Book review / The end of the Roman Empire (100 years late)

A History of Rome under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen Routledge, pounds 40

Theodor Mommsen is the only historian ever to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Radical politician as much as pedantic polymath, popularising journalist as much as retiring academic, his multi-volume History of Rome started to appear in the 1850s and was one of the inter- national publishing successes of the late-19th century. Running into 16 editions, and almost instantly translated from the original German into Italian, Russian, English, French, Polish, Hungarian and Spanish, it outstripped even such other contemporary classics as Frazer's The Golden Bough.

Yet it was never finished. Volumes One to Three appeared quickly within the space of a few years, covering Rome's history during the so-called "Republic" - a period of constitutional government under the Senate and elected magistrates - that Mommsen enthusiastically saw as a model for the new nation-states of Europe; Volume Five followed 30 years, later (a much drier history of the various provinces of the Roman empire). Volume Four, which was to cover Rome under the emperors, after the tyranny and assassination of Julius Caesar, never appeared. There was no doubt what Mommsen thought of this period; he repeatedly referred to it in his writing as a "deeply degenerate age" of "leaden tedium" destroyed by "inner putresence".

In 1980, however, a young German historian walked into a second-hand bookshop in Nuremberg, and came across a pile of old notebooks. These turned out to contain students' notes from Mommsen's courses on the history of the Roman empire in the 1880s - the closest thing, as their discoverer instantly realised, that we would ever get to the missing Volume Four. Edited into connected prose, they were published in Germany in 1992 to front-page headlines and they are now translated into English.

The serendipity of this whole story is astonishing; the chances that (even in well-educated Nuremberg) the books would have been spotted by someone who actually recognised what they were are almost too small to contemplate. But the more hard-headed response must ask whether the final published version lives up to its promise.

There are indeed some engagingly iconoclastic soundbites buried here. Mommsen was a notoriously outspoken oddball - in his academic life as much as in his modern politics (his remarks on Gladstone's Irish legislation, for example, were said to be unprintable). By the 1880s he already had an established reputation as the greatest defender of Roman history and culture in a Germany that was still enthralled by Hellenism. His audience was presumably meant to be amused, as well as shocked, when they heard him dismissing Rome's national poet Virgil as a "sorry comparison" with the Greek Homer, chastising the central episode of his Aeneid, as "a vulgar erotic motif" and lamenting that the whole poem was not burnt on Virgil's death. But such passages are, within a rather dreary historical narrative, few and far between.

The editors do a valiant job in their introduction, trying to catch something of the spirit of this extra-ordinary man: a parodic workaholic, who was once found at seven in the morning outside the Bodleian in Oxford, complaining that the library was not open till nine; a committed citizen, who was for years a member of the Prussian Parliament; a prolific Roman historian, who singlehandedly rediscovered (though some would now say, more critically, "invented") the whole legal basis of the ancient Roman constitution. All the same, to re-read these lectures on the history of the Roman empire inevitably prompts the suspicion that, for all his promses, his failure to produce Volume Four was a calculated (and wise) decision. For once, perhaps, he didn't have much he wanted to say.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?