“It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted 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”
So Edward Gibbon recounted the circumstances in which he came to write his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Other commitments meant it was another four years before he started writing in earnest, and it was to be 1776 before the first of six volumes was published, the final volume emerging from the presses in 1788.
Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton
He was one of seven children, and the only one to survive infancy. Born in Putney to a family which was originally well-to-do but which had lost a fortune with the stock-market crash of 1720 (shades of Richard Hall’s own family misfortunes in the same South Sea Bubble) he had a weak constitution. As he himself put it, he was “a puny child, neglected by my Mother, starved by my nurse.” Life took a turn for the better when his mother died, because he was put under the wing of his beloved “Aunt Kitty,” Catherine Porten, who ran a boarding house at Westminster School and who fostered in the young boy a love of reading and intellectual challenge. He went up to Magdalen College Oxford where, to his father’s immense rage, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1753. He was taken out of university and packed off to Lausanne in Switzerland where, as he put it, “The various articles of the Romish creed disappeared like a dream.” He reconverted to the Protestant faith on Christmas Day 1754.
By then the family fortunes had recovered. He stayed on in Switzerland, and travelled around Europe on the Grand Tour, for a number of years studying the classics and reading voraciously. He returned to England in 1765 and on his father’s death in 1770 found himself sufficiently well-off to move to Bentinck Street in London and to join London society. In 1774 he became a freemason of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, and in the same year was elected Member of Parliament for Liskeard – a post he filled with total lack of effort and effect since he was by now fully occupied in writing Decline and Fall.
The Blue Plaque at Bentinck Street
When the first volume came out it was a big success – bringing both fame and fortune to its author. He struggled on year after year to finish the great story, completing the writing process at Lausanne in June 1787. Thereafter, it was downhill all the way: a number of his close friends died and this coincided with a decline in his own health. He cut a sad and lonely figure, enduring much pain and discomfort. He had to face a number of operations, the last of which caused peritonitis which eventually led his death on 16th January 1794 aged 56.
Decline and Fall was a masterpiece because of the use of primary sources, and because of the research and analysis which went into it. He used footnotes extensively, often drawing parallels with contemporary events, frequently using wit and humour. He was meticulous with his citations and developed a style copied by others, including Winston Churchill.
Image courtesy of Abe Books
Gibbon’s style of writing makes it easy to read. Not everyone endorsed his views – particularly where he relegated the story of Christianity to a mere description of a historical phenomenon, rather than as a Divine event. Indeed he went further, suggesting that Christianity had itself weakened Rome, encouraging Romans to believe in a better life to come, rather than going out and doing ‘manly things’ to safeguard and expand the Empire. Because he criticized the Church the book was banned in some countries for a time.
Gibbon was a very quotable writer: these are some of the quotations I like:
Books are those faithful mirrors that reflect to our mind the minds of sages and heroes.
Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.
Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.
Fanaticism obliterates the feelings of humanity.
History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
I am indeed rich, since my income is superior to my expenses, and my expense is equal to my wishes.
I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect.
I was never less alone than when by myself.
Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule.
Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.
The laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular.
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.
The winds and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators. My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.
Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.
(This post first appeared on my Posterous site 15th October 2011)