Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.37

Luise M. Errington, Otto Jahn und Adolf Michaelis. Briefwechsel 1848 bis 1869. Kommentierte Textausgabe. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Archäologie und der Altertumswissenschaften, 1.   Berlin; Boston:  Deutsches Archäologisches Institut; de Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. ix, 863.  ISBN 9783110544015.  €149,95.  

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, University of Göttingen (

The correspondence between the classical philologist, archaeologist and musicologist Otto Jahn (1813–1869) and his nephew, the archaeologist and philologist Adolf Michaelis (1835–1910), is of outstanding importance for the history of scholarship, since both were widely influential scholars in their time. Jahn was professor in Greifswald (1842-1847), Leipzig (1847-1851) and finally Bonn (from 1855 until his death); he produced fundamental editions of ancient texts (e.g. Persius in 1843, Cicero’s Orator and Juvenal, both in 1851), was involved with Theodor Mommsen in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, and developed new critical methods in Classical Archaeology. In addition to this workload he managed not only to write a biography of Mozart in four volumes (1856–9) and articles about topics of musicology, but also his own compositions for piano and song (7–11).

Michaelis went to Rome in 1857 after completing his PhD in Kiel. Three years later he became, together with Alexander Conze, the first to receive the “Reisestipendium” of the “Istituto di corrispondenza archaeologica” (which was renamed in 1874 “Kaiserlich-Deutsches Archäologisches Institut”). During his years in Rome he wrote long confidential letters to Jahn about the internal affairs of the institute that illuminate his decision not to aspire to a post there. In 1862 Michaelis became “Außerordentlicher Professor” of archaeology in Greifswald, in 1864 he got the chair in Classical Philology and Archaeology at Tübingen, and in 1872 at the newly founded university of Strasbourg, where he assembled the collection of plaster casts. He worked extensively on Greek sculpture; being responsible for Jahn’s legacy—he also wrote Jahn’s biography in “Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie”—, he started a systematic collection of Jahn’s letters in later years, but did not manage to publish them.

The present edition is a monumental achievement: it is very carefully produced (with next to no misprints in 857 pages!), with an informative introduction to the letters and the writers (pp. 1–19), a chronological overview on their lives and a chronological list of the letters (pp. 29–39). A very great asset are the seven different indices (pp. 795–856) on a variety of subjects mentioned in the letters: people, geographical names, modern literature, PhD theses of various younger scholars, ancient authors and editions of their works, ancient sculpture and architecture, ancient vases, persons and subjects from musicology and finally key words. These make the huge volume easily accessible to readers with a variety of specialized interests.

Of course this review cannot do justice to the enormous amount of work and diligence put into this volume. Already the transcription and careful editing of the handwriting was a laborious task1; moreover, some letters of the young Michaelis had to be translated from Latin. The commentary consists of footnotes providing detailed information on persons, places and events mentioned in the letters.2

Let me present some (necessarily subjective and personal) impressions out of the whole panorama of culture, politics, academic institutions and personal struggles in the academic world in Germany and Italy in the middle of the 19th century that one is able to access through this correspondence.

The letters start in the year 1848 when Michalis was 13 years old and last until Jahn’s death in 1869. One wonders about the precocity of the boy Michaelis who takes great interest in every edition of an ancient author and makes eager enquiries about those in print. He diligently informs his uncle about everything he is reading; according to him, Thucydides is dead easy (“kinderleicht”, p. 46 nr. 7). For his part, “dear uncle Otto” provides the young man from the beginning with very detailed instructions (still valid today) about how to look at works of ancient art and how to describe them (p. 97 nr. 52).: He should memorize distinctions of style provided by renowned scholars and try to verify them on the works of art he sees. In every visit in the museum he should choose one work of art and provide a detailed and exact description of it (including the pose of a statue, its clothing, expression, style and the impression it makes on the viewer) that must be simple, but lively. With this method he would learn exact viewing as well as the art of description.

The letters that Michaelis wrote as a student often contain amusing descriptions (and scathing criticism) of famous teachers: Eduard Gerhard mainly reads from his own book and manages to slaughter (sic) every Greek vase-painter in just one hour (p. 109 nr. 60).

Both Jahn and Michaelis were in the habit of writing extremely long letters (the collection contains also letters from Michaelis to his mother and sisters). They provided each other with extensive descriptions of works of art and manuscripts of ancient authors, information about their ongoing archaeological and philological research as well as on cultural activities (mainly visits to concerts and operas) and of course family matters. One often wonders when they still found the time for their extensive letter-writing.

What struck me was the omnipresence of illness in almost all the letters. But apart from the real recurring tragedies of infant mortality and death in childbirth among family and friends,3 both seem to have suffered periodically from what was then called “melancholia” (see e. g. p. 244 nr. 165), and both seemed to have also had an inclination towards hypochondria. Time and again each of them lectures for the benefit of the other about the blessings of hard work and study, which was obviously for both of them the remedy for everything.

This private correspondence of two eminent academic figures, which is now available through this volume, will doubtlessly also shed more light on many developments concerning the politics (and intrigues) in the universities and archaeological institutions Jahn and Michaelis were connected with. One example of this is how the young Michaelis received support for his career from the older man; Jahn’s good connections smoothed his way in Rome (p. 185 nr. 124). Michaelis’ very ambivalent relationship to Eduard Gerhard4 (whom Michaelis accuses in a letter to his mother of having judged a work of his without even having seen it, p. 511 nr. 326) was a source of constant admonitions by Jahn (e. g. p. 306 nr. 206) who tries to convince Michaelis that the famous professor in Berlin is in fact well disposed towards him. He obviously wanted Michaelis to be on good terms with influential people. But, as Errington correctly states (p. 12), Jahn could only have been successful in this endeavor because Michaelis produced excellent scholarly work.

Another example that left deep traces in German scholarship will be mentioned here, the so-called “Bonner Philologenkrieg”: although the renowned philologist Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl was the driving force behind Jahn’s appointment at Bonn, there soon was a growing alienation between the two men. The uncomfortable situation escalated into open conflict in 1865 when Jahn tried—behind Ritschl’s back—to get Hermann Sauppe from Göttingen to Bonn to reinforce the Greek side of classical philology and have someone else to share the burden of teaching. Jahn went so far as to make Sauppe’s appointment the condition for his own staying at Bonn. The ministry gave in, but Sauppe, in spite of his earlier acceptance, decided to remain at Göttingen. At this point Ritschl finally learned about all the dealings in which he had had no part and started a smear campaign against Jahn that got him a sharp reprimand from the ministry. The whole affair even became a matter of debate in the local parliament, and the institute was deeply split into the supporters of Ritschl and those of Jahn. The conflict ended with Ritschl leaving Bonn for Leipzig and Jahn’s already precarious health deteriorating further. Reading the letters dealing with this affair (pp. 682 nr. 456–691 nr. 462), one wonders whether Jahn did not misjudge the situation from the beginning, blinded by his eager wish to have Sauppe at Bonn. “I put my neck into the noose […] and Sauppe pulled tight”, he wrote bitterly (p. 689 Nr. 461); but then Sauppe never seemed to have been really eager to leave Göttingen, and when the ministry at Hannover offered him an increase in his salary and an augmentation of the pension for his widow he immediately decided to stay.5

All in all, this edition of letters offers much more than just a contribution to the history of scholarship: we get here a whole overview of an epoch, with academia, culture, politics, different countries and many different places viewed and described through the eyes of two highly cultivated and educated chroniclers whose personal involvement makes it all the more entertaining. It is—apart from its value to classics—simply a pleasure to read.


1.   The reproductions of two letters of Jahn and Michaelis respectively (pp. 860–863) show what the editor was up against.
2.   My only minor criticism is that the words and quotations that Jahn and Michaelis sometimes use in their native dialect (e.g.: p. 131 nr. 78: Mi nich to dull!; p. 225 nr. 156: he kummt sick not Küken in’n Drank) are not translated. They were often barely understandable for me and are probably even less so for a non-German native speaker. But as they are usually a kind of ironical comment on something that had been said before, the letters can be read without them and I am aware that additional comments would have made the book even more voluminous.
3.   Michaelis lost his first wife in 1869 after less than a year of marriage when she gave birth to his son. His brother died very young from what was possibly cancer; he gives a long harrowing description of the bedridden boy in the last stages of his illness (p. 108 nr. 60).
4.   A profile of Gerhard can be found in a book that is a highly recommendable introduction to classics in 19th century Germany: Annette M. Baertschi, Colin G. King, (Eds.), Die modernen Väter der Antike: die Entwicklung der Altertumswissenschaft im Berlin des 19. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2009, 145–164.
5.   A detailed account of the events is provided by C. W. Müller, Otto Jahn, Stuttgart 1991, 30–34.

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