MOMMSEN, Christian Matthias Theodor
Ph.D. (law), Kiel, 1843; travel in France and Italy. 1843-5.
“Ad legem de scribis et viatoribus et de auctoritate commentationes duae” (Kiel, 1843).
- Professional Experience:
Prof. Jurisprudence, Leipzig, 1848-51; Zurich, 1852-4; Breslau, 1854-8; prof. anc. hist., Berlin, 1861-1903; rector, 1874-5; corr. memb, Berlin Academy, 1853-8; res. Prof., 1858-1903; secretary, 1874-95; director, CIL, 1853-1903; director, German Archaeological Institute, 1859-84; co-founder, Hermes, 1866; co-founder, Ephemeris Epigraphica, 1872; memb., Prussian Landstag (Kottbus-Spremberg-Kalau), 1873-9; memb., Reichstag (Coburg), 1881-4.
Römische Geschichte I-III (Berlin, 1854-56; V, 1885; Volume IV never published.); Römisches Staatsrecht (Leipzig, 1871); Abriss des römischen Staatsrechts (Leipzig, 1893; reprinted 1974); Römisches Strafrecht (Leipzig, 1899); Reden und Aufsätze (Berlin, 1905); Gesammelte Schriften I-VIII (Berlin, 1905-1913); Briefwechsel 1872-1903, with Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Berlin, 1935).
In the history of German Altertumswissenschaft, the achievement of Theodor Mommsen was epoch-making in three respects: First, contrary to the fixation of German classicism’s philhellenic humanism on Greek culture, he gave the Romans an independent and equal position in the total picture of antiquity; second, in his scholarly career, Mommsen completed the transition from the aesthetic and literary historiography of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a strictly scientific, detailed discipline of research oriented toward data and sources; and third, Mommsen applied to Altertumswissenschaft the concept of organized “big business,” employing state resources and numerous workers. These three achievements took place within the framework of a shift from classicism’s aesthetic and absolute estimate of antiquity to the historical and relativistic evaluation of historicism. Mommsen saw this transformation accomplished in his lifetime. Let us first take a look at the man himself.
Mommsen was born on 30 November 1817, at Garding in Schleswig-Holstein. Like so many great minds of the nineteenth century—e.g., Droysen (born 1808), Burckhardt (born 1818), Schliemann (born 1822), and Nietzsche (born 1844)—he was the son of a Protestant pastor. To be sure, Mommsen gave up his Protestantism along with his Christianity, but he always retained a fundamentally Protestant attitude. From 1838 to 1843 Mommsen studied history and law at the University of Kiel, which was then subject to the King of Denmark. At the age of twenty-five he took his doctorate with a dissertation on Roman law and then, with the help of a Danish research stipend, traveled to France and Italy. (The Danish crown, of course, played Maecenas to many German scholars and artists; the most famous among them are Klopstock, Schiller, and Hebbel.) In Italy Mommsen devoted himself, under the influence of Bartolomeo Borghesi (1781-1860), to the Roman inscriptions in the Kingdom of Naples; for this work the Berlin Academy, at the end of 1844, put an initial 150 taler at his disposal. During the Revolution of 1848 he was editor of the Schlesivig-Holsteiner Zeitung. Like Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-84) and Theodor Storm (1817-88), Mommsen worked against the dynastic ambitions of the Danish king, Frederick VII, who was attempting to incorporate Schleswig-Holstein, the majority of whose population was German, into Denmark. In the autumn of 1848 Mommsen became Professor of Jurisprudence at Leipzig, but he lost his position in 1851 when he joined Otto Jahn (1813-69) and Moriz Haupt (1808-74) in protesting against the constitution imposed by the Saxon king. The law under which Mommsen was dismissed dated back to 1580. He was called to Zurich in 1852, to Breslau in 1854, and in 1858 to the Berlin Academy.
The signature of Friedrich Wilhelm IV on Mommsen’s appointment to a research professorship at the Berlin Academy on 27 October 1857, was one of the dying Prussian king’s last official acts. That Mommsen had been removed from his post as a political dissenter did not disturb Friedrich Wilhelm; he had already taken in other scholars dismissed for political reasons—e.g., the Brothers Grimm and Moriz Haupt. On the advice of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) he had even accepted into the Academy a scholar of the Jewish faith. The king wanted to get on with the work on the inscriptions.
Mommsen as Historian
Mommsen devoted all his energy to the Academy; the University played a comparatively small role in his life. He had intended to habilitate at Kiel, but he had given up this plan while in Rome in 1847, preferring to study inscriptions. As a member of the Academy he received a call to Bonn in 1861 and rejected it in favor of a professorship of Roman Antiquity at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He also declined calls to Göttingen in 1868, to Strassburg in 1872, and to Leipzig in 1874; the last he rejected after his election as a Secretary of the Academy. In 1874-75 he was Rector of the University. In 1885 he was released from teaching duties, and after that he appeared only sporadically in the course catalogue—for the last time in 1887.
Mommsen’s teaching duties normally comprised four hours of lecturing and a two-hour reading class. While the theme of the latter was not, as a rule, listed, the lectures completely avoided Mommsen’s actual field, the Roman Republic. Most often, Mommsen lectured on the Roman Empire—twenty times in all. Half of these lectures dealt with the period after Diocletian. Aside from the fact that such specialization in instruction was unusual and did not become the rule after Mommsen’s time, the choice of subject is surprising in that Mommsen excluded the Imperial period from his Römische Geschichte (RG), and an extensive literature exists on the question of why that work’s fourth volume, which was to have dealt with the Imperial period, did not appear. We possess remarks of Mommsen that testify to his distaste for the history of the Empire. Academic teaching occupied Mommsen only incidentally; his contemporaries’ judgments on his rhetorical capabilities are quite contradictory. Sebastian Hensel (1830-98) was fascinated by Mommsen, but Friedrich Althoff (1838-1908) called him “a poor lecturer.” He always excited interest when he pronounced judgment on a sinner like Constantine and tore him to shreds before his audience’s eyes. In any case, Mommsen founded a significant school of ancient historians. Among them are such scholars as Otto Hirschfeld (1843-1922), Hermann Dessau (1856-1931), Alfred von Domaszewski (1856-1927), Otto Seeck (1850-1921), Ludo Hartmann (1865-1924), and Ulrich Wilcken (1862-1944).
Zangemeister lists 262 publications up to the year of Mommsen’s call to Berlin; among them the most important work is the Römische Geschichte (to 46 BCE vol. I, 1854; vol. II, 1855; vol. Ill, 1856). At first the work provoked widespread indignation—for example, from D. F. Strauss (1808-74), J. J. Bachofen (1815-87), Camille Jullian (1859-1933), Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-91), Friedrich Ritschl (1806-76), and others. Mommsen’s style was perceived as “journalism of the worst sort,” and his pronouncements met with detailed criticism. Yet Mommsen’s work meanwhile went through sixteen editions and was translated into many languages—Italian in 1857, Russian in 1858, English in 1862, French in 1863, Polish in 1867, Hungarian in 1874, Spanish in 1875. In 1902 the Römische Geschichte brought its author the Nobel Prize for Literature; he was the first German and has been the only historian to win the prize, except for Winston Churchill.
Mommsen’s obvious sympathy with Rome stands in contrast to the older humanistic tradition in Germany. An elective affinity with the ancient Greeks had existed since the sixteenth century. In Winckelmann, Goethe, and Schiller, in Herder, Hölderlin, and Humboldt, the love for Hellenism predominated, while they maintained a distant, indeed dismissive, attitude toward the Romans. For this there were several reasons. The Reformers Luther and Melanchthon looked on the popes as the successors of the Roman emperors, and their abandonment of Catholic Rome was also an abandonment of ancient Rome. From the eighteenth century onwards, Germany was endeavoring to develop a “national culture,” for which the ancient Greeks provided a model. Whereas Roman culture was merely secondary, derived from the Greek, the literature, philosophy, and art of the Greeks themselves seemed, so to speak, autochthonous, original. Politically, on the other hand, ancient Greece was just as splintered as was the German people under its countless princes. And so in Germany “philhellenism” was fostered, while invoking Rome was left to the “Welsch”—the Italians and the French. Louis XIV, Robespierre, and Napoleon, in their several ways, made use of it.
The French Revolution and the struggle against Napoleon awakened in Germany a national consciousness and the desire for a unified state. The Romantic movement developed the concepts of “Volksgeister,” “Volkerfamilie,” “Volkerfrieden”—the earth was to become, as it were, a “Volkergarten.” These were Mommsen’s ideas as well. For him, culture no longer held primacy over politics; his ideal of man was the homo politicus, and the aim of writing history was “political pedagogy.”
Pedagogy always requires models, and such a model Mommsen discovered in Republican Rome. The Roman community is for Mommsen an ideal: “a free people, which knew how to obey, in clear renunciation of all mystical priestly fraud, in unconditional equality before the law and among themselves, bearing the distinct stamp of their own nationality” (Römische Geschichte 1:80). Unique among the civilized nations of antiquity, the Romans had succeeded in realizing a national unity; they had found the mean between liberty and discipline, between equality and order, between individualism and citizenship. Greece was the prototype of cultural development, Rome of national development. After Germany had gone to school in Greece and found its national culture, it must now go to school in Rome and create a unified state. It was in this spirit that Mommsen wrote his Römische Geschichte.
In the broad context of cultural history, Mommsen describes the migration of the Indo-Europeans into Italy, the Latins’ annexation of territory, and the beginnings of the city of Rome. The sagas of Romulus and Remus, appropriately, are relegated to mythology; they are mentioned only in passing, as is the entire annalistic tradition of the early period, which Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831) had already recognized as legendary. Mommsen highly esteemed his countryman Niebuhr, seeing in him the founder of critical historiography.
Mommsen placed special emphasis on constitutional law. Occasionally it is described too starkly in the rational categories of the nineteenth century—for example, in the assumption that, from the very beginning, “the Roman citizen community, just like the German and presumably the most ancient Indo-European community, was the true and ultimate repository of the idea of the sovereign state” (RG 1:72). Here, once more, we see Mommsen’s Romans portrayed in their capacity as models.
Mommsen describes Rome’s subjugation of Italy from the viewpoint of national unification, parallel to the conception of an Italy unified by Piedmont or a Germany unified by Prussia. Mommsen placed the highest value on national unity; for its sake, he felt, even military force was justified, in contemporary Germany as much as in ancient Italy (Reden und Aufsätze, 318).
This defense of Rome’s Italian policies was justly attacked by Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), for, though one could point, in the case of the modern unification of Germany or Italy, to the existence of a German or an Italian people, the ancient Romans first compelled the ethnically and culturally heterogeneous Etruscans, Samnites, Greeks, Celts, etc. into a political unity; a preexisting feeling of community cannot be demonstrated. Strabo (6.4.2) accurately describes how the lmperium grew up out of the urbs Romana. The notion of a populus Italicus was unknown to antiquity.
On the other hand, Meyer was in agreement with Mommsen’s judgment on the development that followed. Rome’s reaching out beyond the borders of Italy seemed to both authors a betrayal of the national principle. Mommsen declared that “conquest, so long as it consolidates the nation, is self-preservation; similarly, it becomes self-annihilation when it steps beyond national boundaries” (RA, 318ff.). The latter contingency befell the Romans contrary to their expectations. “The free Latin nation, to its own horror, found itself once more the jailer of the bordering nations, entangled in the snares of so-called world domination.”
Mommsen condemns any policy aiming at hegemony or imperialism—not only with respect to the protected and obedient peoples, but equally in regard to the protecting and ruling people. The switch to imperialism had a devastating effect on Rome. A sound peasantry, the pillar of the state, had been replaced by a capitalistic economy of latifundia with their hordes of slaves. This economy had withdrawn the social basis of the Republic (RG 2:380). The monetary system and mercantile interests had spawned an upper class that was oriented toward profit. The resulting social tensions shattered the Republican constitution.
Following Hegelian dialectic, Mommsen maintained that Rome had created in the conquered peoples its own antithesis, and in Herder’s language he mourns the balance of peoples that Rome had destroyed. Expansion is healthy until it reaches the national borders; beyond this point it becomes “unnatural” (unnatürlich) and suicidal (RG 2:379). “It is the fate of those political entities which detach themselves from the concept of nationality to recognize no further limits” (RA, 321). Faced with the rising might of the generals, the “sun of freedom” set and the state was internally dead.
With this idea Mommsen closely approaches the argumentation of Montesquieu in the ninth and tenth chapters of his Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734). Montesquieu too saw in the expansion of the Imperium beyond the sea and the Alps the reason for the loss of the sense of citizenship, the growth of the prosperity that undermined morals, and the might of the generals. But Montesquieu’s argument is concerned only with the immoderate size of the Roman hegemony and not with the foreign nations within Rome’s sphere of dominance. And even Montesquieu, of course, had not invented the idea. One may trace it back to the younger Scipio, who inserted into the Roman state prayer the plea that the gods might not make the Roman state any greater; it was big enough as it was (Valerius Maximus 4.1.10). Amid the ruins of Carthage (the city he had himself destroyed) Scipio had before his eyes the fall of Rome (Polybius 38.22). Even if he expected this fall too to be an act of God, God’s means were moral corruption that arose from the power that created luxury.
We find in Mommsen a very similar fusion of guilt and fate. Although he condemns the expansion of Rome on moral and political grounds, he describes that expansion in terms of a destiny that is also visible in his numerous metaphors from nature. Again and again he uses the images of sunset, autumn, old age to describe Rome’s situation at the end of the Republic. The course of history thus takes on a fateful necessity that reduces all moral judgments on Roman politics to the level of mere stylistic ornamentation.
The synchronization of two planes, this drama on the double stage of historical fatalism and political morality, grants Mommsen the freedom to make value judgments independently of context, particularly in his characterization of great men. This is clearest in the contradictions in his picture of Caesar. The “democratic king” Caesar, the utterly perfect man, of the sort that appears “once every thousand years,” before whose greatness the historian must be dumb with reverence (RG 3:468)—to this Caesar all is permitted. The liberal Mommsen pardons Caesar for the establishment of the absolute military dictatorship that put the seal on decadence (Abriss des römischen Staatsrechts, 276); the nationalist Mommsen excuses the subjugation of Gaul.
To be sure, by describing the Gauls as Rome’s “ancestral enemies” whom Caesar vanquished, he did open up the possibility of a defense; but Mommsen well knew that this defense was irrelevant. To save Caesar, Mommsen changes his values. The free Roman people were no more; but men need ideals for which they can sacrifice themselves, and these were now to be found in a glorious policy of conquest by “not only a standing, but a victorious, army” (RA, 324). “Caesar had realized this when he taught his nation to conquer,” when he set up the absolute monarchy—which Augustus then watered down into the defensive dyarchy.
Mommsen had defended himself against the charge of Caesarism. Yet his Caesar recalls the interpretations that were made of Napoleon’s actions, e.g., by the Comte de Segur: “L’éstablissement d’un gouvemment militaire vigoureux est un remède funeste pour la civilisation, mais le seul pourtant qui puisse rendre la vie à un peuple tombé dans l’anarchie” (Pensées, 1823, CCXVIIII).
Caesar, in Mommsen’s work, takes the necessary steps without mercy. He unites in his own person the managing director of the Hegelian Weltgeist with the instrument of higher requital in Herder’s sense. Caesar’s greatness as general of a popular army and democratic king lies in his having drawn the logical conclusions from the loss of freedom, nation, and fatherland and having established a dictatorship that transcended nations and subjugated nations. He brought to the Gauls the blessings of a higher civilization; he liberated the Italians from the rule of a corrupt aristocracy. The arrogance of the Junker class (i.e., the senators) and the plutocracy of the capitalist class (i.e., the equites) were gone. The remède funeste was unavoidable. “Indubitably, the more quickly and thoroughly a despot cleared away all the debris of the old liberal constitution, the better for Rome” (RG 2:380). Caesar, the despot of genius, brought about in Rome the “curse of absolutism” and imperialism in order to achieve, through the “catastrophe” of monarchy, the rebirth of the deeply divided nation. Mommsen’s Caesar is exalted above all human criteria; he was taken over by Bernard Shaw.
Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte ends with Caesar’s final victories. Mommsen never completed the work. The fifth volume, which appeared in 1885, was devoted to the provinces under the emperors. It is written in a cooler, more matter-of-fact tone, without the fire of the first three volumes, and it achieved only a succès d’estime with the public. Mommsen never gave up his plans to write the fourth volume, and it continued to be expected up to the time of his death. A sort of substitute for the missing volume on the Imperial period may be the still unpublished lecture notes of Paul and Sebastian Hensel for the years 1882-1886 that came to light in 1980. These notes confirm Mommsen’s loathing for the period that followed Caesar: “leaden tedium” (RA, 352); “dreary desolation of the absolute monarchy” (RA, 342); “centuries of a decaying culture” (Wucher, 126); “deeply degenerate age” (Hensel 3:227); “complete intellectual marasmus” (Hensel 1A:72). The flourishing economy, the increasing sophistication of the law, the evolution of city life—all this was far removed from what Mommsen—or “the angel of the Lord”—would find today in the Mediterranean countries (RG 5:5). Yet Augustus’ monarchy, according to Mommsen, was founded on the “complete bankruptcy—political, military, economic, and moral—of the civilization of the day” (RA, 107). The pax Augusta was “the peace of the grave—the quiet of the graveyard” (RA, 142).
The concept of decadence is Janus-faced, and a present that is degenerate in comparison with the sublime past can yet be praised as a still-fortunate period in relation to the ever-degenerating future. The depth of the descent is limitless, and thus Mommsen can trace further steps into the abyss beyond the nadir reached under Augustus. Roman Imperial history was, for Mommsen, a step-by-step decline.
With the beginning of the monarchy, the internal death of the community was complete. Augustus halted the process to a certain degree, but after the Servian dynasty ended in 235, “the Roman empire fell apart” (Abriss, 275). Gallienus annihilated the “dyarchy of the Principate” (Ibid., 276), but it was left to Diocletian to give the Empire an “Indian summer” (Herbstfrühling) (Ibid., 278) by “once more simultaneously regenerating and destroying the state of Augustus” (RA, 109). In constitutional terms, Mommsen places a deeper gap between the Principate of Augustus and the Dominate of Diocletian than between the Republic and the Principate, because even the Principate is for him a constitutional entity based on the sovereignty of the people. The princeps is still a magistrate; the dominus is not. From the Republic to the dyarchy of the Principate and on to the pure monarchy of Diocletian, the res publica consolidates itself on progressively lower levels. The Germanic states established on the soil of the Empire are yet a step lower. Each founder of a state administers the estate of the bankrupt who preceded him.
Rome’s demise is revealed externally in the failure against the Germanic peoples. Mommsen posits three turning points. The first is the clades Variana, 9 CE, which, “after the flood tide, marks the beginning of the ebb in Rome’s foreign policy” (RA, 341; RG, 5:53). The second crisis is the war against the Marcomanni, from 166 CE on. “Here the die is indeed cast. After Trajan the Empire was old, to be sure, but not yet senile. But this is extinction” (Hensel 1:241). Mommsen hears the knell for the third time in the year 376. “We are standing before the great catastrophe, which we may well call the end” (Hensel 3:209). Mommsen is thinking of the battle of Adrianople in 378. “With the loss of the Danube frontier, the die is cast for Rome, and to trace the agony further would be distasteful and superfluous. The advantage now lies with the Germanic peoples” (Hensel 3:221). The Eastern Roman Empire merely puts forth “blossoms in winter”; Byzantium for Mommsen—as for Gibbon, Herder, and Burckhardt before him-—is nothing but the protracted wasting away of Roman history (RA 176), just as the Imperial period is only the gradual extinction of the Republic.
Mommsen repeatedly emphasized that Rome met its end not from without but by an “internal disease,” by “inner putrescence” (Abriss: 275, 289). The Germanic nations merely performed the “execution” of the Empire (Hensel 3:223), merely carried out the sentence of fate. Alaric in 410: “The Gothic tempest burst over Italy—-richly merited by the grievous guilt of the government and the yet more grievous guilt of the nation.” It was Alaric’s destiny “to destroy the thousand-year city, its incomparable splendor together with its incomparable vileness” (RA, 321ff.).
With this appeal to fatalism Mommsen had no desire to free the Germanic peoples from the reproach of having barbarously destroyed a superior culture. Mommsen did not share his age’s tendency to apotheosize the ancient Germans. He disparages the Germanic tribal kings as nothing but “brigand chieftains” (Hensel 3:206); Alaric is a captain of bandits (227); the Germanic kingdoms are merely “the rubble of the crumbling Roman Empire” (RA, 141). The product is, to be sure, a “wonderful semi-culture” (Hensel 3:240).
Nevertheless, the Germanic peoples were for Mommsen, as for many others in his day, the ancient Germans, and if Felix Dahn and Friedrich Engels lauded them for precisely this reason, Mommsen castigated them for this same reason. For even then they possessed the German national vice: factionalism. Even under Augustus, “Germans helped foreigners to open up Germany” (RA, 332), and this internal strife of German against German runs through Mommsen’s depiction of Roman Imperial history. For example, the accession of Magnentius in 350 CE: “Germans stood there and decided against Germans, as so often in history” (Hensel 3:155).
Mommsen maintains the same reserve in the face of the second victorious power, Christianity. The pastor’s son who in his youth described himself as homo minime ecclesiasticus and preferred to be called Jens rather than Theodor (for example, in the correspondence with Theodor Storm) was perhaps not exactly an atheist but had no understanding of religious questions.
Mommsen viewed Christianity as the product of resignation. The idealistic quality of life, he felt, had retreated into religion (Hensel 3:156). In his speech on the catacombs of Rome he said, “The union of devotion with burial, the evolution of the grave to the cemetery, the cemetery to the church, is thoroughly Christian—one might perhaps say that it is Christianity itself’ (RA, 300-301). The pax Augusta was to him the peace of the graveyard, and the graveyard was the emblem of Christianity. Christian teaching itself he declared to be “simple faith” (Köhlerglauben) the only excuse for which lay in the mentality of the times; it was a Köhlerglauben for counts and barons (Hensel 3:109) and historically significant for just that reason. It was precisely because of the irrational element in Christianity that people had found it attractive; thus, the more rational Arianism had been vanquished by orthodoxy.
In Mommsen’s work the struggle between pagans and Christians has a social aspect. He equated paganism with the literary culture of the upper classes and, contrasting it with Christianity, described the latter as a “plebeian religion,” the tone of which consequently remained plebeian (Hensel 3:104). The principle of Roman religion was toleration; religious intolerance had been brought into the world by the Jews (105) and taken over by the Christians. “With the Christian hierarchy arises a principle ominous in the highest degree to the state,” a “state within the state” (107, 130fif.); against this principle an emperor like Diocletian would have been obliged to defend himself, even if he had been an enlightened, religiously indifferent man like Cicero or Marcus Aurelius. But Diocletian was no such thing; according to Mommsen, he believed in the gods whom the Christians branded as devils, and thus he was forced to intervene.
If Mommsen’s sympathies lie with Diocletian rather than with Constantine, he is influenced in part by the parallel between these two on the one hand and Caesar and Augustus on the other, but the religious question is no doubt decisive. Neither in his religious policy nor in his founding of Constantinople did Constantine possess breadth of vision, according to Mommsen; success lay beyond all calculations (129). The sectarian struggles of the Christians were now, of course, a burden to the state. With Athanasius begins the conflict of church and state. Mommsen sees this as presumption (Hensel 3:159). When Mommsen goes so far as to maintain that religion brought on Rome’s final catastrophe (Hensel 3:212), he is following Gibbon.
However much Mommsen deplored the “abdication” (Abriss: 281) of the late Roman state and the supremacy of the Church, he considered them unavoidable. “Polytheism had outlived itself’ (Hensel 3:70). Constantine and Constantius, in their efforts to promote religious unity, did what was necessary. Julian, whom Mommsen found essentially more sympathetic as a human being, misread the situation. He ought to have known that it was all up with the old faith (Hensel 3:179), that the state now had to promote a general orthodoxy rather than cling to the outmoded idea of toleration (182). Nothing could be accomplished by a policy of indifference. Mommsen praised Ammianus Marcellinus for his “man of the world’s contempt” for religious strife (Hensel 3:157)—and here Mommsen is characterizing his own relationship with the “Wonderland of religion.”
Mommsen viewed Roman history as “the last act in the great historical drama” staged for us in the evolution of ancient civilization. For him it represents a self-contained cultural cycle that is paradigmatic for all of history. Its unity is expressed in metaphors of youth, maturity, and senility, of morning, noon, and evening, of spring, summer, and autumn. Modern history appears to him as just such another cycle, connected of course to the preceding cycle but presumably destined to end in a similar manner, through the “drying up of the creative energies in glutted satisfaction at the attainment of the goal” (RG 1:4). But history will not end there; every goal is transitory and points to a new and a higher goal. Roman history leads into an expanse of rubble, “but new life sprang up out of the ruins: the Latin race appeared, the Roman character permeated with the German; in metamorphosis, in solution the Roman character lived on, and from the ancient stem burst forth, in a happier age, fresh blossoms.” The heirs of Alaric “continue in vigorous life even today” (Hensel 3:241). These formulae are familiar to us; we have seen them at the end of the third volume of the Römische Geschichte: after the “long historical night” of the Middle Ages, the European nations spring up out of the seed that Caesar had sown.
Mommsen considered the “ethical and political tendencies” of his historiography to be more important than its scholarship, since he was concerned above all with “political pedagogy.” And so he wrote consciously cum ira et studio. His “political” history has been juxtaposed with the cultural-historical orientation of a Jakob Burckhardt (1818-97); his subjectivity has been contrasted with Leopold von Ranke’s (1795-1886) calm, deliberate objectivity; his hope for progress in world history has been derived from the Hegelian tradition; his insight into the cyclic nature of world history has been traced to Romanticism; and his anachronism and modernizing have been repeatedly assailed. In this last point he was criticized not only by Karl Marx in Das Kapital (MEW 23, 182; 25, 339 and 795) but also by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1873 “Bayreuther Horizontbetrachtungen" (Musariori'Ausgabe 7:235), written in 1873: “The author who seeks to make Roman history come alive by loathsome references to the paltry views of modern political parties and their ephemeral configuration commits a yet greater sin against the past than does the mere scholar who leaves everything dead and mummified (e.g., an historian much talked of at present, Mommsen).” Nevertheless, Marx and Nietzsche were in fundamental agreement with Mommsen: “Whatever has no value for life is not true history” (Nietzsche, Ibid.). It merely depends on how one goes about rendering the past usable to the present.
During his years in Berlin Mommsen produced his Römisches Staatsrecht (vols. I-III, 1871-1888), in which he discusses the Institutiones of the Empire in systematic form. The work as a whole has not yet been superseded; as is common in the case of a pioneering and fundamental work, criticism has been directed at its concepts. Influenced by Herder’s idea of the fixed character of a people, Mommsen conceived of the Roman state, from the days of the kings to late antiquity, as a systematic unity. He thought of even the Emperor as a magistrate—in contradiction to the sources, in which the Emperor is never called a magistrate; in the popular mind he had received his legitimation by the will of the gods, as revealed in his nomination by his predecessor, his ratification by the Senate, and the army’s acclamation. Mommsen knew that every monarchy, in the last analysis, is based on the grace of God, but in the case of Rome he managed to avoid drawing the logical consequences from this by conceiving of the Principate as a dyarchy, a double rule by Emperor and Senate. Scholarship has justly rejected this thesis; it has also disallowed Mommsen’s assumption that the Roman constitution rested on the sovereignty of the people. This hypothesis is vulnerable even in the case of the Republic. But these objections aside, the Staatsrechte offers such a wealth of information that it has remained an indispensable tool.
Mommsen’s works on chronology, coinage, and Roman criminal law also laid the foundations for further research, as did his rich essays on late antiquity, which are still the best gateway to the subject for the beginner. Altogether, Zangemeister and Jacobs’s 1905 bibliography (which is incomplete) lists over 1,500 publications by Mommsen. Since Mommsen took into consideration and superseded practically all previous scholarship in the field of Roman history, it is usually sufficient to consult the works that have appeared since his day; one does not, as a rule, reach back beyond Mommsen. Since he seldom cites the books from which he has learned, he forms a barrier in the history of scholarship—a barrier it is occasionally worthwhile to pass.
Mommsen as Organizer
Not only were Mommsen’s achievements as an historical researcher outstanding; he also did pioneering work in the organization and politics of scholarship. Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) justly regarded Mommsen’s entry into the Academy as epoch-making. With Mommsen, writes Harnack, the Academy became truly acquainted with the “big business” of scholarship.
Mommsen had been a corresponding member of the Academy since 1853; the proposal that he be made a regular member came from the archaeologist Eduard Gerhard (1795-1867) and the Egyptologist Richard Lepsius (1810-84). Mommsen was admitted on 27 April 1858. At that time (although it soon grew larger) the Academy had forty-six ordinary members, equally divided among the mathematical and physical section and the philological and historical section. In 1874 Mommsen succeeded Moriz Haupt as one of the four secretaries of the Academy and remained in this position until 1895; he was succeeded by Hermann Diels (1848-1922). During this period he exercised considerable influence on the destiny of the Academy.
Mommsen’s most important task at first was the work on the Corpus Inscrip- tionum Latinarum (CIL). After numerous fruitless attempts had been made at a comprehensive collection of inscriptions, Olaus Kellermann (1805-37), a Dane, had undertaken the project; but he died of cholera only two years later. In 1847 Mommsen had sent his long memorandum to the Academy from Rome. But seven years of effort on the part of Eduard Gerhard were required before the Academy, over the objections of August Böckh (1785-1867), agreed to undertake the project. It was to cost 20,000 taler—the Academy’s largest expenditure to date. Mommsen insisted that all previously published inscriptions be checked against the actual inscriptions in stone, and the funds for travel costs thus devoured were great. He gained support from the jurist Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779-1861) for this, “the Academy’s greatest, most fruitful, and most brilliant undertaking” (Harnack)—on which it had spent, by 1900, over 400,000 gold marks. Director of the CIL after 1853, Mommsen did a great part of the work himself; he carefully selected the scholars who worked on this international project and—as his correspondence demonstrates—gave them indefatigable support. At his death fifteen of the sixteen volumes had appeared, and the Corpus was all but complete. Five volumes bear Mommsen’s name.
Mommsen provided the impetus for the founding of the journal Hermes, which has appeared since 1866. The Ephemeris Epigraphica, of which Mommsen was joint founder, served for the publication of new discoveries; it appeared from 1872 to 1913. The Année épigraphique (Paris) now fulfills this task. Less successful was the CIL’s sister project, the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum. It was edited from 1825 to 1859 by the Prussian Academy and was then replaced by the Inscriptiones Graecae (IG), but this work is not yet completed.
The beginnings of the corpus of Latin inscriptions are intimately connected with the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI) in Rome. Founded in 1829 by Eduard Gerhard as the Istituto di corrispondenza archeologica, the Institute occupied the Palazzo Caffarelli on the Capitoline Hill (then still called Monte Caprino). It was at first an international center for archaeological research but enjoyed the patronage of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, whose contributions provided the Institute’s financial basis. The Palazzo Caffarelli had been the starting place of Mommsen’s career when he arrived in Rome on 30 December 1844, and entered into a lifelong friendship with the Institute’s secretaries Wilhelm Henzen (1816-87) and Heinrich Brunn (1822-94).
In his post at the Berlin Academy, Mommsen took great interest in the growth of the Institute, as his letters to Henzen, Brunn, and Wolfgang Helbig (1839-1915) testify; he even dealt with such questions as whether Italian scholars should receive the third or the fourth class of the Order of the Crown. Mommsen’s own attitude toward such honors is revealed in a letter of 14 April 1860, to Henzen: “So I too have received the tiresome legion d’honneur—that is, it was sent to my address by our Minister to France; I will neither refuse it nor wear it, since I don’t care to play Don Quixote and find it simplest just to lock the rubbish up in my closet.” Mommsen recognized the purpose of this award: they were trying to woo him to be a collaborator in Napoleon Ill’s researches on Caesar. Mommsen allowed himself to accept the star of the Order of the Crown, second class, but in 1897 he declined the title “Excellency,” although Wilhelm II had already signed the patent.
The year 1859 marked a turning point in the history of the Archaeological Institute. Mommsen became a member of the board of directors, which consisted for the most part of members of the Academy, and he quickly became “one of the most active members of the Institute and of its board of directors” (Schmidt-Ott). He worked with energy to make the Institute an agency of the Prussian government, with assured financial support. By degrees he was successful. In April 1859 the Prussian Abgecrrdnetenhaus approved an increase in contributions from 1,340 to 4,500 taler for the next five years.
In his long letter of 5 June 1859, Mommsen explained to Brunn the new situation regarding the position of the two secretaries, the finances for research projects, travel grants (which were awarded on a regular basis after 1860), publications, and the problematic position occupied by the board of directors between the Institute and the Foreign Office. Mommsen was delighted to see the Institute developing more and more into the “succursal of German scholarship.”
The transformation of the Roman Institute into a government agency was completed in 1871. On 2 March—the day after peace was concluded between Germany and France—Wilhelm I, on the advice of Bismarck, signed the document approving the takeover; the Institute’s finances were secured and its ties to the Academy strengthened. On 16 May 1874, the Royal Prussian Institute became the German Imperial Institute, and the newly revised charter came from Mommsen’s pen. In the same year (it had been approved a year earlier) the branch office in Athens was founded, and German excavations were begun in Olympia under Ernst Curtius (1814-96), the tutor of Friedrich III. Curtius had been calling since 1852 for the excavation to begin, and now he wanted “a genuine work of peace” to match the triumph of German arms. In 1878 Carl Humann (1839-96) began excavations on the citadel of Pergamon with Prussian funds; he, too, enjoyed Mommsen’s support.
On the other hand, attempts to improve relations with France and to establish a young archaeologist in Paris as representative of the Roman Institute met with no success. Because of his political letters agli Italiani during the Franco-Prussian war, Mommsen had been expelled from the Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France (but not, however, from the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres).
Among the Roman Institute’s scholarly projects after 1859, besides collaboration on the CIL and the publication of smaller sets of monuments, was a “great museographical repertorium.” This project is mentioned often in Mommsen’s letters. Its subject appears from an address given by Mommsen on 18 March 1880: “a complete and systematic publication of ancient art-works, divided into categories and, within the categories, classified by period and locality” (RA 99). Mommsen had been inspired by Eduard Gerhard’s collection of Etruscan seals and had conceived of a complete index of all portable antiquities. Such a gigantic project could not be realized. But the idea remained alive after Mommsen’s death, and certain subdivisions of ancient art have been catalogued—for example, the corpus of vases, the corpus of sarcophagi, and the corpus of Mycenaean seals.
In 1884 Mommsen resigned from the board of directors of the DAI. His statements during this period are full of deep despondency. “I have long been sick to death of this whole board of directors, with its mixture of bureaucracy and archaeology, to the detriment of both, and of this mish-mash of opposing and incongruous interests.” Yet he continued to take a lively interest in the problems in Rome. The language question is evidence of this. In the Institute, Italian, French, and Latin were spoken and written, and this persisted as late as 1879. The German scholars, as their national consciousness grew and their knowledge of Italian dwindled, naturally opposed this state of affairs. The thing became a public scandal, and on 9 May 1885 Bismarck, as the Institute’s presiding officer, made continual financial support conditional on the future use of German in publications and proceedings.
Mommsen had proudly remarked in 1874 that “our neighbors are now reluctantly compelled to learn our language; difficult as it is, it has become indispensable.” But in 1885 he felt that Bismarck had ruined the Institute. In the DAI’s new bylaws of 1885 he missed the old spirit. The trouble here lay, of course, not merely in the altered conditions; the observer too had changed. Though Mommsen had once worked to secure a solid financial basis for the DAI, now he feared that it was developing into a “veritable government agency ... with a few jobholders living on their pension, some temporary and some for life.”
The third great project that owed its existence and growth largely to Mommsen was the Römisch-Germanische Kommission (RGK). After Mommsen’s great services to archaeology in classical lands, he wanted to set in motion research into the remains of the Roman provinces that had 'existed in Germany. This research was then in the hands of local organizations and amateurs. “Might it not be possible,” he asked in 1890, “to call into existence, on German soil, an institute for Roman-German antiquities, since we have Imperial Archaeological Institutes in Rome and in Athens?”
Mommsen had presented such a plan to the Prussian Ministry of Culture in 1874. Now he wanted a military man to be in charge of the work on the limes—no less a man than the former chief of the Prussian General Staff, Count Helmuth von Moltke (1800-91), who “was passionately interested in the matter.” Von Moltke had been a member of the Academy since 1860, he had been of service in advancing knowledge of historical topography in Italy and Asia Minor, and in his letters from Turkey (1835-1839) he had revealed an amazing knowledge of the ancient authors. After exhaustive negotiations with the Ministry of the Interior on the subject of finances, Mommsen’s plan was rejected in 1890 because of Bismarck’s objections. But Mommsen was stubborn. His letters to Brunn allow us to follow the project in all its phases. “The old hot blood and the fever of the Gründerjahre will not let up yet,” he wrote to Brunn on 1 December 1890, and in the same year, at the Winckelmann anniversary celebrations, he lamented that the limes had not yet been declared a national monument and placed under the protection of the Empire. Mommsen succeeded in winning the support of Wilhelm II, whom he greatly esteemed, for the reconstruction of the castellum of Saalburg near Frankfurt. The Emperor’s patronage is epigraphically commemorated on the Mommsen monument there:
SCRIPTORI RERUM ROMANARUM
INTER OMNES PRINCIPI
CUIUS IMPULSU ATQUE CONSILIO
LIMES IMPERII ROMANI
GUILELMUS IIIMPERATOR GERMANORUM.
For directing work on the limes Mommsen considered the “constant collaboration of a trained officer a scholarly necessity.” In place of von Moltke, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday on 26 October 1890—Mommsen penned the Academy’s official address of congratulation—the retired Bavarian Major-General Karl Popp (1825-1905) offered his services, but his military superiors refused to approve the appointment. Yet Bavaria and Württemberg were insisting on having a South German officer in charge, because otherwise “the project would be un-German.” And so a general from Württemberg, cousin of the Württemberg Minister of Culture, was named as candidate for the provisional directorship of the undertaking; Mommsen mistrusted him on scholarly grounds.
These intrigues were the source of political headaches for Mommsen. His dream was of a Ministry of Culture for the German Empire as a whole, and he placed his talents in scholarly organization, as well as his writing of history, at the service of national political pedagogy. He was proud of the contributions made by the DAI and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica(MGH) to a national consciousness that would transcend the boundaries of the individual German states, and this spirit was lacking in the limes project. Mommsen was not satisfied with the German Empire of 1871. He called the “wretched patchwork of Anno 71 a political fiasco.” It called forth from Mommsen a gloomy prognosis: “Our poor fatherland, despite its apparent unification, is so fragmented.... Our children will have to pay the price.”
Mommsen had had in mind Felix Hettner (1851-1902), the director of the Trier Museum, to be archaeological director of the&
Karl Zangemeister and Emil Jacobs. Theodor Mommsen als Schriftsteller (Berlin, 1905; bibliography of Mommsen’s works in chronological order.)
Walter Bohlich, Der Berliner Antisemitismusstreit, Sammlung Insel 6 (Frankfurt, 1965; paperback edition, 1988); Berhard vom Brocke, “Hochschul- und Wisscnschaftspolitik in Preussen und im Deutschen Kaiserreich 1882-1907: Das ‘System Althoff’,” in Bildungspolitik in Preussen zur Zeit des Kaiserreichs, ed. Peter Baumgart (Stuttgart, 1980): 9-118; Karl Christ, Von Gibbon zu Rostovtzeff: Leben und Werk führender Althistoriker der Neuzeit (Darmstadt, 1972); ------, Römische Geschichte und deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft (Darmstadt, 1982); ------, “. .. die schwere Ungerechtigkeit gegen Augustus,” Augustus, Mommsen und Wilamowitz: Tria Corda: scritti in onore de Arnaldo Momigliano, ed. E. Gabba (Como, 1983) 89-100; Brian Croke, “Mommsen and Byzantium,” Philologus 129 (1985) 274-85; Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms. Die Auflösung des Römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt (Munich, 1984); ------ “Alte Geschichte an der Berliner Universität.” in Berlin und die Antike: Architektur, Kunstgewerbe, Malerei, Skulptur, Theater und Wissenschaft vom 16. Jahrhundert bis Heute, (Aufsätzband zur Ausstellung), ed. Willmuth Arenhövel and Christa Schreiber (Berlin, 1979) 69-97; ------, “Mommsens ungeschriebene Kaisergeschichte,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft 1983 (Berlin, 1984) 147-161; ------, “Die Hensel-Nachschriften zu Mommsens Kaiserzeit-Vorlesung,” Gymnasium 93 (1986) 497-519. Plates XVII-XXIV; ------, “Mommsen in Berlin” in Wissenschaftspolitik in Berlin: Minister, Beamte, Ratgeber. Berliner Lebensbilder, ed. W. Treue and K. Gründer (Berlin, 1987) 3:149-173; W. Warde Fowler, “Theodor Mommsen: His Life and Work,” in Roman Essays and Interpretations (Oxford,1920) 250-68 (Written in 1909.); H. Galsterer, “Theodor Mommsen.” Berlinische Lebensbilder Geisteswissenschaftler (Berlin, 1989) 175-94; Conrad Grau, Die Berliner Altademie der Wissenschaften in der Zeit des Imperialismus, t. 1: Von den neunziger Jahren des 19. Jahrhunderts bis zur Grossen Sozialistischen Oktoberrevolution, Studien zur Geschichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR 2 (Berlin, 1975); Adolf Harnack, Geschichte der königlich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Band 1: Darstellung (cited by pages) Band 2: Urkunden und Actenstücke(cited by numbers) (Berlin, 1900) 307; Ludo Moritz Hartmann, Theodor Mommsen. Eine Biographische Skizze (Gotha, 1908); Paul Hensel, “Theodor Mommsen. Römische Kaisergeschichte von Caesar bis Vespasian,." unpublished lecture notes. Berlin, Winter-semester, 1882-83. (Cited as Hensel 1.); Sebastian Hensel, “Theodor Mommsen. Römische Kaisergeschichte von Vespasian bis Diocletian,” unpublished lecture notes. Berlin, Summer-semester 1883. (Cited as Hensel 2.); ------, “Theodor Mommsen. Römische Kaisergeschichte von Diocletian bis Honorius,” unpublished lecture notes. Berlin, Summer-semester 1886. (Cited as Hensel 3.); Alfred Heuss, Theodor Mommsen und das 19. Jahrhundert (Kiel, 1956); Otto Hirschfeld, “Gedachtnisrede auf Theodor Mommsen,” in Otto Hirschfeld, Kleine Schriften (Berlin, 1913) 931-65 (Written in 1904); Christhard Hoffmann, “Juden und Judentum im Werk Deutscher Althistoriker des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts,” Studies in Judaism in Modern Times 9, ed. Jacob Neusner (Leiden, New York, Copenhagen, Cologne, 1988) 87-132; T. Imelmann, “Mommsen über Gibbon,” Der Tag 12 November 1909. Illustrierte Unterhaltungsbeilage 266: 4; Klaus-Peter Johne, “100 Jahre Prosopographia Imperii Romani,” Klio56 (1974) 21-7; Christa Kirsten, Die Altertumswissenschaften an der Berliner Akademie. Wahlvorschläge zur Aufnahme von Mitgliedern von F. A. Wolf bis zu G. Rodenwaldt 1799-1932 (Berlin, 1985); Hans Liebeschütz, “Treitschke and Mommsen on Jewry and Judaism,” Yearbook VII of the Leo Baeck Institute (1962) 153-82; -------, Das Judentum im deutschen Geschichtsbildvon Hegel bis Max Weber (Tübingen, 1967); Hans-Joachim Mey, “Herman Grimm, eine biographische Skizze,” Hessische Blätter fur Volks- und Kulturforschung. Neue Folge 18 (1985) 162-70; Michaelis, Adolf. Geschichte des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 1829-1879 (Berlin, 1879); Emil Reich, “Theodor Mommsen,” Monthly Review (London) 13 (Oct.-Dec. 1903) 74-84; Gerhart Rodenwaldt, Archäologisches Institut des Deutschen Reiches 1829-1929 (Berlin, 1929); Arnold Sachse, Friedrich Althoff und sein Werk (Berlin, 1928); Franco Sartori, “Theodor Mommsen radiato dalla Société des Antiquaires de France,” in Xenia. Scritti in onore di Piero Treves, ed. F. Broilo (Rome, 1985) 183-90; Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, Erlebtes und Erstrebtes 1860-1950 (Wiesbaden, 1952); Heinrich von Treitschke, Briefe, ed. M. Cornicelius, Band 3, Teil 2 (1871-1896) (Leipzig, 1920); LotharWickert, Beiträge zur Geschichte des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 1879-1929 (Mainz, 1979); ------, Theodor Mommsen. Eine Biographie (Frankfurt-am-Main: Vol. 1, 1959; vol. 2, 1964; vol. 3, 1970; vol. 4, 1980); Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Erinnerungen 1848-1914 (Leipzig, 1928); F. Winkelmann, Prosopographia Imperii Romani saec. IV, V, VI. Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin, 1980) 29-34; Albert Wucher, Theodor Mommsen. Geschichtsschreibung und Politik (Göttingen, 1956; 2d ed., 1968).
Major Mommsen collections are held in East Berlin by the Akademie-Archiv and the Staatsbibliothek der DDR. Smaller collections are in the Schiller-Nationalmuseum in Marbach, in the Universitätsbibliothek Kiel and in the Staatsbibliothek, West Berlin.
Gelehrten- und Schriftsteller-Nachlässe in den Bibliotheken der DDR, ed. Hans Lüfling, Vols. I-III (Berlin, 1959-1971); Die Nachlässe in den Bibliotheken der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, ed. Ludwig Denecke and Tilo Brandis; 2d ed. (Boppard am Rhein, 1981).
- Author: Alexander Demandt