Theodor Mommsen (30 November 1817 - 1 November 1903) was a German classical scholar and historian, generally regarded as the greatest classicist of the 19th century. His work regarding Roman history is still of fundamental importance for contemporary research.
He was born in Garding, Schleswig, at the time part of the Danish monarchy, grew up in Oldesloe and attended school in Altona.
Mommsen studied jurisprudence in Kiel from 1838 to 1843. Thanks to a Danish grant, he was able to visit France and Italy to study classical history. During the revolution of 1848, Mommsen was a correspondent in Rendsburg and became professor of law in the same year at the University of Leipzig. Due to his liberal political views he had to resign in 1851, but already in 1852 obtained a professorship in Roman law at the University of Zürich, and then in 1854 at the University of Breslau.
In 1858 Mommsen was called to the Academy of Sciences in Berlin and also became professor of Roman History at the University of Berlin in 1861, where he held lectures up to 1887. Mommsen received high recognition for his scientific achievements: the medal Pour le mérite in 1868, honorary citizenship of Rome, and the Nobel prize for literature in 1902 for his main work 'Römische Geschichte' (Roman History). He is one of the very few non-fiction writers to receive the literature Nobel. Mommsen had 16 children with his wife Marie (daughter of the editor Karl Reimer from Leipzig), some of which died while still very young. Two of his grandsons, Hans and Wolfgang, are prominent German historians.
Roman History: Mommsen's most famous work appeared in three volumes between 1854 and 1856, and exposed roman history up to the end of the Roman republic and the rule of Julius Caesar, who Mommsen portrayed as a gifted statesman. Political issues, especially of the late republic, are closely compared (also in their terminology) to political developments in the 19. century (nation state, Democracy). It is counted among the great classics of historical works. Mommsen never wrote a continuation of his Roman history to incorporate the imperial period. Notes taken in his lectures on the Roman empire were published (in 1992). In 1885 a presentation of the Roman provinces in the imperial period appeared as volume 5 of Roman History (The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian). There never was a volume 4.
Roman Constitutional Law: (1871-1888) This systematical treatment of Roman constitutional law in three volumes has always been of great importance for research in ancient history.
Roman Criminal Law (1899)
more than 1500 further studies and treatises on single issues.
Mommsen published hundreds of works - a 1905 bibliography lists over 1,000 items - and effectively gave a new order to the study of Roman history. He pioneered epigraphy, the study of inscriptions on stone and wood. His main work was the unfinished History of Rome, but today his most relevant work is perhaps the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a collection of Roman inscriptions he contributed to for the Berlin Academy.
Mommsen as scientific editor and organiser
While he was secretary of the Historical-Philological Class at the Berlin Academy (1874 - 1895), Mommsen organised countless scientific projects, mostly editions of original sources.
Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum
At the beginning of his scientific career, Mommsen already envisioned a collection of all known ancient Latin inscriptions when he published the inscriptions of the Neapolitan Kingdom (1852). The complete Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum would consist of 16 volumes, of which 15 appeared during Mommsen's life, five made by Mommsen himself. The basic principle of the edition (contrary to previous collections) was the method of autopsy (which in Greek means literally "to see for oneself"), according to which all extant inscriptions were tested and compared to the original.
Further editions and research projects
Mommsen also published the fundamental collections in Roman law: the Corpus Iuris Civilis and the Codex Theodosianus. Furthermore, he played an important role in the publication of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the edition of the texts of the Church Fathers, the Limes research and countless other projects.
Mommsen as politician
Mommsen was a delegate to the Prussian Landtag in 1863 - 1866 and again in 1873 - 1879, and delegate to the Reichstag in 1881 - 1884, at first for the liberal 'Deutsche Fortschrittspartei' (Germann Progressive Party), later for the 'Nationalliberalen' (National Liberals), and finally for the Secessionists. He was very concerned with questions regarding scientific and educational policies and held national positions. Disappointed with the politics of the empire, regarding whose future he was quite pessimistic, in the end he advised a collaboration between Liberals and Social Democrats.
Regarding social policies Mommsen had a disagreement with Bismarck in 1881, concerning the question, whether Jews could be Germans with equal rights, in 1879/80 with his colleague Heinrich von Treitschke (the so-called 'Berliner Antisemitismusstreit').