Edward Gibbon and the Science of History

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

On April 27, 1737, English historian and Member of Parliament Edward Gibbon was born. His most famous work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and is known for the quality and irony of its prose as well as for its scientific historic accuracy, which made it a model for later historians.

“History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”
(Edward Gibbon)

A Seminal Work

For sure you must have heard of Edward Gibbon’s seminal work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which has become a reference and also a benchmark for all later researchers interested in Roman history. Even more, the six volumes also have their literary value when considered as prose. So far, I have only read the first two volumes, but I’m quite sure that I will continue.

Edward Gibbon – Early Years

Edward Gibbon was born on April 27, 1737, son of Edward Gibbon, a wealthy Tory member of Parliament, and his wife Judith at Lime Grove, in the town of Putney, Surrey, among six siblings. Gibbon was a sickly child. Following the death of his mother at age nine he was sent away to Westminster School, where he stayed with his ‘Aunt Kitty’, Catherine Porten who would have a strong influence on him and whom he adored. It was she who showed the first real affection for the sickly boy and introduced him to reading. Also his subsequent education at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner at age 15, was rather irregular. According to Gibbon’s own explanation he was too bashful to spend his time in taverns, but his studies ended anyway after one year, when he was expelled for turning to Roman Catholicism, probably the most memorable event of his time at Oxford and a decision which was undoubtedly directed against his Anglican college tutors.

Reconverting to Protestantism

Within weeks of his conversion, the youngster was removed from Oxford and sent to live under the care and tutelage of Daniel Pavillard, Reformed pastor of Lausanne, Switzerland. Just a year and a half later, after his father threatened to disinherit him, on Christmas Day, 1754, he reconverted to Protestantism. In Lausanne also he fell in love with Suzanne Curchod, who would later become the wife of Louis XVI’s finance minister Jacques Necker, and the mother of Madame de Staël.[4] Their relationship was ended by his father, and Gibbon remained unmarried for the rest of his life.

First Publication and Grand Tour

In 1761, after his return to England, Gibbon published his first book, Essai sur l’Étude de la Littérature, which produced an initial taste of celebrity and distinguished him, in Paris at least, as a man of letters. From 1759 to 1770, Gibbon served on active duty and since 1762 after his deactivation in reserve with the South Hampshire militia. In 1763 he embarked on the Grand Tour of continental Europe, which also included a visit to Rome, where he first conceived the idea of composing a history of the city, later extended to the entire empire, a moment known to history as the “Capitoline vision”:

“It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars 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.”

Severn Years of Research

In 1770 Gibbon’s father died and left him to be a wealthy man. He settled in London, joined a number of sophisticated social clubs, became a Freemason and even a member of parliament. However, these endeavours did not distract him from writing. After seven years of research Gibbon published the first volume of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. The book was an immediate success, promoting Gibbon one of the most distinguished historians of the age. This fresh take on the fall of the Roman Empire relied heavily on primary sources and was extremely controversial in its argument that the decline was largely the result of the increasing influence of Christianity in draining the traditional martial spirit of the Romans. The rest of the overall six volumes were published in 1781, 1787 and 1788.

Later Years

Freed from his political duties, Gibbon moved back to Lausanne. Here, the now rather obese man, who had developed a preference for conspicuous clothing, formed a flat-sharing community with his friend Jacques Georges Deyverdun. In the late evening of June 27, 1787, Gibbon finished work on the sixth volume of his work. To get the print, he went to England for another year. By 1788 all six volumes had been published. The last volumes were published on his 51st birthday on 8 May 1788. The following years were marked by several strokes of fate.

Strokes of Fate

First his friend Deyverdun died. The French Revolution troubled him very much. He was less active as an author. He still wrote his autobiography and “On the position on the meridional line and inquiry into the supposed circumnavigation of Africa by the Ancients“. In the spring of 1793 he returned to England to assist his grieving friend Lord Sheffield after he had lost his wife. Sheffield himself was sick and disturbed by the mood of the revolutionary France spreading from Lausanne, which saw the French army advancing dangerously towards Switzerland. His work was now widespread and known throughout Europe, and Gibbon was honoured many times until his death. Attempts to surgically repair his long-suffering hydrocele failed. In winter his condition deteriorated massively. Gibbon, who had remained unmarried, died on 16 January 1794.

Why Study the writings of Edward Gibbon with Jeremy Gregory, [9]

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