Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (November 30, 1817–November 1, 1903) was a German classical scholar, jurist 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 received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, and was also a prominent German politician, as a member of the Prussian and German parliaments. His works on Roman law and on the law of obligations had a significant impact on the German civil code (BGB).
Mommsen was born in Garding in Schleswig as a son of a poor minister. He grew up in Oldesloe and studied at home, thought he attended gymnasium in Altona for four years. He studied Greek and Latin and received his diploma in 1837, graduating as a doctor of Roman law. As he could not afford to study at one of the more prestigious German universities, he enrolled at the university of Kiel.
Mommsen studied jurisprudence at the University of Kiel (Holstein) from 1838 to 1843. Thanks to a Danish grant, he was able to visit France and Italy to study classical preserved Roman inscriptions. During the revolution of 1848, Mommsen worked as a correspondent in Rendsburg, supporting the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein and constitutional reform. He became a professor of law in the same year at the University of Leipzig. When Mommsen protested the new constitution of Saxony in 1851, he had to resign. However, the next year he obtained a professorship in Roman law at the University of Zurich. In 1854 he became a profesor at the University of Breslau where he met Jakob Bernays. Mommsen became a research professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1857. He later helped to create and manage the German Archaeological Institute in Rome.
In 1858 Mommsen was appointed as a member of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, and he 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 Nobel prize in literature. Mommsen had sixteen children with his wife Marie (daughter of the editor Karl Reimer from Leipzig), some of whom died at young age. Two of his great-grandsons, Hans and Wolfgang, are prominent German historians.
Mommsen worked hard. He rose at five and began to work in his library. Whenever he went out, he took one of his books along to read, and contemporaries often could see him reading while walking in the streets.
Mommsen published hundreds of works - a 1905 bibliography lists over 1,000 items - and effectively established a new framework for the systematic study of Roman history. He pioneered epigraphy, the study of inscriptions in material artifacts. Although the unfinished History of Rome has been widely considered as his main work, the work most relevant today is perhaps the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a collection of Roman inscriptions he contributed to the Berlin Academy.
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.
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). He received additional impetus and training from Bartolomeo Borghesi of San Marino. The complete Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum would consist of sixteen volumes. Fifteen of them appeared in Mommsen's lifetime and he wrote five of them 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 copies (i.e., modern transcriptions) of inscriptions were to be checked and compared to the original.
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 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 German Progress Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei), later for the National Liberal Party (Nationalliberalen), and finally for the Secessionists. He was very concerned with questions about 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 collaboration between Liberals and Social Democrats.
In 1881 Mommsen strongly disagreed with Bismarck about social policies in 1881. He used strong words and narrowly avoided prosecution. In 1879 his colleague Heinrich von Treitschke (the so-called 'Berliner Antisemitismusstreit') begun a political campaign against Jews and Mommsen criticized him sharply in public.
Mommsen was both the oldest person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first-born laureate; born in 1817, he won the second Nobel ever awarded at the age of eighty-five. The next oldest laureate in Literature is Paul Heyse, born in 1830, who won the Nobel in 1910.
Fellow Nobel Laureate (1925) Bernard Shaw cited Mommsen's interpretation of the last First Consul of the Republic, Julius Caesar, as one of the inspirations for his 1898 (1905 on Broadway) play, "Caesar and Cleopatra."