mommsen's Block, in A Heiner Müller Reader: Plays, Poetry, Prose, ed. and trans., Carl Weber (Baltimore: PAJ Books Ser., the John Hopkins University Press, 2001, ISBN 0801865786), 122-129.
  9. Kirjasto, Biography of Theodor Mommsen. Retrieved September 20, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fowler, W. Warde. Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work. Edinburgh, 1909. OCLC 49832219.
  • Grafton, Anthony. "Roman Monument." History Today September 2006. ISSN 0018-2753.
  • Heuß, Alfred. Theodor Mommsen und das 19. Jahrhundert. Kiel, 1956. ISBN 3-515-06966-6.
  • Mommsen, Theodor. Römische Geschichte. dtv, München, 2001. ISBN 3-423-59055-6.
  • Rebenich, Stefan. Theodor Mommsen: Eine Biographie. Beck: München 2002. ISBN 3-406-49295-9.
  • Weber, Wilhelm. Theodor Mommsen. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1929. OCLC 247222076.
  • Wickert, Lothar. Theodor Mommsen. Frankfurt: Main, 1959. OCLC 2757765.
  • Wiesehöfer, Josef (ed.). Theodor Mommsen: Gelehrter, Politiker und Literat unter Mitarbeit von Henning Börm. Stuttgart, 2005. ISBN 9783515087193.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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