Gibbon (April 27, 1737 (O.S.) (May 8, 1737 (N.S.)) - January 16,
1794) was arguably the most influential historian since the time
of Tacitus. His magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1788, is a groundbreaking
work whose influence endures to this day.
Gibbon was born in Putney, then a town by the river Thames, near
London, England. His grandfather had made and lost the family
fortune in the South Sea Bubble. Gibbon was the only child, and
he described himself as "a weakly child" in his memoirs.
His mother died when he was 10 years old, after which he attended
Kingston Grammar School, staying at the boarding house of his
favorite "Aunt Kitty", followed by Westminster School
at the age of 11. At the age of 14, he was sent by his father
to Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, where he enrolled
as a gentleman-commoner.
was ill-suited to the college atmosphere and later wrote of his
14 months there as "the most idle and unprofitable of my
whole life." The most memorable event of his time at Oxford
was his conversion to Roman Catholicism on June 8, 1753. Religious
controversies raged on the Oxford campus, and while their intellectual
standards were sometimes described as bleak, obsolete, and barren,
the 16 year-old Gibbon was not immune to this controversial religious
trend and he later remarked, with his flair for sarcastic understatement,
"from my childhood, I had been fond of religious disputation".
weeks of his conversion, the elder Gibbon removed the younger
from Oxford, and sent him to M. Pavilliard, a Calvinist pastor
and private tutor in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he remained
for five years, a time which would have a profound impact upon
Gibbon's later character and life. He quickly reconverted back
to Protestantism, but more importantly, his time in Lausanne enriched
Gibbon's immense aptitude for scholarship and erudition.
addition, he met the one romance in his life: the pastor's daughter,
a young woman named Suzanne Curchod, who would later be the wife
of Jacques Necker, the French finance minister, and mother of
Mme de Staël. Once again, his father intruded in his son's
life by vetoing the marriage proposal and demanding the young
Gibbon's immediate return to England. Gibbon would write: "I
sighed like a lover, I obeyed like a son."
his return to England, Gibbon published his first book, Essai
sur l'Etude de la Littérature in 1758. From 1759 to 1763,
Gibbon spent four years in service with the Hampshire militia.
Later that year, he embarked on a Grand Tour to Europe, which
included a visit to Rome. It was here, in 1764, that Gibbon first
conceived the idea of writing about the history of the Roman Empire:
was on the fifteenth of October, in the gloom of evening, as I
sat musing on the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were chanting
their litanies in the temple of Jupiter, that I conceived the
first thought of my history. (Memoirs of My Life, ed. Georges
A. Bonnard [New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1966], p. 304)
1772, his father died, and after tending to the estate, which
was by no means in good condition, there was nevertheless enough
for Gibbon to settle comfortably in London. He began writing his
history in 1773 and the first quarto of The History of the Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776.
suffered from a malady now believed to be hydrocele testis, according
to the Merck Manual. This condition caused his testicles to swell
with fluid to extraordinary proportions. Gibbon underwent numerous
procedures to have the fluid removed during his later years, but
as his condition worsened, it became both more painful and an
embarrassment. His doctor, who actually measured the contents,
once drew five quarts of liquid from the protuberance.
chronic inflammation caused Gibbon great physical discomfort in
a time when men wore close-fitting breeches. He refers to this
indirectly in his Memoirs, with comments: "I can recall only
fourteen truly happy days in my life," and "I am never
so content when writing in solitude." Personal hygiene during
the Eighteenth Century was optional at best; for Gibbon, it was
marginal by any standard. The social humiliation Gibbon endured
as a result of his hygiene and his protuberance is chronicled.
In an age when a man's stature was measured not merely by the
"cut of his breeches," but by his riding, Gibbon was
a lonely figure. In one incident, he bent down on one knee to
propose to a lady of society. She demurred, "Sir, please,
stand up." Gibbon replied: "Madam, I cannot."
Gibbon's literary art, the sustained excellence of his style,
his piquant epigrams and his brilliant irony, would perhaps not
secure for his work the immortality which it seems likely to enjoy,
if it were not also marked by an accuracy of judgment which has
rarely been equalled. Churchill memorably noted, I set out upon
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [and] was immediately
dominated by both the story and the style. I devoured Gibbon.
I rode triumphantly through it from end to end. Churchill later
went on to mimic Gibbon's prose style, although at a marginally
less elevated level.
for the 18th century, Gibbon was never content with secondhand
accounts when the primary sources were accessible. I have always
endeavoured, he says, to draw from the fountainhead; my curiosity,
as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals;
and if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully
marked the secondary evidence on whose faith a passage or a fact
were reduced to depend. In this insistence upon the importance
of primary sources, Gibbon is considered by many to be one of
the first modern historians.
verdict on the history of the Middle Ages is contained in the
famous sentence, I have described the triumph of barbarism and
religion. It is important to understand clearly the criterion
that he applied, because it is frequently misunderstood. He was
a son of the 18th century, had studied Locke and Montesquieu with
sympathy, and few seem to have appreciated more keenly than he
did, the human advantages of political liberty and the freedom
of an Englishman. In short, the criterion by which Gibbon judged
civilization and progress was the measure in which the happiness
of men is secured, and of that happiness, he considered political
freedom to be an essential precondition.
and Fall has had its detractors too, almost invariably in the
form of religious commentators and religious historians who detested
his querying not only of official church history, but also of
the saints and scholars of the church, their motives and their
accuracy. In particular, the Fifteenth Chapter, which documents
the reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the
Roman Empire, was particularly vilified and resulted in the banning
of the book in various countries until quite recently, with Ireland,
for example, lifting the ban on sale in the early 1970's.
this official opposition, The History of the Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire remains surprisingly popular and arguably
one of the finest histories in the English language.
on other writers
The subject of Gibbon's writing as well as his ideas and style
have influenced other writers. Besides his influence on Churchill,
which has been discussed earlier in this article, Gibbon was also
a model for Isaac Asimov in his writing of The Foundation Trilogy.
In addition, the band The Kinks have an album named Arthur (Or
the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).
variation on the title, Rise and Fall, has been used by other
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959), William Shirer
2. The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (1961), William Shirer
3. The Rise and Fall of British Empire (1997), Lawrence James
4. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1989), Paul Kennedy
5. The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism Paul Kennedy
6. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery Paul Kennedy
7. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1996), David
1. Essai sur l’étude de la littérature (1761).
2. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume
I, 1776; Volumes II and III, 1781; Volumes IV, V, and VI, 1788).
3. A vindication of some passages in the fifteenth and sixteenth
chapters of the History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire
4. Mémoire justificatif pour servir de réponse à
l’exposé, &c de la cour de France (1779).
5. Memoirs of My Life (1796, at the beginning of the posthumous
Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq. published two years
after the author's death by his friend and literary executor John
Holroyd, 1st Earl of Sheffield); cf. Georges A. Bonnard's critical