One would be hard-pressed to find a face more typical of the grouchy law professor than that of the great German genius law professor Theodor Mommsen. His severe face and permanent scowl marks combined under a flock of wild, white hair, is a face seemingly suited to the halls of Hogwarts of Harry Potter fiction.

Yet in his time, Mommsen's legal mind was an international intellectual force, even a celebrity. Mark Twain had occasion to meet Mommsen in 1892 upon his travels to Germany, and wrote of the occasion in Berlin when he first saw Mommsen. Twain was at a state dinner:

"When apparently the last eminent guest had long ago taken his place, again those three bugle-blasts rang out, and once more the swords leaped from their scabbards.

"Who might this late-comer be? Nobody was interested to inquire.

"Still, indolent eyes were turned toward the distant entrance, and we saw the silken gleam and the lifted sword of a guard of honor plowing through the remote crowds. Then we saw that end of the house rising to its feet; saw it rise abreast the advancing guard all along like a wave. This supreme honor had been offered to no one before. There was an excited whisper at our table—MOMMSEN!'—and the whole house rose. Rose and shouted and stamped and clapped and banged the beer mugs. Just simply a storm!

"Then the little man with his long hair and Emersonian face edged his way past us and took his seat. I could have touched him with my hand—Mommsen!—think of it!...I would have walked a great many miles to get a sight of him, and here he was, without trouble or tramp or cost of any kind. Here he was clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men."

Theodor MommsenIn 2013, to the average person, even the work of this university teacher and writer hardly seems relevant. This is probably true even as regards lawyers. Not only have almost two centuries past since his lifetime but the subject matter on which he dedicated his career seems of interest only to the most elderly of scholars and even then, decreasingly so: Roman history and the finer points of Roman law. Good luck finding anyone this side of the Atlantic who even knows who Ulpianius was.

Consider, though, that when Theodor Mommsen won the Nobel prize in literature in 1902, his official profile described him as "the greatest classical historian of the 19th century". The world took notice, but fleetingly so.

Early Years

Theodor Mommsen studied law at the University of Kiel, Germany and then traveled to France and Italy before dabbling in a career as a journalist. Then he accepted a position as law professor at the University of Liepzig.

The impetus for his travel bug was not just sight-seeing. Germany was then hit by revolution in 1848 and Mommsen chose to support the unsuccessful side (the monarchists) and opposed the coup d'état of 1848. In the result, he was dismissed from the University in 1850.

Back to Berlin

Professor Mommsen left Germany, an exile of sorts, but worked his way back when he was appointed history professor at the University of Berlin.

He wrote and wrote and wrote, including a three-volume History of Rome. His now-honed political leanings influenced his research and writing, or perhaps it was the other way around, but he came to stand for contempt for many parts of the ancient Roman system of government especially the ancient Roman Senate, and Cicero in particular, who he called a "weakling". To those not versant in Roman law, Cicero was and is still usually considered to be an icon and not a hindrance to that body of law. In hundreds and sometimes, thousands of pages of tedious philosophical legal and historical argument, speckled with a bit of law here and there, he referred to the Roman system as one of elitism and capitalistic, almost heretical words to the German legal profession at that time. Some observers suggested that Mommsen was destroying the "honor and dignity" of the legacy of Rome.1

A prolific researcher and writer, he must have been an institution for both his colleagues and especially his wide-eyed, impressionable students at the University of Berlin where he proposed a critical basis of Roman history, and books on the history of Roman law that are still used in law schools today.

Even past the modern age of retirement, 65, when he was into his 70s, Mommsen ran for parliament and was elected.

He passed away on November 1, 1903 at Charlottenburg, Germany, almost blind and almost 86, and still as always a lawyer who left behind an amazing legacy of knowledge.

REFERENCES:

  • Haverfield, F., Theodor Mommsen, 19:73 English Historical Review 80-89 (1904)
  • Twain, Mark, Mark Twain - A Pictorial Biography (University of Missouri Press, reprint 2002)
  • Whitman, James, The Legacy of Roman Lawin the German Romantic Era (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1990). NOTE 1.