Roman Monument: Anthony Grafton Remembers Theodor Mommsen, the Great German Historian of the Roman Republic and Literary Giant of His Day

By Grafton, Anthony | History Today, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Roman Monument: Anthony Grafton Remembers Theodor Mommsen, the Great German Historian of the Roman Republic and Literary Giant of His Day


Grafton, Anthony, History Today


IN THE SPRING OF 1892, Mark Twain described Berlin for the readers of the Chicago Tribune. He admired the city's beauty, the cleanliness of its streets, and the energy of its inhabitants, but it was the bustling Berliners' reverence for science and scholarship that impressed him most deeply. He described how, at a banquet held in honour of two great scientists, the pathologist Rudolf Virchow and the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, a thousand students sang their corps songs, drew their swords in unison, and toasted the eminent men.

Suddenly all the students, row by row, began to stand. 'This supreme honor had been offered to no one before. Then there was an excited whisper at our table--"Mommsen!"--and the whole house rose. Rose and shouted and stamped and clapped, and banged the beer-mugs.' To Twain, 'the little man with his long hair and Emersonian face' who now made his appearance had always seemed 'only a giant myth, a world-shadowing specter, not a reality,' but 'Here he was, carrying the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull, and doing it as easily as that other luminous vault, the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.'

The nineteenth century really was the age of Clio. Europeans and Americans recreated the past in historical novels and reconstructed past building styles for their public world of parliaments, museums, and universities. They idealized their great historians, from Leopold von Ranke to George Bancroft, historian of the United States. And, by 1892, the world agreed that Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) was the most heroic historian of them all. Even in Berlin, where everyone worked long days, the rigour of his schedule became proverbial. He rose at five, drank a cup of cold coffee and began to work in his own massive library. When he went out, 'he took a book with him, like Macaulay.' Tram conductors would call their passengers' attention to the old professor as he stood leaning on a lamppost to read: 'That is the celebrated Professor Mommsen: he loses no time.'

Yet Mommsen was anything but a narrow pedant. His civic courage was as distinctive as his erudition. In the Prussian House of Deputies, where he represented Halle, he criticized Bismarck so vigorously that he barely escaped prosecution. When Heinrich von Treitschke began his anti-Semitic campaign in 1879, declaring that 'The Jews are our misfortune,' Mommsen responded sharply, and in public. In private, this man of iron industry and rectitude was the best of company. When a young American girl proved shy in his presence, he put her at ease by asking if she had liked William Dean Howells' last novel, as he had.

There was an organic connection between the tireless scholar and the steely public man. Mommsen insisted that true history could never be a detached, bloodless inquiry into the past. In 1876 he told the students of Berlin that 'History is the record of human life: you cannot learn to realize the life of the past but by experience of the present and by independent thought.' This principle--a highly controversial one in the German world, where most professors proclaimed that they practised the pure pursuit of Wissenschaft, scientific knowledge--dominated Mommsen's career.

The scholar who embodied the virtues of the German university at its intellectual zenith began life very modestly. The son of a poor minister, he studied at home and then, for four years only, at a Gymnasium (classical high school) in Altona, near Hamburg. But he learned an astonishing amount. By the time he received his Abitur or diploma, at twenty, Mommsen had thoroughly mastered Greek and Latin, English and other modern languages, mathematics and physics. Too poor to afford to go to one of the great German universities to the south and west, such as Gottingen or Heidelberg, he took his doctorate in Roman law in the small but rigorous local university of Kiel.

Mommsen's early experiences formed him for life. …

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