Nobel Prize in Literature, 1902

CHRISTIAN MATTHIAS THEODOR MOMMSEN was born in 1817, in Garding, Sleswick in what was then Denmark, to a Protestant minister, who encouraged his son to read German classics and such authors as Victor Hugo, Byron, and William Shakespeare.  He received private instruction as a young child, then attended High School in Altonia. From the age of 21, until he was 26, Mommsen went to Kiel University and studied philology and jurisprudence. During these years he, his brother Tycho and Theodor Storm published a collection of poems, Liederbuch Dreier Freunde.

For the first three years after leaving Kiel University, Mommsen traveled to Italy and to France. This trip abroad was made possible by a scholarship from the Danish government. During this time he studied archeology, and even undertook a brief stint as a journalist. At the end of this period Mommsen was invited to become Professor of Law at Leipzig University. He kept this position for the next three years, during which time he edited a liberal newspaper, The Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung, and became involved in the revolution. It was this revolutionary activity that caused Mommsen to be asked to resign his Professorial position at Leipzig. In 1852, two years after his dismissal from Leipzig, Mommsen accepted the position of Professor of Law at Zurich University.

At thirty-seven years of age, Mommsen began work on his most important piece of writing - the incomplete Römische Geschichte.The first three volumes of this work discussed in detail the Roman republic from its beginnings until 46CE. In this work, Mommsen drew parallels between Roman and modern society. According to Egon Friedell in Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, Mommsen equated Crassus with a speculator in the manner of Louis Philippe, the brothers Gracchus with Socialist leaders, and the Gallians with Indians. Mommsen's admiration for Julius Caesar's statesmanship, as well as his contempt for Cicero, who he considered a weakling dominated the standard view of history for many years. Although the work received acclaim throughout Europe, some people felt it to be too sensational, accusing him of journalism, and of "turning the real state of affairs upside down" The forth volume of this work was never written. The manuscript was destroyed in 1880. Two of Mommsen's students compiled notes on the lectures Mommsen gave between 1863 and 1886. These notes were later published as A History of Rome Under the Emperor. He worked on the Römische Geschichte for two years and it was published, unfunished, in 1855.

1854 was also the year Mommsen married. Marie Reimer, the daughter of a bookseller, was twenty three, and thought to be past the age when her marriage was likely. The Mommsens had sixteen children during the course of their marriage.

Also in 1854, Mommsen accepted the position of Professor of Law at Breslau University, a position he kept for two years. On his resigning the position in 1858, Mommsen became Professor of Ancient History at Berlin University - a position he kept until his death in 1903.

In 1858 Mommsen was elected by the Berlin Academy to run a comprehensive collection of Latin inscriptions, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the huge collection of Roman inscriptions published by the Berlin Academy. Mommsen was the chief contributor to, and general editor of this collection until his death.

Mommsen's interest in politics had continued since his involvement in the 1849 revolution, and in 1863 he became a member of the Progressive party in the State Parliament of Prussia. He served in this position until 1866, and again from 1873 until 1879. He was also Permanent Secretary of the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1873 to 1895.

Mommsen's political ideal was the combination of National Unity with Freedom. He had always supported the Unification process, but found the side effects of bureaucratic centralism, the German "slave mentality" and obedience without criticism unacceptable. Mommsen also found the prevalent attitude of anti-Semitism amongst many of his colleagues unacceptable. In 1880, in response to the publication of a study of anti-Semitism by Heinrich von Treitschke (published in 1879) Mommsen, along with over 70 other influential figures protested anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incitement. Mommsen wrote that Jews were Germans, and the racist hatred would eventually come to an end. He said not only would religious hatred end, but that eventually real respect for the Jewish culture's differences would emerge.

In 1882, Mommsen was tried on a slander charge. Earlier, in an election speech, Mommsen had said "Bismarck has broken the nation's backbone (...) The injury done by the Bismarck era is infinitely greater than its benefits (...) The subjugation of the German personality, of the German mind, was a misfortune that cannot be undone." Mommsen was acquitted of the charges. Mommsen saw good reasons for the reconstruction of the past, particularly with regard to Roman law. In Roman Public Law in 1888 and Roman Criminal Law in 1899 Mommsen reconstructed some of the systems used in Roman law which could be applicable to modern times.

1902 was the year Mommsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, for being "the greatest living master of the art of historical writing, with special reference to his monumental work, A History of Rome." Leo Tolstoy had been mentioned as a likely contender for that year's prize, but his views were considered just too radical to allow him to be declared the winner.

On the first of November, 1903 Mommsen died in Charlottenburg.

Mommsen's greatest interest, and the subject of his best known work, was Roman law. He was devoted to scientific research. Mommsen's writings became the basis for the systematic study of Roman government, economics, administration, and finance. His books on Roman constitutional and criminal law and on Roman coinage are still classics in their fields. In 1905 Karl Zangemeister and Emil Jacobs published a bibliography of Mommsen's writings. There were over 1,000 separate entries.

Some of Mommsen's writings were:

Römische Geschichte, 1854-56
Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (ed., started to appear 1861)
Digesta, 1866-70 (ed., 2 vols.)
Römisches Staatrecht, 1871-1888 (ed.)
The Roman Catacombs, 1971 (translation)
Letters on the War Between Germany and France, 1871 (with others)
Die Provinzen, Von Caesar Bis Diocletian, 1885 (5 vols.) - The Provinces of the Roman Empire
Römisches Strafrecht, 1899 (ed.)
Codex Theodosianus, 1905 (ed.)
Rome From the Earliest Times to 44 B.C., 1907
Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1982
A History of Rome Under the Emperors, 1996 (ed. by Barbara Demandt et al.)
Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, 2000 (by Theodor Mommsen et al)
Monumenta Germaniae Historica

Theodor Mommsen Chronology at a glance:

  • 1817 born in Garding, Sleswisk
  • 1838 – 1843 read law and classics at Kiel
  • 1844 – 1847 pursued archaeological studies in Italy and France
  • 1848 became a Professor of Law at Leipzig University, edited a liberal newspaper, the Schleswig-Holsteinische Zeitung.
  • 1849 became involved in “the revolution”
  • 1850 resigned his position as Professor of Law in Leipzig University because of his involvement in the revolution
  • 1852 appointed Professor of Law at the University of Zurich
  • 1854 married Marie Reimer, the daughter of a bookseller; they eventually had sixteen children.
  • 1854 – 1855 Wrote his main work, the incomplete Römische Geschichte (1854-55, 1885) History of Rome
  • 1854 – 1858 Professor of Law at Breslau
  • 1858 – 1903 Professor of Ancient History at Berlin
  • 1863 – 1866 served as a member of the Progressive party in the state parliament of Prussia
  • 1873 – 1879 served as a member of the Progressive party in the state parliament of Prussia
  • 1882 tried and acquitted on a charge of slandering chancellor Otto von Bismarck in an election speech.
  • 1902 received Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • 1903 died November 1.


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