In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903)


German classical scholar and historian, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. Theodor Mommsen's best known work is Römische Geschichte (3 vols. 1854-56). Although Leo Tolstoy's name was mentioned among the most prominent candidates for the prize, the Nobel committee couldn't accept his radical views, and Mommsen was the one awarded. Tolstoy died in 1910 without receiving the most famous acknowledgment in literature.

Mommsen's greatest interest was in Roman law, but he also participated in contemporary politics. When Bismarck made Berlin the political capital, Mommsen wrote in 1886 that "the injury done by the Bismarck era is infinitely greater than its benefits. . . . The subjugation of the German personality, of the German mind, was a misfortune which cannot be undone." (The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman, 1996 p. 344)

"Keine Kunde, ja nicht einmal eine Sage erzaehlt von der ersten Einwanderung des Menschengeschlechts in Italien; vielmehr war im Altertum der Glaube allgemein, dass dort wie ueberall die erste Bevoelkerung dem Boden selbst entsprossen sei. Indes die Entscheidung ueber den Ursprung der verschiedenen Rassen und deren genetische Beziehungen zu den verschiedenen Klimaten bleibt billig dem Naturforscher ueberlassen; geschichtlich ist es weder moeglich noch wichtig festzustellen, ob die aelteste bezeugte Bevoelkerung eines Landes daselbst autochthon oder selbst schon eingewandert ist." (in Römische Geschichte, Book 1)

Theodor Mommsen was born in Garding, Schleswig, but he grew up in Oldesloe (now Bad Oldesloe), a spa in Holstein 45 kilometers from Hamburg. His father, Jen Mommsen, was a Protestant minister. Sophie Krumbhaar, his mother, came from Altona.  Bcause there was no money to send Theodor and his brothers Tycho and August to school, they received their early education at home. Mommsen's father encouraged  his sons to read German classics, Latin texts, and such authors as Victor Hugo, Byron, and William Shakespeare. His only formal schooling Mommsen received at the Gymnasium Christianeum at Altona, where he came into contact with literary romanticism and became a radical liberal.

Mommsen studied philology and jurisprudence at Kiel, and passed in 1843 the State Examination, which allowed him to practice law. During these years he published a collection of poems, Liederbuch dreier Freunde, with his brother Tycho and Theodor Storm. Mommsen's poems from 1836-37 record his break with the Lutheran Christianity of his ancestors: "Erst war ich Christ, / Darauf Deist, / Dann Atheist." Later he declared of being "homo minime ecclesiasticus." After graduating from Kiel he worked for a year as a teacher in a boarding school in Altona. From 1844 to 1847 Mommsen pursued archaeological studies in Italy, where his aim was to find and collate unpublished Latin inscriptions. In 1848 he became a professor of law at Leipzig University, but was dismissed from his post in 1852 for having participated in an uprising in Saxony. During the revolution of 1848 he edited a liberal newspaper, the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung.

Though notoriously bad lecturer, Mommsen was appointed  Professor of Roman Law at the University of Zurich, where he wrote on Roman constitutional and criminal law. He then worked as professor of Roman Law at Breslau in Prussia (1854-1858), after which he served as professor of ancient history at Berlin until his death. During his long stays in Rome, Mommsen developed a taste for Italian food, especially for macaroni. At the age of 41 he married Marie Reimer, the twenty three year old daughter of his Leipzig publisher. They eventually had sixteen children, twelve of whom survived their parents. 

From his early years, Mommsen dreamed of the unification of Germany. The National Assembly "should reunite Germany, and should establish a state which every German must obey and before which every foreign must tremble. To achieve this goal, "every means, including force, will be justified." (The Mind of Germany: The Education of  Nation by Hans Kohn, 1960, pp. 183-184) Mommsen served as a member of the Progressive Party in the state parliament of Prussia from 1863 to 1866 and again from 1873 to 1879. After the unification of Germany, Mommsen sat in the German imperial parliament. In opposition to chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898, who  had said that "only a completely ready state can permit the luxury of a liberal government," Mommsen wanted to combine national unity with freedom (eine Synthese von Einheit und Freiheit), even if a greater Prussia strenghtened the Bismarck cabinet. However, although Mommsen was an ardent supporter of the unification process, he did not accept its side effects, the bureaucratic centralism and uncritical obedience, the "German slave mentality". Opponents of annexation accused leaders of the Progressive Party of willingness to sacrifice the Schleswig-Holsteiners' claims to self-determination to the Prussian hegemony. Mommsen was tried and acquitted in 1882 on a charge of slandering Bismarck in an election speech. "The prosecution of the greatest of living historians by the greatest of living statesmen is a scandal the magnitude of which is scarcely affected by its paltriness," reported The New York Times (November 19, 1882). As a result of the political drama, Mommsen retired from public life.

"Without doubt, just as the Jews in the Roman Empire were an element that dismantled nations, they are an element dismantling tribalism in Germany," Mommsen wrote in Auch ein Wort über unser Judenthum (1880). "We  ought to be pleased that in Germany's capital, where these tribes have gathered more  than elsewhere, the Jews occupy an enviable position. I see no harm at all in the fact that the Jews have been efficiently working this way for ages." (The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, 2020, p. 86) Mommsen attacked the anti-Semitism that he found among many of his colleagues. The conservative nationalist, scholar and journalist Heinrich von Treitschke published in 1879 a study on anti-Semitic movements, and defended the natural rejection – inherent in the German national psyche – of foreign influences. Next year Mommsen with over 70 influential figures protested against anti-Semitic incitement. He wrote that Jews are Germans and that racist hatred will come to an end sooner or later – not only religious tolerance will return to normal but there will be real respect for the distinctiveness of the Jewish culture.

Mommsen produced an enormous quantity of texts – there are over 1 000 entries in the bibliography of his writings compiled by Karl Zangemeister and Emil Jacobs in 1905. "No one could talk with him, no one could read his books or letters, without realizing that his brain lived, that his imagination was vivid and awake," said the British historian and archaelogist Francis John Haverfield. "But along with this ardent, nervous temper he combined that very different form of genius which is the infinite capacity for taking pains. His control over detail, his aptitude for drudgery were supreme." ('Theodor Mommsen' by F. Haverfield, in The English Historical Review, edited by L. Poole, Volume XIX, 1904, p. 81) Usually he got up around five o'clock, and then read, researched, wrote, and taught through the day.  Mommsen was devoted to scientific research and his profound knowledge of auxiliary science in historical studies was unique. An influential figure, he was also able to arrange his favorite students university appointments. Roman historians who disagreed with him,like Karl Julius Beloch (1854-1929), had to emigrate. ('Mommsen, Rome and the German Kaiserreich' by Thomas Wiedemann, in A History of Rome under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen, edited, with the additional of a new chapter, by Thomas Wiedemann, 1992, p. 39) From 1873 to 1895 he was permanent secretary of the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mommsen formed in 1853 the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a project which still continues, and helped to edit the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. In addition, Mommsen himself edited several volumes of late antique texts.

In later years, Mommsen's eyesight began to fail and he was troubled by the illness of his wife. Deeply disappointed in the New Reich, he wrote in 1893 to his son-in-law: "To speak seriously, what drove me away [from Germany] was my despair at out public and moral condition." (The Mind of Germany: The Education of  Nation by Hans Kohn, 1960, p. 185) Following the old fashion custom of  German professors, Mommsen wore shoulder-length hair. When he visited Oxford in 1886, he met W. Warde Fowler who recalled later that Mommsen had "the most piercingly brilliant black eyes that I have ever seen in a human being. He wore strong glasses, yet they did not in the least diminish the gleam of those eyes, which I can see at this moment, and which no one can forget who has ever seen them." ('Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work' by W. Warde Fowler, in History, Vol. 2, No. 3, July-September 1913, p. 129)  Looking back at his life in his 80s, he felt it had been a failure – in spite of all of his achievements. "Bismarck has broken the nation's back," Mommsen said to his friend, Lujo Bretano, a year before his death. (The Cultivation of Hatred: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud by Peter Gay, 1993, p. 265) The Nobel Prize was accepted on his behalf by the German ambassador in Stockholm; Mommsen himself was unable to travel to Sweden due to his high age. Mommsen died on November 1, 1903, in Charlottenburg.

Mommsen's first three volumes of The History of Rome, written in vigorous and lively style, spanned the Roman republic from its origins to 46 B.C.; his readers in vain for the continuation. When he died volume IV was still unfinished. Nicholas Murray Butler overheard Mommsen once say that  he had not made up his mind, as to what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. However, the work brought Mommsen acclaim throughout Europe, but he was also accused of "journalism": turning the real state of affairs upside-down. Moreover, his History was criticized for lacking notes and references, although it was written for a general readership. In this and other works Mommsen boldly drew parallels between modern times and ancient Rome. Egon Friedell sees in his Die Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (1927-31) that in Mommsen's hands Crassus becomes a speculator in the manner of Louis Philippe, the brothers Gracchus are Socialist leaders, and the Gallians are Indians, etc.

Mommsen never published the fourth part, partly because he could not write the story of humankind under the imperial authorities, it was alien to his "liberal republican sentiment," contemporary political issues did not provide him the great constitutional themes he was concerned  throughout his life, and it was impossible to him to complete his History without first doing the work on the epigraphical sources. To his wife he wrote from Naples in April 1882: "I now know, alas, how little I know, and the divine arrogance has deserted me. The  divine bloody-mindedness in which I would still able to achieve something is a poor substitute." ('Introduction' by Alexander Demandt, in A History of Rome under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen, edited, with the additional of a new chapter, by Thomas Wiedemann, 1992, p. 4) And it has been said that the crucial issue was possibly his negative stand towards Christianity. As a part of his teaching responsibilities at Berlin University, Mommsen gave a number of lectures on the history of Rome under the Emperors. The manuscript for the final volume, was destroyed by fire in 1880.

Notes compiled by two of Mommsen's students on his lectures between 1863 and 1886 were later collected as A History of Rome Under the Emperors, to give a view of Mommsen's interpretation of the imperial age. The book, published in 1992 was considered a tremendous discovery. Mommsen admired Gibbon's colorful Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but his approach to the period was different – individual characters did have a central place in his thought. With a few exceptions, all the Emperors were ineffectual and dreadfully mediocre from Vespasian to Diocletian, according to Mommsen.

For further reading: 'Theodor Mommsen' by F. Haverfield, in The English Historical Review, edited by L. Poole, Volume XIX (1904); Theodor Mommsen als Schriftsteller by Karl Zangemeister and Emil Jacos (1905); Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work by W. Warde Fowler (1909); Theodor Mommsen by Wilhelm Weber (1929); My Recollections by V. Wilamowitz-Möllendorff (1930); A History of Historical Writing, Vol. 2, by James W. Thompson (1942); Theodor Mommsen und das 19. Jahrhundert by Albert Heuss (1956); Orpheus Philologus by L. Grossman (1983); Problems of the Roman Criminal Law by James Leigh Strachan-Davidson (1991); Theodor Mommsen Und Adolf Harnack: Wissenschaft Und Politik Im Berlin Des Ausgehenden 19.Jahrhunderts by Stefan Rebenich. Hardcover (1997); 'The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian (Theodor Mommsen, 1817-1903,' in Fifty Key Works of History and Historiography by Kenneth R. Stunkel (2011)

Selected works:

  • Liederbuch dreier Freunde, 1843 (with Tycho Mommsen and Theodor Storm)
  • Die Schweitz in römischer Zeit, 1853
  • Römische Geschichte, 1854-56 (3 vols.) - History of Rome (4 vols., tr. William P. Dickson, 1862-75) / History of Rome: An Account of Events and Persons from the Conquest of Carthage to the End of the Republic (a new edition by Dero A. Saunders and John C. Collins, 1958; published originally in 1854, 1855, 1856 and translated by W.P. Dickson)
  • Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 1867-1959 (ed., 16 vols.; 15 volumes came out in Mommsen's lifetime, five of which he compiled)
  • Digesta, 1866-70 (ed., 2 vols.)
  • Römisches Staatsrecht, 1871-1888 (ed.)
  • 'Die Katakomben Roms: Vortrag', 1871 - 'The Roman Catacombs'  (in The Contemporary Review, vol. XVII, 1871)
  • Auch ein Wort über unser Judenthum, 1880
  • Die Provinzen Von Caesar Bis Diocletian, 1885 (vol. 5 of The History of Rome) - The Provinces of the Roman Empire (2 vols., tr. William P. Dickson, 1886)
  • Römisches Strafrecht, 1899 (ed.)
  • Theodosiani Libri XVI cum Constitutionibus Sirmondianis, 1904 (ed. with Paul M. Meyer)
  • Reden und Aufsätze, 1905 (ed. O. Hirshfeld)
  • Rome From the Earliest Times to 44 B.C., 1907 (compiled by R.F. Pennell)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1959 (ed. Eugene F. Rice, Jr.)
  • Römische Kaisergeschichte, 1992 (ed.  Barbara and Alexander Demandt) - A History of Rome Under the Emperors (introduction by Thomas Wiedemann, English translation by Clare Krojzl, edited by Barbara and Alexander Demandt, 1992)
  • Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, 2000 (by Theodor Mommsen, et al.)

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2020.

Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijä on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeä-Epäkaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillä.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.