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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 William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

By Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903)

THE POPULAR conception of a learned German professor is of a short-sighted, spectacled, absent-minded recluse buried among his books, absorbed in some narrow and remote line of research for which a single lifetime is all too brief, or preparing a ponderous book which perhaps ten men in the world can read. The type is not wholly imaginary, though like the buffalo it is already near extinction.

Above all others in our time, however, Theodor Mommsen is an illustration of patriotic and civic usefulness, not merely combined with the most learned research, but illuminated and strengthened incalculably by those very studies. His political sympathies, his open affiliations in the national legislature, have been with the extreme radical wing of that great “Liberal” movement which made the new German empire possible. Thoroughly believing that democratic freedom of discussion is the firmest final basis for a strong central government, he has often offended those in high office by his fearless criticisms. Once indeed he was actually brought to trial (1882) for sharp words directed against Prince Bismarck. His triumphant acquittal revealed and strengthened the popular pride in the brave citizen and the most illustrious of German scholars.

Mommsen is primarily interested in the life and growth of political institutions. All his manifold activity is centered about this chief study. It was natural, then, that the Roman State, the greatest organization in all human history, should have engaged his lifelong devotion.

Professor Mommsen is most widely known to the general reading public, in and out of Germany, as the author of a “popular” Roman history. This great work is indeed put forth with little citation of authorities. The solid pages usually run calmly on without any array of polemic or pedantic footnotes. Nevertheless, the apparatus, the scaffolding as it were, undoubtedly exists still in the author’s notebooks. Indeed, such material has been liberally furnished whenever the same subject has been treated in University lectures. Moreover, this stately masterpiece of constructive work is firmly founded upon special studies as wide-reaching and as thorough as were ever undertaken. Professor Mommsen’s practical and juristic mind inclines him to brush aside the fables and romances of Livy’s first decade. Instead, he endeavors to recover from the usages and institutions of later Rome the probable conditions of the earlier time. Naturally this often necessitates closely reasoned argument,—and uncertain results at best.

In the later portions Professor Mommsen is on firmer ground; but his judgments of men like Cicero, whom he detests, and Cæsar, whom he almost adores, are as far as possible from a mere scholarly dependence on ancient authorities. Everywhere he is quite sufficiently inclined to appeal to modern parallels and illustrations. The section on the political history of the early empire has never yet appeared; but the imperial government of Roman provinces is treated in exhaustive volumes, already published, and destined to become an integral part of the completed work.

This latter essay may serve to remind us that Professor Mommsen has accomplished a still more monumental task, as chief editor of the great Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, perhaps the greatest memorial of German scholarship and of imperial liberality toward learning. The constructive power which has multiplied the value of Mommsen’s life work is clearly seen even in his writings for a more learned audience. Thus the great inscription of Ancyra, which is almost an autobiography of the Emperor Augustus, has been reproduced, annotated, and in brief, put completely at the service of the general student, in a special volume. In the same way, such large and debatable subjects as ‘Roman Coinage,’ ‘Roman Chronology,’ and even ‘The Dialects of Lower Italy,’ have been treated in scholarly monographs. Every student who has ever felt the influence of Mommsen, through his books, in the lecture-room, above all in the seminar, will testify to the value of this constructive and organizing mind.

The entire record of man’s organized life appears to Mommsen, as it did to von Ranke and to Freeman, as one great story of development in many chapters, each of which may throw light on all the rest, and no less on the future pathways of civilization. The mature conclusions of such a student are almost equally stimulating whether we agree readily with his general views or not. This may be happily exemplified by a passage from the introduction of ‘The Provinces, from Cæsar to Diocletian,’—a passage which traverses boldly all our traditional impressions as to the state of the subjugated races under Roman imperialism. Like the more extended citation below, this passage is quoted from the excellent English version of William P. Dickson:—

  • “Old age has not the power to develop new thoughts and display creative activity, nor has the government of the Roman Empire done so; but in its sphere, which those who belonged to it were not far wrong in regarding as the world, it fostered the peace and prosperity of the many nations united under its sway longer and more completely than any other leading power has ever succeeded in doing. It is in the agricultural towns of Africa, in the homes of the vine-dressers on the Moselle, in the flourishing townships of the Lycian mountains, and on the margin of the Syrian desert, that the work of the imperial period is to be sought and to be found. Even now there are various regions of the East, as of the West, as regards which the imperial period marks a climax of good government, very modest in itself, but never withal attained before or since; and if an angel of the Lord were to strike the balance whether the domain ruled by Severus Antoninus was governed with greater intelligence and the greater humanity at that time or in the present day, whether civilization and national prosperity generally have since that time advanced or retrograded, it is very doubtful whether the decision would prove in favor of the present.”
  • Theodor Mommsen was born at Garding in Schleswig, November 30th, 1817; graduated at Kiel, studied archæology in France and Italy 1844–7, and in 1848 became professor of jurisprudence at Leipzig. His political activity in those troublous years brought about his dismissal in 1850. From 1852 to 1854 he held the professorship of Roman law at Zurich; 1854–8 at Breslau; and finally in 1858 entered upon the professorship of ancient history at Berlin, where he long continued actively engaged in his university lectures, as well as in his manifold literary and scholarly undertakings. Theodor Mommsen died at Berlin, November 1st, 1903.