Theodor Mommsen Additional Biography

Biography

Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (MAWM-zuhn), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902 and the preeminent historian of ancient Rome during his era, was the son of a Protestant minister. After completing a secondary school curriculum with a rigorous emphasis on Latin, ancient Greek, and classical literature, Mommsen read law (which was essentially Roman law in nineteenth century Germany) at the University of Kiel (1838-1843). He departed with a doctorate in that subject and immediately assumed a traveling fellowship that enabled him to conduct research in Italy (1844-1847), where he mastered the science of epigraphy, which concerns the editing and interpretation of documents inscribed on stone or another durable material.

Mommsen returned to Germany in time to become an advocate of the “liberal” causes of the Revolution of 1848: the unification of the states that constituted the German Confederation, the transformation of the autocratic regimes of these states into constitutional monarchies, and the granting of the franchise to the propertied classes. He briefly served as editor of a liberal newspaper before he began his academic career by assuming, in 1848, a professorship in civil law at the University of Leipzig in Saxony. The collapse of the revolution failed to sap Mommsen’s political energies, and his support of a rebellion in Saxony earned for him a dismissal from his post at Leipzig in 1850.

Mommsen’s scholarly reputation, however, was already established, and in 1852 he was appointed professor of law at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Two years later, he gladly returned to Germany, which he regarded as his native land, to accept...

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Bibliography

Broughton, T. Robert S. Introduction to The Provinces of the Roman Empire, by Theodor Mommsen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. Provides biography with an overview of Mommsen’s major works and a discussion of reasons for his not finishing The History of Rome. Examines Mommsen’s innovative scholarship and traces his influence on historiography into the mid-twentieth century. Contains a bibliography.

Fowler, W. Warde. “Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work.” In Roman Essays and Interpretations. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1920. This lecture examines Mommsen’s scholarly achievement, personal qualities, and political views.

Gooch, George Peabody. “Mommsen and Roman Studies.” In History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century. London: Longmans, Green, 1913. Chronological overview of Mommsen’s life and his major work, detailing his many interests and activities along with contributions to the work of others. Conceding Mommsen’s historical biases and tendency to esteem the victorious too highly, Gooch ranks Mommsen along with Ranke for demythologizing Roman history and encouraging new trends in scholarship. Contains valuable bibliographical footnotes.

Haverfield, F. “Theodor Mommsen.” The English Historical Review 19 (January, 1904): 80-89. An obituary assessing Mommsen’s character and contribution. In a review of Mommsen’s main works, Haverfield analyzes the historian’s remarkable combination of imagination, hard work, and organizational brilliance. Stresses Mommsen’s pioneering use of inscriptions and cooperative projects in scholarship.

Kelsey, Francis W. “Theodore Mommsen.” Classical Journal 14 (January, 1919): 224-236. A comprehensive biographical and character sketch with attention to the influences of Mommsen’s teachers and colleagues. Argues that Mommsen was not so much an innovator as a brilliant and diligent realizer of the innovations of others. Details Mommsen’s helpfulness as a teacher and includes a portrait of his happy domestic life.

Thompson, James Westfall, and Bernard J. Holm. A History of Historical Writing. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1942. Contends that through mastery of scholarship and a scientific approach to evidence, Mommsen revolutionized the study of Roman history. Examines Mommsen’s elitist views and adulation of Caesar, dismissing their connection to German militarism and anti-Semitism. Includes a biographical sketch, a physical description, and a good bibliography.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. History of Classical Scholarship. Translated by Alan Harris. Edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. An interesting, and not always complimentary, assessment of Mommsen as a historian by his prominent son-in-law.