Welcome to our comprehensive article on Ferdinand Gregorovius, a distinguished German historian whose contributions to medieval Roman history and travel literature have left an indelible mark on the field. With his deep insights, meticulous research and compelling narratives, Gregorovius has become a prominent figure in the study of Rome and its rich past.


Born Jan. 19, 1821, in Neidenburg, Gregorovius developed a keen interest in history at an early age. Growing up near the Teutonic fortress, where his father served as a magistrate, he was deeply influenced by the historical memories associated with his birthplace. These formative experiences sparked his intellectual curiosity and laid the foundation for his future endeavors as a historian.

In 1838, Gregorovius enrolled at the University of Königsberg, where he studied theology and philosophy. Despite the predominantly provincial atmosphere at the university, he actively engaged with the prevailing intellectual and political movements of the time. After his first theological examination, Gregorovius did not choose a pastoral career. Instead, he began philosophical studies and became a teacher in Soldau, a small town on the eastern border of Prussia.

Gregorovius soon gained recognition for his literary talents and wrote several works that attracted attention. In 1848, during a tumultuous period marked by the Polish uprising, he published “La Pologne,” a two-volume account that eloquently described the suffering of the Polish people. His gripping description of events in Poland and Hungary reflected a deep sense of sorrow and a pessimistic view of the future of freedom. That same year, he released “Polen- und Magyarenlieder,” a collection of poems dedicated to Lenau.

Gregorovius’ intellectual journey also led him to explore the intersection of literature and socialism. In 1849, he published “Göthe’s Wilhelm Meister in seinen socialistischen Elementen entwickelt,” in which he interpreted Goethe’s novel as an exposition of a new social system. Within characters representing different social classes, Gregorovius saw a tableau of social development, ultimately advocating a society based on universal belonging.


Gregorovius’ literary prowess went beyond poetry and social criticism. . His historical tragedy “Der Tod des Tiberius” (The Death of Tiberius) delved deeper into the psychological idiosyncrasies of the misanthropic tyrant. Drawing on a deep understanding of human nature and meticulously researched historical documents, Gregorovius presented a vivid picture of Tiberius’ internal struggles.

In 1851, Gregorovius published “Geschichte des römischen Kaisers Hadrian und seiner Zeit” (History of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and His Time). This work examined the confluence of Greek humanitarian ideas with the ambitious and authoritarian principles of Rome and showed the transformative power of Hadrian’s rule. Three decades later, Gregory revised and expanded this book under the new title “Der Kaiser Hadrian. Gemälde der römisch-hellenischen Welt zu seiner Zeit” (The Emperor Hadrian: A Portrait of the Roman-Hellenistic World in His Time).

In the spring of 1852, Gregory embarked on a journey to Italy, where he would spend the next 22 years of his life. He crisscrossed the country, immersing himself in its vibrant culture, unparalleled history and fascinating landscapes. The resulting travelogues, published as “Wanderjahre in Italien” (Traveling through Italy), offered readers a fascinating glimpse into life in 1850s Rome. Gregorovius vividly painted scenes from the city’s theaters, churches and streets, shedding light on the constant struggles faced by the Jewish community over the centuries. His exploration extended to Sicily, where he marveled at the ancient ruins of Syracuse and encountered the haunting echoes of historical tragedies. From the region of Lazio to the fertile banks of the Liris River and the mountains of the Hernici and Volsci, Gregorovius skillfully painted a vivid picture of Italy’s rich past.

Gregorovius’ passion for historical research and his deep knowledge of the complexities of Italy culminated in his magnum opus, “Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter” (History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages). This monumental work, spanning eight volumes and published between 1859 and 1872, outlined the history of Rome from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the beginning of the Reformation. Gregorovius faced the daunting task of illuminating a lesser-known period in history, which prompted him to conduct extensive research in Rome’s archives, libraries and churches. His thorough knowledge of the city’s ever-changing topography and his profound empathy for the inhabitants of medieval Rome earned him high praise, especially in Italy. The Italian government even sponsored the translation of his work into Italian, and Gregorovius was awarded honorary citizenship of Rome in recognition of his scholarly contributions.


In 1874, Gregorovius returned to Germany and settled in Munich, where he became a member of the Academy of Sciences. Despite his return, his passion for Italy compelled him to visit the country regularly in the spring. Venice lured him with its inexhaustible archival treasures, while Rome beckoned him to attend sessions at the Academy of the Lincei. During this period he published “Monographie de Lucrèce Borgia” (Monograph on Lucrezia Borgia), which offered a nuanced perspective on Lucrezia’s character and challenged the slander of her family’s enemies. In 1879, Gregorovius published “Papst Urban VIII im Widerspruch zu Spanien und dem Kaiser” (Pope Urban VIII in Opposition to Spain and the Emperor), a comprehensive study that drew attention to the fact that Urban VIII was aware of Gustavus Adolphus’ plans against the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the danger to the Catholic cause, Urban VIII remained inactive because he wanted to weaken the Habsburgs, whose power he saw as a threat.

Gregorovius continued his literary output, publishing “Lettres d’Alexandre de Humboldt à son frère Guillaume” (Letters from Alexander von Humboldt to his brother Wilhelm) in 1880 at the request of the Humboldt family. Inspired by his travels to Greece, Palestine and Syria, he wrote “Athènes dans les siècles obscurs” (Athens in the dark ages) and “Athénaïs, histoire d’une impératrice byzantine” (Athenais: the history of a Byzantine empress). The latter work portrayed Athenais, daughter of a pagan philosopher, who embraced Christianity to ascend the imperial throne. Gregorovius regarded Athenais as a symbol of Greece’s double metamorphosis from paganism to Christianity and from Hellenism to Byzantinism. Finally, in 1889, he completed “Geschichte der Stadt Athen im Mittelalter, von Justinian bis zur türkischen Eroberung” (History of the City of Athens in the Middle Ages: From Justinian to the Turkish Conquest), which sheds light on a relatively unexplored subject in historical scholarship.

Gregorovius, plagued by chronic headaches, stoically faced his mortality. He arranged for his body to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered in the wind or collected in an urn if his family so desired. He even wrote a message announcing his death to the municipality of Rome, expressing his deep love for the eternal city that had become his intellectual home. On May 1, 1891, Gregorovius died of meningitis, leaving behind a lasting legacy of scholarship and a deep appreciation for the complexity of history.


Ferdinand Gregorovius, the eminent German historian, left an indelible mark on the study of medieval Roman history and travel literature. His keen insights, meticulous research and compelling narratives have captivated readers for generations. From his seminal works on the history of Rome to his evocative travelogues, Gregory’s contributions reflect a deep commitment to understanding and illuminating the past. Today, his works continue to inspire scholars and history lovers alike, ensuring that his legacy lives on as a testament to the power of historical research and storytelling.

Wandelingen door Italië, Deel 1, Recensie


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