Ferdinand Gregorovius

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
6 min readJan 20, 2023
Ferdinand Gregorovius (19 January 1821–01 May 1891)

Today is the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Ferdinand Gregorovius (19 January 1821–01 May 1891), who was born in Neidenburg, East Prussia (now part of Poland) on this date in 1821.

Gregorovius is mostly remembered for his Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter (1859–1872), translated into English as The History of Rome in the Middle Ages (1894–1902). Here is how the inspiration for this work was described by K. F. Morrison:

Standing on the Ponte Fabricio early in the autumn of 1854 he suddenly saw in the buildings and ruins of Rome more than vestiges of one city’s aspirations and failures. He saw Rome as a point of intersection for the great forces whose conflicts had generated European civilization. The bridge on which he stood witnessed to the heritage of classical Rome. Originally built by the Emperor Otto III, the Church of Santo Bartolomeo, at the foot of the bridge, represented the Germanic empire. Behind him, on the Capitoline, stood the Campidoglio, the stronghold of Roman republicanism in the Middle Ages. Up the Tiber rose Saint Peter’s, an enduring moment of papal monarchy.

For Gregorovius, these buildings were relics, not simply of men, but of the spirit that had moved men, of ideas that had dominated the world. Beyond the plane of local politics, concerning the short-range fates of immediate issues and great men, Gregorovius detected a second level — that of universal history, the drama of mankind’s advancement through increasingly complete stages of spiritual freedom. “In a flash,” he grasped the inspiration for the history in these two aspects as “something great, something that will lend a purpose to my life.” (Rome and Medieval Culture, editor’s Introduction by K. F. Morrison, p. xi)

Here is an extract from The Roman Journals of Ferdinand Gregorovius from 03 October 1854 also about this moment:

“I propose to write the history of the city of Rome in the Middle Ages. For this work, it seems to me that I require a special gift, or better, a commission from Jupiter Capitolinus himself. I conceived the thought, struck by the view of the city as seen from the bridge leading to the island of S. Bartholomew. I must undertake something great, something that will lend a purpose to my life.” (p. 16)

Gregorovius’ moment of realizing his historiographical mission must be seen in the context of Edward Gibbon’s earlier moment of inspiration in Rome. Gibbon wrote this in his autobiography:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire: and though my reading and reflections began to point towards that object, some years elapsed, and several avocations intervened, before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.”

One suspects that, ninety years later, Gregorovius was familiar with this passage from Gibbon, and his moment of insight in Rome owed something to that earlier moment of insight. Both Gibbon and Gregorovius had “big picture” conceptions of Rome and Roman history, both following from a moment of inspiration in the city of Rome itself. There is a sense in which each passed from the particularities of their personal experience of Rome as an inspiration to a universal conception of history that grew in the telling. And part of a philosophy of history is having just such a “big picture” conception of history.

Rome wasn’t only important for Gibbon and Gregorovius. In her essay “What is authority?” (included in Between Past and Future) Hannah Arendt described the distinctive role of the city of Rome itself in the Roman political imagination:

“At the heart of Roman politics, from the beginning of the republic until virtually the end of the imperial era, stands the conviction of the sacredness of foundation, in the sense that once something has been founded it remains binding for all future generations. To be engaged in politics meant first and foremost to preserve the founding of the city of Rome. This is why the Romans were unable to repeat the founding of their first polis in the settlement of colonies but were capable of adding to the original foundation until the whole of Italy and, eventually, the whole of the Western world were united and administered by Rome, as though the whole world were nothing but Roman hinterland.”

This Roman political imagination was embodied in the laws and the traditions that became normative for the Western tradition, and while the entirety of the Western tradition could not maintain this distinctive role of Rome within their individual traditions, Gregorovius shows the ongoing relevance of Rome to the development of Western civilization even after the decline and fall of Rome.

At the beginning of his lifework, The History of Rome in the Middle Ages, Gregorovius cites three cities as having had a disproportionate role in human history:

“Three cities shine conspicuous in the history of mankind, by reason of the universal influence which they exercised upon it — Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. In the course of the life of the world, all three are factors working with and through each other for human civilisation.” (Vol. I, p. 3)

Gregorovius’ selection of three cities may be compared to a famous passage from Philotheus of Pskov, which also notes three particular cities for their historical role:

“And now, I say unto thee: take care and take heed, pious tsar; all the empires of Christendom are united in thine, for two Romes have fallen and the third exists and there will not be a fourth; thy Christian empire, according to the great theologian, will not pass to others…” (Strémooukhoff, D. (1953). Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine. Speculum, 28(1), 84–101. doi:10.2307/2847182)

The two litanies of cities — Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, and Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow — imply a certain view of history, distinct in each case. In both views of history, however, Rome is present in common. Of Rome Gregorovius speaks in superlatives:

“All great spiritual and worldly powers received their consecration in Rome; the sources of the priestly power, the power to bind and to loose, the fount of Imperial Majesty, finally, civilisation itself, seemed to spring from the hills of Rome, and, like the streams of Paradise, flow to fertilise the four quarters of the world. All the institutions of mankind had originally sprung from this majestic city.”

And of medieval Rome Gregorovius is scarcely less effusive:

“There were long centuries in the Middle Ages in which Rome was truly the law-giver, the instructress and the mother of nations, encircling her children with a threefold ring of unity — spiritual in the Papacy, temporal in the Empire, the crown of which German kings came to receive in S. Peter’s, and the unity of that general civilisation which was the bequest of Rome to all the world.”

Sometimes men, and sometimes cities, are bearers of the great ideas that have shaped human history. Thomas Carlyle is remembered for the former, that is to say, for his “great man theory of history,” but in Gregorovius we can see its urban parallel: the great city theory of history: Universal History, the history of what humanity has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Cities which have evolved here. (Adapted from Carlyle, mutatis mutandis) In this unrecognized tradition we might count not only Gregorovius and Philotheus of Pskov but also Saint Augustine (note that the Sack of Rome in 410 AD was the occasion of St. Augustine writing the first treatise on the philosophy of history, his City of God), and perhaps also Fustel de Coulanges and Henri Pirenne.

(This 2023 post on Fredinand Gregorovius is a revision and an expansion of last year’s post.)