Niebuhr, Barthold Georg
Niebuhr, Barthold Georg one of the most acute critics of modern times, noted for his valuable contributions to philology and history, and for his scholarly criticisms of classical institutions, was born at Copenhagen Aug. 27, 1776, and was the son of Karsten Niebuhr (see the next article). When two years old Barthold's parents removed to the little Holstein town of Meldorf, and there he spent his youthful days. The quiet of the country afforded him grand opportunities for study; besides, he enjoyed favorable association with the most eminent scholars of the land, who were wont to frequent the house of Karsten Niebuhr. The aptitude for learning which Barthold Georg Niebuhr displayed almost from infancy led him to be regarded as a juvenile prodigy; but. unlike many other precocious children, his powers of acquiring knowledge kept pace with his. advancing years, and, after a carefully conducted preliminary education, under the superintendence of his father, he was sent to the University of Kiel, and two years later to that of Gottingen, to study law. Thence he proceeded in his nineteenth year to Edinburgh, where he devoted himself more especially to the natural sciences. On his return to Denmark he held several appointments under the Danish government, but his strongly pronounced hatred of Napoleon led him to enter the Prussian civil service in 1806. In 1810 he exchanged his public situation for the post of historiographer to the king, and about the same time was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Shortly afterwards he was made a lecturer in ihe then newly opened university at:Berlin. In this position his treatment of Roman history, by making known the results of the new and critical theory which he had applied to the elucidation of obscure historical evidence, established his position as one of the most original and philosophical of modern historians. He was now the acknowledged master of more than twenty languages, and in the possession of a mass of facts by the aid of a remarkably retentive memory; and these advantages augmented again by an unusual intuitive sagacity, it was generally conceded, fitted him well for the task of the true historian, that is, the sifting of the real from the false historic evidence. But, not satisfied with these remarkable qualifications, he embraced his earliest opportunity to visit Rome, and as Prussian ambassador at the papal court, from 1816 till 1823, seized the occasion for testing on the spot the accuracy of his conjectures in regard to many questions of local and social bearing. On his return from Rome, Niebuhr took up his residence at Bonn as adjunct professor, and by his admirable lectures and expositions contributed very materially to the development of classical and archaeological learning at that German high school. He availed himself of every means for promoting and encouraging the labors of other scholars. It was partly with this view that he set on foot the Rheinische Museum, a philological repository, in which the shorter essays and scattered thoughts of learned men might be given to the world. The first volume of this appeared in 1827, under the joint editorship of Bockh, Niebuhr, and Brandis, three of the greatest lights in the field of philological science. At the same time he undertook, and that mainly for diversion (he was now busy with his life-work, the History of Rote), a new edition of the Byzantine historians. He was thus employed when the Revolution of 1830 roused him from the calm of his literary pursuits. Niebuhr's sensitive nature, unstrung by physical debility led him to take an exaggerated view of the consequences of this movement, and to anticipate a recurrence of all the horrors of the former French Revolution, and the result was to bring about a state of mental depression and bodily prostration which ended in his death, Jan. 2,1831. Among the many important works with which Niebuhr enriched the literature of his time, the following are some of the most noteworthy: Romische Geschichte (Berl. 1811-1832, 3 vols.; 2d ed. 1827-1842; 1833, 1853); the first two volumes have been translated by J. C. Hare and C. Thirlwall, and the third by Dr. W. Smith and Dr. L. Schmitz: — Grundzige fur die Verfassung Niederlands (Berl. 1832): — Griech. Heroengeschichte (Hamb. 1842), written for his son Marcus:the Kleine historische und philologische Schriften (Bonn, 1828-1843, 2 vols.) contain his introductory lectures on Romal history, and many of the essays which had appeared in the "Transactions of the Berlin Academy." Besides these, and numerous other essays on philological, historical, and archaeological questions, Niebuhr cooperated with Bekker and other learned annotators in re-editing Scriptores historiae Byzantinae; he also discovered hitherto unprinted, fragments of classical authors, as, for instance, of Cicero's Orations and portions of Gains, published the Inscriptiones Nubienses — (Rome, 1821), and was a constant contributor to the Rheinische Museumfur Philologie, and other literary journals and societies of Germany.
It is difficult to conceive a more excellent and delightful person than Barthold Niebuhr appears to have been; there are few of whom we have read who have combined so blameless a character and so amiable a disposition with such boundless acquirements and such brilliant intellectual qualities. His History of Rome is perhaps the most original historical work that this age has produced. To understand what he has done in this work, we should keep in mind the state of knowledge on the subject before his time, and not go so far as the stricter sort of skeptical critics, like e.g. the late Sir George Cornewall Lewis, who does not hesitate to declare Niebuhr's effort to construct a continuous Roman history out of such legendary materials as we possess as, on the whole, a failure. The disjointed ruins had lain for ages in a confused heap, though there was hardly a child in Europe who was not familiar with their rude outlines, and many a skillful and laborious workman had vainly endeavored to reduce them to symmetry and order. Niebuhr, by a series of combinations which will appear most surprising to those who are best capable of appreciating works of genius, succeeded in reconstructing from the scattered fragments a stately fabric, which, if it is not identical with the original structure, is at least almost perfect and complete in itself. Macaulay approved of Niebuhr's theory, and Dr. Arnold professed never to venture to differ from him except where he manifestly had evidence not accessible to Niebuhr. There cannot be a greater mistake than to suppose, as some have done, that Niebuhr was a skeptic whose sole delight was to render insecure the basis of historical evidence. He has actually done more than any other student of antiquity towards extracting truth and certainty from the misty and mystical legends of early tradition, and towards substituting rational conviction for irrational credulity. The great object which he proposed to himself in all his philological speculations was to reproduce a true image of the past by getting rid of the deceitful influence of the present. This view he often expresses in very plain terms. Thus, he says in his introductory lecture on Roman history (Kleine Schriften, p. 93), "As there is nothing which Eastern nations find more difficult to conceive than the idea of a republican constitution, as the people of Hindûstan cannot be induced to regard the East India Company as an association of proprietors, or in any other light than as a sovereign, just so is it with even the acutest of the moderns when they study ancient history, unless they have contrived by critical and philological studies to shake off the influence of their habitual associations." In a letter to count Adam Moltke, he exclaims (Lebensnachrichten, 2:91), "Oh how people would cherish philology did they but know how delightfully it enables us to recall to life the fairest periods of antiquity. Reading is the most trifling part of it; the chief business is to domesticate ourselves in Greece and Rome at the most different periods. Would that I could write history so vividly as to discriminate what is fluctuating and uncertain, and So develop what is confused and intricate, that everyone, when he heard the name of a Greek of the age of Thucydides or Polybius, or a Roman of the days of Cato or Tacitus, might be able to form a clear and adequate idea of what he was." The very existence of such a general design presumes a lively fancy and active imagination; but though these are qualities often possessed by shallow and superficial persons, they are very rarely combined with that extensive and minute learning for which Niebuhr was distinguished. The range of his acquisitions was really wonderful. In the words of one of his most ardent admirers, "While his horizon was ever widening before him, it never sunk out of sight behind him; what he possessed he always retained; what he once knew became a part of his mind, and the means and instrument of acquiring more knowledge; and he is one of the very few examples of men gifted with a memory so tenacious as to seem incapable of forgetting anything, who at the same time have had an intellect so vigorous as in no degree to be oppressed or enfeebled by the weight of their learning, but who, on the contrary, have kept it in orderly array, and made it minister continually to the plastic energy of thought" (Philol. Mus. 1:271). Some abatements must, however, be made from this general eulogy. While Niebuhr's great work has been neglected or censured, with equal. injustice, by persons who have been too indolent to encounter the labor of studying it or incapable of appreciating the method of critical investigation which the author has adopted, it may be doubted, on the other hand,' whether. many scholars, both in Germany and England, have not been too willing to acquiesce in all Niebuhr's results, to adopt whatever he has written, and sometimes even to receive as established truths assertions unsupported by evidence or directly opposed by express testimony. Some recent German writers have indeed taken a middle course; they adopt the general views and critical method of the historian, but they find much in the details that is defective or erroneous. It cannot be denied that the ardent imagination of Niebuhr, and his power of combining and constructing sometimes led him to form a complete theory before he had examined all the evidence; one consequence of which is that, under the influence of his own creations, he sometimes extracts a meaning from a passage which the words do not contain, and at other times arbitrarily rejects evidence when it interferes with his own hypothesis. It is true that this same power and his intuitive sagacity have sometimes enabled him to supply a link in a chain when all direct evidence was wanting, and the certainty of his conjectures in such cases is at once felt by the symmetry and consistency which they impart to the whole fabric of the theory.
It must be remarked that Niebuhr's style is very faulty. It is generally deficient in perspicuity, and though eloquent passages and striking descriptions are found here and there, it wants that sustained dignity which we mark in the writings of some other distinguished historians. He occasionally, too, betrays very crude and ill-formed opinions on the internal polity of other countries: witness his remarks on the relative position of England and Ireland. But with all the drawbacks which the most rigorous criticism can exact, the feeling with which we contemplate his character and attainments is one of almost unmixed admiration. He was, in fact, a rare combination of the man of business, the scholar, and the man of genius. If he had had no other claim to celebrity, he would have deserved to be mentioned among the general linguists whose attainments have from time to time astonished the world. Indeed, he was recognized as the chief of philologists in the most learned country of Europe. A very pleasing picture of his mode of living has been given by the late professor Sandford, who visited him at Bonn in 1829 (see Blackwood's Magazine for Jan. 1838, p. 90 sq.); a warm testimony to the benevolence of his character and the goodness of his heart is furnished by Lieber in his -Reminiscences of Niebuhr; and we see the whole man in all his relations, social, literary, and political, in the highly interesting collection of his letters, edited by Madame Hensler (Lebensnachrichten iiber Barthold Georg Niebuhr, aus Briefen desselben, etc. (Hamburg, 1838, etc.), or even more completely in Miss Winkworth's admirable translation of that work (with important additions and valuable essays by Bunsen, etc. (3 vols.,1852). See also Blackwood's Magazine, 1852, i. 542 sq.; 1856, 1:244-251; 1860, 1:546; 1868, 2:290,291; Edinburgh Review, 79, art. i; 96, p. 49 sq.; The (Lond.) Quar. Rev. 55:126 sq.; Westminster Rev. Dec. 1843; North Brit. Rev. Aug. 1852; For. Qu. Rev. June, 1828; July, i831; Fraser's Magazine, July and Dec. 1852; North Amer. Rev. April, 1823; Littell's Living Age, May 9, 1846, art. v; April 3, 1852, art. ix; Sept. 4, 1852, art. i; Nov. 20, 1852, art. vii; Harper's Magazine, Dec. 1873, p. 63 sq.; English Cyclop. s.v.