The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Niebuhr, Barthold Georg

The American Cyclopædia
Niebuhr, Barthold Georg

Edition of 1879. See also the disclaimer.

NIEBUHR, Barthold Georg, a German historian, son of Karstens Niebuhr, born in Copenhagen, Aug. 27, 1776, died in Bonn, Jan. 2, 1831. He was two years old when his father removed to Meldorf in Holstein, where he passed his boyhood till 1793. He learned in the nursery both the German and Danish languages; was instructed by his father in geography, history, and English and Latin; and on entering the gymnasium of Meldorf in 1789 was advanced at once to the first class. After having passed some time in Gottingen, he was sent in 1794 to the university of Kiel, where he remained two years, and became intimately acquainted with Mme. Hensler (whose sister Amalia Behrens was his first wife), with the counts Stolberg, and with Voss and Jacobi. In 1796 he became private secretary to Schimmelmann, the Danish minister of finance, was soon after appointed secretary to the royal library by Count Bernstorff, and in 1798 went to England, and resided chiefly in London and Edinburgh for more than a year. Having received two small appointments from the government at Copenhagen, he married, and resided in that capital till 1806, directing his studies chiefly toward classical antiquity, and establishing his reputation both as a scholar and an administrative officer. In 1806 he removed to Berlin, having received an appointment as joint director of the bank, but was soon obliged to flee with the other officials after the battle of Jena. He was intrusted by Hardenberg with the financial department of the commissariat, and accompanied the army till the battle of Friedland. After the .dismissal of Hardenberg (1807) he was appointed on the commission to conduct the government provisionally, and suggested fiscal reforms which were accepted by the new administration under Stein. He resided one year in Amsterdam, making unsuccessful efforts to negotiate a loan, and on his return to Berlin in 1809 was nominated privy councillor, and was made the head of the department for the management of the national debt and the supervision of the banks. The opposition made by the ministry to his financial plans caused him to demand his dismissal, and both Hardenberg and Stein attributed his conduct to an undue waywardness and impatience of disposition. His own letters prove that while the important offices to which he had been raised had given him an extravagant estimate of his financial abilities, he was nevertheless chiefly desirous to return to the literary studies from which he had been withheld by public duties. Appointed historiographer to the king, he delivered lectures on ancient Roman history in the university of Berlin in 1810 and 1811, which were immediately published, and contained the germs of his later doctrines. He was also associated with Spalding, Buttmann, Ancillon, Schleiermacher, Savigny, and a few others, in a philological society. His studies and lectures were interrupted by the events of the war of liberation in 1813-'14, by writing several political tracts, and by the subsequent illness and death of his wife; and in 1816 he sought change of scene, and went as Prussian ambassador to the court of Rome. On his way he discovered at Verona the palimpsest manuscript of the "Institutes" of Gaius. In Rome he was chiefly occupied with studies concerning its ancient history. He did not receive his final instructions as ambassador till he had been at his post four years, and the negotiations with the papal court were completed by Hardenberg in person in 1821. But the services of Niebuhr in the entire arrangement of the preliminaries were acknowledged by the court, and he was rewarded by the king of Prussia with the order of the red eagle, and by the emperor of Austria with the Leopold order of knighthood. In 1818 Bunsen became secretary of the legation, and Niebuhr was engaged in planning the work on Roman topography, which he subsequently aided Bunsen, Platner, and others in preparing. In 1822 he obtained a release from his duties, and resided chiefly in Berlin and Bonn till in 1823 he became adjunct professor of ancient history in the university recently established in the latter city. He instituted in 1827 the Rheinisches Museum, a periodical consisting of short philological essays by eminent scholars; superintended the republication of the Corpus Scriptorum Histories Byzantines, to which he furnished an edition of Agathias; and was especially occupied with revising and correcting his great work on the history of Rome, the first volume of the new edition of which appeared in 1827. It attracted general attention, and gave a new impulse to the investigation of classical antiquity. In the winter of 1829-'30 his house was burned, and with it nearly all the manuscript of his second volume, which, however, he was able to prepare again for. the press within a year. The French revolution of July, 1830, caused him the deepest anxiety, and he foreboded the worst consequences from the revival of popular sovereignty. A cold which he caught on one of his frequent visits to the news rooms resulted in inflammation of the lungs, which terminated fatally after a week's illness. Niebuhr was personally remarkable for amiability, earnestness, and integrity, combined with a wayward, impatient, and impracticable temper. He had married a second time before his visit to Rome, where his son Marcus was born, whom he educated with peculiar care, and who attained to high office in the Prussian civil service, was an enemy of liberal ideas, and died in 1860. The principal monument of the genius of Niebuhr is his Romische Geschichte (3 vols,, 1811-'32; 2d ed., 1827-'42; translated into English by J. 0. Hare and Connop Thirlwall), which has been called the most original historical work of the present age. It was a reconstruction of Roman history, a development of historical materials from the early traditions and legends. Its aim to reproduce the fabric of history from scattered fragments, to extract truth and certainty out of traditional narratives, together with the erudition, sagacity, and power of imagination which it displayed, excited the enthusiasm of intelligent readers. In England his theories were generally accepted by scholars, and Dr. Arnold professed never to venture to differ from him except when he manifestly had evidence that had not occurred to him. Macaulay also favored his theory of the presumed derivation of early Roman history from national ballads, which has since been generally abandoned in Germany, and which Sir G. Oornewall Lewis has proved to rest on insufficient positive evidence. Another view which he brought into prominence was that the patricians and plebeians were respectively a conquering and conquered race, with different languages, feelings, and habits, yet gradually coalescing into a single body politic. Three series of his lectures have been published since his death in both German and English, respectively on Roman history, on ancient ethnography and geography, and on ancient history. They were edited by his son Marcus and Dr. Isler, from notes taken by his pupils, and also independently in English by Dr. L. Schmitz (8 vols. 8vo). His opinion that the mediaeval municipal institutions of Italy were derived from the Romans, and not from the northern invaders, has been generally rejected. His principal minor writings were collected in his Kleine historische und pJiilologische Schriften (2 vols., Bonn, 1828-'43), and his Nachgelassene Schriften nicht philologischen InJialts (Hamburg, 1842). In 1838 appeared his Lelensnachrichten (2 vols., Hamburg), consisting largely of his correspondence, abridged and translated into English by Miss Winkworth, with additions by Bunsen, Brandis, and others (3 vols., London, 1852).