Authors: Theodor Mommsen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German historian

Author Works


Römische Geschichte, 1854-1856 (3 volumes; The History of Rome, 1868-1886; 4 volumes)

Geschichte des römischen Münzwesens, 1860

Römisches Staatsrecht, 1871-1888 (3 volumes)

Die Provinzen von Caesar bis Diokletian, 1885 (volume 5 of Römische Geschichte; The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian, 1886)

Römisches Strafrecht, 1899

Edited Text:

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 1863-1902


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.{$I[A]Mommsen, Theodor}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Mommsen, Theodor}{$I[tim]1817;Mommsen, Theodor}

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 another law professorship, at the University of Breslau in Prussia. His tenure there lasted until 1858, when, at the invitation of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, he moved to Berlin to become general editor of the vast Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (corpus of Latin inscriptions) that was projected. In 1861, Mommsen became professor of Roman history at the University of Berlin, which remained his academic home until the end of his life.

After the unification of Germany wrought by the statesman Otto von Bismarck in 1871, Mommsen resumed his political career, serving both in the Prussian parliament as a National Liberal (1873-1879) and in the Reichstag, the national parliament, as a representative of an ultraliberal group (1881-1884). Mommsen vigorously opposed both Bismarck’s policy of economic protectionism and the anti-Semitism that swept through German universities in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

It was while he was at Breslau that Mommsen married Marie Reimer. Theirs was a congenial union that over the years yielded sixteen children, and Mommsen came to number among his sons-in-law two of the most illustrious German scholars of the next generation, Adolf von Harnack, a historian of early Christianity, and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, an interpreter of the literature and culture of classical Greece.

Mommsen was an extraordinarily industrious and productive scholar. He published a total of 1,513 articles, essays, speeches, editions, and books. He personally edited fourteen of the forty-one parts into which, as general editor, he organized the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, which immediately became a fundamental source for the study of Roman law, institutions, and political history. Also, inasmuch as the Romans never codified their laws in a modern sense of the term, Mommsen’s Römisches Staatsrecht (Roman constitutional law) and Römisches Strafrecht (Roman criminal law) essentially constituted the first codifications of Roman law.

The Nobel Prize presentation speech delivered by the representative of the Swedish Academy, however, reveals that it was The History of Rome, which was designed for a general, rather than a primarily scholarly readership and was composed in a compelling and lively style, that was chiefly responsible for Mommsen’s being awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. The first three volumes bring the story of Rome down to the victory of the statesman-general Julius Caesar, whom Mommsen depicted as the savior of the Roman state in the civil war of 49-46 b.c.e. Volume 4 was never written, and volume 5 deals with the expansion of Roman power beyond Italy. The Nobel Prize, awarded in the year before Mommsen’s death, was merely the capstone of a lifetime of scholarly achievement and recognition.

BibliographyBroughton, 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.
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