Edward Gibbon


Edward Gibbon was born 0n May 8th 1737, in Putney, Surrey in England. Gibbon was an English rationalist historian and scholar whose best known work is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written between 1776-88. This work was a narrative account of the Roman empire stretching from 2nd Century AD to the end of Constantinople’s reign in 1453. Edward’s father (also known as Edward Snr) was a Whig Member of Parliament, and his mother, Judith, was of German descent. Gibbon was one of seven siblings, but unfortunately the only one to survive after all contracted diseases. When returning to London in late 1789 he oversaw the publication of his book with Lord Sheffield, afterwards leaving for Lausanne. Gibbon died on January 16th 1794 in London while comforting the grieving Lord Sheffield after the death of his wife Lady Sheffield. 

Education & Life Events

Gibbon developed a passion for reading after attending a day school in Putney, and in 1746 attended Kingston grammar school. Here he learnt Latin syntax, and in 1749 was admitted into Westminster School. In 1750, after travelling to Bath and Winchester he was under tuition, and his father regularly took him to country house libraries. Gibbon was admitted into Magdalen College, Oxford by his father in 1752, but was disbanded after turning to Catholicism, and exiled to Lausanne where he lodged with Calvinist, Rev. Daniel Pavillard. Pavillard taught him Latin and French literature, mathematics and logic. In 1761 Edward proposed to Suzanne Curchod but broke off the engagement under order of his father. From 1760-62 he was on captain defence duties with the Hampshire militia. Gibbon left England in 1763, spending time in Paris and Lausanne. Eventually in 1764 Gibbon went to Rome, where he studied antiquities and, while observing the ruins of the capital, was inspired to write about the decline and fall of the city. 

Noted Works

Edward’s first essay, An Essay on the Study of Literature, written in 1761 built on Pavillard’s interpretations of Latin and French literature. After Gibbon went to Rome, he wrote pieces on the liberty of the Swiss that weren’t completed. In 1768-69 himself and friend, Deyverdun published two volumes of Memoires litteraires de la Grande Bretagne, followed in 1770 by Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of Aeneid.

It was only after the death of his father that Gibbon finally embarked on what was to be his seminal work on the Roman empire. The first volume of Decline and Fall was published Feb 17th 1776 and was successful, although controversial because of its irony directed towards Christianity. It was his belief that religions and the other worldly should be treated as merely part of human experience, and argued that the rise of Christianity broke the empire. Such thinking was characteristic of aspects of the Enlightenment, which began to challenge normative ideas of the place of Christianity in society. Indeed, Gibbon transformed the discipline of history in Western Europe, by not making history something that referred back to Eusebius (whom was linked to God) but to secular thinking as history is today.

The Decline and Fall’s first half covers a period of 300 years to the end of empire in the West, around the time AD 480. In the second half, 1,000 years are looked at. Decline and Fall, taking in as it did the fall of Constantinople in 1473, grew into a comprehensive piece of historical work. It also includes sections on Justinian, Trinitarian controversies, rise of Islam, and the history of Roman law with stories of the last seize and capture of Constantinople. Finally the chapters describe medieval and Renaissance Rome, which gives hope of recovery. 

Gibbon went on to write the next volumes, while receiving criticism from some and support from key Enlightenment historians David Hume and William Robertson. Much criticism resided in Gibbon’s religious attitude to the destruction of the empire, with some disputing his claims Christianity was at fault. Gibbon replied to such arguments against his beliefs, in ‘A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ 

Memoire justificatif, written in 1779, was a state paper replying to criticism of the British Governments policy in America. Also in 1781 he published his second and third volumes of his history, bringing it down to the end of the empire in the West. 

In 1782 Lord North’s government was no more, meaning Gibbon’s commission was over and he lost income. He left England, joining Deyverdun in Laussane. Here he wrote three more volumes, finishing in 1787 and returned to England with it for it to be published in 1788.  

After returning to Lausanne again, Gibbon wrote memoirs until he travelled to England and died in 1793 after consoling Lord Sheffield and attending the hearing of Lady Sheffield’s death.  

Reputation & Impact

Overall history has changed dramatically from Gibbon’s work. Scientific examination of primary sources, including archaeology is important now, something unused by Gibbon. Despite this, Gibbon’s work was systematic, and employed an intellectual writing style with diverse opinions on Christianity that made him respected by many. 

Gibbon’s early work is over-shadowed and neglected in contrast to Decline and Fall. Recent scholarly work has centre around literary analysis, as his work contains irony and poetic sentence structures which sets it apart from modern historical writing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Gibbon’s style as, ‘detestable while argued his writing was vulgar.

Roy Porter argued that Gibson’s work is too old fashioned and heavy for modern readers, however for readers at the time, with high influences of religion and classical education it may been successful. 

Bibliography/Reading List

Works on Edward Gibbon

Beer, Gavin de. Gibbon and His World. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968)

Britannica, Edward Gibbon. Accessed on 9th February. Found at, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-Gibbon

Craddock, Patricia B. The English Essays of Edward Gibbon. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.)

Edward Gibbon. Enotes. Accessed at, http://www.enotes.com/topics/edward-gibbon/critical-essays

Gibbon, Edward, “The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: V.1,” ed. By David Womersley (Penguin Classics, 1996) 

History Today, Tom Holland, ‘Edward Gibbon and he rose again,’ Accessed on 9th February. Found at, http://www.historytoday.com/tom-holland/edward-gibbon-and-he-rose-again

Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Gibbon's Contributions to Historical Method," in Momigliano, Studies in Historiography (New York: Garland Pubs., 1985) [1966], 40-55

Norton, J.E., ed. A Bibliography of the Works of Edward Gibbon. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970

Porter, Roy. Gibbon: Making History (Historians on Historians). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989 

Trevor-Roper, H.R. "Gibbon: Greatest of Historians," Journal of the History of Ideas 1(Winter, 1968): 109-116.

Works on the ‘Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’

Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Newark, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1999)

Davis, Henry Edwards. An Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of Mr. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (London: J. Dodsley, 1778)

Trevor-Roper, H.R. "Gibbon and the Publication of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-

1976." Journal of Law and Economics 19 (3)(Oct. 1976): 489–505

Wootton, David. "Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall," History and Theory 33 (4)(Dec., 1994): 77–105.