Jacoby Online cover image


Mortimer Chambers (Leiden)


Felix Jacoby (1876-1959) edited, over many years, the fragments of the Greek historians who are not preserved complete: that is, quotations from their works in other writers. In his multi-volume work, Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker (for which he requested the abbreviation FGrHist) he created one of the stupendous research sources in the field of ancient history. The work outlived two world wars, Jacoby's forced retirement from his chair at the University of Kiel, his exile from his native land, his return to Germany, and the death of his beloved and faithful companion and helper, his wife. The appearance of this work in the modern form of CD-ROM offers an opportunity to review the life and career of this great scholar and the organization of his complex masterpiece.

Felix Jacoby

Birth and education

Felix Jacoby was born in Magdeburg, 19 March 1876, to Jewish parents, Oscar Jacoby (1831-1919), a prosperous merchant of grain, and his wife, the former Gertrude Löwenthal (1856-1929). The family had Jacoby baptized as a Protestant at age 11, probably to anticipate possible anti-Semitism. He was confirmed in the church in 1891 and always cited his religion as Protestant. We may note that it was then almost impossible for a Jew to obtain a chair, that is, a professorship, in German academic life, and his parents will have had some academic or professional career in mind for their son.

Jacoby pursued the classical education normal for a boy of a good family. After three years of study in elementary school in Magdeburg, he entered the sexta (the sixth class from the top) in the Pädagogium des Klosters unserer lieben Frauen, Magdeburg, in 1885. Here he received training in classical languages and obtained his Abitur, the German form of diploma, in 1894. The school had long evolved from its former role as a monastic institution, and religion played almost no role in Jacoby's life or in that of his children.

He entered the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, for summer semester 1894, to study classical philology. He remained in Freiburg only one semester and moved to the University of Munich for winter semester 1894/5. He then served for a year in the Bavarian mounted artillery. The decisive move in his academic training was his enrollment in the University of Berlin in winter semester 1896. Here he studied especially under Hermann Diels (1848-1922) and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931). Diels was at that time editing his masterpiece, the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers (Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Berlin 1903).

Jacoby's dissertation in Berlin

Jacoby chose for himself other fragments as the subject of his doctoral dissertation, those of the Chronika compiled by Apollodorus of Athens in the second century B.C. His dissertation was complete in 1900 and he sat for his oral examination to defend his work (the exercise that Germans call the Rigorosum) on 1 November 1900. The examiners were Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Karl Dilthey (1839-1907), Ulrich Koehler (1838-1903), and Hermann Diels, truly a "Who's Who" of the Berlin classical faculty. According to German custom, three young scholars were appointed as adversarii to dispute with Jacoby in his defense of his work. He was awarded his degree "cum laude". This was a low mark in the German system. Normally, only authors of dissertations graded “summa cum laude” or “magna cum laude” were permitted to continue with further study and write a second, usually more ambitious, book, the Habilitationsschrift that qualified them to lecture at the university level (with the venia legendi, or “permission to read,” that is, to give university courses) and to be a candidate for a chair as a professor. If the usual practice in Germany had prevailed, Jacoby's low mark would have restricted him to a career as a teacher in a German secondary school, or Gymnasium, and the FGrHist might never have been created. In view of Jacoby's towering status in his scholarly career (Robert Dundas, his later colleague at Christ Church, Oxford, called him “the most learned man in Europe”), it is nothing short of astounding that he received such a low mark for his doctoral dissertation.

His work was titled De Apollodori Atheniensis Chronicis. In its original form it was a two-volume work of 740 pages. Diels' opinion of Jacoby's dissertation is preserved in the records of the Rigorosum in the Humboldt-University, Berlin. In summary, Diels said that the candidate was not well advised in choosing the reconstruction of Apollodorus' Chronicle as a doctoral dissertation. The central position of Apollodorus within ancient chronology requires discussion of nearly all the important chronological controversies. This far surpasses the ability of a student and the content of a dissertation. Along with polite compliments to the student's perceptions and erudition, Diels found his rejection of other scholars' opinions often too harsh (a trait that never wholly faded away in Jacoby's later writings) and his acceptance of other opinions, including some of those held by the genius loci (Wilamowitz) too uncritical. Despite such reservations, Diels did not hesitate to recognize the historical achievement of the candidate as significant and as advancing the subject.

The Latin style of the work was unsatisfactory. Jacoby's linguistic ability was wholly inadequate to treat such a difficult subject in Latin of pleasing form (“sein sprachliches Können reicht überhaupt nicht hin,” etc.). To publish such a huge dissertation as it stood would have been all but unthinkable, and Jacoby was recommended to publish a much shorter version as a “specimen” of his work. This booklet of 34 pages, with the same title as the dissertation, was published in Berlin by H.S. Hermann in 1900. In his preface Jacoby thanked Diels and Wilamowitz as his supervisors, but it is clear that Diels was the major advisor or Doktorvater. Indeed, Wilamowitz recorded in the report on the Rigorosum that he had not read the whole work.

Soon afterward, on 5 September 1901, Jacoby married Margarete Johanne von der Leyen (1875-1956). Born of a Protestant family in Bremen, she was the daughter of Alfred von der Leyen (1844-1934), an important official in the German rail system. Her mother, Luise Kapp (1852-1908), was born in Hoboken, New Jersey (she was related to the American-born Wolfgang Kapp who attempted a coup d'état in Berlin known as the Kapp Putsch on 13 March 1920). Margarete von der Leyen had, with four other women, completed the first course of study offered to women in a Berlin Gymnasium. After completing this study and receiving her Abitur she attended lectures in classical studies and probably thus met Jacoby. His marriage to her was the sheet-anchor of his life. Margarete (half a head taller than he) saw to his every need, entertained students in their home, worked with him on his manuscripts, and above all sustained him in his forced exile from Germany. Nothing less than a great woman, respected and loved by all.

Jacoby and his wife now moved to Breslau (now WrocŁ aw in Poland), where their first son, Hans (1902-1980), was born. Presumably the couple was supported by their families, for Jacoby had no teaching post. Here he extended his dissertation: the 34-page specimen became 416. The generous Wilamowitz, who had received Jacoby and his wife in his home when they lived in Berlin, now re-enters our story. He accepted the book, the product of the poorly-received dissertation, in his series of monographs, Philologische Untersuchungen.27 Also in 1902 Jacoby published two articles, on the Athenian archon list and the Athenian king list.

These impressive first fruits were enough to convince Wilamowitz that Jacoby deserved the chance to write a Habilitationsschrift. He therefore wrote to Eduard Norden (1868-1941), professor of classical philology in Breslau, on 7 May 1903, recommending that Jacoby be accepted as a student there:

Within the next few days Dr. Jacobi [sic], the author of the collection of the fragments of Apollodorus, will present himself to you in the hope that he may be able to achieve Habilitation in Breslau. [...] He had already made good progress in his studies when I arrived:28 I first had a stronger influence over him when he submitted his dissertation, which I then accepted for my series, the [Philologische] Untersuchungen. I may well have turned him from purely historical studies more toward philology.29

Norden acted on Wilamowitz' advice and accepted Jacoby in Breslau. As we have seen, without the encouragement of the distinguished professor in Berlin Jacoby might never have gained a post in a university. It is little exaggeration to say that Wilamowitz actually rescued Jacoby's career. is action is testimony to Wilamowitz' support of Jewish scholars in the German academic world, which was often cool to Jews.

Jacoby thus remained in Breslau and gained his Habilitation there in 1903 with a short work (another “specimen”) on the Marmor Parium, a chronicle from the Hellenistic age.30 He reedited this text in FGrHist 239. His inaugural lecture, which is customary after a scholar gains Habilitation, was on Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the universal scholar who became head of the library in Alexandria; Jacoby edited his chronological writings in FGrHist 241.

Jacoby now became a Privatdozent. In older German tradition a Privatdozent had been paid no salary whatever, but this austere custom had been relaxed, and a Privatdozent could receive the fees that students paid to attend his lectures, or Hörergeld. Still, this salary will not have been enough to support his family, and we must assume that the families of Jacoby and his wife continued their support. In 1904 he finished his edition of the Marmor Parium and dedicated it to Wilamowitz.31

Next, he began adding to his reputation, and making a living, by writing articles for the newly begun second edition of Pauly's Realencyclopädie.32 The editor was Georg Wissowa (1859-1931). He held a chair in Halle, but he had been trained in Breslau and had probably heard of the young Dr. Jacoby, who was living there. He chose an efficient method of moving the mastodon-sized work forward. He assigned Jacoby some 36 articles on authors beginning with the letter E: Echemenes, Echephylidas, and so on. They were published from 1905 onward. Later, Jacoby handled many authors whose names began with letters H through K and a smaller group beginning with S. Among the former group were the important figures Hecataeus, Hellanicus, and above all Herodotus, on whom Jacoby wrote an article - in effect, a book – that fills nearly 160 close-packed pages in the second Supplement (1913) to the Realencyclopädie. This article has remained the source for all further discussion of the historian and is the one that all more recent scholars must take into account, whether they agree or not.

Jacoby is called to Kiel

His Habilitation in 1903 qualified Jacoby for a chair, in the German system, and in 1906 he was appointed Professor Extraordinarius (a post corresponding to an Associate Professor in the United States) in the University of Kiel; he was immediately promoted to Ordinarius, or full professor, the top rank, at age 31. This remained his only academic post in Germany. His chair was for Latin literature, a fact at first surprising when we look at his monumental studies in Greek historiography; but the German tradition was that a professor of classical philology should work in both the great classical languages. His first major study in Latin literature was his long paper, “Tibulls erste Elegie,” which occupied 98 pages in two issues of the journal Rheinisches Museum, N.F. 64, 65 (1909, 1910).

Jacoby's statement of his program

Jacoby published more studies on Latin authors, and also edited the Theogony of the poet Hesiod (Berlin 1930), but Latin and Greek poetry was not to be his major theme. In the year after his promotion to Ordinarius, he set forth the program of his life' work. In August 1908 the International Congress for Historical Studies (Internationaler Kongress für historische Wissenschaften) met in Berlin. The preceding meeting had been in Rome, and Berlin was determined to compete with the Eternal City and show itself as a true friend of the intellectual world. The opening ceremonies were lavish, and Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), professor of history in the University of Berlin and often considered the one final authority, delivered the first greeting to the guests.

On Saturday, 8 August, Jacoby delivered a paper in the Philharmonie, the home of the renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Wilamowitz was in the chair and the audience was small. Jacoby's paper, of which he was given time to deliver only a shortened version, was “Über die Entwicklung der griechischen Historiographie und den Plan einer neuen Sammlung der griechischen Historikerfragmente.”33 After some complimentary words to the existing collection (both useful and down to that time still indispensable) of fragments by Carl and Theodor Müller,34 he pointed to some of the defects of that edition. The organization seemed to have little plan: the historians of Persia were in various parts of volume 2, with exception of one historian dropped into volume 4, while Ctesias, also a historian of Persia, was omitted entirely;35 the historians of Alexander the Great were not present at all – “als ob sie überhaupt nicht zu den Historikern gehörten” – but were in an appendix, edited by Carl Müller, to an edition of Arrian by F. Dübner.36 So Jacoby turned to the main question, how to group the names of historians – some of which are, indeed, nothing but names.

A purely alphabetic order of all the names would be the most convenient for the reader who sought a single historian or a single fact when the historian recording it was known. But such an order would not be helpful for a reader seeking the historians who wrote about a single state or a historical figure. Nor would it give information about how a certain historian was related to the other writers of a given period. The Müller brothers had tried to present the historians in chronological order. But, as with the alphabetic order, the chronological order has certain defects. Anyone seeking information about a given state must perform the same work of searching that the alphabetic order imposes. Another possibility might be a local arrangement, by the home or subject matter of each author. But then, should the editor place an author by the city where he lived, or by the people and nations he may have written about? Should Hecataeus be placed with other historians from Ionia, or should he find his place in a group of universal historians, since he wrote about the whole earth?

Jacoby's solution was to group the historians with regard to the principle of development of various literary and stylistic forms (“nach literarischen Gattungen”). Such an arrangement was the only one suitable for both the historian and the historian of literature. He went on, in his address, to treat the several kinds of literature represented by Hecataeus and Hellanicus – that is, geography, ethnography, and chronology – and showed why they belonged in volume one of his planned collection. He then reviewed the plan for each successive volume. In effect, he grouped the historians into three large classes: genealogy and mythography, histories limited in time, and historians limited by states. Exactly fifty years later he published the last volume that he lived to complete, namely the fragments of the historians who treated lands outside Greece – Egypt, Ethiopia, Babylon, Persia, Rome, and others.

Over the years the plan of individual volumes changed. For example, the historians of specific periods (Zeitgeschichte) moved from Part IV into Part II. And the crowning stone, one may say, of the whole structure became the edition of the local historians of Athens, for whom he wrote the enormous commentary in the form of the Supplement to Part III along with his only expository book, Atthis.37

Jacoby now settled down to his stupendous program. Over the next few years he published essentially further articles in the Realencyclopädie, including above all that on Herodotus. His last article for the Realencyclopädie, his 103rd, on Sosylus of Lacedaimon, appeared in 1927.

The Great War and Part I of FGrHist

The Great War broke out in 1914 and Jacoby served from autumn 1915, with one period of leave in which he taught in Kiel, until 30 November 1918.38 On his return to Kiel he resumed his work and in 1923 published the first volume, which was also Part I, of FGrHist.39 He worked mornings and afternoons, writing on small cards or Zettel, and relaxed in the evening with detective novels. He is said by his family to have had no hobbies, but he was not a scholarly recluse. He and his wife often invited students on Sunday afternoon to their home in Kitzeberg, across the harbor from Kiel itself, and some remained for dinner.

In 1927 Jacoby received a call to a chair in Hamburg; his colleague Eduard Fraenkel (1888-1970) wrote a passionate letter to the Minister of Culture, begging him not to transfer Jacoby, who remained in Kiel. The second large Part of the Fragmente, dealing with historians of specific periods, appeared in four volumes.40 Following publication of Part II, Jacoby was elected a Corresponding Member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (31 January 1931). His old teacher, the aged Wilamowitz, who died in the same year, wrote the citation nominating him for membership.

Jacoby and National Socialism

But now the progress of the mighty work collided with the racial politics of the Nazi period. Jacoby was a political conservative, but his attitude did not protect him from persecution owing to his Jewish origins. In October 1934 he was “invited” to ask for his retirement as of 1 April 1935. He accepted the inevitable and retired in 1935 with his pension as a professor emeritus. In September 1935 he moved with his wife and son Hans to Finkenkrug,41 a suburb of Berlin, where he could continue his edition of FGrHist. Although soon forbidden to use libraries, he continued his work, of which Parts I and II had been published.

In that same year, on 15 September, the Nazis met in Nürnberg and passed the “Nürnberg” laws, one of which restricted German citizenship to those descended from Germans or related peoples. In May 1938 Jacoby inquired of his publisher, Weidmann, whether they were still prepared to publish his work. They expressed admiration for it, but inquired whether he could furnish proof that he had been granted an exceptional permission (Ausnahmebewilligung) from the “official party review committee for the protection of National Socialist literature” (the Parteiamtliche Prüfungskommission zum Schutze des NS-Schrifttums). Jacoby had no such permission, and relations between him and Weidmann were broken off. In fairness to the firm, we must remember that they did not create the harsh laws in question and that they might have faced severe punishment if they had published anything by a man of Jewish ancestry.

On the night of 9-10 November 1938 came the scandalous “Kristallnacht,” during which gangs attacked homes and businesses owned by Jews. Five Nazi thugs invaded and trashed Jacoby's house, smashing windows and hurling books from the shelves.42 On 1 December he was informed that his corresponding membership in the Berlin Academy was to be revoked because of his Jewish origins; he lost a similar membership in the Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften in Göttingen (this was renewed in 1945). At this point Jacoby, always a loyal German, was willing to leave Germany, and a few days later came an almost miraculous salvation. Jacoby's old friend and colleague Eduard Fraenkel, a Jew driven from his own chair in Freiburg im Breisgau, was in Oxford University as the Corpus Christi Professor of Latin. He and others prepared the way, and on 3 December the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford invited Jacoby, with delightful British understatement, to continue his work in Oxford, “where conditions seem particularly favourable for such an undertaking.”

Exile in Oxford

After negotiations to obtain permission to leave Germany, Jacoby and his wife arrived in England on 29 April 1939. He held no official position at Christ Church, but in the academic year 1939/40 he gave three “classes” (Oxford”s term for seminars), although the German authorities amusingly warned him that, as an emeritus German professor, he was not to accept teaching duties. By 1940 at the latest he obtained a suitable home in Oxford, where he and his wife sat at facing desks to work on the Fragmente.

We have seen that further publication in Germany had been blocked, but the firm of E.J. Brill agreed to continue the work with Part III. Correspondence between Brill and Jacoby has not survived, but the agreement must have been made in late 1938 or early 1939. Jacoby signed the preface to volume III A on 19 January 1940. The volume was published with the support of a grant from the Craven fund in Oxford. German troops dominated the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, by which time III A must have been published. There is a mystery in connection with III a, the commentary. It was published in 1943. By this time German control of the Netherlands was absolute, and the Nazis could easily have blocked publication by a “non-Aryan” scholar. It is not clear why they allowed III a to appear, but at that time in the war the Germans had other things to think about.

Jacoby now turned to the continuation of Part III.43 In 1941 he inquired whether the Oxford University Press would be prepared to publish a book on the local historians of Athens, to be called The Atthidographers, about 600 pages in length. The Press found the title too esoteric, and in any case it could not be printed until the war (“the emergency,” as Oxford, with Olympian calm, called the war) should end.

In the end, Jacoby and the Press agreed to a suggestion of Oxford's professor of Greek history, H. T. Wade-Gery (1888-1972), namely to publish an introductory volume on the Atthidographers, which became his Atthis. The commentary on these historians was published by Brill in a gigantic two-volume “Supplement,” with the help of several granting agencies.

Jacoby's final volumes

The pace of publication now quickened. The commentary on historians of single states, with exception of Athens, followed in 1955. This was Jacoby's last publication in Oxford. In February 1956 he and his wife returned to Germany and lived with their son Hans in Berlin. Only about a month later Frau Jacoby, the loyal support and companion in FGrHist, died on 21 March. Jacoby continued to work on Part III and produced his final volume, on historians of non-Greek lands, in 1958 (the commentary on these historians, along with other volumes, is in progress). He died in Berlin, 10 November 1959.

As the years from Jacoby's life recede, and as we look on the continuation of his work by a team of scholars, our admiration grows for the man who marched through multiple adversity to create such a monumental instrument of research. His physical vigor, despite periods of delicate health, was matched by an iron determination and an absolute mastery of German method. Truly is his work a legacy to the early encouragement and support he received from Wilamowitz.

Publisher's note: see this site for more details on the biography of Felix Jacoby.


27 Apollodors Chronik. Eine Sammlung der Fragmente. Philologische Untersuchungen, ed. A. Kiessling-U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Heft 16 (Berlin 1902).

28 Wilamowitz became Professor in Berlin in 1897.

29 See “Sed serviendum officio...”: The Correspondence between Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and Eduard Norden, (1892-1931), ed. W.M. Calder III-B. Huss (Hildesheim 1997) 1-16. Translation M.C.

30 Marmoris Parii cum commentario bipartita editi specimen (Breslau, H. Fleischmann), 36 pp.

31 Das Marmor Parium herausgegeben und erklärt (Berlin, Weidmann, 1904), 210 pp.

32 Pauly's Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, (Stuttgart 1895-1970).

33 The full text was published in Klio 9 (1909) 80-123, reprinted in Jacoby's Abhandlungen zur griechischen Geschichtschreibung, ed. H. Bloch (Leiden 1956) 16-64.

34 Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, I-V (Paris 1841-1870). For particulars about Carl Müller, see R.J.A. Talbert, “Mapping the Classical World,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 5 (1992) 5-38; id., “Carl Müller (1813-1894),” Imago Mundi 46 (1994) 128-150.

35 Carl Müller included him in his edition of Herodotus (Paris 1844).

36 Paris 1846.

37 Atthis: The Local Chronicles of Ancient Athens (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1949).

38 Dr. Annegret Wittram has scrupulously documented Jacoby's war service in her study of Jacoby's life, Fragmenta: Felix Jacoby und Kiel (Diss. Kiel 2002), 73-92, especially 83-86.

39 Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker. Erster Teil: Genealogie und Mythographie (Berlin, Weidmann, 1923), reprinted in two volumes as I A (text etc.) and I a (commentary etc.) (Leiden, Brill, 1957).

40 Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker. Zweiter Teil: Zeitgeschichte, 4 vols. (Berlin, Weidmann, 1926-1930).

41 The official name of the town was Falkensee-Finkenkrug, Kreis Nauen.

42 For details on this piece of brutality, see E. Mensching, Nugae zur Philologie-Geschichte II (Berlin 1989) 45.

43 The following events, with relevant correspondence, are set forth in M. Chambers, “The Genesis of Jacoby's 'Atthis',” in Owls to Athens, Essays on Classical Subjects for Sir Kenneth Dover (Oxford 1990), 381-390.