1902 Encyclopedia > Barthold Georg Niebuhr

Barthold Georg Niebuhr
19th century German statesman and historian

BARTHOLD GEORG NIEBUHR (1776-1831), the historian of ancient Rome, was the son.of Karsten Niebuhr, noticed below, and was born at Copenhagen on August 27, 1776. His family was of Hanoverian extraction. In his infancy his father removed to Meldorf in South Ditmarsh, where he had received a Government appoint-ment, and devoted his leisure to the instruction of his son. From the earliest age young Niebuhr manifested extraordinary precocity, and especial interest in history and politics. From 1794 to 1796, being already a finished classical scholar and acquainted with several modern lauguages, he studied at the university of Kiel, applying himself to mathematics, logic, philosophy, and other studies previously neglected. He there formed the most important friendship of his life, that with Madame Hensler, the widowed daughter-in-law of one of the professors, and a woman of unusual strength of character, six years older than himself. He also made the acquaintance of her sister, Amelie Behrens, whom he subsequently married. After quitting the university he became private secretary to Count Schimmelmann, Danish minister of finance, but finding that the post did not allow him sufficient leisure for study, he quitted it for an appointment at the royal library. He shortly afterwards travelled in Great Britain, and spent a year at Edinburgh studying agriculture and physical science. His observations on England and Scotland, conveyed in letters to his betrothed, are exceed-ingly interesting ; but he failed to obtain that confidence in the capacity of an educated community for self-government which residence in a free country might have been expected to bestow, and which would have saved him much sorrow, and most of his errors in practical politics. He says, nevertheless, " my early residence in England gave me one important key to Roman history. It is necessary to know civil life by personal observation in order to understand such states as those of antiquity. I never could have understood a number of things in the history of Bome without having observed England." He also acquired in Scotland a feeling for nature, in which he had previously been remarkably deficient. In 1799 he returned to Denmark, where he was soon appointed assessor in the East India department of the Board of Trade, and secretary for the affairs of the Danish consulates in Barbary. In 1800 he married and settled at Copenhagen. In 1804 he became chief director of the National Bank, but in September 1806, after negotiations which had extended over more than a year, quitted this for a similar appointment in Prussia. The step was a false one as concerned his personal interests, and not highly creditable to his patriotism as a Danish subject; but it is not to be regretted, since, without the release from public life which it ultimately occasioned, we should not have possessed his Roman History.

He arrived in Prussia on the eve of the catastrophe of Jena, and shared to the full all the disasters and miseries which overwhelmed the monarchy. He accompanied the fugitive Government to Königsberg, where he rendered considerable service in the commissariat, and was after-wards still more useful as commissioner of the national debt, and by his opposition to ill-considered schemes of taxation. He was also for a short time Prussian minister in Holland, where he endeavoured without success to contract a loan. The extreme sensitiveness of his temperament, however, disqualified him for politics; he proved impracticable in his relations with Hardenberg and other ministers, and in 1810 retired for a time from public life, accepting the more congenial appointment of royal historiographer and professor at the university of Berlin, He commenced his lectures with a course on the history of Rome. The enthusiastic reception these experienced filled him with delight. He recognized that he had found his vocation, and henceforth regarded the history of Rome from the earliest age to Augustus as the task of his life. The first two volumes, based upon his lectures, were published in 1812, but attracted little attention at the time owing to the absorbing interest of political events. In 1813 Niebuhr's own attention was diverted from history by the uprising of the German people against Napoleon ; he entered the landwehr, and ineffectually sought admission into the regular army. He edited for a short time a patriotic journal, The Prussian Correspondent, joined the headquarters of the allied sovereigns, and witnessed the battle of Bautzen, and was subsequently employed in some minor negotiations. In 1815 he lost his father, whose life he subsequently wrote; and in July his beloved wife, whose health had long been declining, expired, enjoining him to finish his History. He next accepted the post of ambassador at Rome, which he probably thought would assist his historical labours, and departed to assume that office in July 1816. On his way he discovered in the cathedral library of Verona the long-lost Institutes of Gaius, afterwards edited by Savigny, to whom he communicated the discovery under the impression that he had found a portion of Ulpian. Before his departure for Bome he had married his wife's niece, an amiable ybung person, but inferior intellectually to his first wife, and almost equally delicate in constitution. Although devoted to him, she could in no way replace her predecessor. Nor was he happy in other respects. He disliked the Italians, and found himself unable to proceed as he wished with his History. These causes, acting upon a naturally querulous and despondent temper, produced a general dissatisfaction and discouragement which coloured all his views of human affairs, and deprived the world of the benefit that it might have received from the observations of one endowed with such profound insight and such noble sympathies. While his distrust made him ungenerous to those who were con-tending for a better order of things, his appreciation of the lessons of history withheld him equally from siding with the reactionary party. His position in his latter years was hence one of great isolation, not uncheered, however, by the sympathy of friends and disciples such as Savigny and Bunsen. During his residence in Rome he discovered and published fragments of Cicero and Livy, aided Cardinal Mai in his edition of Cicero De República, and shared in framing the plan of Bunsen and Blatner's great work on the topography of ancient Rome, to which he contributed several chapters. He also, on a journey home from Italy, deciphered in a palimpsest at St Gall the fragments of Flavius Merobaudes, a Roman poet of the 5th century. In 1823 he resigned the embassy and established himself at Bonn, where the remainder of his life was spent, with the exception of some visits to Berlin as councillor of state. He here rewrote and republished (1827-28) the first two volumes of his History, and composed a third volume, bringing the narrative down to the end of the First Punic War, which he did not himself entirely complete, but which, with the help of a fragment written in 1811, was edited after his death by Professor Classen. He also assisted in Bekker's edition of the Byzantine historians, and delivered courses of lectures on ancient history, ethnography, and geography, and on the French Revolution, which were published from notes after his death. In February 1830 his house was burned down, but the greater part of his books and manuscripts were saved. The revolution of July in the same year was a terrible blow to him, and filled him with the most dismal anticipations of the future of Europe. He died on January 2, 1831, from a chill taken in coming home from a news-room where he had been eagerly studying the trial of the ministers of Charles X. His wife survived him only nine days. He left several children by her; his first marriage had been childless.

Niebuhr's great work counts among epoch-making histories both as marking an era in the study of its special subject, and for its momentous influence on the general conception of history. "The main results," says Dr Schmitz, "arrived at by the inquiries of Niebuhr, such as his views of the ancient population of Rome, the origin of the plebs, the relation between the patricians and plebeians, the real nature of the ager publicus, and many other points of interest, have been acknowledged by all his successors." Other alleged discoveries, such as the construction of early Roman history out of still earlier ballads, have not been equally fortunate; but if every positive conclusion of Niebuhr's had been refuted, his claim to be considered the first who dealt with the ancient history of Rome in a scientific spirit would remain unimpaired, and the new principles introduced by him into historical research would lose nothing of their importance. He suggested, though he did not elaborate, the theory of the myth, so potent an instrument for good and ill in modern historical criticism. He brought in infer-ence to supply the place of discredited tradition, and showed the possibility of writing history in the absence of original records. By his theory of the disputes between the patricians and plebeians arising from original differences of race he drew attention to the immense importance of ethnological distinctions, and contributed to the revival of these divergences as factors in modern history. More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popu-larizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies, and social traits to the neglect of individuals. History, so treated, always inclines to degenerate into mere disquisition; and if Niebuhr were weighed in the scales of Livy it might be questioned whether he could even claim to rank among historians. That his rank should be so high is a proof of the extension which the defini-tion of history has received in our day. An historian should before all things tell a story. Niebuhr is often engaged in proving that there is no story to tell. The peculiar character of his work is incidentally expressed by himself. "That," he says, "which would be harmonious in a national and poetical historian would be out of tune in a work written more than eighteen hundred years later by a foreigner and a critic. His task is to restore the ancient tradition." He is not, that is to say, an historian but an historical critic. It would therefore be unjust to try him by the standard of great artists in history like Gibbon, eminent in narrative, in character-painting, in historical grouping and light and shade. His intense admiration for Livy proves how greatly he himself valued such accomplishments, but he makes no attempt to emulate them. Such an endeavour could have had no place in the treatment of early Roman history according to the principle he had prescribed for himself; and it is perhaps fortunate for his fame that the pen dropped from his hand as he was slowly emerging from the regions of historic twilight into a clear day where the actions of statesmen and generals are no longer a matter of uncertainty, and only require to be interpreted by their motives. There are indeed in the latter pages of his history evidences of deep human sympathy, and a capacity for viewing men and things in the concrete, as, for instance, in his treatment of Pyrrhus; but this tendency is continually checked and controlled by his propensity to analytical criticism. Had his work been carried down, as he designed, to the period of Augustus, he would have given a masterly study of such episodes as the legislation of the Gracchi, he would have thrown tne clearest light on the constitutional questions between Caesar and his adversaries, he would now and then have illuminated the character of a great man by a flash of inspiration ; but as a whole his history would have lacked life, colour, and movement. It must be added that, if his style is not precisely inelegant, even the refined literary skill of his English translators has failed to render it attractive. Whence, then, is this history not merely valuable, but delightful ? The answer must be from its freshness, its elation of real or supposed discovery, the impression it conveys of actual contact with a great body of new and unsuspected truth. We seem to be at once learning and unlearning ; we see many new things, and old things as we never saw them before. It is an intellectual emancipation, momentous for the world and the individual, even if particular conclusions should prove to be hasty, and particular details inaccurate. In this sense Niebuhr was justified in his proud assumption that "the discovery of no ancient historian would have taught the world so much as my work." His further prediction " that all that may hereafter come to light from ancient and uncorrupted sources will only tend to confirm or develop the principles I have advanced " has not received equal confirmation. The theory on which he laid so much stress of the derivation of ancient Roman history from popular ballads has been refuted by Sir George Lewis, and now finds little acceptance. The general scepticism as to the credibility of ancient history implied in his method went too far, and has been succeeded by a legitimate reaction fortified by such practical arguments as the recent archaeological discoveries at Uion and Mycenae, and more lately at Samos, in the deserts of Moab, and even on the confines of Ethiopia. Writing, it is evident, was more ancient and more practised ; oral tradition was more disciplined (as might have been inferred from a memorable passage in Plato's Tirnseus) ; there was more even of a judicial and critical spirit in antiquity than was surmised by Niebuhr. The testimony of Xanthus to the Lydian origin of the Etruscans, so summarily set aside by him, would now be considered strong prima facie evidence. Yet, after every deduction, Dr Leonhard Schmitz, prefacing the English translation of the Roman History by Mommsen which has for readers of general cultivation superseded Niebuhr, is able to say of the latter, "The main pillars of his grand structure are still unshaken." The endowments which enabled him to achieve so much in the absence of so many of the historian's most essential gifts may be characterized as learning, memory, sagacity, imagination. His erudition is marvellous for a man so much engaged in public affairs, and the perfect ease with which it is wielded is even more rare and admirable. This facility was greatly assisted by the prodigious memory which remembered things not only in themselves but in their relations to other things, and hence would often quite unexpectedly bring one circumstance to bear upon the interpretation of another. Niebuhr's sagacity is considerably overestimated when it is spoken of as " divination " ; this dangerous term, however, may be service-able in expressing his faculty for remote inference, and for detect-ing how much may be implied in a statement, an allusion, or an omission previously disregarded. It must be confessed that this faculty was sometimes perverted by a tendency to paradox, particularly observable in some of his minor speculations, such as his disquisitions on the dates of Quintus Curtius and Petronius. Imagination, nevertheless, was Niebuhr's most signal endowment,— not the historical imagination that reanimates actors departed from • the world's theatre, but the critical imagination that makes past social conditions living and real. In the pourtrayal of men Niebuhr's touch is uncertain, but his treatment of institutions is an actual contact. Everything becomes alive to him, and to the reader's elation at finding himself thus apparently introduced to realities where he had looked only for abstractions must be ascribed much of the overwhelming influence and success of a work so deficient in the ordinary attractions of history.

Niebuhr's other works are interesting, but would not of themselves have made a great reputation. The notes of his Bonn lectures on ancient history and geography disappointed expectation, but expectation had been pitched unreasonably high. They were not finished compositions, and could not be more than useful and suggestive commonplace books. A detailed examination of their obiter dicta, by the light of recent discovery and more exact research would be highly interesting. His lectures on the French Revolution, delivered in 1825, though well worth hearing, were not worth publishing, especially as the editor cannot vouch for their verbal or even their substantial fidelity. The Kleine Schriften include many valuable essays. His letters form one of the most interesting collections of correspondence extant, alike for the multiplicity of important subjects treated in them, and their revelation of the writer in all his strength and weakness. The luminous profundity of his remarks is frequently startling. Like Coleridge he seems to have an intuitive faculty for descending below the apparent surface of things, while he is no more successful than Coleridge in applying this gift to the appreciation of the practical problems of his own age. There is hardly another book from which it would be possible to select more entirely perverse and erroneous views respecting human society in general, and more admirable observations on individual men and things. A selection of remarks and aphorisms, both from his correspondence and his historical writings, would be a compilation of great value.

Niebuhr's personal character was in most respects exceedingly attractive. His heart was kind and his affections were strong ; he was magnanimous and disinterested, simple and honest. He had a kindling sympathy with everything lofty and generous, and framed his own conduct upon the highest principles. His chief defect was an over-sensitiveness leading to peevish and unreasonable behaviour in his private and official relations, to hasty and unbalanced judgments of persons and things that had given him annoyance, and to a despondency and discouragement which have frustrated the great good he might have effected as a critic of public affairs from the point of view of a lofty morality. His imagination sometimes usurps the functions of his judgment, and his sagacity is traversed by a vein of paradox. In this, as in many other features of his intellectual character, he strikingly resembles Bentley, but his moral constitution is totally dissimilar.

The principal authority for Niebuhr's life is the Lebensnackriehten, prepared by Madame Hensler in 1838, and consisting mainly of correspondence linked by a brief biographical narrative. In the English translation by Miss Winkworth (1852) a great part of the correspondence is omitted, but the narrative is rendered more full, especially as concerns Niebuhr's participation in public affairs. It also contains interesting communications from Bunsen and Professor Loebell, and select translations from the Kleine Schriften. The reminiscences of Francis Lieber (London, 1835) convey a pleasing view of Niebuhr's character, and preserve passages of his conversation when ambassador at Rome. The first edition of his Roman History was translated into English by F. A. Walter (1827), but was immediately superseded by the translation of the second edition by Julius Hare and Connop Thirwall, completed by Dr William Smith and Dr Leonhard Schmitz (last edition, London, 1847-51). The History has been discussed and criticized in a great number of publications, the most important of which, perhaps, is Sir George Cornwall Lewis's Essay on the Credibility of the Early Roman History. The Lectures on Ancient History have been translated by Dr Schmitz (London, 1852-53). (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries