The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Niebuhr, Barthold Georg
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Niebuhr, Barthold Georg
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NIEBUHR, nēboor, Barthold Georg, German historian and classical scholar, the founder of modern historical method: b. Copenhagen, 27 Aug. 1776; d. Bonn, 2 Jan. 1831. He was son of Karsten Niebuhr (q.v.); was educated by his father in his early youth; studied at Kiel (1794-96), at London and at Edinburgh (1798-99); and in 1800 entered the service of the Danish government. He became director of the government's bank in 1804, and showed in this post and in the Prussian service, which he entered in 1806, much business ability, due, so he affirmed, to his life in England and Scotland. A quarrel with Hardenberg made Niebuhr's retirement necessary in 1810, soon after he had been engaged in financing a Prussian loan in Holland; and he taught Roman history at Berlin for three years with such success that he was led to publish the first two volumes of his ‘Roman History’ (1811-12). But in 1813 he re-entered the Prussian government employ, and took a prominent part in rousing national opposition to Napoleon; but his temper was overbearing and he soon broke with his superior, Stein. In 1816 he was sent as Minister to the Vatican, brought about the understanding between Prussia and the Pope signalized by the bull ‘De Salute Animarum’ in 1821, and had his first opportunity of testing his critical theories as to early Roman history by topographical and other detail. In 1823 he retired from the diplomatic service and settled in Bonn, where he lectured on ancient and modern history.
Niebuhr's great and epoch-making work was his destructive criticism of the early Roman legendary period and his reconstruction of this same period from the mass of myth and legend, which beclouded it, or, to put it more broadly and more truly, it was his application of this higher critical method to history. His ‘Roman History’ (1811-32, English version, Hare and Thirwall, 1851), carrying the story of Rome down to the Punic Wars, was completed in an English form by Leonhard Schmitz in ‘Lectures on the History of Rome from the First Punic War to the Death of Constantine’ (1844). These two parts form a great collection of facts and material, and a wonderful exemplification of method, but the more popular and brilliant style of Niebuhr's pupil, Theodor Mommsen (q.v.), has made Niebuhr's work to a certain degree antiquated. He collaborated with Platner and Bunsen in their ‘Description of the City of Rome’; founded with Böckh and Brandis the Rheinisches Museum, a classical review; edited the ‘Corpus Scriptorum Historian Byzantinae’; and wrote many minor philological and historical studies, besides editing new fragments of Gaius, Cicero and Merobaudes. His ‘Stories of the Greek Heroes’ (‘Griechische Heroengeschichte,’ 1842), originally written for his son, Marcus, is a famous juvenile. Niebuhr was possessed of original genius, had an intuitive grasp of history that made him detect the false evidence and was so adept at learning languages that he had mastered 20 in early manhood. He was also a man of broad scholarship and catholic taste, as may be seen by his personal reminiscences and correspondence in Hensler's ‘Lebensnachrichten über Niebuhr’ (1838-39). Consult also the biographies by Classen (1876) and Eyssenhardt (1886); and Winkworth, ‘Life and Letters’ (1852).