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Edward Gibbon ~ Historian
Decline & Fall of
the Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon biography
Historian of the Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon was born in Putney, (now part of London), in 1737 as the first child of Edward Gibbon, a Member of Parliament, and his wife. Seven children in all were born into the family and young Edward Gibbon, although a notably sickly child, was luckier than his siblings in that he was the only one to survive childhood.

Due to his poor health Gibbon had almost no formal schooling. Following his mother's death in 1747 his father chose to live a retired life in Hampshire leaving young Edward Gibbon to the care of an aunt and grandfather in Putney.
In this household Gibbon had a free access to his grandfather's library where, with his aunt's encouragement, he became an avid reader - an initial "indiscriminate appetite subsided by degrees in the historic line." His health continued to prevent his being consistently educated in any formal educational establishment obliging the family to arrange for private tutoring until, at age 15, his health suddenly improved and his father was thus able to enter him into Magdalen College at the University of Oxford.

Given his unconventional early life Gibbon traveled to Oxford at this time "with a stock of erudition which might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy might have been ashamed." Gibbon came to hate Oxford, he did not like his tutors and they did not like him - he was afterwards to write of the fourteen months he spent there as being "the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life."

Whilst at Oxford Gibbon incurred his father's displeasure in June 1753 by adopting Roman Catholicism, (such conversion also, in those times, automatically disbarred him from further attendance at Oxford University!), with the result that Gibbon was sent to Lausanne where he was to stay in the home of a Calvinist minister.
Gibbon senior intended that, through this arrangement, his son would come to abjure his recent conversion in faith.
Gibbon spent some five years in Switzerland, becoming thoroughly fluent in the French language to the extent that it displaced English as the language in which he thought. His father's intention that Gibbon be reconciled to Protestantism was fulfilled by Christmas of 1754.

During these years Gibbon studied Greek, Latin, Logic, and Mathematics; he met Voltaire in 1757 and in that same year fell in love with Suzanne Curchot, a daughter of a materially poor minister of religion. His father, however, objected to the match and Gibbon wrote "Without his consent I was destitute and helpless. I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." (Suzanne Curchot subsequently married a man named Jacques Necker who later became a prominent banker and rose to be chief minister in the French state. A daughter of this marriage was later, as Madame de Stäel, prominent in European Belles Lettres and politics).

Following this return to England Gibbon was introduced to a literary circle supported by Lady Hervey and, in 1761, published an essay entitled Essai sur l'étude de la littérature that he had begun in Lausanne in 1758. His father had encouraged this publication hoping that it would bring Gibbon to public notice but it seemed to have more impact in continental circles than in England - it was not translated into English until 1764 when it appeared as an "Essay on the Study of Literature."

From 1759 to 1762 Gibbon held a commission in the Hampshire militia, reaching the rank of colonel. By this time Gibbon had determined to devote his life to scholarship and writing. He returned to the continent spending some time in Paris in the circle of d'Alembert and Diderot, then spent about a year in the Lausanne area before traveling to Rome in April of 1764.
It was of a day in October of that year that Gibbon later wrote "as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind."

Although the idea for what eventually became Gibbon's celebrated History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had thus occurred to him in October 1764 it was to be several years in gestation. Gibbon returned to England in June 1765 and between other claims on his time, including some alternative literary projects, had not progressed his eventual masterwork much beyond the planning and initial research stages in 1770 when difficult circumstances associated with his father's death precipitated further causes of delay.
It was only by late 1772 that Gibbon's project really seems to have been under way. Gibbon records that after a slow and hesitant start, that was complicated by a decision having to be made as to overall tone to be adopted, he proceeded more swiftly and without much in the way of alteration or correction.

In 1774 Gibbon was invited to join Dr Johnson's Club where he associated with many of the leading figures of London's literary scene. Johnson's friend and biographer, Boswell, has descibed Gibbon as "an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow" that being said Gibbon did have a reputation for not caring overmuch about cleanliness.

The first volume of Decline and Fall was published in February 1776 and met with a prompt and considerable acclaim. Sales were such that this volume actually went into three editions. Some serious controversy arose from objections to Gibbon's rather cynical and ironical treatment of the early growth of Christianity in its pages.

Gibbon was himself something of a Deist rather than a traditional Christian and, from an historian's perspective, believed that religious dissentions had greatly tended to weaken the Empire. The following sentiments about the Christian religion's effect on the Roman Empire appear after something of an eulogisation of Roman statesmen and Roman ethics in earlier days when it had been, in Christian eyes, a pagan Empire:-
"The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings."

"... life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister. A large portion of public and private wealth were consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion, and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny, and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of the country."
The above passages are open to being contrasted with a previous, pagan, situation where "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher; as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful." Gibbon suggests that "Toleration produced not only a mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."

Two further volumes of the Decline and Fall, which bring to an end the period of the Western Empire (to about AD 480) appeared in April 1781 and these also sold well.
Gibbon summed up the Fall of the Roman Empire in the west as "the triumph of barbarism and religion!!!"

From 1774 Gibbon was a notably inactive (he did not speak even once) member of Parliament and also held other official duties and posts until Gibbon lost a remunerative post at the Board of Trade in events that were associated with the fall of Lord North's ministry. Gibbon, having also lost his seat, retired from politics and thereafter considered that, by sitting in Parliament, he had benefitted from "a school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of an historian."

In 1783 Gibbon sold up his possessions, with the exception of his library, and journeyed to take up residence in Lausanne where he lived in a substantial house with a charming garden and a wonderful view belonging to his close friend George Deyverdun. It was in this setting that Gibbon worked upon further volumes of Decline and Fall such that the last three volumes, treating with the final thousand or so years of the empire in the East, were completed by late June of 1787.
Gibbon wrote of the day of this completion
"I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious."

For Gibbon it had always been reading and study that:-
"supplied each day, each hour, with a perpetual source of independent and rational pleasure,"

Although these last three volumes volumes were not all completed as late as June of 1787, (volume four had been actually completed in 1784 and volume five in 1786) it was not until later in 1787, after Gibbon traveled to England with them in manuscript form, that arrangements were made for their publication.
This took place in April 1788 and these last volumes enjoyed a success similar to that enjoyed by the earlier volumes.

Gibbon returned to Lausanne, where he was greatly affected in July 1789 by the death of George Deyverdun - it transpired that Gibbon was a beneficiary of Deyverdun's will to the effect that Gibbon was enabled to continue to reside in Deyverdun's house in Lausanne.
In 1789 Gibbon wrote his Memoirs of My Life and Writings. He returned to England in 1793 suffering from several medical complaints and was advised to undergo a number of operations later that same year - it happened that Gibbon's health continued to fail with the result that he died in January 1794.

Gibbon's Memoirs of My Life and Writings and also his Miscellaneous Works were published in 1796

The Decline and Fall
of the Roman Empire

The famous opening lines of Gibbon's eventual million and a half word masterwork read:-

"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of th earth."
Gibbon's Decline and Fall is recognised as being written in a brilliant style and with a broad and tolerant grasp of the associated historical material.

Gibbon asserted that he had attempted, where possible, to access original source material rather than to rely on secondary sources. As he himself wrote "I have always endeavoured to draw from the fountainhead; my curiousity, 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."

Suzanne Curchot-Necker, who long continued as a friend of, and correspondent with, Gibbon, and who was herself familiar with many of the classics, expressed the opinion that the Roman historian Tacitus was the "model and perhaps the source" of much that went into Gibbon's masterwork.
Any emulation of a classical author, and any restatement of excerpts from the classics, tended to be welcomed by the educated public of the day who were themselves often well versed in the classics and could experience a certain pleasure in seeing familiar passages, that they had possibly been obliged to learn by heart, presented within an overall historical context.

Scholars tend to see the selection of Tacitus as a model as effectively implying an explicit rejection of a Christian world view by Gibbon as author. It is also seen as something of an identification with the world view of Tacitus, was particularly known for his cool, dis-enchanted, and penetrating, assessments of men and affairs.
Gibbon was a thoroughgoing scholar of the classics and considered that in these times had lived men of "sense and spirit most congenial to my own" - and saw in Tacitus a model of a "philosophic historian" who transcended prejudices and was able to invest his writings with a true critical spirit.

Gibbon is thought have reason to be grateful to Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), Bernard Montfasucon (1655-1741), and Ludovico Muratori (1672-1741) for their collections of facts and documents. He is also regarded as having himself accepted the "accepted wisdoms" of the day regarding disputed dates and the way in which certain texts should properly be read.

That being said more recent and more extensive scholarship involving, in cases, familiarity with languages with which Gibbon was not familiar has tended to undermine the authority of some of the sources upon which Gibbon's own historical efforts relied.

Gibbon's treatment of the eastern Empire after 460 A.D. is seen as being set out in line with Gibbon's own view that its history was "a uniform tale of weakness and misery." This view is today seen as being somewhat unfair - whilst it is true that the eastern Empire was frequently under assault from any of a number of adversaries in nonetheless functioned for much of its thousand year existence as a focus of Greek civilisation and as a bulwark which effectively lessened the likelyhood of such adversaries being able to impact more directly upon western Europe.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

Several pages on our site, treating with aspects of nineteenth century European history, have been favored with some degree of popularity, rank highly in some search engines, and receive many visitors.
The preparation of these pages was greatly influenced by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.

More insights into this "Philosophy of History" as recommended by Emerson, and the history pages so-prepared, are available to those sufficiently interested, from the links further down this page:-