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Author of the Week
Current Week: March 13, 2000
Source: Edward Gibbon, Historian of the Roman Empire
Gibbon was born at Putney, Surrey, on 27th April, 1737, according to the Julian
calendar, which England was still using then. When the Gregorian calendar was finally
adopted in 1752, he celebrated his birthday on 8th May. Born into a family of rather
good fortune, he was the oldest son of Edward Gibbon Sr. and Judith Porten, who died
in 1747 of her seventh pregnancy. Apart from losing his mother at a tender age, Gibbon
also witnessed the successive deaths of his siblings, for it was then common for
children not to survive their infancy.
Although he survived his infancy, he was weak and always sick during his childhood,
so much so that he often had to interrupt his schooling to convalesce at home. There,
the future scholar made much use of the well-stored library, eagerly reading anything
which he could lay hands on. And when his father sent him, at age 15, to Magdalen
College, Oxford, he "arrived with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled
a doctor" (Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life, B. Radice, ed. , p. 73).
The faculty members at 18th Century Oxford were all clergymen who taught and took
for granted the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church. But Gibbon, precocious
and forever inquisitive, frequently questioned his teachers on religious matters.
To him, both history and the Bible seemed to justify not the Anglican but the Roman
Church in its claim to a divine origin, and having read some controversial books
and talked to a Roman Catholic student, he was converted to Catholicism, an act which
was then technically considered high treason.
Scandalized by his son's conversion, Gibbon Sr. sent the boy into exile in Lausanne,
Switzerland, to be doctrinally corrected by a Calvinist minister, Daniel Pavilliard.
There the boy stayed for almost five years (June 1753 - May 1758), during which he
not only renounced his Catholicism as expected, but also mastered his French and
Latin, felt and enjoyed the breezes of French rationalism that had blown into Lausanne,
met Voltaire, read voraciously, participated actively in social gatherings, and fell
in love with a beautiful and equally intelligent lass, Suzanne Curchord. It was the
first and last love affair in his life, and it ended regretfully, since his father
"would not hear of this strange alliance." Many years later, Gibbon summed
up this adolescent misfortune in two well-balanced and oft-quoted sentences: "I
sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son" (Ibid., pp. 105 and 208).
Gibbon returned to England on 5th May, 1758, only three days short of reaching
majority. Between mid 1760 and late 1762, he and his father joined the Militia formed
by the English gentry to prepare against the danger of French invasion during the
Seven Years' War. When his term of service expired, Gibbon left home and began his
22-month Grand Tour of Europe, spending the first five months, from January to May
1763, in Paris. He next stayed in Lausanne for the succeeding eleven months, then
crossed the Alps and visited the various cities of Italy (Turin, Milan, Florence,
Pisa, etc.). Finally he arrived at Rome in early October 1764.
"It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764," Gibbon later recalled,
"as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars
were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter [presently the Church of Santa Maria
in Aracoeli], that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first
started to my mind.... But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the
City, rather than of the Empire" (Ibid., pp. 16 and 143). Modern scholars
seriously doubt the authenticity of this account. Perhaps the scene at the Temple
of Jupiter is another myth, just like the one concerning Newton and according to
which an apple hit him on the head and inspired him to formulate his Theory of Gravitation?
Let us not worry; in any case, we can be quite sure that strong emotions agitated
Gibbon's mind when he first set foot in Rome and saw for the first time those ancient
ruins of which he had previously read so much.
Almost nine years elapsed between Gibbon's Roman journey and his commencement
to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first volume was eventually
published in 1776. In the political arena, 1776 was of course the year of the American
Revolution. But in the intellectual world, that year also saw the publication of
another great book, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. It was a year of wonder
The second and third volumes of his history were both published in 1781, and as well
received as the former. In the same year, Gibbon was elected member for the borough
of Lymington in Hampshire, soon after the meeting of the new parliament. But the
government under the Prime Minister Lord North was now falling. Reorganisation ensued
and the Board of Trade was abolished. With it our author "was stripped of a
convenient salary after [he] had enjoyed it about three years" (Ibid.,
p. 164). He remained faithful to Lord North's coalition from motives of gratitude,
but was never reinstated in any employment. There is, however, no reason to believe
that he would have accepted any lucrative post, if its duties had trenched upon the
time now devoted to his studies. Given these conditions, he contemplated moving to
Lausanne, the city from which he had derived so much comfort and instruction in his
youth, and the morals and manners of which agreed so much with his love of ease and
independence. He wrote to George Deyverdun, a friend of his who now settled there.
Deyverdun wrote back and welcomed him to Switzerland. In September, 1783, Gibbon,
having disposed of all his effects except his library, left England and arrived at
Lausanne after an absence of nearly twenty years. There, in a comfortable house,
he wrote the last three volumes of his Decline and Fall, which were all published
on 8th May, 1788, to coincide with his 51st birthday.
The French Revolution of 1789 interfered with Gibbon's tranquillity in Switzerland.
In January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined and Revolutionary sentiments were voiced
in the Swiss cantons. Partly to escape the French Revolutionary army which was approaching
Lausanne, partly to seek English surgery on his swelling scrotum, and partly to comfort
his friend Lord Sheffield on the death of his wife, Gibbon left for England on 9th
May, 1793. Later the same year, he underwent a number of surgeries, but in January
1794, his condition worsened rapidly. He died in his sleep on the 16th of that month,
at the age of 56.
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