Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2340
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 ideas were clearly derivative from the philosophes. One rule to which he clung with perfect consistency was that a narrative should include only facts that were either interesting or important. What could be applied to the instruction of his own age was important. Such instruction assisted the march of progress, and Gibbon believed in progress though he was writing about a decline. He believed in perfectibility and in an irreducible core of civilization. Indeed, after dealing with Rome’s collapse, he offered the view that every period increases human knowledge and possibly human virtue. This view has to be set beside his definition of history at the beginning of his first volume as scarcely more than a record of human crime, folly, and misfortune. He was not consistent. Some of the inconsistency, however, reflects Gibbon’s continuing development as a historian.
For example, Gibbon’s contempt for the religiosity of the Middle Ages and his thesis that the fall of Rome came with the triumph of barbarism and religion are well known. Yet some years after he had completed his history, he pleaded for a scholarly edition of the medieval English chronicles. He wrote, “For the losses of history are indeed irretrievable: when the productions of fancy or science have been swept away, new poets may invent, and new philosophers may reason; but if the inscription of a single fact be once obliterated, it can never be restored by the united efforts of genius and industry.” His subject required him to deal with continental migrations, the wars of an empire, and the religion of the masses. Incalculable numbers of anonymous people were creating the framework within which day-to-day decisions had to be made. Working out his synthesis in such terms, Gibbon outgrew this earlier attitude toward the Middle Ages and his first impression of the Roman Empire itself.
How Gibbon handled his sources would require a separate essay. Happily, J. B. Bury’s critically annotated edition of Gibbon’s history goes a long way toward answering the question. Gibbon never supplied his own critical bibliography. He concentrated on telling a story. His moral reflections are neatly worked into the narrative, as ballast for the flights of rhetoric. There are also two different histories in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There is the original conception, a history of Rome, expanded to cover the later empire in the west, throughout which the historian is always in Rome, looking outward; then there is the history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, which he had never visited and with which he had only a kind of literary sympathy.
Gibbon was biased in favor of success. If he considered the Antonine age a golden age, he also applauded the level of civilization at which the nations of Western Europe, and their settlement colonies, the true heirs of Rome, had arrived in 1776. Constantinople, to him, had been a failure without respectable issue. Yet its history was reminiscent of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, and Gibbon’s style was adapted to do it literary, if not historical, justice. Gibbon explained how hard he worked on style, revising the first chapter of volume 1 three times and the second and third chapters twice, to achieve his desired effect. His discussion of three centuries of Roman history is constantly animated by his understanding and frequently his admiration for the Romans, both lacking when he shifted the scene to Constantinople. Then, composition was an exercise of style alone, shorn of sympathy, and his interest perceptibly flagged before he had covered the 980 years of Eastern history, to which he allotted no more pages than he had to the three centuries dealing with Rome.
By the time he had completed his master work, in June, 1787, Gibbon had left London for Lausanne, where his modest income enabled him to live in greater style than was possible in England. His life and work were disrupted, however, by the death of his friend and companion, Georges Deyverdun, and by the French Revolution. It was not only the refugees, swarming into Lausanne by 1790 but also the actual threat of French invasion that made Gibbon look back to England, to which he returned in 1793. Much of his last summer he spent in the company of John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, and his children. By autumn, his hydrocele had become such a painful deformity as to make surgery unavoidable. The third operation was fatal, and Gibbon died in London, January 16, 1794. He was buried among Holroyds at Fletching in Sussex.
In his own lifetime, Edward Gibbon was often compared to David Hume and William Robertson. Certainly, Gibbon read and learned from those of their works which antedated his own, and in significant ways he imitated them. Hume, as a philosopher as well as a historian, brought a deeper intellect to bear on questions concerning historical causation. Robertson had already popularized the style that Gibbon made his own. Nevertheless, granting the sources available to him and his linguistic limitations, he accomplished as much as any single writer could have done in writing his epic. Contemporaries, not only in England, saluted him. The reception of his work is separable from the history of its genesis and content. Apart from the clergymen who instantly attacked the first volume, only to be crushed by the weighty learning of Gibbon’s retort, the reception was favorable. Gibbon obviously glowed with pleasure at Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s complimentary remarks made on the floor of the House of Commons.
After Gibbon’s death, anonymous editors chopped and changed his masterpiece. Thomas Bowdler bowdlerized it. By the end of the nineteenth century, German historical scholarship had sapped the foundations of many parts of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Simultaneously, critical emphasis changed, and Gibbon was rebuked not for scoffing at Christianity, but for taking sides at all. Early in the nineteenth century, the young William Ewart Gladstone confessed to preferring the intellectual vigor of Hume to Gibbon’s ornate style. Yet late in the same century, the young Sir Winston Churchill begged his mother to include Gibbon among the books to be sent out to him in India, where he was striving to compensate for the brevity of his own formal education. In the end, what brings historians, whether Roman specialists or not, back to Gibbon is their perennial fascination with the splendor of his solution to his problem: how to handle immense themes, spread over a vast chronological canvas, in a way likely to interest the general public.
Bond, Harold L. The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960. This is a doctoral dissertation submitted at Harvard but revised for publication.
Bowersock, Glen W., et al., eds. Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977. Though there is no bibliography for the volume as a whole, the footnotes to the various chapters provide the most up-to-date guide to writing on Gibbon. The chapters by Steven Runciman, “Gibbon and Byzantium,” and Bernard Lewis, “Gibbon on Muhammad,” are particularly notable.
Gibbon, Edward. The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon. Edited by John Murray. London: John Murray, 1896. Includes the six full versions and fragment of a seventh which show how Gibbon kept polishing up the image he wished to present to posterity.
Gibbon, Edward. Gibbon’s Journal to January 28th, 1763. Edited by David Morrice Low. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1929. An improvement over the extracts printed earlier by Sheffield.
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by J. B. Bury. 7 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1896-1902. Bury tried not only to bring Gibbon up-to- date by showing what scholarship had revealed since his time but also to evaluate Gibbon’s use of the sources he did employ.
Gibbon, Edward. Letters. Edited by J. E. Norton. 3 vols. London: Cassell, 1956. Supersedes previous, less complete collections.
Gibbon, Edward. The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon. Edited by John Sheffield. London: B. Blake, 1837. Includes juvenile writings, some letters, extracts from journals, and one version of autobiography.
Young, George M. Gibbon. London: Rupert Hart- Davis, 1948. This was first published in 1932 and reissued with a new introduction in this edition. It is innocent of any scholarly apparatus but eminently readable.