Theodor Mommsen

The German historian and philologist Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) ranks among the greatest of 19th-century historians. Most of his work was devoted to the study of ancient Rome.

Theodor Mommsen, the son of a poor but scholarly Protestant minister, was born at Garding in the duchy of Schleswig on Nov. 30, 1817. After receiving his early schooling at home and at a gymnasium in Altona near Hamburg, he attended the University of Kiel (1838-1843), studying law. Mommsen was much influenced by the lectures of Otto John and by the writings of Friedrich Karl von Savigny; his interests became focused on the classical world, and he wrote his dissertation on Roman associations and made a study of Roman tribes.

In 1843 Mommsen received a traveling scholarship from the Danish government and a small grant from the Berlin Academy for study in Italy. There he became acquainted with Bartolommeo Borghesi, an outstanding scholar of Latin inscriptions, who had a profound influence on Mommsen's future. During this time the plans for the monumental collection of Latin inscriptions (Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum) took shape, and it was published under the auspices of the Berlin Royal Academy of Science after 1861. As a sample for this task, Mommsen collected the Samnite inscriptions and the Inscriptions of the Neapolitan Kingdom, which he published in 1852, dedicated to Borghesi.

In 1847 Mommsen returned to Schleswig, where he supported the independence struggle of the Elbe duchies from Denmark by editing and writing for the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung, an organ of the provisional government. After the failure of this independence movement he accepted the chair of Roman law at the University of Leipzig (1848) but was dismissed from his position in 1851 for his support of the liberal cause during the revolution.

Before leaving Leipzig for an appointment at the University of Zurich in 1852, Mommsen had come to the attention of the publisher Karl Reimer, who persuaded him to write a popular but scholarly Roman History. The first three volumes, in addition to monographs on Roman Switzerland, were begun in Zurich and completed at the University of Breslau, where Mommsen taught from 1854 until 1858. This work, published between 1854 and 1856, describes the history of the Roman Republic to the advent of Caesar's dictatorship and made Mommsen's name famous throughout Europe. Plans for a fourth volume on the imperial period were never carried out. Instead he published a fifth volume, Roman Provinces under the Empire (1884), utilizing the Latin inscriptions collected for the Corpus inscriptionum.

Appointed editor for the Corpus inscriptionum in 1854, Mommsen received a professorship at Berlin (1858), where he remained for the rest of his life. These 45 years were filled with scholarship of stupendous proportions but of the highest quality. In addition to his continuing work on the Corpus inscriptionum, Mommsen published Römisches Staatsrecht, 3 vols. (1871-1888; Roman Constitutional Law); Römisches Strafrecht (1899; Roman Criminal Law); Reden und Aufsätze (1905; Speeches and Essays); and Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols. (1905-1910; Collected Writings); and he participated in the Monumenta Germaniae, in studies on the Roman Limes and on numismatics, and in the Thesaurus linguae Latinae. In 1902 his unique position in the world of scholarship was recognized by the award of the Nobel Prize for literature; he was the first German to achieve this honor.

In public life Mommsen intermittently served in the Prussian Parliament (1863-1866 and 1873-1879) and in the German Reichstag (Imperial Diet) (1881-1884) and was a cofounder of and contributor to the Preussischen Jahrbücher, one of the most influential German political journals. A political liberal and patriot, he found much to criticize, both in his own country and abroad. He was torn between despising Bismarck and taking pride in his national accomplishments.

Mommsen died at Charlottenburg, a suburb of Berlin, on Nov. 1, 1903.

Further Reading on Theodor Mommsen

An excellent modern, although abridged, translation of the third volume of Mommsen's Roman History is in Dero A. Saunders and John H. Collins, The History of Rome: An Account of Events and Persons from the Conquest of Carthage to the End of the Republic (1958), which contains a good introduction to and evaluation of that work. Studies in English on Mommsen's life and work are in W. Warde Fowler, Roman Essays and Interpretations (1920), which describes Fowler's personal acquaintance with Mommsen, and in James Westfall Thompson and Bernard J. Holm, A History of Historical Writing, vol. 2 (1942), which includes a good bibliography.