Son of Karsten Niebuhr, he was born at Copenhagen. From the earliest age young Niebuhr manifested extraordinary precocity, and from 1794 to 1796, being already a finished classical scholar and acquainted with several modern languages, he studied at the University of Kiel. After quitting the university he became private secretary to Count Schimmelmann, Danish minister of finance. But in 1798 he gave up this appointment and travelled in Great Britain, spending a year at Edinburgh studying agriculture and physical science.
In 1799 he returned to Denmark, where he entered the state service; in 1800 he married and settled at Copenhagen. In 1804 he became chief director of the National Bank, but in September 1806 quitted this for a similar appointment in Prussia. He arrived in Prussia on the eve of the catastrophe of Jena. He accompanied the fugitive government to Königsberg, where he rendered considerable service in the commissariat, and was afterwards still more useful as commissioner of the national debt and by his opposition to ill-considered schemes of taxation. He was also for a short time Prussian minister in the Netherlands, where he endeavoured without success to contract a loan. The extreme sensitiveness of his temperament, however, disqualified him for politics; he proved impracticable in his relations with Hardenberg and other ministers, and in 1810 retired for a time from public life, accepting the more congenial appointment of royal historiographer and professor at the university of Berlin.
He commenced his lectures with a course on the history of Rome, which formed the basis of his great work Römische Geschichte. The first two volumes, based upon his lectures, were published in 1812, but attracted little attention at the time owing to the absorbing interest of political events. In 1813 Niebuhr's own attention was diverted from history by the uprising of the German people against Napoleon; he entered the Landwehr and ineffectually sought admission into the regular army. He edited for a short time a patriotic journal, the Prussian Correspondent, joined the headquarters of the allied sovereigns, and witnessed the battle of Bautzen, and was subsequently employed in some minor negotiations. In 1815 he lost both his father and his wife.
He next accepted (1816) the post of ambassador at Rome, and on his way thither he discovered in the cathedral library of Verona the long-lost Institutes of Gaius, afterwards edited by Savigny, to whom he communicated the discovery under the impression that he had found a portion of Ulpian. During his residence in Rome Niebuhr discovered and published fragments of Cicero and Livy, aided Cardinal Mai in his edition of Cicero De Republica, and shared in framing the plan of the great work (name?) on the topography of ancient Rome by Christian CJ von Bunsen and Ernst Platner (1773-1855), to which he contributed several chapters.
He also, on a journey home from Italy, deciphered in a palimpsest at St Gall the fragments of Flavius Merobaudes, a Roman poet of the 5th century. In 1823 he resigned the embassy and established himself at Bonn, where the remainder of his life was spent, with the exception of some visits to Berlin as councillor of state. He here rewrote and republished (1827-1828) the first two volumes of his Roman History, and composed a third volume, bringing the narrative down to the end of the First Punic War, which, with the help of a fragment written in 1831, was edited after his death (1832) by Johannes Classen. He also assisted in August Bekker's edition of the Byzantine historians, and delivered courses of lectures on ancient history, ethnography, geography, and on the French Revolution.
In February 1830 his house was burned down, but the greater part of his books and manuscripts were saved. The revolution of July in the same year was a terrible blow to him, and filled him with the most dismal anticipations of the future of Europe.
Niebuhr's Roman History counts among epoch-making histories both as marking an era in the study of its special subject and for its momentous influence on the general conception of history. "The main results," says Leonhard Schmitz, "arrived at by the inquiries of Niebuhr, such as his views of the ancient population of Rome, the origin of the plebs, the relation between the patricians and plebeians, the real nature of the ager publicus, and many other points of interest, have been acknowledged by all his successors." Other alleged discoveries, such as the construction of early Roman history out of still earlier ballads, have not been equally fortunate; but if every positive conclusion of Niebuhr's had been refuted, his claim to be considered the first who dealt with the ancient history of Rome in a scientific spirit would remain unimpaired, and the new principles introduced by him into historical research would lose nothing of their importance. He suggested, though he did not elaborate, the theory of the myth, so potent an instrument for good and ill in modern historical criticism. He brought in inference to supply the place of discredited tradition, and showed the possibility of writing history in the absence of original records. By his theory of the disputes between the patricians and plebeians arising from original differences of race he drew attention to the immense importance of ethnological distinctions, and contributed to the revival of these divergences as factors in modern history. More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popularizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies and social traits to the neglect of individuals.
Niebuhr's personal character was in most respects exceedingly attractive. His heart was kind and his affections were strong; he was magnanimous and disinterested, simple and honest. Re had a kindling sympathy with everything lofty and generous, and framed his own conduct upon the highest principles. His chief defect was an over-sensitiveness, leading to peevish and unreasonable behaviour in his private and official relations, to hasty and unbalanced judgments of persons and things that had given him annoyance, and to a despondency and discouragement which frustrated the great good he might have effected as a philosophic critic of public affairs.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.