Edward Gibbon: giving voice to the Enlightenment view of history (part 1)

July 22, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writers, writing.

As a 27-year-old with scholarly ambitions and wondering what to do with his life, Edward Gibbon visited Rome on his grand tour of Europe and was struck by what he saw. The magnificent ruins seared an image and an idea into his brain. Rome had once been the most powerful political entity on earth. Now it was simply rubble.

Gibbon later wrote:

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.

Those who have studied Gibbon’s life dismiss this story as Gibbon’s own “creation myth.” That may or may not be.

But what a creation it was.

The first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, and the public had never seen or read anything like it before. It was a work of extraordinary scholarship and also extraordinary literary merit. Though it was a history of Rome, the book dealt with a timely topic that was much on the British mind: the life and death of empires.

Great Britain’s most prized colonial possessions, the American colonies, were in rebellion and were about to declare their independence. Was is the British Empire to suffer the same fate as Rome? Would other colonies such as India or South Africa follow the American example?

The reading public eagerly bought and read Gibbon’s work. The first volume went through three editions, and Gibbon’s profit from that book alone was more than £1,000. Gibbon’s conclusions offered little comfort to the British imperialists. Empires are human constructs that inevitably fall apart. The reasons are many and varied.

Beyond the immediate question of what might happen to the British empire, Gibbon’s scholarship exceeded anything that any other British intellect had accomplished. Scholarship of this type — delving deeply into sources, weighing evidence, and reaching conclusions not influenced by the Church or theology — was emerging during these years of the Enlightenment. Nothing as yet, however, had the sweep and depth of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Gibbon’s volumes gave full voice to this Enlightenment approach to history.

Gibbon had spent years reading all of the sources available about Rome’s decline and fall. Many of these sources were in Latin and Greek, two languages that were familiar to him as well as his being fluent in French. His writing style was eloquent and nuanced. Right in front of the reader, he evaluated sources, tested the logic of theories, and made judgments about the people and events that were his subjects. Sometimes he was funny, ironic, sly, occasionally sarcastic, and provocative.

Gibbon was born in 1737 into a well-to-do family in Putney. He was a sickly child and spent most of his early years reading. His favorite books were about the history of the world.

When he was 16, he was sent to Oxford but receive very little instruction there. Instead, left on his own, he continued to read and to contemplate difficult historical and theological questions. He was still 16 when he converted to Catholicism, which was disastrous for an Englishman at the time. His father rushed him off to Switzerland and put him under the guidance of a Calvinist tutor. Gibbon soon re-converted to Protestantism, but the elements of his personal faith were always obscure.

Gibbon spent five years in Switzerland oh, and by the time he left oh, he was not only a Protestant again oh, but he also had done a wide amount of reading and it become fluent in French. He also returned to England with the idea of devoting his life to scholarship. More immediately, he served for a time in Parliament and also did a stint a military duty in a local militia.

When he was 25, Gibbon left on a grand tour of Europe, something many young people from well-to-do families did during that age. The tour lasted more than two years and ended with his visit to Rome.

Next week: What Gibbon had to say about the rise of Christianity and the part that played in the decline of Rome




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