Barthold Georg Niebuhr

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Barthold Georg Niebuhr (born August 27, 1776 in Copenhagen ; † January 2, 1831 in Bonn ) was an important German ancient historian .

Barthold Georg Niebuhr (drawing by Louise Seidler )
Portrait of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, Dithmarscher State Museum

Life and meaning

Niebuhr - son of Carsten Niebuhr , famous for his travels to the Orient - initially studied a few semesters at the University of Kiel , but broke off his studies and initially worked in the Danish civil service; In 1801 he turned down the offer to hold a professorship in Kiel - what was unusual about this was not so much his young age as the fact that he had not obtained a degree. Niebuhr then entered the service of the Prussian state in Berlin in 1806 (until 1810), gave history lectures at the newly founded University of Berlin from 1810 , was Prussian envoy to the Holy See from 1816 to 1823 and professor in Bonn from 1825 . In 1822 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .

Niebuhr had already attracted attention as a child with a phenomenal talent for languages ​​- he learned various oriental languages ​​in self-study - and was a co-founder of the philological-critical history , which he developed in the earlier Roman history in discussion with Titus Livius . His conclusions, not least against the source interpretation by Machiavelli in his Discorsi on the Roman state, were often incorrect in the result - Machiavelli was often right about Niebuhr. The latter too often relied on inspiration (his divination , as he called it) when it came to reconstructing the past. However, with Niebuhr's approach in the methodological and methodological field, a groundbreaking course had been set that led to the development of modern classical antiquity. It was to Niebuhr's lasting merit to have asked the question of the plausibility of the events reported by the later sources. Notwithstanding the many individually untenable conclusions from this criticism of the sources of Titus Livius and other historians, not a few significant scholars and historians referred explicitly to the work of Niebuhr: Karl Otfried Müller , Theodor Mommsen , Jacob Burckhardt , and even Leopold von Ranke and Johann Gustav Droysen can be mentioned here. The result was that the fictional character of the literary tradition of early Roman history was recognized, which is why, in the opinion of the majority of today's researchers, at best an institutional, legal, social and religious history, but no history of events in Rome for the time before the turning point of 4th to 3rd century more can be written.

This lost the historicity of all figures from the royal period and early republic, which, since they had been considered moral examples of undoubted exemplary quality since the Renaissance , therefore a broad readership, including young people, through Livy and Plutarch's parallel biographies - often in translations or, not infrequently, illustrated , Retelling on this basis - had been conveyed and therefore also played a central role in Latin lessons, fell victim to the source criticism: In particular, the kings Numa Pompilius and Servius Tullius , Mucius Scaevola , Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus , the Horatians , Horatius Cocles and many others others banished to the realm of legend . Goethe immediately recognized the high price that had to be paid as a result of this scientific gain in knowledge: With the belief in the historicity of the models, the emotional identification with them and thus their normative binding force and appeal function had to disappear. However, this contributed to the fact that ancient studies gradually broke away from the idealized image of the early Roman times and antiquity in general. The development of the historical conception of historicism , which undoubtedly emerged particularly through Ranke, cannot be explained without reference to Niebuhr.

Relief of the grave monument for Niebuhr and his second wife Margarete in the old cemetery in Bonn

We are also grateful to Niebuhr that first history and then ancient history rose from the role of a minor subject in philosophy , philology , law and political science to an independent scientific discipline and thus an independent academic subject. The fact that he could not make up his mind whether he wanted to be primarily a politician or a scientist was in keeping with his difficult and vain character, which made him few friends, but did not diminish his importance for subsequent historians.

The discovery of the Institutiones des Gaius

In 1816 Niebuhr discovered the Institutiones des Gaius in the form of a palimpsest in the monastery library in Verona. This is one of the most important works of Roman jurisprudence . Under the apparent text of the manuscript, which contained the letters of the church father Jerome and other Christian authors, a washed-off or erased copy of the institution of the Roman legal scholar Gaius was found around 530 AD , which to date has only been in a few fragments were documented in the late antique digests of Emperor Justinian . The Institutiones , the only surviving Roman legal textbook from the Principate , were produced around 160 AD, still under Emperor Antoninus Pius , and are considered to be the "most widespread in antiquity and by far the most influential elementary in late antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times. systematic presentation of Roman private law ”.


  • Roman History , 3 volumes, Berlin 1811–1832 (first 2 volumes. Volume 1: digitized and full text in the German text archive ; volume 2: digitized and full text in the German text archive ).
  • About secret connections in the Prussian state, and their denunciation , Berlin 1815 ( digitized , Bavarian State Library )
  • About the message from the Comitia of the Centuries in the second book, Ciceros de re publica . Bonn 1823.
  • Postponed writings of BG Niebuhr's non-philological content . Hamburg 1842.
  • Life news about Barthold Georg Niebuhr from letters from the same and from memories of some of his closest friends . First volume. Hamburg 1838, - second volume, Hamburg 1838 online , third volume, Hamburg 1839 online


Medal for Barthold Georg Niebuhr 1842

In 1842 a medal was dedicated to Niebuhr by the assembly of German philologists and school men. The legend on the back illustrates the contemporary admiration for the ancient scholar. In his honor, the Niebuhrstrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Bonn and Kiel is named. In Meldorf there is a memorial plaque in the Low German language.


In 1800 he married Sophia Amalia Catharina (1773-1815), the sister of the lawyer Siegfried Behrens . His second wife was Margarethe (1787–1831) in 1816, a daughter of Christian Gotthilf Hensler . Her uncle Hieronymus Friedrich Philipp Hensler was married to another sister of Behrens. The oldest of the four children from the second marriage was Marcus von Niebuhr .


Web links

Wikisource: Barthold Georg Niebuhr  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Barthold Georg Niebuhr  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Goethe's letter to Niebuhr, who had sent him the first volume of his Roman history, dated November 23, 1812 (Weimar Edition IV, Volume 23, No. 6430, pp. 161ff.): “[…] My interest in your efforts is always the same and it is always growing. Let me use the general instead of the specific! What has passed can appear to our inner eyes and minds as present through simultaneous written monuments, annals, chronicles, documents, memoirs, and whatever the name may be. They transmit something immediate, which delights us as it is, but which we would like to convey again, for the sake of others, out of hundreds of urges and intentions. We do it, we process what is given, and how? as poets, as rhetoricians! This has always happened, and these types of treatment are extremely effective; they take control of the imagination, of the feeling, they fill the mind, strengthen the character, and excite the deed. It is a second world that has devoured the first. Think now of the feelings of people when this world is destroyed and that does not completely oppose looking. Anyone who would like to return to looking at uranium is most welcome to receive criticism that smashes everything that is secondary and, if it cannot restore it, at least organizes fragments and allows the context to be punished. But the living people do not want that, and rightly so [...] ”. For the full text cf. Letters from Goethe to Niebuhr .
  2. Liselot Huchthausen: BG Niebuhr, Garlieb Merkel and the discovery of the Gaius handwriting . In: Klio 60, 1978, 581-587.
  3. ^ Theo Mayer-Maly : sv Gaius . In: Der Kleine Pauly , Volume 2, 1967, 660–662.
  4. Stefan Krmnicek, Marius Gaidys: Taught images. Classical scholars on 19th century medals. Accompanying volume to the online exhibition in the Digital Coin Cabinet of the Institute for Classical Archeology at the University of Tübingen (= From Croesus to King Wilhelm. New Series, Volume 3). University Library Tübingen, Tübingen 2020, pp. 47–49 ( online ).
  5. Niebuhrstrasse. In: Street name lexicon of the Luisenstädtischer Bildungsverein (near  Kaupert )
  6. ^ Niebuhrstrasse in the Bonn street cadastre
  7. Hans-G. Hilscher, Dietrich Bleihöfer: Niebuhrstrasse. In: Kiel Street Lexicon. Continued since 2005 by the Office for Building Regulations, Surveying and Geoinformation of the State Capital Kiel, as of February 2017 ( ).