Theodor Mommsen: Prince of Scholars

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Theodor Mommsen’s (1817-1903) influence on generations of scholars is both uncanny and profound. During the course of his life, Mommsen published over 1,500 works, many of which are considered the bedrock of entire fields of study. Although much of Mommsen’s work has been superseded by subsequent scholars, Mommsen laid the foundation for all modern scholarship in Roman history and Roman law. Among the great scholars of the 19th century, Mommsen is perhaps the most influential of them all.
Mommsen was born in Schleswig, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Mommsen was instilled with the value of education, attending the Gymnasium at Altona from 1834 to 1838. His father exhibited an “Enlightened rationalism,” and was not fundamentalist. Yet, Mommsen demanded ever more rational explanations, and ultimately abandoned Christian belief in 1837. Mommsen’s writings seem to equate pre-Christian antiquity to light and rationalism, and Christianity with darkness and emotionalism. Several historians have suggested that Mommsen replaced his lost Christianity with a commitment to philology. Perry even argues that Mommsen turned to the ancient Romans for guidance, in place of religion. Following Altona, Mommsen studied jurisprudence at the University of Kiel from 1838 to 1843. Here, Mommsen was influenced by Burchardi, a pupil of Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779 – 1861), “one of the founders of the historical school of jurisprudence,” which stressed the close interrelationship between law and history. Mommsen also came into contact with Otto Jahn (1813 – 1869), who emphasized the study of ancient language and its interrelationship with ancient institutions and life.
Upon graduation, Mommsen took an appointment at a school for young girls, ...

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