Theodor Mommsen Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111205196-Mommsen.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Mommsen transformed the study of Roman history by correcting and supplementing the literary tradition of the ancient historians with the evidence of Latin inscriptions. Going beyond the usual focus on the generals and emperors, Mommsen championed study in all aspects of ancient societies.

Early Life

Now considered a German historian, Theodor Mommsen was born a Danish subject in Garding, Schleswig, on November 30, 1817. The eldest son of a poor Protestant minister, Mommsen was reared in Oldesloe, where he was educated by his father until 1834, when he attended school in Altona, outside Hamburg. In 1838, he entered the University of Kiel to study jurisprudence, which at the time involved a thorough grounding in Roman law. Under the influence of Friedrich Karl von Savigny’s writings on the interrelationship of law and history, Mommsen’s interest shifted to Roman history by the time he completed his doctorate in 1843. Equally influential were Otto Jahn’s lectures on epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, which convinced Mommsen of the need for a complete collection of Latin inscriptions.

With a grant from the Danish government, Mommsen traveled through Italy from 1844 to 1847, collecting inscriptions and studying ancient Italian dialects. At the suggestion of the Italian scholar Bartolomeo Borghesi, he concentrated on Naples, and his subsequent monograph, Inscriptions regni Neapolitani Latinae (1852; inscriptions of the Latin Neopolitan kingdom), impressed scholars with its philological method and organization.

When Mommsen returned to take a post in Roman law at the University of Leipzig in 1848, Schleswig was agitating for union with Prussia. An ardent German patriot, Mommsen was caught up in the revolutionary nationalism, and his academic career was momentarily interrupted. Slightly injured in a street riot, Mommsen stayed behind when his brothers took up arms against the Danish crown, and instead he furthered the cause as editor and writer for the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung.

In the reaction after the failed uprising, Mommsen was eventually dismissed from his teaching post in 1851. After a period of what he termed exile in Zürich, he returned to Germany in 1854 to teach at the University of Breslau, before settling permanently in Berlin, first with the Berlin Academy of Sciences and then with the University of Berlin.

Life’s Work

Nineteenth century scholars, Germans in particular, applied scientific methods to the humanities in the belief that just as Charles Darwin had demonstrated the laws of natural selection, they could discover the laws of historical and social evolution. Unfortunately, some scholars were led by the evolutionary analogy, with its emphasis on the survival of the fittest, to dismiss questions of morality in their desire to establish the inevitability of historical development. This was especially true in Germany, where the nationalistic yearning for a unification had been building ever since Napoleon I’s power over the German states was broken. Consequently, German scholars often found it easy to let supposedly objective science serve political ends.

Mommsen never overtly subverted scholarship to nationalism; however, the tendency was manifest in his most famous work, Römische Geschichte (1854-1856; The History of Rome, 1862-1866), which covers Roman history up to the end of the Republic. Never intending to write for a general audience, Mommsen was approached in 1851 by his future father-in-law, the publisher Carl Reimer, who convinced him to undertake the project.

Immediately famous, even notorious, The History of Rome was not only the first comprehensive survey of Roman history but also a passionate narrative of the rise and fall of the Republic, brought to life by Mommsen’s vivid and partisan portraits of historical personalities. With a dynamic, journalism-influenced style, Mommsen drew on familiar political and historical incidents and presented even abstract ideas in concrete imagery to make Roman history accessible to a wide audience.

The History of Rome impressed the scholarly community with its rigorous questioning of the ancient historians, but it was faulted for not citing sources or acknowledging any possible differences in interpretation. Moreover, many believed that he went so far in his demythologizing that he falsely recast Roman history in terms of his biased perspective of German politics.

These critics feared that The History of Rome’s adulatory depiction of Julius Caesar as the savior of Rome dangerously glorified power and buttressed Prussian militarism. Despite a belief in the generally progressive and civilizing effect of the emergence of powers such as Rome or Germany, Mommsen was not...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)