Saturday, November 5, 2016

Theodor Mommsen

One Nobel Prize in Literature I won't be complaining about is the one given to Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) in 1902. The list of this guy's accomplishments is not merely impressive, it's frighteningly vast. In fact, I don't know if there has been a complete list of his accomplishments: there are so many of them, you're bound to miss a few.

The work for which he may be most widely-known, and the one singled out by the Swedish Academy, is his Römische Geschichte, his history of Rome, the first edition of which was published in 1854 and 1855, when Mommsen was in his late 30's. Before that, he had been a journalist for a short while, and a law professor at the University of Leipzig, a position from which he was fired in 1850 because of his involvement in the revolution of 1848-49. He held other academic positions after that, most notably the chair of Ancient History at the University of Berlin, to which he was appointed in 1858.

Mommsen kept revising and expanding the Römische Geschichte, with the 9th edition appearing in 1902, the year he turned 85 and received the Nobel Prize. A 1998 paperback edition from dtv based on the 9th edition has over 2750 pages in 8 volumes.

According to his bio on the Nobel Prize website, Mommsen felt contempt for Cicero. If this is true, it makes me so happy. I was beginning to think I was the only one who had ever felt contempt for Cicero. The Nobel page sez:

"His contempt for the senatorial oligarchy and the «weakling» Cicero, as well as his boundless admiration for the energy and statesmanship of Julius Caesar, for a long time dominated the standard view of the history of that era."

That dominated the standard view for a long time? and this is the first time I'm hearing about someone else who just can't stand Cicero? Hm. Someone's gotten something wrong here. Might be me.

Onward. The Römische Geschichte was just one of Mommsen's accomplishments. He made an edition of the Corpus Juris Civilis or Justinian Code, the summary of ancient Roman law made in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian, an edition which is still widely used by lawyers and scholars of things legal today. In addition, he wrote many books and articles on Roman law, and was considered the leading authority of his time on the subject.

He edited and made great contributions to the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a catalog of ancient Roman inscriptions. An inscription is writing on a hard surface, such as stone, metal or wood, as opposed to writing on a soft surface such as paper or parchment. In the case of ancient Rome, many of the inscriptions are words carved into stone. The first volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, often referred to as the CIL, appeared in 1853, the year Mommsen turned 36, and the year before the first part of the first edition of his Römische Geschichte appeared. The CIL is still being updated, and currently contains about 180,000 items.

Technically, words which appear on coins are inscriptions; however, the CIL does not include Roman coins; however, Mommsen wrote extensively about Roman coins and was considered the leading authority of his time on the subject.

In addition, from 1875-1903 Mommsen was one of the directors of the MGH, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a vast series of publications of Medieval German writing in all genres: histories, chronicles, letters, theologies, charters, laws, etc, etc, which defines both "Medieval" and "German" very broadly. In the MGH, Mommsen was the director and one of the leading editors of the Auctores Antiquissimi division, which is devoted to Late ancient and Early Medieval authors. (That's right: is, not was, because, like the CIL, the MGH is still publishing new editions today.)

Mommsen edited many Latin works in addition to those in the MGH, and was considered one of the greateast classical scholars of his time.

In addition, Mommsen was a member of the Prussian Parliament, first with the National Liberal party, and the with the Liberal party, or "Secession," which broke away from the National Liberals.

And, like everyone else who's attempted to summarize Mommsen's achievements in a couple of pages, I've probably left some major items out.

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