Edward 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, first published in 1776, is a groundbreaking work whose influence endures to this day.
Gibbon was born in Putney-on-Thames, near London, England, and came from a family of ancient descent, with six tory principles in Hampshire. 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. After his mother died while he was 10 years old, he attended Kingston Grammar School, and stayed at the boarding house of his favorite "Aunt Kitty". At the age of 14, he was sent away by his father to Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, where he enrolled as a gentleman-commoner.
Gibbon was ill-suited to the college atmosphere, and the most memorable event of his time there 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".
Within 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. In 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."
Upon 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:
- It 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).
By 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.
Gibbon suffered from a malady now believed to be hydrocele, 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 embarassment. His doctor, who actually measured the contents, once drew five quarts of liquid from the protuberance.
This 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 ecumenical grasp, extraordinary accuracy and a wily acuteness of judgment which has rarely been equalled in historical, or even English, prose. Churchill memorably noted that 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, and he later went on, in his own writings, to mimic Gibbon's prose style, although at a marginally less elevated level.
Unusually 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, Gibbon is considered by many to be one of the first modern historians.
Gibbon's verdict on the history of the Middle Ages is contained in the famous sentence, I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion, and it is important to understand clearly the criterion which 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.
Decline 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 villified and resulted in the banning of the book in various countries until quite recently (Ireland for example, lifting the ban on sale in the early 1970's).
Nonetheless, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains perhaps the finest history ever written, an inspiration to historians, and a brilliant, sustained critique of the fraility of the human condition.
Works by Gibbon
Essai sur l’étude de la littérature (1761).
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).
A vindication of some passages in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (1779).
- Mémoire justificatif pour servir de réponse à l’exposé, &c de la cour de France (1779).
- 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, first Earl of Sheffield); cf. Georges A. Bonnard's critical edition (1966).
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04