Friedrich Münzer, b. 1868, Oppeln, Silesia, d. 20 October 1942, Theresienstadt, Germany.

In the constellation of great Roman historians, Münzer's star burns bright. Though his life ended terribly, his work made possible some of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century Roman historical study.

Life and death.

Münzer studied with the important Berlin professor Otto Hirschfeld, producing his doctoral thesis De gente Valeria, "On the Valerian clan", in 1893. In the small biography normally attached to dissertations, he frankly acknowledged his Jewish origins, which would have repercussions later, even though he soon converted to Evangelical Lutheranism--perhaps, as Ernst Badian suggested, because he wished to marry the gentile Clara Engels and this would have eased things. Having left Berlin (where we might expect a young Berlin Ph.D. to have sought work) he accepted an appointment at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, where he served from 1896 to 1912--here, too, being a Lutheran might have helped. Badian rightly points out that his conversion caused no ripples and did not interrupt his parents' support (to the tune of 5,000 SF per year), so his religious background seems not to have been strong (he does appear to have been a devout Lutheran, however).

In 1912 he returned to Germany to teach at Königsberg, and simultaneously received an appointment as a member of the Prussian civil service (this went with the university position). This appointment would later be of significance, for when the Nazis began purging the civil service they set their sights initially only on those civil servants hired after August 1, 1914, and Münzer was grandfathered in with this modest protection. Münzer did not serve in the army during World War I (he was 46, and 'unfit for military service'), but was, Ridley tells us, awarded a "modest decoration for his assistance during the war." This was not a happy period of his life, and to cap it off, his first wife died in the flu epidemics that appeared towards the end of the war, in 1918.

In 1921 Münzer left Königsberg for the University of Münster, where he spent the rest of his academic life. In 1933, with the rise of National Socialist government, the train of humiliating events which would lead to Münzer's (and so many others') death was quickly set in motion. Protected at first by his Lutheranism, his Aryan second wife Clara, and the date of his civil service appointment, he was finally forceably retired in 1935 at the age of 68. Badian notes the irony that the retirement was accompanied by a letter signed by Hitler; but only a few months later he was deprived of the protection of his wife by her death, and was soon thereafter officially classified as Jewish.

This is not the place to rewrite the history of the holocaust: Ridley offers a full account of the ugly details as they pertain to Münzer. Increasingly isolated and unproductive, he was deported in 1942 to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where a mixture of old age, despondency, and enteritis ended his life after only a bit more than two months.

Münzer's achievement.

But we must not let the awful end of his life distract us from recognizing his vast services to the study, above all, of the Roman republic. And fittingly, for E2 readers, his most fundamental contribution was as an encyclopedist! One of the monuments of German scholarship was and is A. Pauly's and G. Wissowa's vast Real-Encyclopädie der klassischen Wissenschaft, a compendium of the facts concerning everything imaginable about the ancient world. Beginning in 1893, Münzer was given the task of writing the biographies of Roman persons starting with the letter C. The task ran to about 5,000 individual articles, some small, some long, with major figures like Julius Caesar deliberately left by Münzer for others to write.

It was this corpus of encyclopedia articles, painstakingly worked out from many, many fragmented and often obscure original literary, epigraphical (inscribed), numismatic and other sources, that was Münzer's great achievement. Where scholars had tended to focus on the great movers and shakers who loom largest in the ancient authors' works, Münzer looked with a microscope at the thousands of lesser, even petty, aristocrats who appeared in the sidelines or in passing. He laboriously worked out family relationships, patterns of office holding, marriage patterns, naming practices, and a host of related matters: this branch of historical research is called prosopography.

From this data bank historians such as Matthias Gelzer in his Die römische Nobilität (The Roman Nobility) of 1912 and Münzer himself in his fundamental Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families) of 1920 were able to construct a new, more accurate picture of how the Roman republic had actually functioned socially and politically. This led to the progressive abandonment of a widely-held picture of republican government modelled on the struggle between liberal and tory political parties of the Victorian age, and between Gelzer's Nobilität and Münzer's Adelsparteien a revolutionary new picture of the complex and elegant dance of Roman aristocrats (characterized by personal influence and shifting alliances) grew which still holds today.

The greatest work to build on Münzer's is Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution (1939), which uses prosopographical methods to develop a persuasive picture of the revolutionary change in just who was at the top of Roman government in the last years of the Roman republic and the first years of the Augustan principate. Some elements of the picture stemming from Münzer's and Gelzer's work are under attack, particularly those elements which presuppose mechanical manipulation of the popular vote through personal influence. Fergus Millar is a notable spokesman for this adjustment to the emphasis on aristocrats (see his The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic, 1998).

Münzer is the great patron saint of classical prosopographers. Like any historical method, prosopography can be (and occasionally was) carried to extremes, but if practiced while remaining sober and skeptical, it offers valuable insights into a society (provided you have adequate surviving sources). Prosopography is a living sphere of research in some historical periods, but thanks to the finitude of sources on republican Rome, Münzer's area is pretty well mined out (though occasional surprising tidbits still come to light, especially since Roman inscriptions are always being found).


On Münzer's life (my summary comes entirely from these three works):
Badian, E. Review of Kneppe and Wiesehöfer (next entry). Gnomon 61 (1989) 600-605.
Kneppe, A., and Wiesehöfer, J. Friedrich Münzer. Ein Althistoriker zwischen Kaiserreich und Nationalsozialismus. 1983.
Ridley, T. "The Fate of a Historian." xix-lvii of Münzer-Ridley (1999: below).

Münzer's work and an evaluative essay:
Münzer, F. Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (1920).
Münzer, F. Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families, translated by Thérèse Ridley (1999).
Ridley, R. "Friedrich Münzer's Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families." xix-xxxviii of Münzer-Ridley (1999: above).