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Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)


English historian and scholar, the supreme historian of the Enlightenment, who is best-known as the author of the monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). This register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind is often considered the greatest historical work written in English. His first works Gibbon wrote in French.

"It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars 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." (in Memoirs of My Life, 1796)

Edward Gibbon was born in Putney, South London, into a prosperous family. His father was a wealthy Tory member of Parliament, who went into seclusion and left his son to the care of an aunt. Gibbon was a sickly child and his education at Westminster and at Magdalen College, Oxford, was 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: he was expelled for turning to Roman Catholicism – a decision which was directed against one of his intellectually lazy Anglican college tutors. In 1753 Gibbon was sent by his father to Lausanne, Switzerland. During this period of his life, he met Voltaire, who had settled in 1755 near Geneva. At Fernay, Gibbon saw Voltaire acting in the role of Tartar Conqueror, "with a hollow broken voice, and making love to a very ugly niece of about fifty", as he said in a letter.

Gibbon boarded with a Calvinist pastor and scholar, who was very demanding in his teaching, and had rejoined the Anglican fold. While in Lausanne Gibbon fell in love with Suzanne Curchod, who eventually married Jacques Necker, a banker. Their relationship was ended by his father, and Gibbon remained unmarried for the rest of his life. Suzanne became the mother of the famous writer and early champion of women's rights, Madame de Staël.

From 1759 to 1762 Gibbon hold a commission in the Hampshire militia, reaching the rank of colonel. Before 1763 Gibbon had considered various subjects as worthy of the type of philosophical analysis that he wished to apply to history, including the life of Sir Walter Raleigh, the history of Switzerland. Eventually he abandoned these ideas because thought that he had nothing original to say about Elizabethan politics and he could not read German. After reading the first chapters of The History and the Liberty of the Swiss, written in French, to a literary society in London, Gibbon was so depressed of the criticism he received, that he threw the sheets to the flame.

In 1764 he visited Rome and was inspired to write the history of the city from times of Marcus Aurelius to the year 1453. After his father died Gibbon found himself in some difficulties, but he was able to settle in London to proceed with his great plan. The first volume appeared in 1776, with a certain amount of public reaction to Gibbon's ironical treatment of the rise of Christianity and the actions of early church fathers. David Hume wrote admiringly, "You have the courage to despise the clamour of bigots."

Gibbon examined religion as a social phenomenon – without giving it a special sanctity. However, Gibbon saw that in one aspect Christianity had a central role in the whole drama, namely in the fall of the empire: "... the church and even the state were distracted by religious 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 their country."

Between 1774 and 1783 Gibbon sat in the House of Commons, and became a lord commissioner of trade and plantations, partly because he was considered a nuisance as a politician. In 1774 he was elected to Dr Johnson's Club. From 1783 Gibbon spent much of his time in Lausanne and in England with Lord Sheffield (John Baker Holroy) in his Sussex and London houses. Hating physical exercise, he seldom went outside even when the weather was nice. When Gibbon had finished the second volume of The Decline and Fall, he presented it to the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, who said to him: "Another damn'd thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"

After his magnum opus Gibbon wrote a memoir. It went through many drafts and was not published during his lifetime. Lord Sheffield later prepared Gibbon's Memoirs of my Life and Writings (1796) and The Miscellaneous Works (1796) for publication. Gibbon died on on January 16, 1794, in London. A swelling in his left testicle, which Gibbon described as "almost as big as a small child," had afflicted him for many years, and eventually caused his death.

"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 valour. 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 the earth."

The last three volumes of The Decline and Fall were published in 1788. The book was a bestseller, and offered the reading public a vivid narrative of the past instead of an antiquarian picture. "If he had been more vulnerable to the glittering abstractions of his age he might have become an English Montesquieu, writing for scholars of political thought. If he had sought historical laws or cycles or found some single cause, he might have been bedside reading no more than Vico or Marx." (Daniel J. Boorstin in The Creators, 1992) Gibbon, who did not much value contemporary historians, developed his own approach and adopted influences from such diverse sources as the "Protestant Enlightenment," Parisian philosophers, and the Scottish Enlightenment.

Like Voltaire, Gibbon has been characterized as a Deist and he had little appreciation of the metaphysical side of religion. (Later Gibbon wrote on Voltaire: "In his way, Voltaire was a bigot, an intolerant bigot.") Although Gibbon's conclusions have been modified, his masterful historical perspective and literary style have secured his place as the forerunner of English historiographers. On the other hand, his personal habits were peculiar – according to some contemporary comment Gibbon was so filthy that one could not stand close to him. Gibbon's devotion to routine was also a source of jokes – this harmless personal trait he shared with, amongst others, the German philosopher Kant and the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. When Benjamin Franklin was visiting England he wanted to see Gibbon, who refused to meet him. It did not diminish Franklin's admiration of him and he promised to help Gibbon when he came to write the history of the decline and fall of the British Empire.

In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) Gibbon himself acknowledged his debt to Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), Bernard Montfasucon (1655-1741), and Ludovico Muratori (1672-1741) for their collections of facts and documents. The work covers more than 13 centuries from the 2nd century AD to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The first volume begins with a survey of the Roman empire in the age of the Antonines (AD 138-80), concluding with the notorious chapters on Christianity, which provoked the clergy. In the following volumes Gibbon examined the encroachment of the Teutonic tribes who eventually held the Western Empire in fee, the rise of Islam, and the Crusades. Christianity is dealt with in detail. The Roman Empire is viewed as a single entity in undeviating decline from the ideals of political and intellectual freedom that had characterized the classical literature Gibbon had read. His conclusion was, the material decay of Rome was the effect and symbol of moral decadence. "Many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant." With powerful narrative, fluid prose, and persuasive arguments the work has a remained a classic in historical literature.

For further reading: a standard biography by D.M. Low (1937); Gibbon and His World by Sir Gavin De Beer (1967); Edward Gibbon: A Reference Guide by Patricia B. Craddick, Margaret Craddock Huff (1987); Gibbon's Solitude by W.B. Carnochan (1987); Edward Gibbon: Making History by Roy Porter (1988); The Creators by Daniel J. Boorstin (1992); Edward Gibbon and Empire, ed. Rosamond McKitterick and Roland Quinault (1997); Melancholy Duty by Stephen Paul Foster (1997); Impartial Stranger by Peter Cosgrove (1999); Barbarism and Religion: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764 by J. G. A. Pocock (2000); Gibbon and the 'Watchmen of the Holy City': The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815 by David Womersley (2002).  See also: Samuel Johnson: Gibbon was also a member of the circle that was formed around him. "Gibbon is not merely a master of the pageant and the story; he is also the critic and the historian of the mind." (Virginia Woolf).

Selected works:

  • Essai sur l’Étude de la Littérature, 1761 - An Essay on the Study of Literature (London: T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt, 1764)
  • Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande-Bretagne, 1768-69 (2 vols., with Georges Deyverdun)
  • Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of 'The Aeneid', 1770
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1788 (6 vols., standard edition by J.B. Bury; 7 vols., 1896-1900, rev. 1909-14, 1926-29)
  • Mémoire Justificatif pour servir de Réponse à l'Exposé, etc. de la Cour de France, 1779
  • A Vindication of some passages in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1779
  • Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esq., 1796 (2 vols., ed. John Lord Sheffield)
  • Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon,, 1896 (ed. John Murray)
  • The Private Letters of Edward Gibbon, 1896 (ed. Rowland E. Prothero)
  • The Works of Edward Gibbon, 1907 (15 vols., ed. John Murray, J.B. Bury, et al.)
  • Gibbon's Journal to 28 January 1763, 1929 (ed. D.M. Low)
  • The Letters of Edward Gibbon, 1956 (ed. J.E. Norton)
  • Gibbon's Journey from Geneva to Rome, 1961 (ed. G.A. Bonnard)
  • Memoirs of the Life, 1966 (ed. G.A. Bonnard)
  • The English Essays of Edward Gibbon, 1973 (ed. P.B. Craddock)

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