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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831)

THE HISTORY of belles-lettres could very well be written without the inclusion of Niebuhr’s name. He has not left any important masterpiece of artistic form, nor appreciably enriched the imagination of mankind. Indeed, we might rather consider ourselves to have been impoverished, on that happier side of life, by the investigator who forbade us to regard Æneas, Romulus, and Numa, or even the Tarquins and the Horatii, as in any sense realities. Yet certainly the development of a wiser historical method, the study of human institutions, the higher education generally, will always owe him a mighty debt. He was, in the truest sense of a word commoner in its Teutonic than in its Anglo-Saxon form, “epoche-machend”—epoch-making. Until his time, students had merely read Livy and Dionysius, accepting all save the superhuman elements of early Roman story, or merely doubting and caviling over this and that detail. Niebuhr was the first who relegated the whole mass of traditional tales in Livy’s first five books to the realm of the imagination, and showed how the historic institutions of later Rome must be studied for the light they, and they alone, could throw upon their own origin in the age previous to authentic record. Even for the ablest application of this critical method we no longer turn to Niebuhr’s fragmentary publications, but rather to the more picturesque and vivid pages of his successor, Mommsen. Yet it may well be questioned whether he who uses the tool deserves higher credit than he who forges it; the man in whom the school culminates rather than its founder. Certainly no one could recognize more loyally than Mommsen himself the man whose lectures on Roman history were the most brilliant work done in the newly founded University of Berlin in 1810 and the next following years.

The story of Niebuhr’s life is delightfully told, chiefly by himself, in his ‘Life and Letters,’ edited by the Chevalier Bunsen. It is full of singular contradictions. Though the son of a famous traveler, he complains that he was brought up in seclusion, fed on words instead of knowing things. But indeed a certain querulousness is a constant weakness of this noble nature. He was certainly a prodigy of learning. When he was barely of age his father reckons up twenty languages which the youth had mastered. His memory seems to have been both accurate and unlimited in its scope. Along with it went a power of combination and brilliant deduction still more unusual.

Though Niebuhr was a Dane, his education was apparently more than half German. His last student-year, 1798–9, was passed at Edinburgh. To his English and Scotch experience he felt that he owed his insight into business affairs. Perhaps in that epoch of upheaval an ambitious young scholar could hardly keep out of political life. Certainly Niebuhr made his first career as a man of affairs. More difficult still to understand is his acceptance of a call from Denmark to Prussia. He arrived just in time to share the disasters of the Napoleonic invasion in 1806. He was perhaps Stein’s most trusted assistant in preparing for the revival of Prussia.

Niebuhr was unable to settle down as a university scholar. His hold on political affairs was indeed never wholly relaxed, and six years after the university was opened he bade farewell to Berlin, being sent as Prussian ambassador to the Pope. Returning to Germany in 1823, Niebuhr passed the last years of his life quietly as a professor, student, and author, at Bonn.

His death was felt to be premature. His varied and crowded life up to his fiftieth year had seemed like a long education, and a gathering of materials for the great constructive work which he might have accomplished. No modern scholar, perhaps, has had so firm a grasp on the records and isolated facts of ancient life. None, surely, ever had firmer confidence in his own ability to redraw the great picture of that life in truthful outlines. Yet his name lives chiefly as the creator of a method, and his disciples’ books are more indispensable to us than his own. Perhaps this is after all a cheerful epitaph on a great teacher; and all later students of history, of institutions, of antiquity, are in varying degree his pupils. Lanciani, who would revive our faith even in Romulus, owes to Niebuhr little less than Mommsen, who hardly mentions Livy or Livy’s heroes in his chapters on early Rome.

Besides the excellent ‘Life and Letters’ by Bunsen (Harpers, 1852), Niebuhr’s works on ancient history are accessible in English, partly in authentic form, partly in very fragmentary shape pieced out from notebooks. The most adequate impression will be gained from his ‘History of Rome,’ Vols. i., ii., iii., as translated by Hare and Thirlwall, London, 1851.