Edward Gibbon

The English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Although superseded in part as history, this work is still read for its clarity, accuracy, and brilliant style. Gibbon's "Autobiography" is a classic of the genre.

Edward Gibbon was born May 8, 1737, in Putney. A sickly child, he had tutors and spent two brief intervals at school, but he owed most of his early education to his voracious reading. In April 1752 he was sent to Oxford, where he learned little. In his summer vacation he began his first book, a chronological inquiry called The Age of Sesostris, which he later destroyed. Back at Oxford, he found a new subject of inquiry and in June 1753 told his horrified father that he had become a Roman Catholic.

The elder Gibbon immediately sent his son to Lausanne in Protestant Switzerland. M. Daniel Pavilliard, a Calvinist minister, was Edward's tutor and reclaimed him for Protestantism. Gibbon remained in Switzerland until 1758, shortly before he came of age. There, at first with Pavilliard's help and later alone, he acquired his classical learning and developed his scholarly bent. He also learned French thoroughly, made some lifelong friends, and fell in love. The French and the friends endured, but the romance foundered. Neither parent would permit his child to settle permanently in another country. Without parental aid there was no money, and Gibbon puts it, "I sighed as a lover; I obeyed as a son."


Student, Soldier, Traveler

In 1758 Gibbon's father settled a small income on him in exchange for his help in ending the entail on their estates. To his surprise, Gibbon found his stepmother kind and friendly, so he spent much of his time with his father and stepmother. Both Gibbons were officers of the Hampshire militia, which was embodied in May 1760. Gibbon's militia duties prevented his devoting all his time to scholarship, but he published (July 1761) an Essay on the Study of Literature, written in French, and considered possible historical subjects.

Earlier in 1761, at his father's request, Gibbon made an unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament. In December 1762 his active service with the militia ended, and in January 1763 he began a tour of the Continent. Reaching Rome in October 1764, he there first thought of writing his history. But he did not yet begin it.

Gibbon returned to England in 1765, where he continued his studies, but his only publications were two volumes of a French literary journal, edited with his friend G. Deyverdun, Mémoires littéraires de la Grande-Bretagne (1768 and 1769) and an attack on Warburton's interpretation of the sixth book of the Aeneid. He began a history of the Swiss republics in French (1767), which he abandoned. David Hume, who read this work, urged him to write history, but in English. By this time Gibbon may already have begun preliminary work for the Decline and Fall, but he was preoccupied with domestic matters; his father died in November 1770.


Parliament and History

In 1772, having straightened out some of the tangles in his father's finances, Gibbon settled in London with his sources comfortably around him in an extensive library. He joined the famous Literary Club and became a member of Parliament in 1774, and in February 1776 he published the first volume of his Decline and Fall. The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters seemed so devastating an account of the early Christian Church that attackers hurried into print. Gibbon ignored them until a rash young man named Davis added plagiarism and the falsification of evidence to the charges against Gibbon. Gibbon's superb Vindication (1779) can be read with delight by those who know nothing about either the history or Davis's attack; in passing, Gibbon answered his other critics.

After a brief visit to France (1777) Gibbon continued to work on his history, which was enjoying a large sale. In 1779 he was appointed a lord of trade, and he was a conscientious member of that Board and of Parliament, but his real work was writing; volumes 2 and 3 were published in 1781. Gibbon had lost his seat in Parliament in 1780 but was elected to another in 1781. A new ministry abolished the Board of Trade in 1782, and Gibbon left Parliament forever in 1784.

In September 1783 Gibbon returned to Lausanne to share a house with his old friend Deyverdun and to write the concluding volumes of his history. Much of volume 4 had been written before he left England, but its completion and volumes 5 and 6 occupied Gibbon until June 1787. He then returned to England to see the volumes through the press; they were issued on his fifty-first birthday. While in England, Gibbon had the pleasure of hearing R. B. Sheridan refer, in a famous Parliamentary speech, to Gibbon's "luminous pages," and he enjoyed public applause and the company of his English friends. Nevertheless, Lausanne was now his home and in 1788 he returned to Switzerland.


Last Years

Various literary projects, especially six attempts to write his own memoirs, occupied Gibbon upon his return. His happiness was seriously marred by Deyverdun's death (July 4, 1789), which left him, in his words, "alone in Paradise." The cause of his return to England (1793), however, was concern for his friend John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield, whose wife had died suddenly. A long-standing illness of Gibbon's own was temporarily relieved by surgery in November but Gibbon died on Jan. 16, 1794. After Gibbon's death Lord Sheffield compiled and published his friend's memoirs and other miscellaneous works (1796 and 1814).

Further Reading on Edward Gibbon

J. B. Bury edited the standard edition of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (7 vols., 1896-1902; 3 vols., 1946). The best edition of Gibbon's autobiography was edited by Georges A. Bonnard (1966). Bonnard also edited Gibbon's Journey from Geneva to Rome: His Journal from 20 April to 2 October 1764 (1961). Jane Elizabeth Norton, A Bibliography of the Works of Edward Gibbon (1940), and her edition of Gibbon's Letters (1956) are exemplary. The standard biography is David M. Low, Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794 (1937). An excellent short critical biography is George Malcolm Young, Gibbon (1948). Gibbon is praised in Harold L. Bond, The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon (1960). Rewarding critical studies are John B. Black, The Art of History: A Study of Four Great Historians of the Eighteenth Century (1926); Joseph W. Swain, Edward Gibbon the Historian (1966); and David P. Jordan, Gibbon and His Roman Empire (1971).