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Ernst Curtius
(2 Sep 1814 - 1896)

German archaeologist and historian who directed the excavation of Olympia from 1875-1881, the most opulent and sacred religious shrine of ancient Greece and site of the original Olympic Games (from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D.).


by Robert F. Keep.

[p.82] I first met Ernst Curtius in June. 1871, at the Hotel des Étrangers, Athens. He had just returned from Asia Minor, where, in company with Stark of Heidelberg, Adler of Berlin, and Major V. Regely of the German Engineer Corps, he had been superintending the excavations at Pergamos. I had the good fortune to be placed next him at table-d'hôte, and the circumstance that I spoke the modern Greek with some facility led to conversation between us in that language, and roused also Curtius's interest in me, one of the earliest Americans who made a prolonged residence in Greece to gain a knowledge of land, language, and people. This personal interest led to a subsequent intimate acquaintance in Berlin, where I was so favored as to be, for a year (1872-'73), a member of Curtius's household. Thus it comes about that I am qualified and justified in writing, shortly after Curtius's death, these reminiscences of one of the noblest natures that I have ever known. How well I recall the impression which Curtius made upon me at that first meeting! He was then fifty-seven years old, but bore hardly any visible marks of age. He was small of stature, but of beautiful physical development. His light step, his large, prominent eye, his dark-brown, wavy, abundant hair, his animated, rapid speech, his gay flow of spirits, all come back to my memory.

To few men did birthplace mean more than to Curtius. He was born September 2, 1814, in the stately historic town of Lübeck, capital city of the Hansa League, which in 1400 numbered eighty towns in its membership and controlled the commerce of the world. The carved front of many an old Lübeck house bears witness to the wealth which world-commerce brought into this city, and the Marten-Kirche is one of the largest and noblest churches in Europe. Its monuments, by their number and their variety, testify to the wealth and enterprise of the citizens of the good old town, and many an ancient gate and guild-hall speaks to the thoughtful visitor of the bustle and wealth of long ago. Curtius's father, Carl Curtius, was for a long period syndic of Lübeck, had studied law, possessed decided literary tastes, and had maintained a correspondence on subjects connected with the drama with the poet Schiller while the latter was professor of history at Jena. The name Curtius was formed by giving a Latin termination to the German name Kurz, “short.” Ernst Curtius had two brothers, Theodore, the oldest of the family, who studied law and became burgomaster of Lübeck, and [p.83] George, born in 1817, who attained great eminence as a comparative etymologist, and died, full of honors, in Leipzig, some ten years since.

Ernst Curtius received his early training at the gymnasium called the Katharinum, originally the Monastery of St. Catharine, and, with the reputation of a brilliant student, went, in 1834, to Bonn to study classical literature. He took with him from Classen, who had lately come to Lübeck, an introduction to Prof. Brandis of the University of Bonn. Classen had been, while Niebuhr was professor at Bonn, the historian's secretary and private tutor to his son. Brandis had been Niebuhr's secretary when he was German Minister at Home. Brandis was in due time succeeded by Bunsen, whose brilliant subsequent career in England was opened to him at the German Embassy at Rome. All of these men, except Bunsen, were natives of Schleswig-Holstein; and attachment to their little native state, so wonderfully productive of great men, made them ready each to lend a helping hand to the other.

In 1885 Otho, a Bavarian Prince, the first King of Greece, attained his majority and took the reins of government. Great hopes were entertained of the future of the Greek kingdom, and in 1837 Brandis was selected as the Privy-Councillor of the King, who had barely completed his education. Brandis needed a teacher for his children, and he selected the talented, enthusiastic Ernst Curtius, whom he had been teaching for three years in his lecture-room at Bonn. At the same time, Emanuel Geibel, one of Germany's valued lyric poets, a schoolmate of Ernst Curtius at the Katharinum, accepted an appointment as private tutor to the children of the Russian Ambassador. What a romantic beginning of life was this for a gifted youth of twenty-three! The party, numbering eight or ten souls, started from Hamburg in an emigrant-wagon, and their journey was continued, in this same wagon, until it terminated in Ancona, on the east coast of Italy. Nearly three months were required, but what a fund of impression, of knowledge must have been gained. Doubtless Curtius's journal is still in existence. A companion to it is Goethe's journal of his tour to Italy. It is difficult for us to conceive of the transformations which have taken place in Europe since this journey was undertaken. Think of the formalities of passport, of the varieties of costume, of the multitude of independent States! The longest halt was made at Munich, where, from Brandis's relations to the Bavarian Prince, the party had a warm reception. Then the Alps were crossed, Lombardy and the Po Valley were passed, and a sailing-vessel was taken at Ancona. Curtius's family used to take special delight in hearing him relate the story of this journey.

The hopes of the Philhellenes in regard to Greece were hardly realized, in part because they had been unwarrantably high. Brandis, perhaps, felt in after years that he had sacrificed much in interrupting the quiet course of his fruitful labors at Bonn, but to Curtius the whole experience was full of the greatest advantage. Sensitive far beyond most men to natural scenery, with a quick and unerring eye for beauty in nature and art, he gained, in the most impressionable period of life, an intimate acquaintance with Greece which bore unceasing fruit to the very close. Who can measure the effects upon facilities and ideals in classical study, upon museums, upon the popularizing of Greek art, of Ernst Curtius's residence for two years in Athens? Two specially important journeys were undertaken by Curtius towards the close of his stay in Greece: one, with K. O. Muller, to Delphi; the other, with Karl Ritter, a protracted tour in the Peloponnesus. The first journey was saddened by the death of one of the most brilliant of German archaeologists, who was prostrated by sunstroke while copying inscriptions at Delphi. Curtius brought back the remains of Muller to Athens, where they are now interred. The second journey, in the companionship of the father of modern geography, unquestionably laid the foundation for one of Curtius's most valuable works, 'The Peloponnesus,' which, though published in 1850, has not been superseded.

Curtius took his doctor's degree, in Bonn, in 1841, and was immediately appointed instructor in the Joachims-Thai Gymnasium in Berlin. The director of the gymnasium, who was Curtius's personal friend, soon requested Curtius to deliver one of the free popular lectures in the Royal Academy of Music (Sing-Akademie) which have for more than fifty years formed one of the winter attractions in Berlin. In the dense audience were Humboldt, Boeckh, and Ritter, and among the royal household was the Princess Augusta, wife of Prince William, and mother of the heir to the Prussian throne. Curtius chose as his subject the Acropolis of Athens. With that wonderful skill which he possessed he made his account of this famous rock nothing less than a living picture of Greek history, art, and religion. The audience was charmed, and the Princess is said to have remarked at the close of the address, “That is the man whom I must have to educate my son.” In fact, three years later, in 1844, Curtius was appointed Educator of the Crown Prince, with the title of Professor Extraordinary in the University of Berlin. He devoted six years to this duty, having the general charge of all the historical, linguistic, and literary studies of Friedrick William. His relations with the royal family became familiar. In 1848-'49, when revolutionary feeling ran high in Berlin, the Prince of Prussia (afterwards, as Emperor William, the most popular sovereign in Europe) was so unpopular that it was thought necessary for him to leave Germany and reside in England. During this time Curtius lived in the intimate relations of common family life, in Potsdam, with the heir to the German throne and his mother, the Princess Augusta.

In 1850 Curtius accompanied his distinguished pupil to the University of Bonn, and in the same year his work on the Peloponnesus was published. This is not the place to attempt a bibliography of Curtius's works. Yet his address on Olympia in 1852, which is believed, owing to the personal interest which it excited in the Crown Prince, afterward the Emperor Frederick, to have been the cause of the German excavations of 1876-80, with all their wonderful results, should here be mentioned. In 1856 Curtius was appointed professor at Göttingen. He had already been induced to undertake the preparation of a History of Greece, and this history, his most extensive work, was completed in 1867. The English edition of this work is published in five volumes. Its capital merits are the intimate acquaintance of the author with the land he describes, his personal familiarity with the range of Greek literature, and his insight into Greek archaeology and art. In 1869 Curtius was called to Berlin as professor in the University, and his life henceforth was to be identified with the German capital. The most important enterprises of this last period of his life were the excavations at Olympia, with which his name was peculiarly associated (in company, of course, with a large number of other scholars), and the establishment of the German School of Classical Studies in Athens, about 1872.

Any sketch of Curtius would be incomplete which should not mention the festival addresses, of which he delivered so many at Berlin. From the time of his appointment to the Berlin professorship, it devolved upon him to deliver, on the birthday of the Prussian King, the solemn address before the University. The subject of these birthday addresses was generally drawn from classical antiquity, but be would always make some application, pertinent and striking, to modern conditions and to modern needs. These addresses, delivered through almost thirty years in honor of three emperors, are a beautiful illustration of Curtius's patriotic feeling, of his versatility, of his exquisite literary talent.

In 1884 his admirers presented to him a noble bust of himself. Nearly a hundred Americans participated in this gift, the chairman of the American committee being the historian Bancroft. On Curtius's eightieth birthday a great demonstration in his honor was made at Olympia, where his bust, a copy of that of 1884, was crowned, and laudatory addresses were made by eminent scholars of all nationalities resident in Greece. The enthusiasm shown on this occasion is described as having been remarkable.

The nobleness of Curtius's personal character was something which altogether transcends description. Those who learned to know him recognize the peculiar inspiration which his nobleness has imparted to them, and are bound together by the tie of discipleship of him. Perhaps his influence has been peculiarly strong in America. A large number of the most eminent American classical scholars have been admitted to his hospitality and friendship, and count themselves as his fervent admirers. The interest felt in America in museums of casts, illustrative of Greek art, is largely due to the influence of Curtius. I am in doubt whether to attempt to characterize the home of Curtius as I knew it in Berlin. On the whole, I question whether a brighter family life could anywhere be found. Frau Curtius supplemented, in a wonderful degree, the gifts of her husband. Both delighted in the social life of the home, but Curtius would often lose himself in reverie, and find his own thoughts more interesting than the struggling speech of the foreign student or even the somewhat commonplace talk of the ordinary Berlin professor. Then Frau Curtius would come to the rescue, and, with a tact which must be seen to be appreciated, would discuss the subjects in which all were interested, and either set the company in animated conversation, or make, herself alone and unassisted, such speech as all would delightedly sit and listen to. Curtius leaves two children, Frederick, a man of brilliant literary endowments, who holds an important judicial position in Alsace, and a daughter, the wife of Richard Lepsius, professor in the Polytechnic School at Darmstadt. Prof. Lepsius is the son of the eminent Egyptologist.

Of the later years of Curtius's life it may be added that, with unabated industry, he toiled on until the end. Almost the only sign of physical failure was weakness of the eyes. He submitted to several operations for cataract, and, when his sight had grown so dim that he could work only very slowly and painfully, the use of his eyes was twice, to a [p.84] considerable extent, restored to him. His physical elasticity and his mental powers suffered little impairment until within the last three months, when the disease to which he succumbed declared itself.

Norwich, Conn., July 27, 1896.

Text from The Nation (30 Jul 1896), 63, No. 1622, 82-84. (source)

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  • 2 Sep - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Curtius's birth.

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