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book cover, click here for Amazon.deFor anyone who can read German, there is a new and excellent biography on the historian Theodor Mommsen out:

Theodor Mommsen, Eine Biographie
by Stefan Rebenich

Mr. Rebenich, a professor of ancient history at the University of Mannheim, has studied Mommsen, his work, and his life extensively and writes very attractively on his subject. I could not put the book down.

What a fascinating personality, a genius with all the warts of genius, but with his feet – mostly – securely planted in the world around him!

Born a poor parson's son in 1817, home schooled for most of the time, Mommsen had a successful university education in the law, which seems to have been one of the few ways to make an income at that time for a person of his social background. Roman law, which at the time was an important part of legal education, a travel stipend which allowed him to spend two years in Rome and Italy, and connections impressed by his work in epigraphy led the jurist into a historian's university career. (He was a poor teacher though and had a stifling influence on his many assistants.)

He was a sometime journalist, '48 revolutionary – he spent a couple of years in exile in Zürich, Switzerland, the same time as Richard Wagner, whom he detested – life long liberal with active political involvement, rude polemicist who did not suffer fools gladly and made many enemies (including his son-in-law, the graecist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf), brilliant administrator, organizer and fund raiser, poet, frequenter of literary and intellectual salons, father of 16 children, 12 of whom survived infancy, but foremost innovator in the study of Roman history, which would never be the same thereafter.

As cited from the Nobel biography: “He was the general editor of, and chief contributor to, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the gigantic collection of Roman inscriptions published by the Berlin Academy (1867-1959). This work laid the foundations for a systematic study of Roman government, administration, economics, and finance.”

He supported the German Archaeological Institute in Rome and was a longtime leading member and active proponent of the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin. He was a founder of the Imperial Limes Commission and thus greatly advanced the archaeology and study of the German and Raetic Limes. His scientific and political influence was renowned, the latter though did not meet with much real success, given the conservative political climate of the day. When Mommsen spoke, people listened.

While his main known works are the Roman History, a study of Rome through the end of the Republic (which must be read with the political climate of Germany in the 19th century in mind), Roman Constitutional Law, and Roman Criminal Law, he spent most of his time editing ancient sources – when not administering at the university and the Academy. Roman History brought him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1902, a year before his death at age 86.

Rebenich pulls all these threads of Mommsen's life together in a well organized and readable manner.

An aside: Mommsen had a habit of standing on a ladder in his library, nearsightedly reading books with the help of an open light, which caused frequent burns to his hair and face and most likely resulted in a devastating fire in 1880, in which he lost much of his library as well as manuscripts of ancient authors which he was in the habit of borrowing from various institutions.

Irene Hahn

© 2002 Irene B. Hahn

on this site: Theodor Mommsen
Theodor Mommsen, Eine Biographie
by Stefan Rebenich
Hardcover, 272 pages
C.H. Beck, Munich 2002
ISBN: 3406492959

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