Study at Bonn, 1833-4; Göttingen, 1834-5; Berlin, 1835-6; tutor to children of C.A. Brandis in Greece 1837-40; travel to Rome, 1840-1; Ph.D., Halle, 1841; Phil. Habil., Berlin, 1843.
Dissertation: De portubus Athenarum commentatio.Halle, 1842.
Habilitation: Anecdota Delphica. Berlin, 1843.
- Professional Experience:
Teacher, Joachimsthal gymnasium, Berlin, 1842-3; privatdozent, Berlin, 1843-4; tutor to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (later Kaiser Friedrich III) 1844-50; prof. extraord. classical philology, Berlin, 1844-56; Göttingen, 1856-68; prof. class. archaeology and eloquence, Berlin, 1868-96; member, Berlin Academy, 1853; dir. Antiquarium, Berlin Museum, 1868-96; leader of Olympia excavations, 1875-81.
Peloponnesos. Eine historisch'geographische Beschreibung der Halbinsel. 2 vols. (Gotha, 1851-2); Die Ionier vor der ionischen Wanderung (Berlin, 1855); Griechische Geschichte 3vols.(Berlin, 1857-1861; 6th ed., 1887-1889. English translation by A. D. Ward asThe History of Greece.5 vols. New York, 1867-1872; London, 1868-1873; revisions in later printings by W. A. Packard); Beiträge zur Geschichte und Topographie Kleinasiens. With Regely, Adler, Hirschfeld, and Gelzer. Abhandlungen der Ktiniglich-preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin(1872) 1-96 (Separately printed in Berlin, 1873); Über Wappengebrauch und Wappenstil im griechischen Altertum. Abhandlungen der Königlich-preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1874) 1-96 (Separately printed in Berlin, 1874); Olympia. Die Ergebnisse der von dem Deutschen Reich veranstalteten Ausgrabungen, ed. With F. Adler, et al. 5 vols; 4 vols. of plates (Berlin, 1890-7); Karten von Attika, ed. with J. A. Kaupert. 8 parts (Berlin, 1881-94); August Bdckh (Berlin, 1885); Die Stadtgeschichte von Athen (Berlin, 1891).
Altertum und Gegemuart: Gesammeke Reden und Vortrtige (Berlin, 1875; vol. 2 added, 1882; vol. 3, Unter drei Kaisern, 1893. Final ed., vol. 1, 5th ed., vol. 2, 3rd ed. Stuttgart, 1903); Gesammelte Abhandlungen, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1894).
Curtius, F. E. Curtius. Ein Lebensbild in Briefen. Edited by Friedrich Curtius. Berli 1903; 2d ed., 1913.
Ernst Curtius represents, both in his life and in his work, the transition from the romantic infatuation with Greece and its aesthetic ideals to the solid professional study of antiquity, above all through archaeology. He willingly embraced the enthusiasm for Greek culture that arose during the nineteenth century in Germany and as a scholar could still see Greek history in an idealizing light. Yet his approach to philology was stamped with the realism of his teacher and collaborator August Böckh (1785-1867), one of the greatest geniuses among Hellenists. To the scientific discipline of Böckh, who never visited Greece, Curtius could contribute in addition an intimate knowledge of the countryside, its monuments, and its artifacts. He established Germany’s most prominent excavation, at Olympia, and set the pattern for the scientific recovery of the Hellenic world and its experience through exploration on the soil of Greece itself.
Curtius was born in Lübeck and always retained the Hanseatic unaspirated s in his speech. He studied first in Bonn, where he heard the philologist F. G. Welcker (1784-1868) and the philosopher C. A. Brandis (1790-1867); in 1834 he moved to Göttingen, where he heard Karl Otfried Müller (1797-1840), who turned him toward the study of Greek geography, history, and culture. He then studied in Berlin under Böckh and F. W. Gerhard (1795-1867). In 1837 he accepted an invitation from Brandis, who was academic adviser to King Otto of the newly independent Greece, to accompany Brandis and his family to Greece as tutor to their children. He explored Greece widely in the company of the geographer Karl Ritter (1779-1859), translated Greek poetry into German, wrote emotional poems of his own celebrating the landscape, and fell in love with the country and people—but in a highly classicizing way. He deliberately turned his gaze from contemporary Greek politics and aspirations and showed the same lack of interest in political reality in his studies of Greek antiquity. His aim was, rather, to commune with the loftiest ideals of ancient civilization, even if this required overlooking moments when these ideals fell short of achievement.
In 1838 he first visited Olympia, which was to be the focus of his scientific work. He also visited Delphi and sent his parents an enthusiastic description of the site and its atmosphere (Ein Lebensbild in Briefen, 181-82):
I lived four days in Delphi, unforgettable days, when heaven favored us with sun again, though intermittently. You can forget the whole world in this pleasant nook in the mountains. The houses of Kastri lie exactly over the old temple of Pythian Apollo; the terrace of the temple, made of Pentelic marble, gleams at midday among the huts built over it. In the same way you can see between two poor hovels a part of the splendid curve of the theater and everywhere traces of temple-stones and inscribed blocks of marble.... When you reach the Castalian Spring you are actually in Delphi. There is a lovely open area around the source, immediately above are the mountains, reaching to heaven, then downward are the gentle slopes; they are watered by the sacred spring and thickly covered with the most beautiful olive trees, and in the middle there is a quiet monastery beneath the walls of the ancient gymnasium. You can climb up and reach another spring in a few minutes: this is the Cassiotis, from which the priestess drank her inspiration. This spring still has its old course through the middle of the temple area as the water trickles under the terrace of the temple. Even today it irrigates a bay tree, an honored descendant of the old grove of the priestess.
If you go farther toward the western end of the theater-like curve of the area of Delphi, you come to another street of graves and to a ledge from which you have a great view of the sea, down to the old harbor of Delphi, where once ships landed from all regions carrying horses for competition in the games as well as pack animals. . . . You cannot imagine the joy with which I looked for traces of the ancient remains here, since 1 got certain results beyond anything I might have expected and formed a clear picture of the sacred place.
And after I had spent the whole day with my architect in visiting and measuring, I enjoyed the evening in the gay company of the common people. Just then it was the marriage season and on the Sunday three marriages were in preparation. That always calls for a cycle of celebrations lasting two weeks. We went with the mayor to the bride’s relatives. The music consisted of a muffled drum and a shrill shepherd’s pipe. The men sit around on little benches that are crowded with food and wine. The main jollity is the toasts to one’s health: first to the king, then to the bride and groom, then to the visitors, and so on. Each drinker usually gives a little speech to his drinking partners and then drains his glass to loud music as slowly as he can. The women stand around the bride and sing in the next room…
With his former teacher, Müller, he visited Delphi in 1840 and, when Muller died on the trip from a heat-induced fever, had the sad duty of burying him in the living rock of the hill of Kolonos Hippios, overlooking the grove of Plato’s Academy outside Athens—the home of Sophocles and the place where the outcast Oedipus at last found peace. This scene too he described to his parents (Ibid., 232, 237):
God in his grace has preserved me from all dangers and has kept me strong and well under the glowing rays of the July sun, which this time were frightful—but the miserable days 1 have lived through, and the horrible tragedy that has struck us here, must be the sad content of these lines. Our dear teacher and master has been the victim of his tireless enthusiasm: last Sunday, 2 August, we laid Karl Otfried Müller to rest on the hill of the Academy. . . . After the autopsy was performed on Sunday afternoon, which showed that the brain of the deceased was completely soft and decomposed, the burial was carried out towards evening. Students drew the coffin on a wagon, four deans of the university walked at its corners; all the ambassadors, the whole staff of the court, of the university, and of the schools, most of the Germans in Athens, and many Greeks all followed, a line seemingly without end. The high priest gave a speech in German, then the excellent Professor loannou spoke in Greek; military music accompanied the funeral procession. Scholl and I returned home from the grave of our dear teacher by clear, quiet moonlight, thinking mainly of the unfortunate widow with her five children, who were awaiting the happy return of the man in Ohlau.. . .
Curtius returned to Germany and obtained his doctorate in Halle (1841) and gained Habilitation in Berlin in 1843 with an edition of Delphic inscriptions that he had begun with Müller. He was invited in 1844 to become tutor to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the future Emperor Friedrich III, and established close relations with the royal house, which became enthralled with Greek culture and supported German research in Greece. From 1844 to 1856 he was professor of classical philology in Berlin. He now published his first major work, perhaps still his most important personal contribution to knowledge, the two-volume description of the Peloponnese, the fruit of his early explorations of Greece in the 1830s.
In 1856 he returned to Göttingen as professor of classical philology and archaeology, thus holding until 1868 the chair once occupied by his mentor and friend, Karl Otfried Müller. The crowning work of his years in Göttingen was his Griechische Geschichte, planned by the house of Weidmann as a companion to Mommsen’s history of Rome. This became the most widely read Greek history written in German, reaching a sixth edition.
Curtius’s aim was to present the most exalted possible view of Greek civilization. The work is written in ceremonious rhetorical style and found a ready public when Germans were constructing their adoring relationship toward classical Greece. The English historian E.A. Freeman thought that the best pages were the vivid descriptions of the Greek landscape, but he awarded the palm for political realism and insight to George Grote (1794-1871), whose history appeared at the same time.
For Curtius, history was mainly the result of decisions by great men, élite leaders, and he fearlessly discovered their noble motivations even when ancient sources failed him. Solon’s aims (he thought) were shaped by long self-communion of the broadest philosophical sort. Cleisthenes was seen as a man of passionate ambition and a champion of the civil rights of the oppressed; part of his loyalty was to Solon’s constitution, whose generosity to the lower orders he sought to expand. Pericles was to Curtius almost a philosopher-king. Yet Curtius was not a modem Livy: he knew his sources with the thoroughness of a great German scholar and a pupil of Welcker and Bockh, and the triumph of Greece over Persia is not naively portrayed as the victory of light over darkness.
The chronological limits of the history also tell their story. Only some fifteen years had passed since J. G. Droysen (1808-88) had written his history of Alexander and carried the survey down into the Hellenistic age, which in effect he discovered. He was under the powerful influence of Hegel and saw Greek history as fulfilling its assigned cycle and preparing the way for Christianity; for him, Alexander was the tool of history, and the whole story had a purpose that was validated by historical inevitability. Curtius had nothing to do with such modem theories. His third volume ends the narrative with the establishment of Philip II’s domination over Greece. The resistance led by Demosthenes was for Curtius the final act of independent Hellenism. As his collaborator Mommsen, in the Weidmann series, ended his history of the Roman Republic before the death of his hero Julius Caesar, so Curtius evidently found no pleasure in letting Macedonian dynasts supplant Greek statesmen on the stage of history. His chief aim was an uplifting narrative, and Georg Busolt (1850-1920) was right to admit that his own detailed, encyclopedic Griechische Geschichte should not be compared with that of Curtius in respect of enjoyable reading. Neither Busolt nor his more original rival, Julius Beloch (1854-1929), drove Curtius from the field among “general readers.”
In 1868 Curtius returned to Berlin as Professor of Classical Archaeology. He had long recommended the undertaking of systematic excavations in Olympia but had not been able to move the German authorities to implement his plan. After the early successes of Schliemann at Troy, Curtius finally got his wish. In early 1874 he signed an agreement with the Greek government that allowed German scholars to excavate Olympia and provided that the finds should be permanently displayed in a museum, built by the Germans, at the site. This contract marked the beginning of systematic excavations by government-supported agencies in the Mediterranean (it will be remembered that Schliemann financed himself) and became the model for similar arrangements on behalf of the British, French, and other schools in Greece. This negotiation was an act of the highest academic statesmanship, and the following of the model by others has furthered the scientific study of the Greek world while avoiding the plundering of Greek antiquities.
Excavations at Olympia took place from fall 1875 to 1881; they were revived from 1936 to 1941 and have continued since 1952. The first results were edited by Curtius and Adler in five volumes; and here the scholarly work of Curtius moved into the scientific mode of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was also among those who brought into existence the German Archaeological Institute in Athens.
Curtius was especially noted for his addresses delivered on ceremonial occasions, especially in the presence of the royal family or for the emperor’s birthday. Characteristic, for example, was his “Die Entwickelung des Preußischen Staats nach den Analogien der alten Geschichte” (1880), delivered on the anniversary of the accession of Friedrich II. He collected these orations in two volumes, to which a third, Unter drei Kaisern, was added. His many essays and papers were collected as Gesammelte Abhandlungen, and in his last years appeared his Die Stadtgeschichte von Athen.
Curtius’ main scholarly monument was clearly his organization and editing of the excavations at Olympia, but, more than that, he inspired a generation of German scholars to become Hellenists. Others, such as his teacher Böckh, had indeed already devoted their lives to Greek studies, but Curtius contributed a love of the Greek landscape, long practical experience in Greece, and enthusiasm for his life work. He was from a deeply religious family, and all witnesses agree on his generous, affectionate personality. His Griechische Geschichte, though undeniably from another era so far as concerns historical accuracy and realism, is nonetheless a monument to that very era, to the earliest years of an independent Greece and to the time when the Hellenic message was rediscovered.
A.H. Borbein, “Ernst Curtius.” Berlinische Lebensbilder Geisteswissenschaftler, ed. M. Erbe. Berlinische Lebensbilder 4 (Berlin, 1989) 157-74; K. Christ, Von Gibbon zu Rostovtzeff (Darmstadt, 1972; 2d ed., 1979) 68-83; F. Curtius, E. Curtius. Ein Lebensbild in Briefen, ed. Friedrich Curtius (Berlin 1903; 2d ed., 1913); E.A. Freeman, “Curtius’ History of Greece” Historical Essays. Second series (London and New York, 1873) 148-60; L. Gurlitt, “Erinnerung an Ernst Curtius.” JAW 111 (1901) 113-44; H. Kahler, NDB 3 (1957) 446-7 (with further references); Robert Keep, AJP 4 (1898) 121-37; O. Kern, ADB 47 (1903) 580-97.
Gurlitt, L. “Erinnerung an Ernst Curtius.” JAW 111 (1901) 139-144.
Image: Portrait by Max Koner, Berlin Museums
- Author: Mortimer Chambers