chapter  25
The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian (Theodor Mommsen, 1817–1903)
Pages 6

An ironic piece of advice was: “Learn as much by writing as by reading” (47).

Works by Acton

Works about Acton

Useful references

Born in Schleswig, he was at first a student of law and gradually became a historian. The combination fueled his versatility. Law and classics were studied at the University of Kiel, capped by a doctorate in 1843. For a time, he edited a liberal newspaper and was active as a

journalist. His publications landed a professorship in law at the University of Leipzig, a position from which he was expelled for liberal political views during the revolutions of 1848. He took positions at the University of Zurich in 1852, where he wrote on Roman constitutional and criminal law, and the University of Breslau in 1854, where he started the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions and wrote the Roman History. Mommsen accepted a professorship of ancient history at the

University of Berlin in 1861. As a liberal in newly unified Germany, he opposed policies of Otto von Bismarck, who sued for slander. Mommsen was tried and acquitted in 1882. His academic career was rounded off as permanent secretary of the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences and election to the Prussian Parliament (the Reichstag) as a member of the liberal faction. In 1902 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, edging out Leo Tolstoy, whose views were too radical for the committee. In the midst of these achievements, he married and fathered a brood of children. A prodigious scholar and writer, Mommsen was known as a

man who wasted no time. Up in the morning by five, he read, researched, wrote, and taught through the day. He mastered half a dozen fields, which included law, history, numismatics (study of coins), epigraphy (study of inscriptions), archeology, and early Italian philology, and made enduring contributions to all of them. He was comfortable with classical and a number of modern languages. His publications exceeded some 1500. In 1887 over a thousand were collected into a bibliography. In one three-year period (1844-47), while in Italy collecting inscriptions, he published 90 articles. One contemporary remarked that it would take him 400 years just to copy all that Mommsen had written. Mommsen’s History of Rome in three volumes was one of the most

admired works of nineteenth-century historiography, and held its own ever since as a powerful account of the Roman Republic down to 46 B.C. His strategy as historian was to avoid moralizing and understand events in their contemporary setting. Thus Julius Caesar’s behavior and policies, which Mommsen was accused of overestimating, might be unworthy in another place or time, but in his own time he was the best available man, the least of evils, who understood what was needed to rescue Rome from civil strife. The same operative principle governs exposition in his work on provinces. Although the Roman History was considered the best available, it

was faulted for lacking notes and references, which missed the point. With that book, Mommsen wrote for a general readership. Provinces of

the Roman Empire is a different matter. Notes are frequent and extensive, and the text is unrelenting in substantive detail: “Charms of detail, pictures of feeling, sketches of character, it has none to offer; it is allowable for the artist, but not for the historian, to reproduce the features of Arminius [a German chieftain who destroyed three Roman legions in A.D. 9] With self-denial this book has been written; and with self-denial let it be read” (I:7). What both works have in common, especially the one on provinces, is a fresh dimension of evidence. Mommsen reoriented and transformed historiography of the

ancient world by an extensive use of coins, inscriptions, and archeology in addition to literary sources and works of art. In Provinces of the Roman Empire, his opinion of written sources is skeptical: “Anyone who has recourse to the so-called authorities for the history of this period-even the better among them-finds difficulty in controlling his indignation at the telling of what deserved to be suppressed, and at the suppression of what there was need to tell” (I:3). In response to the problem of weak sources, he produced two landmark solutions. The Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, a monument of nineteenth-century

scholarship, catalogues inscriptions from sources throughout the Mediterranean world. The 15 volumes contain 130,000 inscriptions, most of them edited by Mommsen, who did the first five volumes himself. Instructions to agents searching for inscriptions were to see first-hand the original stones bearing inscriptions, or original manuscripts in which the inscriptions appeared, to establish dates, and to suggest how incomplete inscriptions might be completed. He also introduced the method of “autopsy.” Inscriptions already used in publications were to be confirmed against the originals. Under his guidance, an epigraphic journal was founded in 1872 to continue the work of collecting and evaluating inscriptions. His History of Coinage, published in 1860, is an encyclopedia of coins from Greco-Asiatic times to Rome, then to Italy, then to the Mediterranean world. With his help a journal of numismatics was founded. Provinces of the Roman Empire routinely uses evidence from coins,

inscriptions, and archeology in addition to conventional sources (I:78-80, 280, 376-77; II:70-71, 300-301, 365). With these new sources at hand, the horizon of evidence for ancient history was vastly expanded and gave Mommsen’s works their special authority. In Roman Public Law, written while he was absorbed in the Corpus,

he expounds the system and history of Roman government and administration and advances an interpretation that explains the time span “from Caesar to Diocletian” in the work on provinces. The first emperor, Augustus, developed a system of “dyarchy” in which he

ruled but consulted and respected the Senate. Diocletion (reigned 284-305) rejected the moderate principle of dyarchy and ruled absolutely. After him, the history of the empire took a different course and would require from the historian a different kind of book. Provinces of the Roman Empire corrects narrow focus on events in

the city of Rome. Action of the empire was elsewhere: “We must take into account … the vast extension of the sphere of rule, and the shifting of the vital development from the centre to the circumference. The history of the city of Rome widens out into that of the country of Italy, and the latter into that of the Mediterranean world” (I:2-3). The scope of the work includes, in volume 1, northern frontiers of Italy, Spain, Gaul (roughly modern France), Roman Germany and the free Germans, Britain, lands of the Danube, Greek Europe, Asia Minor, and in volume 2, the Euphrates frontier and Parthia (a kingdom in northeastern Iran), Syria, Judaea and the Jews, Egypt, and Africa. Eight customized maps (the titles are in German) provide a visual panorama of the provinces. Mommsen supplies overwhelming evidence that most provinces prospered in peace with decent administration and submitted willingly to lenient Roman rule: “It is the agricultural towns of Africa, in the homes of the vinedressers on the Moselle, in the flourishing townships of the Lycian mountains, and on the margin of the Syrian desert that the work of the imperial period is to be sought and to be found” (I:5). The case of Athens is an example of Roman tolerance and flex-

ibility in provincial administration. Athenian negative response to Roman policy and conquests during the late Republic merited extermination, but the city was spared:

No Greek city from the standpoint of Roman policy erred so gravely against Rome … its demeanour (sic) … would, had its case been that of any other commonwealth, have inevitably led to it being razed. But from the Philhellenic standpoint, doubtless, Athens was the masterpiece of the world … Athens was never placed under the fasces [a bundle of rods with an ax in the middle symbolic of a magistrate’s authority] of the Roman governor, and never paid tribute to Rome …


The case of Judaea was the opposite. An uprising of Jewish radicals in the first century A.D. inflicted catastrophe on the Jewish population, their country, and their religion (see essay 5 in this volume). The destructive outcome of radical Jewish defiance of the empire was not

initially what the Romans wanted and savage intervention came near the end of the war: “Thus the insurgents had entirely free sway in Jerusalem from the summer of 66 till the spring of 70. What the combination of religious and national fanaticism … in those four years of terror brought upon the nation, had its horrors intensified by the fact that the foreigners were only onlookers in the matter, and all the evil was inflicted directly by Jews upon Jews” (II:232). Out of patience, a Roman army under the future emperor Titus

destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple “with all the treasures accumulated in it for six centuries.” Rome’s policy of toleration was modified: “The policy pursued by earlier Hellenistic states, and taken over from them by the Romans-which reached in reality far beyond mere toleration towards foreign ways and foreign faith, and recognized the Jews in their collective character as a national and religious community-had become impossible” (II:235). The extent of Mommsen’s fame is suggested by an anecdote from

Mark Twain, American humorist and novelist, who was a guest of honor at a heavily attended banquet for distinguished men. Apparently everyone was seated, but then ceremonial trumpets sounded again and a slight, bespectacled figure was seen on his way down the aisle. As he walked forward everyone on his flanks rose in successive waves and a hushed murmur was heard: “it’s Mommsen.” No one else received such a welcome.