Edward Gibbon (1737-94) and his important work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was a historian, writer and Member of Parliament. He was born in Putney. He was a sickly child and his education at Westminster School and at Magdalen College, Oxford, was irregular and by his own account ‘unprofitable’. He became a Catholic convert at the age of 16 and was sent to Lausanne by his father, where he was reconverted to Protestantism, subsequently losing faith altogether. There he continued to read voraciously, as he had done since boyhood, his ‘blind and boyish taste for exotic history maturing into serious study of French and Latin classics. He also became attached to Suzanne Curchod (later Madame Necker), but his father persuaded him to break off the engagement and he returned to England in 1758.

In 1761 he published his Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, of which an English version appeared in 1764. From 1759 he served as a captain in the Hampshire Militia until he left again for the Continent in 1763.

His second work, Memoires Litteraires de la Grande Bretagne, was a two-volume set that described the literary and social conditions of England at the time, such as Lord Lyttelton’s History of Henry II and Nathaniel Lardner’s The Credibility of the Gospel History.

It was in Italy he formed the plan of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He settled in London in 1772, and entered Parliament in 1774, voting steadily for Lord North and receiving a minor post in return; he rarely spoke in debates. He was elected to Johnson’s Club in 1774; he seems not to have been close to Johnson personally, but Edmond Malone valued his companionship. James Boswell always resented the ‘artful infidelity’ of the History and was hostile to its author. In 1776 the first volume appeared and was generally favourably received, especially by figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, but Gibbon’s ruthlessly sceptical chapters on the growth of Christianity provoked much criticism, to which he replied in 1779 in A Vindication of Some Passages in the XVth and XVIth Chapters. The second and third volumes appeared in 1781, but were less warmly received; he himself suspected he had become prolix through ‘superfluous diligence’. He retired to Lausanne in 1783 to complete the work; the last three volumes appeared in 1788. He returned to England and lived in the home of his friend the Earl of Sheffield, who put together Gibbon’s remarkable Memoirs from various drafts, publishing them in 1796 with his Miscellaneous Works.

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