Edward Gibbon

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Edward Gibbon (1737–1794).
Edward Gibbon (1737–1794).

Edward Gibbon ( April 27, 1737 – January 16, 1794) was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The History is known principally for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open denigration of organized religion.



Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 of Edward and Judith Gibbon in the town of Putney, near London, England. He had six siblings: five brothers and one sister, all of whom died in infancy. His grandfather, also named Edward, had lost all in the notorious South Sea Bubble scandal, but eventually regained nearly all of it, so that Gibbon's father was able to inherit a substantial estate.

As a youth, his health was constantly threatened; he described himself as "a weakly child." At age nine, Gibbon was sent to Dr. Woddeson's school at Kingston-on-Thames, shortly after which his mother passed away. He then took up residence in the Westminster School boarding house, owned by his adored "Aunt Kitty" Porten. Sometime after she died in 1786, he membered her imparting an avid "taste for books which is still the pleasure and glory of my life." In 1751, Gibbon's reading was already indicating his future pursuits: Laurence Echard's Roman History (1713), William Howel(l)'s An Institution of General History (1680–85), and several of the 65 volumes of the acclaimed Universal History from the Earliest Account of Time (1747–1768).

Oxford, Lausanne, and a Religious Journey

Following a stay at Bath to improve his health, Gibbon in 1752 at the age of 15, was sent by his father to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner. He was ill-suited, however, to the college atmosphere and later rued his 14 months there as the "most idle and unprofitable" of his life. But his penchant for "theological controversy," (his aunt's influence), fully bloomed when he came under the spell of rationalist theologian Conyers Middleton (1683–1750) and his Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749). In that tract, Middleton denied the validity of such powers; Gibbon promptly objected. The product of that disagreement, with some assistance from the work of French Catholic Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bousset (1627–1704), and that of the Jesuit priest Robert Parsons (1546–1610), yielded the most memorable event of his time at Oxford: his conversion to Roman Catholicism on June 8, 1753. He was further "corrupted" by the 'free thinking' deism of the playwright/poet couple David and Lucy Mallet; and finally Gibbon's father, already "in despair," had had enough.

Within weeks of his conversion, the youngster was removed from Oxford and sent to live under the care and tutelage of David Pavillard, Calvinist pastor of Lausanne, Switzerland. It was here that he made one his life's two great friendships, that of Jacques Georges Deyverdun; the other being John Baker Holroyd (later Lord Sheffield). Just a year and a half later, on Christmas Day 1754, he reconverted to Protestantism. 'The articles of the Romish creed,' he wrote, 'disappeared like a dream.' He remained in Lausanne for five intellectually productive years, a period that greatly enriched Gibbon's already immense aptitude for scholarship and erudition: he read Latin literature; traveled throughout Switzerland studying its cantons' constitutions; and aggressively mined the works of Hugo Grotius, Samuel Puffendorf, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and Blaise Pascal.

Thwarted Romance

He also met the one romance in his life: the pastor of Crassy's daughter, a young woman named Suzanne Curchod, who would later become the wife of Jacques Necker, the French finance minister. Gibbon and Curchod developed something of a mutual affinity, but marriage was out of the question, blocked both by his father's staunch disapproval, and Curchod's equally staunch reluctance to leave Switzerland. Gibbon returned to England in August 1758 to face his father's steely scowl. There could be no refusal of the elder's wishes. Gibbon put it this way: "I sighed like a lover, I obeyed like a son." He proceeded to cut off all contact with Mlle. Curchod, even as she vowed to wait for him.

Fame Arrives

Upon his return to England, Gibbon published his first book, Essai sur l'Etude de la Littérature in 1761. From 1759 to 1763, Gibbon spent four years in active service with the Hampshire militia and another seven in reserve, his deactivation coinciding with the end of the Seven Years' War. In 1763, he embarked on the Grand Tour (of continental Europe), which included a visit to Rome. It was here, in 1764, that Gibbon first conceived the idea of composing a 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.

His father died in 1770, and after tending to the estate, which was by no means in good condition, there remained quite enough for Gibbon to settle in London, independent of financial concerns. Two years later he began writing in earnest, but not without the occasional self-imposed distraction. He took to London society quite easily, joined the better social clubs, including Dr. Johnson's Literary Club, and looked in from time to time on his friend Holroyd in Sussex. He succeeded Oliver Goldsmith at the Royal Academy as 'professor in ancient history' (honorary but prestigious). And perhaps least productively, he was returned to the House of Commons for Liskeard, Cornwall in 1774. He became the archetypal back-bencher, "mute" and "indifferent," his support of the ministry routinely automatic. Gibbon's indolence in that position, perhaps fully intentional, subtracted little from the progress of his writing.

After several rewrites, and Gibbon "often tempted to throw away the labours of seven years," the first volume of what would become his life's major achievement, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, appeared in 1776. The reading public eagerly consumed three editions for which Gibbon was rewarded handsomely: two-thirds of the profits on the first edition alone, amounting to £490. Biographer Sir Leslie Stephen wrote that thereafter, "His fame was as rapid as it has been lasting." And as regards this first volume, "Some warm praise from [David] Hume overpaid the labour of ten years."

Volumes II and III appeared in 1781, eventually rising "to a level with the previous volume in general esteem." The final three volumes were finished during a retreat to Lausanne where Gibbon reunited with his friend Deyverdun in leisurely comfort. By early 1787, he was "straining for the goal;" and with great relief the project was finished in June of that year. Volumes IV, V, and VI finally reached the press in 1788. Mounting the bandwagon of praise for the later volumes were such contemporary luminaries as Adam Smith, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, Lord Camden, and Horace Walpole. Smith remarked that Gibbon's triumph had positioned him "at the very head of [Europe's] literary tribe."

Aftermath and the end

The years following Gibbon's completion of The History were filled largely with sorrow and increasing physical discomfort. He returned to London to oversee the publication process alongside Lord Sheffield; publication having been delayed to coincide with a party celebrating Gibbon's 51st birthday. Then in 1789, it was back to Lausanne only to learn of and be "deeply affected" by the death of Deyverdun, who had willed Gibbon his home. He resided there with little commotion, took in the local society, received a visit from Sheffield in 1791, and "shared the common abhorrence" of the French Revolution. In 1793, word came of Lady Sheffield's death; Gibbon immediately deserted Lausanne and set sail to comfort a grieving but composed Sheffield, the last of his close friends. His health began to fail critically in December, and at the turn of the new year, he was on his last legs.

Gibbon is believed to have suffered from hydrocele testis, a condition which causes the testicles to swell with fluid. In an age when close-fitting clothes were fashionable, his condition lead to a chronic and disfiguring inflammation which left Gibbon a lonely figure. As his condition worsened, he underwent numerous procedures to alleviate the condition, but with no enduring success. In early January, the last of a series of three operations caused an unremitting peritonitis to set in and spread. The "English giant of the Enlightenment" finally succumbed at 12:45 pm, January 16, 1794 at age 56, to be buried in the Sheffield family graveyard at the parish church in Fletching, Sussex.


It is generally accepted that Gibbon's treatment of Byzantium has had detrimental effects on the study of the Middle Ages. There remains an issue as to whether his poor analysis is primarily due to a lack of primary sources in this field or to the prejudices of the time.

Gibbon's work has also been criticized for its aggressively scathing view of Christianity as laid down in chapters XV and XVI. Those chapters were strongly criticised and resulted in the banning of the book in several countries. Gibbon's alleged crime was disrespecting, and none too lightly, the character of sacred Christian doctrine in "treat[ing] the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents" as the Roman church was likely expecting. More specifically, Gibbon's blasphemous chapters excoriated the church for two deeply wounding transgressions: displacing the glory and grandeur of ancient Rome ("supplanting in an unnecessarily destructive way the great culture that preceded it"); and reexposing the church's dirty laundry ("for the outrage of [practicing] religious intolerance and warfare").

Gibbon, in letters to Holroyd and others, expected some type of church-inspired backlash, but the utter harshness of the ensuing torrents far exceded anything he or his friends could possibly have anticipated. Contemporary detractors such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Watson stoked the nascent fire, but the most severe of these attacks was an intolerably "acrimonious" piece from the pen of a young cleric, Henry Edwards Davis. Concerned for his honour and anxious that the public read both sides of the dispute, Gibbon subsequently published his Vindication of some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1779. Therein, he categorically denied Davis' "criminal accusations," branding him a purveyor of "servile plagiarism."

Gibbon's antagonism to Christian doctrine spilled over into the Jewish faith, inevitably leading to charges of anti-Semitism. For example, he wrote:

Humanity is shocked at the recital of the horrid cruelties which [the Jews] committed in the cities of Egypt, of Cyprus, and of Cyrene, where they dwelt in treacherous friendship with the unsuspecting natives;¹ and we are tempted to applaud the severe retaliation which was exercised by the arms of legions against a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but also of humankind.²

Burke, Churchill and 'the fountainhead'

Gibbon is considered to be a son of the Enlightenment and this is reflected in his famous verdict on the history of the Middle Ages: "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion." However, politically, he aligned himself with both Burke's rejection of the democratic movements of the time as well as Burke's dismissal of the "rights of man."

Gibbon's work has been praised for its style, his piquant epigrams and its brilliant irony. Winston 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 modeled much of his own style upon Gibbon's, though with less use of irony.

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 insistence upon the importance of primary sources, Gibbon is considered by many to be one of the first modern historians:

In accuracy, thoroughness, lucidity, and comprehensive grasp of a vast subject, the 'History' is unsurpassable. It is the one English history which may be regarded as definitive. ...Whatever its shortcomings the book is artistically imposing as well as historically unimpeachable as a vast panorama of a great period.

Influence 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, Gibbon was also a model for Isaac Asimov in his writing of The Foundation Trilogy.

The writings of Shoghi Effendi, which constitute the majority of authoritative primary-source written works in the Bahá'í Faith, are written in a style quite similar to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is often attributed to the influence of his avowed appreciation of Gibbon and Carlyle.

Works by Gibbon

  • Essai sur l’étude de la littérature ( 1761).
  • Mémoires littéraires de la Grand Bretagne ( 1768).
  • Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of Vergil's Aeneid ( 1770).
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (vol. I, 1776; vols. II,III, 1781; vols. IV,V,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). found 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 Lord Sheffield; cf. Bonnard in References.
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