Theodor Mommsen
Nobel Prize in Literature 1902

A Paean to Caesar

Theodor Mommsen wrote his monumental History of Rome during his time as Professor at the University of Zurich. The brilliant historian felt at home in the world of Classical Antiquity, but never quite grew roots in Zurich.

Theodor Mommsen was both a brilliant academic and politically minded. After being accused of participating in the May 1849 uprising in Saxony, he was dismissed from his position as professor of law at the University of Leipzig in 1851. In the same year, the University of Zurich offered him a professorship in Roman law.

Mommsen’s move to Switzerland involved two citizens of Zurich who had already belonged to his circle of friends in Leipzig: the brothers Caspar and Salomon Hirzel. After hearing Mommsen lecture, Salomon Hirzel’s publishing house asked him to write a history of Rome, and the book contract was signed in 1850. Mommsen came to Zurich for the summer semester in 1852. In addition to fulfilling his teaching responsibilities, he worked on his monumental History of Rome, for which, some 50 years later in 1902, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mommsen wrote his magnum opus (which ultimately remained unfinished) based on his vast knowledge of the ancient sources, yet equally from the perspective of a politically engaged citizen of the 19th century; his judgments of the events of the time are trenchant. His particular favorite was Julius Caesar, whom he regarded to be perfect as both a person and a politician.

Theodor Mommsen never felt at home in Zurich. However good his knowledge of Latin and Greek was, he couldn’t warm to with Swiss German. Three weeks after his arrival in Zurich, he wrote to a friend in Rome: “Here, there are beautiful mountains, clear water, an excellent silk industry, and even English people to laugh at. But it’s impossible to understand the girls and their Zurich German; inscriptions are rare and good friends are far rarer still. Enough: we don’t have to be happy.” In 1854 he moved to Breslau, then in Prussia, after receiving a professorship there.