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The Reception of Cicero and Roman Culture in Theodor Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte

Emily S. Goodling

Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) was one of the greatest classical scholars of 19th-century Germany. He set a new standard for the systematic study of history with his three-volume Römische Geschichte (Roman History), winning the Nobel Prize for the work in 1902. The history is compelling not only as a monument of ancient scholarship, but also as a window into aspects of historical writing and classical reception in Mommsen’s own age. Writing at a decisive time in Germany’s history, he completed the Römische Geschichte in the years following the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1849. Drawing on elements of his own mid-century experiences, Mommsen offered an assessment of the ancient world that reflected trends in contemporary scholarship, as well as political and cultural dialogues. This paper focuses on Mommsen’s negative evaluation of Roman artistic expression as a whole in Book I, as well as his portrait of Cicero and his oratory from the end of Book III, an appraisal that ends in an invective that is unrelenting to the point of caricature. The grounds for this extreme disparagement of Cicero were largely political, stemming from Mommsen’s own experiences in the 1840s and 50s, while his conclusions about Roman art at large mirror aspects of mid-century German cultural discussion, especially the artistic assessment of modern Italy and France. Ultimately, Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte presents modern classicists not only with a sweeping examination of ancient history, but also with a timely commentary on important issues in 19th-century Germany itself.  Like so many of his contemporaries, Mommsen’s approach to the classical heritage is defined by a willingness to allow antiquity to speak to the most pressing of modern political and artistic questions.

Session/Panel Title

The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

Session/Paper Number

18.2

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