Theodor Mommsen

gigatos | November 17, 2021


Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen († November 1, 1903 in Charlottenburg) was a German historian and is considered one of the most important classical scholars of the 19th century. His works and editions on Roman history are still of fundamental importance for today”s research. He was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902 for his Roman History.

Theodor Mommsen came from a family of pastors; his father Jens Mommsen had been a pastor in Oldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein since 1821, where the eldest son Theodor grew up together with five siblings. The children gradually withdrew from their father”s strict Christian beliefs, but Mommsen remained a convinced liberal Protestant to the end of his life, with a clear aversion to Catholicism. Although the family lived in rather poor circumstances, Jens Mommsen awakened an early interest in the ancient classics in his children. After initial private lessons, Theodor Mommsen attended the Christianeum in Altona from October 1834 and began studying law at the University of Kiel in May 1838. Here he joined the fraternity Albertina (today Teutonia), met the law student Theodor Storm in 1839, who later became famous as a poet, shared his apartment with him for a time, and together with him and his younger brother Tycho Mommsen published the Liederbuch dreier Freunde (Songbook of Three Friends) in 1843, a collection of poems that was warmly received by literary critics. In the same year he received his doctorate in Kiel under Georg Christian Burchardi with the thesis Ad legem de scribis et viatoribus et De auctoritate. Although he was actually a lawyer, from then on he devoted himself almost exclusively to ancient history, which only emerged as a separate discipline around this time, based on his studies of Roman law.

Mommsen aspired to an academic career, but first had to earn his living as a substitute teacher at two girls” boarding schools run by aunts of his in Altona. In 1844 he received a Danish travel grant (the Duchy of Schleswig was a fief of Denmark and was in personal union with Denmark and Holstein) and visited first France, then mainly Italy, where he began his study of Roman inscriptions. He entered into contact with the Archaeological Institute and planned a collection of all known Latin inscriptions, which, unlike earlier corpora, was to be based on the autopsy principle. As a first step, Mommsen collected the inscriptions of the then Kingdom of Naples.

In 1847, Mommsen returned to Germany, but for the time being he had to work as a teacher again. During the March Revolution of 1848, he became a journalist in Rendsburg and vigorously advocated his liberal convictions. In the fall of that year, he received a call to Leipzig as an associate professor of law and was thus finally able to pursue an academic career. He began an extensive publication activity, but also remained politically active, together with his friends and fellow professors Moriz Haupt and Otto Jahn. Because of their participation in the Saxon May Uprising in 1849, the three were charged and dismissed from university service in 1851.

After losing his professorship in Leipzig for political reasons, he accepted a call to the newly created chair of Roman law at the University of Zurich. Here he taught from April 29, 1852 to August 27, 1854. A lecture of that time for the Antiquarian Society in Zurich later appeared in print under the title Die Schweiz in römischer Zeit. In Zurich, however, he felt very uncomfortable; he complained in a letter about the Swiss: “They belong to the frog family, and you have to thank God when they speak High German and put a napkin on the table.” He was therefore eager to return to Germany and in 1854 followed an appointment to Breslau, where he became friends with the private lecturer Jacob Bernays. However, Mommsen did not like Breslau either; above all, he was repelled by the students there: “Most of them stink, all of them are lazy.” In 1858, Mommsen”s most ardent wish came true: he was appointed to a research professorship at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin and in 1861 received a chair in Roman antiquity at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, where he lectured until 1885 (a task that clearly took a back seat to his research activities).

From then on, Mommsen used the calls he received to other universities to improve his position in Berlin. He quickly rose to become a scholar who was famous internationally and far beyond the boundaries of his field. Mommsen was a member of the Royal Saxon Society of Sciences in Leipzig as well as a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Sciences from 1852, an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1864, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1872, socio straniero of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome from 1876, and a foreign member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres from 1895. In 1856, the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Greifswald awarded him his first honorary doctorate. Already in 1877 he was elected honorary member of the philosophical-historical class of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna, in 1893 he became honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.

Mommsen was unpopular with his students; he was considered a bad and imperious lecturer. Time and again, however, he intervened in appointment proceedings in favor of his academic students and secured them chairs, for example in the cases of Otto Seeck and Ulrich Wilcken. Both times, Karl Julius Beloch, who was at odds with Mommsen, lost out. Most of Mommsen”s students never succeeded in stepping out of the shadow of their overpowering teacher, especially since the latter looked down on most of them as “the young impotent”. Other younger scholars and some of Mommsen”s students, however, made a conscious effort to emancipate themselves from their academic teacher. Among these, Max Weber is the most important, whom Mommsen supposedly considered his only worthy successor, but who turned to sociology even before receiving his doctorate.

In an apartment fire on July 12, 1880, the most important manuscripts of Jordanes” History of the Goths were lost in Mommsen”s study. His library was almost completely destroyed. His lecture notes, which he had actually intended to use as the basis for a publication, also fell victim to the flames.

Mommsen was highly honored for his scientific achievements (Order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts in 1868, honorary citizenship of Rome). In the meantime, he was also world-famous beyond specialist circles; Mark Twain, for example, met him in Berlin in 1892 and was deeply impressed. Mommsen received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902 for his main work, Roman History. From the prize money, he donated 5,000 marks to the magistrate of the then city of Charlottenburg, which was to benefit the people”s library (1,000 marks), the two high schools (1,000 marks each) and the poor (2,000 marks).

With his wife Maria Auguste (1832-1907), a daughter of the Leipzig publisher Karl August Reimer, to whom he had been married since 1854, Mommsen had 16 children, twelve of whom reached adulthood. His son Konrad was an admiral and fleet commander in the Reichsmarine. His grandchildren include the historians Wilhelm Mommsen and Theodor E. Mommsen, the later president of the Federal Archives Wolfgang A. Mommsen, the manager and government official Ernst Wolf Mommsen. Theodor Mommsen”s great-grandchildren Hans Mommsen and Wolfgang J. Mommsen played a decisive role in shaping historical scholarship in postwar Germany. His great-great-grandson Oliver Mommsen made a career as an actor.

Mommsen”s grave is located in the Dreifaltigkeitskirchhof II on Bergmannstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg, as an honorary grave of the state of Berlin, in field M1.

Mommsen wrote more than 1500 scientific studies and treatises on various research topics, especially on the history and legal system of the Roman Empire from early times to the end of Late Antiquity. His most famous publication is Roman History, written at the beginning of his career. Published in three volumes from 1854 to 1856, it described the history of Rome up to the end of the Roman Republic and the reign of Gaius Iulius Caesar, whom Mommsen portrayed as a brilliant statesman. Mommsen thus shaped the highly positive image of Caesar in German research for almost a century. Mommsen”s terminology compares the political conflicts, especially of the late Republic, with the political developments of the 19th century (nation-state, democracy). The committedly written work, although in many respects outdated, is considered a classic of historiography, not least because of its literary quality.

Mommsen, whose scientific approach to antiquity changed greatly in later years, never wrote a continuation of Roman history into the imperial period; only transcripts of his lectures on Roman imperial history were published (not until 1992). In 1885, a systematic account of the Roman provinces in the early imperial period appeared as volume 5 of Römische Geschichte.

His three-volume (1871-1888) systematic presentation of Roman constitutional law in his work Römisches Staatsrecht (Roman Constitutional Law) is still of great importance for research in ancient history and legal history. Furthermore, he wrote a work on Roman criminal law (Römisches Strafrecht, 1899).

At the Berlin Academy, where he was secretary of the Historical-Philological Class from 1874 to 1895, Mommsen organized numerous major scientific undertakings, especially editions of sources. In addition, through close contacts with Friedrich Althoff, he temporarily exercised great influence on Prussian science and university policy.

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum

The collection of all known ancient Latin inscriptions (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum) had already been conceived by Mommsen at the beginning of his scientific career, when he edited the inscriptions of the Kingdom of Naples as a model (1852). The complete Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum was to comprise 16 volumes, 15 of which were published during Mommsen”s lifetime, five of which were compiled by Mommsen himself. The basic principle for the edition, in contrast to earlier collections, was the autopsy principle, in which all surviving inscriptions were examined in the original. For the project he used not only the Prussian Academy, but also the Royal Prussian Archaeological Institute, whose central directorate he belonged to for a long time. For example, when awarding travel grants or filling institute positions, he steered an expressly desired epigraphic partial orientation of the institute. Mommsen had set aside 20 years for the implementation of the collection project of ancient Latin inscriptions. However, it still exists in the 21st century, now at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences.

Research of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes

In 1892, under Mommsen”s leadership, the Reichs-Limeskommission began its work, the goal of which was to determine the exact course and location of the forts of the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes. The research reports on the excavations filled fourteen volumes and are still regarded today as a unique pioneering work in the study of Germanic-Roman history.

Other editions and research companies

Mommsen also edited the imperial law collections Corpus iuris civilis and Codex Theodosianus, which were fundamental for Roman law. Furthermore, he was instrumental in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, where he founded the series of Auctores antiquissimi; among the late antique Latin authors he edited himself were Jordanes (De origine actibusque Getarum) and Hydatius of Aquae Flaviae (Continuatio Chronicorum Hieronymianorum). In addition, there was the edition of the writings of the Church Fathers and numerous other undertakings. Thus, in addition to the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum at the Berlin Academy, he stimulated two other important research projects that lasted into the 21st century, namely the Greek Coinage and the Prosopographia Imperii Romani.

The Mommsen Society, the association of German-speaking scholars of antiquity, was later named after Theodor Mommsen.

In addition to his scholarly activities, Mommsen was also politically active and, among other things, critically engaged with the issues of anti-Semitism, imperialism and, as a contemporary of the revolutions of 18481849, liberalism.

Mommsen was a co-founder of the liberal German Progress Party in 1861. From 1863 to 1866 and from 1873 to 1879 he was a member of the Prussian parliament, and from 1881 to 1884 of the Reichstag, first for the Progress Party, later for the National Liberals, and finally for the Liberal Association. He dealt mainly with questions of scientific and educational policy and enjoyed considerable authority: “When Mommsen, who was considered liberal and who opposed imperialism and anti-Semitism, spoke out, there was a great response.” Disappointed with the policies of the empire, whose future he was very pessimistic about, he eventually recommended that the liberals cooperate with the Social Democrats. In 1881, Mommsen came into conflict with Otto von Bismarck over social policy.

In the so-called Berlin Anti-Semitism Controversy of 18791880, he opposed his fellow historian Heinrich von Treitschke, who had coined the slogan “The Jews are our misfortune,” thus making hatred of the Jews respectable in Mommsen”s eyes. In 1890, Mommsen was one of the leading founders of the Association for the Defense against Anti-Semitism. The Free Scientific Association elected him an honorary member in 1887.

In Mommsen”s native town of Garding, a memorial to his life and work was established in 1987, the Theodor Mommsen Memorial next to the house where he was born, on which a plaque has been mounted since 1903.

Already from the early days of the new medium, photographs of Mommsen were produced in large numbers, and the historian, who had clearly recognized the importance of media presence for his reputation as a scientist and writer, carefully watched over their publication. A list of Mommsen”s numerous photographs and xylographs is recorded by Hans Markus von Kaenel.

Drawings, etchings, and lithographs featuring Mommsen”s portrait were created by numerous renowned artists, including Heinrich Böse (1897-1982), Walter Gramatté (1897-1929), Carl Friedrich Irminger (1813-1863), Louis Jacoby (1828-1918), Meinhard Jacoby (1873-1956), Károly Józsa (1876-1929), Moritz Klinkicht (1849-1932), Arthur Krampf (1864-1950), Wilhelm Krauskopf (1847-1921), Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905), Ernesto Mancastroppa (1857-1909), Adolf von Menzel (1815-1905), Hans Olde (1855-1917), William Blake Richmond (1842-1921), Gustav Richter (1823-1884), Fritz Schulze (1838-1914), Hans Seydel (1866-1916), Fritz Werner (1827-1908).

Paintings with Mommsen”s portrait are by Willi Becker (1899-1963), Emanuel Grosser (1874-1921), Alphons Hollaender (1845-1923), Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910), Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), Sabine Lepsius (1864-1942), Hans Schadow (1862-1924), Cesare Tropea (1861-1914), Friedrich Weidig (1859-1933). In addition, there are history paintings by William Pape (1859-1920) and Anton von Werner (1843-1915).

Portrait busts and statuettes were created by Reinhold Begas (1831-1911), Gustav Heinrich Eberlein (1847-1926), Ferdinand Carl Emmanuel Hartzer (1838-1906), Hermann Rudolf Heidel (180-1865), Meinhard Jacoby, Hans Hugo Lederer (1871-1949), Walter Lobach (1863-1926), Karl Pracht (1866-1917), Fritz Schaper (1841-1919), Maria Schlafhorst (1865-1925), Heinrich Splieth (1877-1929), Joseph Uphues (1850-1911) (Mommsen portrait used for depiction of the chronicler of Mark Brandenburg Heinrich von Antwerpen, cf. see below).

Numerous medals and plaques with Mommsen”s portrait were designed for the famous ancient historian, as they were for other famous personalities.

Memorial plaques and monuments were made by Adolf Brütt (1855-1939), Johannes Götz (1865-1934), Josef Kowarzik (1860-1911).

Mommsen”s portrait was also disseminated on postcards, advertising collector”s cards and stamps.

Finally, Mommsen was also the subject of caricatures.

On the occasion of the centenary of the Berlin University, on November 1, 1909, on the anniversary of Mommsen”s death, the seated picture created by Adolf Brütt in Weimar was unveiled.

The Berlin sculptor Heinrich Splieth created a bust of Mommsen, which, cast in bronze, was erected on a pedestal as a monument in Garding. In 2001 it was stolen and has not been recovered since. The Mommsen bust, which visitors to the town can see today on the market square in Garding, is a cast of a bust by the Berlin sculptor Karl Pracht.

In the Mommsen Pharmacy in Berlin-Charlottenburg, which no longer exists, stood a cast of Mommsen”s marble bust, which the sculptor Ferdinand Hartzer had created in 1905 for the Gallery of Berlin Professors in the Friedrich Wilhelms University.

In several places, streets have been named after Mommsen. The same applies to schools. The film series Die Lümmel von der ersten Bank is set at a fictitious Mommsen grammar school in Baden-Baden. In Berlin, the Mommsen Stadium bears his name. There was also a Mommsen Gymnasium opened in 1903 on Wormser Strasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg, which was merged after the war with the Kaiserin-Augusta Gymnasium, now the Heinz-Berggruen Gymnasium. Mommsen made a donation to the teachers” library before his death. The Theodor Mommsen School in Bad Oldesloe, where he grew up, is named after him.

Very probably after the physiognomy of the eighty-year-old Mommsen, the sculptor Joseph Uphues designed the figure of the Brandenburg canon and historiographer Henry of Antwerp, who was active in the 12th and 13th centuries, in any case, according to Uta Lehnert, the resemblance is “probably not coincidental”. The bust was a secondary figure of monument group 3 with the central statue for Otto II in Berlin”s Victory Avenue and was unveiled on March 22, 1899.

On May 1, 2003, an asteroid received Theodor Mommsen”s name: (52293) Mommsen.

On December 1, 2017, a Berlin memorial plaque was unveiled at his former residence, Berlin-Charlottenburg, Marchstraße 8 (today: Straße des 17. Juni 152).

Mommsen was intensively honored by the portrait medals with his portrait, which were produced during his lifetime and posthumously, and which were widely distributed among the contemporary educated bourgeoisie of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To mark his 200th birthday, Deutsche Post AG issued a special postage stamp with a face value of 190 euro cents on November 2, 2017. The design was created by graphic artist Julia Warbanow from Berlin.

In 1926, the plant genus Mommsenia Urb. & Ekman from the blackmouth family (Melastomataceae) was named in his honor.


  1. Theodor Mommsen
  2. Theodor Mommsen
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.