Everyone has heard of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But how many have actually read it, all of it – six volumes, 1.5 million words, 8362 footnotes? I must confess that, although I have studied the later Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages (the “Dark Ages”, as they used to be called), I have not – beyond some excerpts in abridgement. So my project for the forthcoming year (or probably somewhat longer) is to rectify this, and as I do so, to summarise Gibbon, chapter by chapter, and attempt to work towards an understanding not only of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, but also of the nature of Gibbon’s historical work and thought. But let us first consider Gibbon himself – who was he? where and when did he operate? why did he come to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and what was he hoping to achieve? And why should we read Gibbon today?
Gibbon is a fascinating man:
“the sick infant whose wet-nurse lost her milk and whose mother died, the stubby, pudgy captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers trying so hard to be a man, the mute parliamentarian with, as Fanny Burney put it, ‘those Brobdignatious cheeks’, the historian so preoccupied with time that he became known as ‘Mr Clockwork’, the denizen of ‘Fanny Lausanne’ who posed as ‘King of the Place’; the man who had a hydrocele – a gross swelling of the testicles – growing for twenty years without seeking medical advice” (Porter)
and, as author of perhaps the first proper autobiography, his life offers rich scope for the psychoanalyst. I will not attempt to put Gibbon on the couch but I will try to summarise the salient points of his life as a scholar. Edward Gibbon was born in 1737 in Putney; as an English gentleman of wealth and leisure, he admitted that, born “in a free and civilized country, in an age of science and Philosophy, in a family of honourable rank and decently endowed with the gifts of fortune”, he had “drawn a high prize in the lottery of life” (quotations are drawn from Gibbon’s autobiographies unless otherwise stated). His fortune did not extend, however, to his physical health: he was a sickly child, frequently ill, and was probably lucky not to die in childhood as did his six younger siblings. His formal schooling as a result was disrupted and severely limited, and he educated himself through his “early and invincible love of reading”. Thus Gibbon arrived at Magdalen College Oxford aged 14 armed “with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a Doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a school boy would have been ashamed”. Young Edward’s 14 months at Oxford was not a happy experience for him, “the most idle and unprofitable” time of his life; he later expressed his contempt for the “monks of Oxford”, steeped in port and prejudice”, “their conversation stagnated in a round of College business, Tory politics, personal stories and private scandal”. So Gibbon contrived the most spectacular possible rejection both of Oxford and of his family and his social status – in 1753 he converted to the persecuted minority faith of Roman Catholicism. In horror, his father packed him off to Lausanne in Switzerland for re-education at the hands of a Calvinist pastor, where he stayed for five years. This was the making of Gibbon: “such as I am in Genius or learning or in manner, I owe my creation to Lausanne”. Not only did he rapidly read himself into a reconversion to Protestantism and indeed probably to scepticism and Deism, and experience the only (unrequited) love of his life, he worked exceptionally hard and developed his unquenchable thirst for systematic study and exact information, also mastering Latin and French, beginning his studies of Greek, and becoming acquainted with the ideas of Voltaire and Montesquieu. Returning to England in 1758 an accomplished scholar, Gibbon published his first work in 1761, an “Essay on the study of literature” (in French), and, based primarily at his father’s mansion in Hampshire, he continued his studies and the accumulation of his stupendous library, which numbered six or seven thousand volumes by 1788. Incidentally, Gibbon spent £3000 on books in the three year period from Jan 1785 to June 1788 – by my calculations (using Treasury data) this sum would have the purchasing power of approximately £340,000 today. This emphasises the crucial point that only a wealthy man could hope to pursue historical studies in this age; there was no public library in London and no real academic institutional framework for the study of history in England – historical scholarship was the preserve, in England, of the gentleman amateur.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gibbon, though, had not yet hit on the subject for the great work which he yearned to write. He contemplated and rejected the idea of writing the biography of a “great man” from English history, and started but rapidly abandoned the project of a history of the Swiss. By his own famous account (which is highly dubious and probably constitutes an artful retrospective re-ordering of his own life), his moment of epiphany came on his Grand Tour of 1763-5:
it was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars [sic] 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.
Although unconstrained by material concerns, Gibbon was not in these years entirely able to inhabit his ivory tower free from the duties of his class and the calls of the external world. From 1759-62 (during the Seven Years War), he served on active duty (in England) as an officer of the Hampshire militia, observing that “The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the phalanx and the legion; the Captain of the Hampshire grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire”. In 1774 he entered on what he called his “Senatorial life”, being appointed (“elected” is not the word for the procedures of the pre-reform Parliament – the electorate numbered about 50 and Gibbon stood uncontested, the seat being entirely in the control of a wealthy magnate) MP for Liskeard, where he sat in the Commons until 1780, and again for Lymington from 1781-4. He described this as his “school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of an historian” (we shall return later to the question of Gibbon’s own politics). Following the death of his father in 1770 and the settling of his estate, which left Gibbon quite enough to live fashionably in London free of monetary concerns, he was free to immerse himself in the production of his great work. Gibbon’s method of writing was, incidentally, remarkable. He wrote in paragraphs – long paragraphs – which he would compose in his head before setting down on paper. And he wrote only fair copies – his first rough manuscript, without any intermediate copy, was sent directly to the printer. Remarkable also was his polymathy – chronology, geography, natural history, classics, economics, jurisprudence, theology, historiography – Gibbon “glided with such apparent ease” (Cartledge) through these and other many and vast fields. The first volume of Decline and Fall was published in February 1776, to immediate commercial success (the first edition sold out within a fortnight, the second within three days, and 3,500 copies had been sold by the end of March – overall Gibbon made some £9000 from his work, equivalent to roughly £1 million in 2014 values) and acclaim (“My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette; the historian was crowned by the taste or fashion of the day”, exulted Gibbon) – also criticism, particularly for Gibbon’s handling of the Christian religion. The second and third volumes followed in 1781, and the final three in 1788. Gibbon lived long enough to join Edmund Burke in criticising the “Gallic phrenzy” and the “disease” of the French revolution, but he died in January 1794, aged 56, probably from complications of a hernia.
This article by Paul Cartledge is a superb summary of Gibbon’s life and work – but you need access to JSTOR to read it.
Otherwise, I recommend Roy Porter for a short introduction.