Article abstract: Combining immense learning with a polished style and a gently ironic wit, Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which proved a durable landmark in historiography.
Edward Gibbon was born May 8, 1737, at Putney, in Surrey, England. His mother, née Judith Porten, was the daughter of a London merchant who lived in Putney. His father, Edward Gibbon, was a country gentleman, and the future historian grew up at Buriton, the Hampshire manor which his grandfather Gibbon had saved from the wreck of his first fortune and to which his father retired on the death of his first wife, whose eldest and only surviving son was the young Edward. The little boy was sickly and bookish. If he did not regret his frequent confinements, and even secretly rejoiced in the illnesses which kept him off the playing fields, still he always carried the scars of the bleeding and caustics of those early days, as well as the scar left by a dog strongly suspected of madness.
His education began at home and continued there during the long vacations from Westminster School and later Magdalen College, Oxford. He dreaded being torn away from his reading, and he therefore dreaded the full moon, which meant the practicality of navigating dirt roads to visit neighboring county families. On such visits he occupied himself in his host’s library. He wrote of one such occasion: “I was immersed in the passage of the Goths over the Danube, when the summons of the dinner-bell reluctantly dragged me from my intellectual feast.”
Not quite fifteen years old, Gibbon was packed off to Magdalen College, Oxford, “with a stock of Erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed.” This early reader of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments had thought of doing Oriental studies; he was dissuaded, and instead did nothing. At the end of a second academic year, during which he applied himself steadily to questions about transubstantiation, he was received into the Roman Catholic church. He had changed his mind about religion. He was barely sixteen. He was the proud convert of his own scholarship. Yet that was not an argument to offer his father.
Sent off to the Continent without ceremony, Gibbon recommenced his formal education, improving his Latin, beginning Greek, and learning conversational French. At Lausanne, guided by his Protestant Swiss tutor, Gibbon’s reconversion was accomplished. Redeemed from popery, he pledged a temporary allegiance to the Church of England, in which he had been brought up, before moving on to skepticism. During this exile of nearly five years, there was time for more than study, and the short young man with the sensitive face fell in love with Suzanne Curchod. His summons home broke up the romance of which he later wrote that he sighed as a lover but obeyed as a son. There was a happy ending. Suzanne became Madame Necker, mother of Madame de Staël. Gibbon had an affair with Marie Jeanne de Chatillon, wife to Pierre Bontemps, and, later, a flirtation with Lady Elizabeth Foster. Yet, really, Gibbon remained faithful to what he sometimes called his other wife: the history of the decline and fall of Rome.
On returning home, and without any vocation he was yet ready to declare, Gibbon followed his father into the militia, obtaining the rank of captain for himself and bestowing a Latin motto on the South Hampshire Grenadiers. With the peace of 1763, Gibbon left the militia, keeping his commission and taking with him the first symptoms of the hydrocele which, neglected for thirty years, killed him before he was fifty-seven. He went abroad again, and, as he later depicted it, “It was at Rome on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” That is the way he told it years later. He was wrong about the Temple of Jupiter, and a letter of June, 1764, shows that he had thought of a history of ancient Italy as early as that. His father’s death in 1770 left him means and freedom to pursue and even to expand his historical blueprint. Back in England, he became a member of the House of Commons, but this was irrelevant to his main purpose, like his romance with Suzanne and his captaincy in the militia: He never married, never fought, and, in Parliament, never spoke.
In February, 1776, Gibbon wrote to his friend and executor John Holroyd (later first Baron Sheffield), announcing the forthcoming publication of his first volume. It appeared in March to stand company with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Jeremy Bentham’s Fragment on Government, the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—as remarkable a set of publications as ever came off the presses of the English-speaking world in a given year. The genesis of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) is not in doubt. Gibbon had been thinking of some such project since 1764. Yet his first reaction to the Roman ruins is worth recalling: It had been one of profound distaste. He qualified that judgment, as he changed his mind about the very nature of history as he worked his way through the grand design for what proved to be a six-volume work.
He was convinced that there was an underlying intelligibility in history, the perceptible interaction of cause and effect. He was not a philosopher, but he aspired to be a philosophical historian. His general...
(The entire section is 2340 words.)