Barthold Georg Niebuhr


Notes : Barthold Georg Niebuhr combined a high- powered career in state service with that of an influential scholar. After having studied law at the university of Kiel from 1794-96 he became private secretary to the Danish minister of finance Count Schimmelmann and in 1798/99 spent over a year in Britain. Subsequently he became the director of the Danish national bank. In 1806 he took up a similar post in Prussia under Baron von Stein. Since he disapproved of Stein’s successor, Prince von Hardenberg, he resigned to become state historiographer. In 1810 he was made a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, which enabled him to lay the foundations for the first edition of his “Römische Geschichte” by lecturing on the topic at the newly founded University of Berlin. In 1816 he went to the Vatican as Prussian ambassador and moved to Bonn in 1823, where he dedicated himself to research and university teaching in ancient and modern history. The two substantially different editions (1811-12 and 1827-32) of Niebuhr’s Roman history ended where Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” started and shed new light on the early centuries of Roman history. Using philological scholarship as a foundation, Niebuhr questioned the authority of ancient historiography. His work included original examinations of early Roman poetical and mythological traditions and closely examined social and agrarian problems. Even though his work was in many ways superseded by Mommsen’s, Niebuhr’s meticulous development of source criticism constitutes a momentous contribution to the development of historiographical methodology, and his ideas greatly influenced other researchers such as Savigny, Böckh, Otfried Müller, Ranke, Michelet, Thirlwall and Grote. The reception of Niebuhr’s work in Britain was initiated by two separate translations of both editions of Niebuhr’s Roman history. The first edition was translated by F. A. Walter, a librarian of the British Museum, and included a translator's preface. The translation of the second edition by Julius Hare, Connop Thirlwall (vols 1 and 2), the lexicographer William Smith and Leonhard Schmitz (vol. 3) was more influential than Walter’s but there are no translators’ prefaces. Niebuhr’s thought had an impact on Thirlwall’s “History of Greece”, whereas Julius Hare’s “Vindication of Niebuhr’s History of Rome” (1829) defended the author against the charge of scepticism. Moreover, Hare contributed to the prefaces to Thomas Arnold’s “History of Rome”, in which the author rewrote Niebuhr’s ideas with a view to presenting them to a wider British audience in a more readable format. The density and difficulty of Niebuhr’s written prose was one of the reasons for which his pupils felt the need to publish his ideas in the way in which he had expressed them in the oral framework of lectures. Leonhard Schmitz, who also contributed to the translation of Thirlwall’s “History of Greece” into German, started these efforts in Britain by publishing his own notes in English before other Niebuhr pupils did the same in German. Subsequently Schmitz translated M. Isler’s 1846-48 German edition of the lectures into English. What thus emerges is a variety of interacting translation forms and reception channels, which is further complemented by Travers Twiss’ “Epitome of Niebuhr’s History of Rome” and a plethora of periodical reviews. For his influence in Britain see Oswyn Murray, 'Niebuhr in Britain', in Historiographie de l’antiquité et transferts culturels: Les histoires anciennes dans l’Europe des XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, edited by Chryssanthi Avlami and Jaime Alvar (Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York 2010) pp. 239-54.

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