Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.29

Frank Behne, Heinrich Siber und das Römische Staatsrecht von Theodor Mommsen: Ein Beitrag zur Rezeptionsgeschichte Mommsens im 20. Jahrhundert.   Hildesheim, Zürich, New York:  Olms-Weidemann, 1999.  Pp. 278.  ISBN 3-487-10910-7.  

Reviewed by Ehrhardt, Christopher T.H.R., Dunedin, New Zealand (
Word count: 908 words

Most ancient historians know who Mommsen (1817-1903) was, and his importance was summed up a generation ago by Arnold Toynbee,1 'One famous name appears only occasionally in my footnotes because it is latent in every page of this book and of the works of other scholars that I have consulted. Theodor Mommsen dealt with all the problems of Roman history that I have discussed; and everything that he touched has borne, ever since, the enduring marks of his masterly handling. Mommsen had the gift of setting thoughts in motion; his work was bahnbrechend; and one measure of its, and his, greatness is the speed with which it has been carried farther under the stimulus that he has given to all later workers in the same field. On almost any point in Roman history that one takes up, one may agree with Mommsen or one may differ from him at one's peril; but in either case his work will be the foundation of one's own; the point will be one that was first perceived and formulated by him; and one will be aware that, if Mommsen had not been first in the field, the question at issue might still today have been beyond one's own horizon.'

Heinrich Siber (1870-1951) is far less widely known: B(ehne) cites three important obituaries, by Gerhard Dulckeit, Max Kaser and Franz Wieacker,2 but was apparently unaware of Hans Kreller's,3 with its informative account of Siber's intellectual development.

B.'s purpose, stated on p. 8, is to investigate the differences between Mommsen's account of some important components of the Roman constitution in his Staatsrecht and Siber's account in his posthumous Römisches Verfassungsrecht in geschichtlicher Entwicklung,4 and also the areas of agreement between the two works, and by this means to establish to what extent Siber had succeeded in revising Mommsen's work. He does not explain why such an investigation is necessary or who would profit from it.

B. has written an almost perfect example of a work by a cloistered, desk-bound academic. He knows his two books, and he sticks to his comparisons and analyses, but real life nowhere disturbs his writing. There is no hint of the passion, turmoil and -- from 133 to 31 B.C. -- open violence of Roman politics (though B. criticises Siber, p. 96, because 'von den oft hinter dieser Entwicklung stehenden sozialen Kräften ist keine Rede'); no one would guess from his account of 'Die Zeit des frühen Prinzipates' (pp. 183-261) that over two centuries ago a similar account had begun, 'The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside'.5

Far less is there any reference to the times and places in which Mommsen and Siber lived, though the academic work of both of them was strongly influenced by the political developments they experienced, as Wieacker emphasised in his obituary of Siber, with particular reference to his last years (p. xxx), 'unbewußt oder bewußt wohl auch angeregt durch die Erfahrungen der Diktatur, die vielen Deutschen das Auge für das Spiel der reinen Macht erst geöffnet haben.'

Nor does B. discuss, or even show awareness of, more recent radical criticisms of the opinions which Mommsen established and which, on the whole, Siber accepted. His bibliography contains no reference to any of W. K. Lacey's papers (now conveniently up-dated in a single volume),6 which over the past quarter century have changed our understanding of Augustus' constitutional position. Those are in English, but B. also omits any mention of K.M. Girardet's demolition of imperium proconsulare as a constitutional term,7 and is apparently unaware that Gelzer, in the index to his Kleine Schriften (which does appear in the bibliography), denied that republican Rome had a government, in the modern sense.8 So it is not surprising that, though B. includes Syme's Roman Revolution in his bibliography, and even cites the book twice, he never mentions Syme's statement, 'The Roman constitution was a screen and a sham' (p. 15), far less discusses its implications. And both Augustus' funeral speech for Agrippa and the Tabula Siarensis are ignored -- as is the Tabula Hebana, though that has been known since 1947, and was available to Siber (Verfassungsgeschichte 351-2).

As content so style: it is almost a parody of what a German dissertation is supposed to be like. Sentences such as 'Somit stellten gerade diese Komitien ein wichtiges Bindeglied zwischen der sich konstituierenden patrizisch-plebeischen Elite einerseits und dem Volk andererseits dar, und zwar insofern, als das Volk in gewisser Weise in den Konstituierungsprozess einbezogen wurde und bis zu einem gewissen Grade vielleicht sogar als eine Art Regulativ fungierte, falls einzelne Familien zu viel Macht bekamen' (p. 145) are not rare. Nor are glimpses of the obvious lacking, 'Diese sogenannte Dyarchie-These Mommsens ist in der Folgezeit nicht unumstritten gewesen' (243 n. 123). But there is no index. Misprints are rare, and generally unimportant; however, Alföldi did not write a book called Das frühe Rom und die Etrusker (read Latiner), and The Roman Citizenship is not by 'Sherman-White' (read 'Sherwin-').

To sum up: anyone interested in how far Siber's description of the shape and development of the Roman constitution differs from Mommsen's should read this book. No one else needs to.


1.   A.J. Toynbee, Hannibal's legacy, vol. 1 (Oxford 1965), v.
2.   G. Dulckeit, Gnomon 24, 1952, 173-75; M. Kaser, Iura 3, 1952, 496ff.; F. Wieacker, ZRG 68, 1951, xix-xxxii.
3.   H. Kreller, SDHI 17, 1951, 377-83.
4.   Ed. J. Rosenthal, Lahr 1952 (Siber had fully revised his manuscript, but died before publication).
5.   E. Gibbon, The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 3 (ed. J.B. Bury, London 1909, vol. 1, 78).
6.   W.K. Lacey, Augustus and the Principate: the evolution of the system (Leeds 1996).
7.   K.M. Girardet, 'Zur Diskussion um das imperium consulare militiae im 1. Jh. v. Chr.', Cahiers du Centre G. Glotz 3, 1992, 213-220.
8.   M. Gelzer, Kleine Schriften 3 (Wiesbaden 1964), 376, s.v. 'Regierung'.

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