The History of Rome (Mommsen)/Preface

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Dr. Theodor Mommsen's researches into the languages, laws, and institutions of ancient Rome and Italy are now so well known and appreciated by the best scholars of this country, that it may seem presumptuous on my part to step forward for the purpose of introducing his work on Roman history to the English public. I should indeed have been glad to leave this duty to others, or have allowed the book to take its own chance, feeling quite sure that no words of mine are likely to attract readers, and that the work itself, in its English garb, will become as popular in this country as it is in the land of its birth. But several years ago, I was applied to by more than one enthusiastic admirer of Dr. Mommsen in Germany to do something towards making his History of Rome known in this country, and a repeated perusal of the German original led me to the conviction that its author richly deserved the admiration of his countrymen. I accordingly felt it both a duty and a pleasure, some years back, to prevail upon my friend, Mr. George Robertson, to give to the public at least a specimen of the book, in an English translation of the first, or introductory chapters, on the early inhabitants of Italy—a subject on which no man is better entitled to be listened to with respect and attention than Dr. Mommsen. The specimen which was then published would, I hoped, create a desire for the whole work, and in this hope I have not been disappointed. The result is the present translation; of its merits it does not become me to speak in this place. But I may be permitted to remark that, unlike the common run of translations from the German, it was undertaken by Mr. Dickson entirely as a labour of love, and that his sole object has been to lay before his countrymen a masterwork of a foreign literature, and to spare no trouble to do justice to its author.

Here my functions might cease, and I might safely leave the book to tell its own tale; but for the younger generation of students I would fain venture to add one or two observations on the relation in which Mommsen's work stands to its predecessors, and especially to Niebuhr, for he himself scarcely ever enters into any controversial discussions with those who have laboured before him in the same field, and whose names he in fact hardly ever mentions. In regard to this point it ought to be borne in mind that Dr. Mommsen's work, though the production of a man of most profound and extensive learning and knowledge of the world, is not so much designed for the professional scholar as for intelligent readers of all classes, who take an interest in the history of bygone ages, and are inclined there to seek information that may guide them safely through the perplexing mazes of modern history. Much that could not but be obscure and unintelligible in the days of Niebuhr has since been made clear by the more extended researches of numerous scholars in this and other countries; many mistakes unavoidable to the first inquirers have been rectified; and many an hypothesis has been proved to be without solid foundation; but with all this the main results arrived at by the inquiries of Niebuhr, such as his views of the ancient population of Rome, the origin of the Plebs, the relation between the patricians and plebeians, the real nature of the ager publicus, and many other points of interest, have been acknowledged by all his successors, and however much some of them may be inclined to cavil at particular opinions, it must be owned that the main pillars of his grand structure are still unshaken, and are as such tacitly acknowledged by Dr. Mommsen, who in the present work has incorporated all that later researches have brought to light in the history not only of Rome, but of all other nations which in the course of time became subject to the City of the Seven Hills. Many points no doubt are still matters of mere conjecture, and Dr. Mommsen has nothing to offer in such cases but theories; but whatever ultimately their value may be found to be, they are at all events evidences of progress, and will act as a stimulus to the students of our days as did the views of Niebuhr to his contemporaries half a century ago.

Edinburgh, December, 1861.