Theodor Mommsen, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1902

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Christian Matthias Theodor* Mommsen

Birthdate: (85)
Birthplace: Garding, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
Death: November 1, 1903 (85)
Charlottenburg, Berlin, Deutschland~Germany
Place of Burial: Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof II in Berlin-Kreuzberg
Immediate Family:

Son of Jens Mommsen and Sophie Elisabeth Krumbhaar
Husband of Maria Auguste Mommsen
Father of Marie Mommsen; Dr. med. Ernst Mommsen; 16 children Mommsen; Elisabeth Mommsen; Karl Mommsen and 12 others
Brother of Karl Johannes Tycho* Mommsen and August Mommsen

Occupation: German historian and writer. Nobel Prize in Literature 1902, Professor, Rektor, Schriftsteller
Managed by: Private User
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About Theodor Mommsen, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1902

Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (1817 - 1903)

German historian and writer, famous for his masterpiece, Romische Geschichte ("The History of Rome"). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902.

Christian Mommsen was the son of a Protestant minister in Garding, Schleswig, and he grew up in Oldesloe (now Bad Oldesloe). He received his basic classical training in the senior classes of the Gymnasium (secondary school) Christianeum in Altona, then part of the Duchy of Holstein. From 1838 to 1843 he studied jurisprudence at the University of Kiel; inasmuch as the study of jurisprudence in Germany at the time was largely a study of Roman law, this had an essential influence on the direction of his future research. He owed his idea of the close interrelationship between law and history not so much to his teachers as to the writings of Friedrich Karl von Savigny, one of the founders of the historical school of jurisprudence.

After he had received his master's and his doctor's degrees, a research scholarship granted by his sovereign, the king of Denmark, allowed him to spend three years--from 1844 to 1847--in Italy. During this time Italy became his second home and the Archaeological Institute in Rome one of the headquarters from which he pursued his research. By that time Mommsen had already conceived the plan for the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a comprehensive collection of Latin inscriptions preserved since antiquity on stone, iron, and other enduring materials, arranged according to the basic principles of philological methodology. Having been prepared for this field by the young Kiel professor Otto Jahn, he soon became a master of epigraphy--the study and interpretation of inscriptions--under the guidance of Bartolomeo Borghesi, the learned statesman of San Marino. Within the next several decades Mommsen made the corpus of Latin inscriptions into a source work that was essential in complementing the one-sidedly literary tradition and that, for the first time, made a comprehensive understanding of life in the ancient world possible.

When he returned from Italy, Mommsen found his country in a state of mounting unrest. As a native of Schleswig he was a subject of the Danish king, but he considered himself German, wanted to remain German, and looked forward to German unity. For him freedom meant not only the independence of the German states from foreign influence but also the freedom of the German citizen to adapt himself to any sort of constitution except that of despotism or a police state. A liberal, he considered the republic the ideal state, yet he was quite content with a constitutional monarchy so long as it was not a cover for some sort of pseudo-constitutional autocracy. Mommsen's political activities began with his editorship of the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung for the provisional government established during the revolution of 1848. Yet journalism was not much to his taste; he was happy when, at the end of 1848, he was offered a professorship in civil law at the University of Leipzig. Nevertheless, he remained politically minded as long as he lived--as a thoughtful and critical observer as well as an active politician. (He was a deputy in the Prussian Landtag from 1873 to 1879 and in the German Reichstag from 1881 to 1884.) He continued to devote time and energy to politics, but it is doubtful that he thereby served his country's and his own best interests. While he was an acknowledged authority in his field of scholarship, in politics he remained a camp follower, who achieved no more than many others. Moreover, he more than once jeopardized his career by his political activities. Because of his participation in an uprising in Saxony in May 1849, he lost his professorship and almost landed in prison.

After his dismissal from his post in Leipzig, Mommsen in 1852 accepted a professorship in jurisprudence in Zurich. The grief he expressed about being an "exile" showed how deeply he felt himself to be a German. In 1854, however, he was offered a professorship in Prussia at the University of Breslau. It was at this time that he married Marie Reimer, daughter of a bookseller. Their long and happy marriage produced 16 children.

To many critics Mommsen's glorification of the dictator Caesar and his disparagement of Caesar's opponents, Pompey and Cicero, seem strangely inconsistent with his political liberalism. He tried to make his critics understand that he had praised Caesar only as a saviour of the decaying state; yet Mommsen's admiration for the autocrat reveals something of his own character. He himself was an autocrat in his own branch of scholarship, adopting a manner that his opponents labelled "caesarism." At the same time, however, he had an unusual need for the fellowship of like-minded men. He held personal contacts to be one of the most important elements of life; indeed, it might be said that he had a genius for friendship. Yet it was mostly a friendship with men who looked up to him. With anyone who considered himself Mommsen's equal, a friendly relationship was not likely to last long.

Mommsen’s History of Rome brought him fame (Russian translation, parts 1–2, 1858–61; vols. 1–3, 5, 1936–49). Written under the influence of the historian’s impressions of the Revolution of 1848–49, it reflected the aspirations of the German bourgeoisie of the 1850’s, who had an interest in the elimination of the vestiges of feudalism and the unification of Germany. In the History of Rome, Mommsen substantiated and developed the idea of “democratic monarchy,” which, in his opinion, was exemplified by the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. His account of events ends with the battle at Thapsus (46 B.C.). In the fifth volume of the work (the fourth volume was not issued) he surveyed the history of the Roman provinces under the Empire. The book is written vividly and entertainingly in a popular style and has a vast quantity of factual material. Essentially, it focuses on military and political history, but it touches on some elements of social history. Mommsen ascribed an exceptional role to great men, such as Alexander of Macedonia, Hannibal, Gaius Gracchus, and Caesar.

Mommsen wrote more than 1,500 works on virtually all aspects of Roman history: public law, numismatics, epigraphy, chronology, metrology, literature, and linguistics. In Roman Public Law (vols. 1–3, 1871–87) and Roman Criminal Law (1899) he gave a highly detailed survey of the institutions of Rome, the territories dependent on Rome, the various categories of citizenship, and the legal foundations of imperial power. He also compiled a number of masterly source publications with commentaries, including The Acts of Augustus the Divine, Cassiodorus’ Chronicle, Jordanes’ The Goths, the Theodosian Code, and various digests. Publication of the collection of Latin inscriptions Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum (from 1863) was begun on his initiative and under his direction. Mommsen received the Nobel Prize in 1902.


Oskische Studien. Berlin, 1845. Die unteritalischen Dialekte. Leipzig, 1850. Römische Geschichte, vols. 1–3, 5. Berlin, 1854–85. Die römische Chronologic bis auf Caesar. Berlin, 1858. Römische Forschungen, 2 vols. Berlin, 1864–79. Reden und Aufsätze. Berlin, 1905. Gesammelte Schriften, 8 vols. Berlin, 1905–13.

See also: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1902, Theodor Mommsen

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Theodor Mommsen, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1902's Timeline

November 30, 1817
Garding, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
Age 37
Age 39
Age 41
April 19, 1861
Age 43
Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Age 44
Age 45
July 8, 1864
Age 46
July 12, 1865
Age 47