BMCR 2007.06.02

Christian Gottlob Heyne und die alte Geschichte

, Christian Gottlob Heyne und die Alte Geschichte. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 229. Leipzig: Saur, 2006. 647 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598778414. €110.00.

Thomas Carlyle wrote that Christian Gottlob Heyne was thought of in Germany as “the founder of a new epoch in classical study; as the first who with any decisiveness attempted to translate fairly beyond the letter of the Classics; to read in the writings of the Ancients, not their language alone, or even their detached opinions and records, but their spirit and character, their way of life and their thought; . . .how, in one word, the Greeks and Romans are men, even as we are.”1

Christian Gottlob Heyne was born in 1729 and died in 1812. He first came to scholarly notice with his 1755 edition of Tibullus, written in Dresden while he worked in the library of Count Brühl. There he made the acquaintance of Winckelmann. In the following year, as the Seven Year War broke out, he published an edition of Epictetus. Heyne’s academic career is most closely identified with the University of Göttingen. He went there in 1763 as both professor (of eloquence) and director of the university’s library. He wrote largely in Latin. During his career, the texts of Pliny, Pindar, Apollodorus, Conon, Parthenius, and eventually Homer’s Iliad received his scholarly ministrations as well. Between 1767 and 1803, six editions of his commentary and text of Virgil were published. Despite the infusion into this work of Winckelmann-inspired confidence in timeless beauty, his work on Virgil has been most recently characterized as primarily a pedagogical achievement directed at new readers of what was “the school text par excellence“. Still, the work’s success persuaded many students to come to Göttingen, including Friedrich Wolf, the Schlegels, and Wilhelm von Humboldt.2

Heyne stood on a boundary-line between old and new institutions, and old and new ideas of what classical antiquity should mean. He was rooted in the old in his belief that the past should be of practical service to the present — as stated for example in his inaugural address at Göttingen (quoted by Heidenreich, p. 107) as well as in the desire to expose his students to such works of the ancient world as would promote in them the pursuit of honor and beauty (quoted by Heidenreich, p. 138). Classical philology was intended to inspire the soul to seek virtue and nobility. In addition, his historical research had an eye to how contemporary life could be made better — although the French Revolution, Heidenreich shows, disabused him of much of his optimism in this regard. On the other hand, Heyne stands with the new for his part in realigning classical learning in the form of the comprehensive study of the ancient world which would come to maturity in Friedrich Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft.

To take proper measure of Heyne’s significance, we need to acknowledge the profound changes in academic and intellectual culture under way in his lifetime and to which he contributed. The first thing we need to note is that the organizational basis of knowledge was evolving away from a unified hierarchy of history, philosophy, and mathematics towards increasingly independent disciplines or Wissenschaften. The new practitioners of advanced knowledge endeavored to free themselves from a hierarchy of faculties which had ensured the stability of intellectual life. Nor could the intellectual unity of the secular encyclopedia, relying as it did on the privileged perspective of philosophy, sustain itself in the face of developments in intellectual life.3 The new practitioners sought instead to keep their areas of knowledge insulated from encroachment by those outside their specialty as part of their endeavor to establish their own professional autonomy. Secondly, the last decades of the 18th century marked a change in the nature of academic institutions which culminated in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s founding in 1810 of the University of Berlin. This was a new type of institution and the progenitor of the modern research university. Altogether these changes had the effect of unleashing a seismic shift with profound and long-lasting effects on classical studies.

Heyne was active at a time when the philology seminar was put into the mix, a phenomenon which marked the drift of educational control out of the hands of theologians into those of professional scholars, not least philologists. This secularization provided a seed-bed for the professionalization of academic work which attended the rise of modern disciplines, including classical studies. When Heyne assumed responsibility for the seminar at Göttingen in 1763 he moved it away from its previous pedagogical focus to work in philology. And like other seminars, the one at Göttingen was a state institution with its own statutes. It was therefore expected to report regularly to a minister of the state. In this way bureaucratization accompanied the secularization of learning.4

It is not unimportant that Heyne came to Göttingen not only as a Professor of Eloquence but also as librarian. He was the first to build a university library around a systematic program of book purchasing. This included in particular purchase of new books, which academics were starting to produce in significant numbers. The systematic catalogue of the Göttingen library complemented its purchasing program and contributed to the library’s reputation. Closely associated with Heyne’s work as librarian was his long editorial involvement with the Göttinger gelehrten Anzeigen (GGA). All new library purchases were suitable material for reviews in GGA.5 Heidenriech tells us that between 1765 and 1810 Heyne wrote some 6500 “Beiträge” for GGA. These varied in length from half a page to more than ten pages. He saw his role in GGA as serving to disseminate to a wide reading public the ideas and judgments being produced by new research. Heidenreich proceeds to analyze decade by decade Heyne’s contributions to GGA, on the grounds that this will fill out a picture of what contemporary intellectual life was like. Indicative of the exhaustive reach of her research, this task takes her 157 pages and is supported by 857 footnoted references. It is hard to imagine a more exhaustive treatment of this part of Heyne’s work. Heidenreich is correct in her evaluation of the GGA as an important vehicle of ideas for its time. As Heyne’s career was ending, so too was the central role for general scientific periodicals such as GGA.

Heidenreich’s title proclaims her focus on Heyne as ancient historian but she does not neglect his important contributions to the study of early religion and mythology, nor his early work on ancient literature. Indeed she provides an excellent account of Heyne’s work on the origins of myth and religion. She summarizes his conception of ancient history as an activity that expanded the reach of history in general, as a necessary underpinning for the grasp of ancient poets, and as providing useful examples for contemporary lawgivers. In addition, Heidenreich includes a chronological list of all of Heyne’s writings.

Some of the historically significant framework behind Heyne’s activity only hovers in the background of Maria Heidenreich’s account of his career. This is certainly not due to a lack of learning on her part. Heidenreich has clearly done a prodigious amount of reading and cannot be faulted for inadequate detail. Yet the larger context of Heyne’s achievement is sometimes threatened with being smothered under the enormous array of factual detail on offer. While a myriad of trees is examined, the larger forest tantalizes the reader by remaining blurred and sometimes shapeless.


1. Thomas Carlyle, “The Life of Heyne”, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (Boston 1884), p. 347.

2. Geoffrey Atherton, The Decline and Fall of Virgil in Eighteenth-Century Germany. The Repressed Muse (Rochester NY, 2006), in particular Chapter 2: “Virgil Both Read and Unread”.

3. See Erika Hültenschmidt, “Enzyklopädien, Wissensdifferenzierung und Sprachwissenschaften um 1800 (Frankreich)”, in Gert Schubring (ed.), “Einsamkeit und Freiheit” neu besichtigt. Universitätsreformen und Disziplinenbildung in Preussen als Modell für Wissenschaftspolitik im Europa des 19. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart, 1991).

4. The full details are available in William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago, 2006).

5. Clark (op. cit. n. 4), p. 324.