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Intrusive Ideology

How pre-Modern ideologies have coloured our perceptions on Roman History

by Felix Paulinski

Mommsen, Pan-German Unity and the Römische Geschichte

“Those who have lived through historical events, as I have, begin to see that history is neither written nor made without love or hate.” (Mommsen, quoted in Gooch, 1928, 458)
In 1851 Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) took it upon himself to write his Römische Geschichte. This was originally intended to be a work of historical writing, encompassing the story on Rome in its entirety – that is, from her beginnings up until the time of Diocletian. Mommsen aimed to encapsulate this intension in three volumes: two devoted to the Roman Republic and the other to the principate (Gooch, 1928, 456). However, the Römische Geschichte, in what is traditionally seen as finalised form, very much deviated from Mommsen original intent; for when Mommsen had published his third volume in 1856, the principate had yet to be covered, and, in the end, never was. Mommsen eventually compensated for his neglect of this period by writing a fifth volume in 1885, entitled ¬ Die Provinzen von Caesar bis Diokletian (The Provinces from Caesar to Diocletian), which was an in-depth cultural survey of the provinces of the Empire – with particular emphasis on those in the West – and the manner in which legal and administrative institutions spread and flourished (Freeman, 1997, 31). It is a study that generally places Rome’s institutions in a positive light. But even with this later addition, the weighting of Mommsen’s work was still weighted more in favour of Republican history than that of the Empire; in fact, the absence of a fourth volume – and thus any form of historical narrative on the principate – made gap between the two areas of Roman history even more apparent.

If we take into account other works in Mommsen’s vast canon of work, the Römische Geschichte also stands out as something of paradox; his scholarship, it seems, is something that has a much greater affinity with the principate (Freeman, 1997, 29-30). Why there is such a discrepancy between the Römische Geschichte and the rest of Mommsen’s body of work is very much the subject of this chapter. Its aim is also to deduce why, when set against his great anthology of specialist studies – his Römisches Staatsrecht (1871-88), Römische Forschungen (1864-79) and his contribution to the Italian volumes of Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (1849) are but a few (Gooch, 1928, 454-60) – the Römische Geschichte stands alone as Mommsen’s only major work of narrative history: is there an inseparable link between Mommsen’s almost unique decision to write narrative history and his selection of the Roman Republic as his subject? It seems that, as we shall see, the answer to this is almost certainly yes. Because, for Mommsen, as was the case with Gibbon, the composition of narrative history was a medium through which the author can highlight both his own concerns and political standpoints. In his omission of a narrative on the principate, he achieves the same aim, and at the heart of both these choices are events and embodiments of one year: 1848. However, in order to get to grips with how and, more importantly, why this momentous year coloured both Mommsen’s narrative and his selection of material, it is first necessary to explore the socio-historical context of his time.

With the beginnings of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) Europe was plunged into a new era, setting into motion a great flood of nationalism and revolutionary fervour across Europe. Because the French Revolution is not the subject of this paper, it should suffice to say that during this period, events surrounding the later Republican Rome – for example the tyrannicide of Julius Caesar – were fundamentally exploited in the development of the ‘national consciousness’ (cf Vance, 1997, 24-27; Huet, 1999, 53-69). These defining concepts of the age were, however, only really applicable to peoples of unified states, such France, Spain and Britain. In the German states political fragmentation meant that national consciousness of state never really came into fruition, and thus Rome as a point of nationalistic and revolutionary reference did not really develop (Struck, 2001, 98). It was not until the Congress of Vienna (June, 1815), which organised German states under the banner of the ‘German Confederation’, that nationalist sentiment became a more of a reality. For many nationalists, the Congress was a great disappointment. While Germany’s great litter of kingdoms, principalities and electorates were banded together, this was no more than a loose federation of thirty-five states and four free cities, and Germany continued to exist only as a geographical expression (Struck, 2001, 99). Thus, by means of dangling the carrot of unification in front of the eyes of the German peoples, while at the same time keeping in place the anciens régimes, notions of pan-German unification were set into motion – notions which were to eventually find their seat with liberal scholars like Mommsen. This nationalist sentiment was to not so much to culminate in – indeed the high point of the strive towards unification was the unification itself in 1871 – but certainly peaked with pan-German Revolutions of March 1848, the impetus for which, among other things, being a desire for greater German unity (Lerman, 2003, 28).

Like many liberal German academics of the age, Mommsen strove to involve himself deeply in the Revolution: while taking part in protests in Hamburg, he sustained a head wound in a street riot; and later in his native Kiel, then part of predominantly German-speaking dukedom of Schleswig under Danish rule, he was an editor of the Schleswig-Holstein Zeitung, a pamphlet of the region’s provisional revolutionary government (Gooch, 1928, 455). Before discussing how Mommsen’s involvement in 1848 coloured his Geschichte, it would be wise to assess how German nationalism was voiced on the road to 1848 in both in German culture and in other works of Historical writing.

With the disappointments of the Congress of Vienna, many pan-German unionists found solace turning to periods of German history in which their ‘nation’ was ‘unified’. This took its form in a number of allusions. Medieval Germany’s Holy Roman Empire (Heiliges Römische Reich Deutscher Nation), for instance, was a medium through which nationalism was expressed: young men alluded to this time by donning the attire of this period as well as hosting patriotic symposia of a similar theme (Böhner, 1978, 2-3). Particular attention was also paid to the tribes of ancient Germania, through which the cult of Hermann (Arminius), one of Rome’s greatest adversaries, was cultivated as a national hero (Struck, 2001, 99; King 2001, 113). Further, while Rome played a comparatively subsidiary role in the development of nationalism, the influence of Classics – particularly in architecture – still infiltrated the German psyche in the form of Ancient Greece (cf Butler, 1935). Thus, in the erection of Ernst Bandel’s famous Hermann monument on the Rhine, we are presented with a union of ‘Germanic’ iconography in the guise of Classical statuary (Böhner, 1978, 6-7).

However, despite its affinity with both Classical Greece and Germanic figures of resistance against Rome, the sentiment of nationalism was, paradoxically, transferable in the German historical writing on Ancient Rome. In its early form, Barthold Niebuhr’s (1776-1831) lectures on modern and Roman statecraft is testament to this (cf Niebuhr, 1853; Gooch, 1928, 21), but was not until Mommsen Römische Geschichte that nationalistic infiltration reach its most sophisticated form.

While there are many areas of his Geschichte in which his pan-German nationalist sentiments surface, in no part of Mommsen’s magnum opus is it more apparent than his account of Italian unification, culminating in the Social War (91-88 BC), and its issues surrounding the notion of nation (RG, III, 483-526). What is interesting in this account is the extent to which Mommsen explicitly parrots Appian’s interpretation of the Social War as the struggle of Rome’s Italian allies, warring with Rome as a means of receiving Roman citizenship (App. I. 38; RG, III, 492). Although his academic sophistication prevents him from fully steering towards the Appianic explanation – indeed he does give reference to Diodorus’ emphasis on the Italian allies’ eventual intention to destroy Rome as power – but these notions are more entertained than accepted (Mouritsen, 1998, 28-29).

In his analysis of this period, Mommsen essentially ties it with his own doctrine on the evolution of nationhood, very much rooted in the politics of his own time, and very much believed to be a timeless concept (Heuss, 1956, 132-33); and in linking this with contemporary issues, Mommsen mars the manner in which the Italian allies were perceived by Rome. Indeed, it could be argued that, in order to legitimise the call for Roman citizenship requested by Rome’s Italian allies, Mommsen, earlier on in his narrative, makes reference to the cultural unification between the Italian people and Rome: a unification through which the Italian Peninsula was conquered (RG, I, 452-54). Mommsen thus states in his opening chapter that the story of Rome could not be told without reference to the Italian states (RG, I, 7-8) – and in saying this, he even goes as far to describe Roman imperialism as Italischen Weltherrschaft (Italian world domination) (Mouritsen, 1998, 26). These suggestions, however, seem to go beyond the realms of actual evidence; early references to Romo-Italian cultural, and, to a lesser extent, political unity are ruminated upon, but are not, by and large, sustained with epigraphical or textual references.

Another element of Mommsen’s Geschichte that ties him down to 1848 is the manner in which the concept of revolution shapes his narrative. This in itself was by no means a novel concept; between 1830-80, for instance, German readers were presented with a great wealth of narrative histories of revolution – that is, revolution existing in both the conventional Marxist sense, as well as in the social-economic definition (McGlew, 1986, 424) – and it was no great coincidence that the majority of these were written by liberal scholars. In these works, the high concerns of their age were discussed. Issues surrounding liberty and limits of power formed a basis of analysis. Most importantly, however, these narratives of revolution enabled historians to single out, as well to secure a position against, conservative factions, which, in their collective view, was a hindrance to any form of political progress (McGlew, 1986, 425).

Throughout the Römische Geschichte, revolution has a prominent role to play, both as an explanation for the metamorphoses of the Roman state, but also as an exemplar for contemporary concerns. For Mommsen, revolution was spread across Roman history in its entirety, even those often deemed to be ‘ahistorical’. He interprets, for example, early tension between the patrician and plebeian orders within the Republic as ‘progressive’ forces, who had hitherto be disenfranchised by the constitution, coming into conflict with the conservative faction (cf. RG, I, 341-412). In the fires of these conflicts, this disenfranchisement is resolved, and the Roman constitution adapted.

In many respects, Mommsen’s history of the Roman Republic was a history of its malleable constitution in the face of progressive forces (McGlaw, 1986, 431). However, Mommsen believed that Rome’s Republican constitution could only be stretched so far; if it were bent past a certain fixed political point, it would become ineffectual. And as the Römische Geschichte takes us into the late Republic, we begin to see the Republican constitution becoming ever more defunct, culminating in Mommsen’s affinity with progressive revolutionary forces manifesting itself in the form of Julius Caesar (McGaw, 1987, 435), who to Mommsen was the ‘sole creative genius created by Rome’ (RG, IV, 450).

When set against his liberal beliefs, Mommsen’s praise of Caesar – and what can only be called his autocracy – is somewhat paradoxical. Many British critics, often harbouring anti-German sentiment, often dismissed his portrait of Caesar as ‘Bismarckian’ (Vance, 1997, 77; Freeman, 1997, 33). Truth be told, Mommsen’s liberalism later inclined him towards opposition against Bismarck’s domestic policies – in fact, in 1882, Bismarck unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Mommsen, resulting in the latter withdrawing from public life (Vance, 1997, 78). It thus seems that Mommsen’s praise of Caesar is rooted more in his view that he was an exponent of change. Caesar was a man, who replaced an ineffectual government with one of stronger substance; and although the politics were somewhat different, this was also the key aim of 1848.

With this mind, an explanation for the absence of the forth volume of the Römische Geschichte becomes more apparent. Having lauded the merits of Julius Caesar’s progressive action, a narrative of the principate would have taken the form of an assessment of its consequences, which, for Mommsen, would have been lurid account of debauchery and decline (Freeman, 1997, 31). With no desire to draw attention to the rotten fruits of Caesar revolution – which, in turn, would mar any positive feeling towards the merits of modern revolution – Mommsen did not publish a fourth volume. Instead, the merits of Caesar’s action are stressed in the form of the fifth, for it is in this assessment of the Roman provinces that the intrinsic worth of Caesar’s revolution become apparent.

back to Chapter I
continue to Chapter III

Dissertation Index:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter I
  • Chapter II
  • Chapter III
  • Conclusions
  • Discussion
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    Mommsen, Pan-German Unity and the Römische Geschichte - Related Topic: Roman History


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