He studied classical philology and archaeology at the Universities of Giessen and Göttingen, receiving his doctorate in 1857 at Giessen. In 1863 he became an associate professor at Giessen, and soon afterwards relocated to the University of Dorpat as a professor of classical philology. In 1872 he was appointed professor of classical philology and chair of classical archaeology at the University of Tübingen, where in 1881–82 he was university rector.
Among his better written works was an influential examination of the Roman poet Catullus titled Quaestiones Catullianae (1862), and a revision of Wilhelm Siegmund Teuffel's Geschichte der römischen Literatur (1882). Other noted publications by Schwabe include: