“Good historians,” Walpole wrote to one of them, Robertson, “are the most scarce of all writers, and no wonder! A good style is not very common; thorough information is still more rare; and if these meet, what a chance that impartiality should be added to them!”45 Gibbon did not quite meet the last test, but neither did Tacitus, who alone can stand with him among the supreme historians.
Gibbon wrote or began six autobiographies, which his literary executor, the first Earl of Sheffield, sewed into remarkably well-knit, but unduly purified, Memoirs (1796), sometimes known as his Autobiography. Also Gibbon kept a journal, begun in 1761 and continued under diverse titles till January 28, 1763. These prime sources for his development have been judged reasonably accurate, except for his pedigree.
He spent eight pages detailing a distinguished ancestry; cruel genealogists have taken it from him.46 His grandfather, Edward Gibbon I, was among those directors of the South Sea Company who were arrested for malfeasance after that “Bubble” exploded (1721). Of his estate, which he reckoned at £ 106,543, all was confiscated except £ 10,000; on this, the historian tells us, he “erected the edifice of a new fortune … not much inferior to the first.”47 He did not approve the marriage of his son, Edward II; hence his will left the major part of his wealth to his daughters, Catherine and Hester. Catherine’s daughter married Edward Eliot, who later bought a seat in Parliament for Edward Gibbon III; Hester became a rich devotee of William Law,48 and long vexed her nephew by her dilatory dying. Edward II was tutored by Law, passed through Winchester School and Cambridge, married Judith Porten, and had seven children, of whom only Edward III survived childhood.
He was born at Putney in Surrey, May 8, 1737. His mother died in 1747 of her seventh pregnancy. The father moved to a rural estate at Buriton, in Hampshire, fifty-eight miles from London, leaving the boy to be cared for by an aunt in the grandfather’s house in Putney. There the future scholar made much use of the well-stored library. His frequent illnesses interrupted his progress at Winchester School, but he occupied his convalescent days with eager reading, mostly of history, especially of the Near East. “Mahomet and his Saracens soon fixed my attention; … I was led from one book to another, till I had ranged round the circle of Oriental history. Before I was sixteen I had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks.”49Hence those fascinating chapters on Mohammed and the early caliphs, and the capture of Constantinople.
When, aged fifteen, he was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, “I arrived with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed.” He was too sickly to engage in sports, too shy to mingle at ease with other students. He would have been an apt pupil to a competent teacher. But, eager to learn, he found no professor eager to teach. Most of the faculty allowed their scholars to attend the lectures or not, and to spend half their time in “the temptations of idleness.”50 They indulged his “improprieties of conduct, ill-chosen company, late hours, and inconsiderate expense”—even excursions to Bath or London. However, he “was too young and bashful to enjoy, like a manly Oxonian in town, the taverns and bagnios of Covent Garden.”51
The faculty members were all clergymen, who taught and took for granted the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church. Gibbon was combative and questioned his teachers. It seemed to him that the Bible and history justified the Catholic Church in its claim to a divine origin. A Catholic acquaintance procured him some unsettling books, chiefly Bossuet’s Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine and the History of the Protestant Variations; these “achieved my conversion, and I surely fell by a noble hand.”52 With youthful precipitation he confessed to a Catholic priest, and was received into the Church of Rome (June 8, 1753).
He notified his father, and was not surprised to be summoned home, for Oxford accepted no Catholic students, and, according to Blackstone, for a Protestant to be converted to Roman Catholicism was “high treason.” The scandalized parent hastily banished the youth to Lausanne, and arranged to have him stay with a Calvinist pastor. There Edward lived at first in a mood of sullen obstinacy. But M. Pavilliard, though not indulgent, was kind, and the boy slowly warmed to him. Moreover, the pastor was a good classical scholar. Gibbon learned to read and write French as readily as English, and acquired an easy familiarity with Latin. Soon he was received into cultured families, whose manners and conversation were a better education than Oxford had given him.
As his French improved he felt the breezes of French rationalism blowing into Lausanne. When only twenty (1757) he attended with delight the plays presented by Voltaire in nearby Monrion. “I sometimes supped with the actors.”53 He met Voltaire, he began to read Voltaire, he read Voltaire’s recently published Essai sur l’histoire générale (Essai sur les moeurs). He pored over Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (1748), and the Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734) became the starting point of the Decline and Fall. In any case the influence of the French philosophers, added to his reading of Hume and the English deists, undermined Gibbon’s Christianity as well as his Catholicism, and M. Pavilliard’s victory for the Reformation was canceled by Gibbon’s secret acceptance of the Enlightenment.
It must have been exhilarating to meet, in the same year (1757), both Voltaire and Suzanne Curchod. She was twenty, blond, beautiful, gay, and lived with her Protestant parents it Crassy, four miles from Lausanne. She was the leading spirit in the Société du Printemps—a group of fifteen or twenty young women who met at one another’s homes, sang, danced, acted comedies, and flirted judiciously with young men; Gibbon assures us that “their virgin chastity was never sullied by the breath of scandal or suspicion.” Let him tell the story.
In her short visits to some relations at Lausanne the wit, the beauty, and erudition of Mlle. Curchod were the theme of universal applause. The report of such a prodigy awakened my curiosity; I saw and loved. I found her learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment, and elegant in manners. … Her fortune was humble, but her family was respectable. … She permitted me to make her two or three visits at her father’s house. I passed some happy days there, … and her parents honorably encouraged the connection.... I indulged my dream of felicity.54
Apparently they were formally engaged in November, 1757,55 but Suzanne’s consent was conditional on Gibbon’s promise to live in Switzerland.56
Meanwhile his father, confident that his son was now a good Protestant, bade him return home and .hear the plans that had been made for him. Gibbon was not eager to go back, for the father had taken a second wife; but he obeyed, and reached London May 5, 1758. “I soon discovered that my father would not hear of this strange alliance, and that without his consent I was myself destitute and helpless. After a painful struggle, I yielded to my fate: I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.”57 He conveyed this sigh to Suzanne by a letter of August 24. His father settled upon him an annuity of £ 300. His stepmother earned his gratitude by bearing no children, and soon he developed an affection for her. He spent a large part of his income on books, and “gradually formed a numerous and select library, the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life.”58
He had begun at Lausanne, he finished at Buriton (where he spent his summers), an Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, which was published in London in 1761 and in Geneva in 1762. Written in French, and dealing chiefly with French literature and philosophy, it made no stir in England, but was received on the Continent as a remarkable performance for a youth of twenty-two. It had some significant ideas on the writing of history. “The history of empires is that of the misery of man. The history of knowledge is that of his greatness and happiness.... A host of considerations makes the last order of study precious in the eyes of the philosopher.”59 Hence, “if philosophers are not always historians, it is at least desirable that historians should be philosophers.”60 In his MemoirsGibbon added: “From earliest youth I aspired to the character of an historian.”61 He cast about for a subject that would lend itself to philosophy and literature as well as to history. In the eighteenth century history made no pretense to be a science; rather, it longed to be an art. Gibbon felt that it was as a philosopher and an artist that he wished to write history: to deal with large subjects in a large perspective, and to give to the chaos of materials philosophical significance and artistic form.
Suddenly he was called from scholarship to action. During the Seven Years’ War England had been repeatedly in danger of invasion from France. To prepare against such an emergency the English gentry formed a militia for defense against invasion or rebellion. Only propertied persons could serve as officers. Gibbon Senior and Junior were commissioned as major and captain in June, 1759. Edward III joined his company in June, 1760, and stayed with it, on and off, till December, 1762, moving from camp to camp. He was ill suited to military life, and “tired of companions who had neither the knowledge of scholars nor the manners of gentlemen.”62 Amid his military career he found his scrotum expanding with fluid. “I was obliged today [September 6, 1762] to consult Mr. Andrews, a surgeon, in relation to a complaint I had neglected for some time; it was a swelling in my left testicle, which threatens being a serious affair.”63 He was bled and physicked, with only temporary relief. This “hydrocele” was to torment him until it caused his death.
On January 25, 1763, he set out upon a Continental tour. He stopped some time in Paris, where he met d’Alembert, Diderot, Raynal, and other luminaries of the Enlightenment. “Four days in a week I had a place … at the hospitable tables of Mesdames Geoffrin and Boccage, of the celebrated Helvétius, and of the Baron d’Olbach. … Fourteen weeks insensibly stole away; but had I been rich and independent I should have prolonged, and perhaps have fixed, my residence at Paris.”64
In May, 1763, he reached Lausanne, where he remained almost a year. He saw Mlle. Curchod, but, finding her well courted, he made no attempt to renew his friendship with her. In this second stay in Switzerland, he confesses, “the habits of the militia and the example of my countrymen betrayed me into some riotous intemperance; and before my departure I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by my better days.”65 He lost substantial sums in gambling. But he continued his studies in preparation for Italy, poring over ancient medals, coins, itineraries, and maps.
In April, 1764, he crossed the Alps. He spent three months in Florence, then went on to Rome. “In the daily labor of eighteen weeks” a Scotch expatriate guided him among the remains of classical antiquity. “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. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the Empire.”66 He came to think of that fateful disintegration as “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.”67 After visiting Naples, Padua, Venice, Vicenza, and Verona he returned through Turin and Lyons and Paris (“another happy fortnight”) to London (June 25, 1765).
Spending most of his time now at Buriton, he let himself be diverted into beginning, in French, a history of Switzerland. Hume, having seen the manuscript in London, wrote to Gibbon (October 24, 1767) begging him to use English, and predicting that English would soon surpass the French language in spread and influence; moreover, he warned Gibbon that his use of the French tongue had led him “into a style more poetical and figurative and more highly colored, than our language seems to admit of in historical productions.”68 Gibbon later admitted: “My ancient habits … encouraged me to write in French for the continent of Europe, but I was conscious myself that my style, above prose and below poetry, degenerated into a verbose and turgid declamation.”69
The death of his father (November 10, 1770) left him an ample fortune. In October, 1772, he took up permanent residence in London. “No sooner was I settled in my house and library than I undertook the composition of the first volume of my history.”70 He allowed himself many distractions-evenings at White’s, attendance at Johnson’s “Club,” trips to Brighton, Bath, Paris. In 1774 he was elected to Parliament from a “pocket borough” controlled by a relative. He kept silence amid the debates in the House of Commons. “I am still mute,” he wrote (February 25, 1775); “it is more tremendous than I imagined; the great speakers fill me with despair, the bad ones with terror”;71 but: the “eight sessions that I sat in Parliament were a school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of an historian.”72 Surrounded by the controversy on America, he voted regularly for the policy of the government; he addressed to the French nation a Mémoire justificatif (1779) presenting England’s case against her revolting colonies; and he received as reward a seat on the Board of Trade and Plantations, bringing him £ 750 a year. Fox accused him of profiting by the same kind of political corruption which he indicated as one cause of the decline of Rome.73 The wits said George III had bought Gibbon lest the author record the decline and fall of the British Empire.74
2. The Book
After 1772 Gibbon’s absorbing concern was his history, and he found it difficult to think seriously about anything else. “Many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone between a dull chronicle and a rhetorical declamation. Three times did I compose the first chapter, and twice the second and third, before I was tolerably satisfied with their effect.”75 He was resolved to make his history a work of literature.
In 1775 Gibbon offered the manuscript of the first sixteen chapters to a publisher, who refused it as necessitating a prohibitive price. Two other booksellers, Thomas Caldwell and William Strahan, pooled their risks in printing (February 17, 1776) Volume I ofThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Though it was priced at a guinea ($26.00?), the thousand copies were sold by March 26. A second edition, of fifteen hundred copies, issued on June 3, was exhausted in three days. “My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette.”76 The literary world, usually rent with factional jealousies, united in praising it. William Robertson sent generous compliments; Hume, in this year of his death, wrote to the author a letter which, said Gibbon, “overpaid the labor of ten years.”77Horace Walpole, on the day after publication, announced to William Mason: “Lo, there is just appeared a truly classic work.”
The book began logically and bravely with three scholarly chapters detailing the geographical extent, the military organization, the social structure, and the legal constitution of the Roman Empire at the death of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 180). The preceding eighty-four years, Gibbon felt, had seen the Empire at its peak of official competence and public content.
If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian  to the accession of Commodus . The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. . . . The labors of these monarchs were overpaid by the … honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which they were the authors.78
But Gibbon recognized the “instability of a happiness which must depend on the character of a single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth or some jealous tyrant would abuse … that absolute power.”79 The “good emperors” had been chosen by adoptive monarchy—each ruler transmitting his authority to a chosen and trained member of his entourage. Marcus Aurelius allowed the imperial power to pass down to his worthless son Commodus; from that accession Gibbon dated the decline.
Gibbon thought that the rise of Christianity had contributed to that decline. Here he abandoned the lead of Montesquieu, who had said nothing like this in his Greatness and decadence of the Romans; Gibbon, rather, followed Voltaire. His attitude was thoroughly intellectual; he had no sympathy for mystic rapture or hopeful faith. He expressed his view in a passage that has a Voltairean flavor: “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. And thus toleration produced religious concord.”80 Gibbon usually avoided any direct expression of hostility to Christianity. There were still laws on the statute books of England making such expression a serious crime; e.g., “if any person educated in the Christian religion shall by writing … deny the Christian religion to be true, he shall … for the second offense … suffer three years’ imprisonment without bail.”81 To avoid such inconvenience Gibbon developed subtle suggestion and transparent irony as elements in his style. He carefully pointed out that he would discuss not the primary and supernatural sources of Christianity, but only the secondary and natural factors in its origin and growth. Among these secondary factors he listed “the pure and austere morals of the Christians” in their first century, but he added, as another cause, “the inflexible (and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant) zeal of the Christians.”82 And while he praised “the union and discipline of the Christian republic,” he noted that “it gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.”83 In general he reduced the early progress of Christianity from a miracle to a natural process; he removed the phenomenon from theology to history.
How had Christianity made for the decline of Rome? First, by sapping the faith of the people in the official religion, and thereby undermining the state which that religion supported and sanctified. [This, of course, was precisely the argument of the theologians against the philosophes.] The Roman government distrusted the Christians as forming a secret society hostile to military service, and diverting men from useful employments to concentration on heavenly salvation. (The monks, in Gibbon’s judgment, were idlers who found it easier to beg and pray than to work.) Other sects could be tolerated because they were tolerant and did not imperil the unity of the nation; the Christians were the only new sect that denounced all others as vicious and damned, and openly predicted the fall of “Babylon”—i.e., Rome.84 Gibbon attributed much of this fanaticism to the Judaic origin of Christianity, and he followed Tacitus in denouncing the Jews at various points in his narrative. He proposed to interpret Nero’s persecution of the Christians as really a persecution of the Jews;85 this theory has no supporter today. With more success he followed Voltaire in reducing the number of Christians martyred by the Roman government; he reckoned them to be two thousand at most; and agreed with Voltaire “that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions [since Constantine], have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they have experienced from the zeal of infidels”; and “the Church of Rome defended by violence the empire she had acquired by fraud.”86
These concluding chapters (xv-xvi) of Volume I aroused many replies accusing Gibbon of inaccuracy, unfairness, or insincerity. Ignoring his critics for the time being, he treated himself to an extended vacation in Paris (May to November, 1777). Suzanne Curchod, become the wife of the banker and finance minister Jacques Necker, invited him to their home. She was now too comfortable to resent his having “sighed as a lover, obeyed as a son”; and M. Necker, so far from being jealous, often left the former lovers alone and went to business or bed. “Could they insult me more cruelly?” Gibbon complained. “What an impertinent security!” Suzanne’s daughter, Germaine (the future Mme. de Staël), found him such good company that she (aged eleven) tried her budding arts on him, and offered to marry him so as to keep him in the family.87 At the Neckers’ he met the Emperor Joseph II; at Versailles he was presented to Louis XVI, who was said to have shared in translating Volume I into French. He was feted in the salons, particularly by the Marquise du Deffand, who found him “gentle and polite, … superior to nearly all the persons among whom I live,” but pronounced his style “declamatory, oratorical,” and “in the tone of our professed wits.”88 He rejected an invitation from Benjamin Franklin, with a card saying that though he respected the American envoy as a man and a philosopher, he could not reconcile it with his duty to his King to have any conversation with a revolted subject. Franklin replied that he had such high regard for the historian that if ever Gibbon should consider the decline and fall of the British Empire as a subject, Franklin would be happy to furnish him with some relevant materials.89
Back in London, Gibbon prepared a reply to his critics—A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1779). He dealt briefly and courteously with his theological opponents, but he rose to some temper in handling Henry Davies, a youth of twenty-one, who had in 284 pages accused Gibbon of inaccuracies. The historian admitted some mistakes, but denied “willful misrepresentations, gross errors, and servile plagiarisms.”90TheVindication was generally received as a successful rebuttal. Gibbon made no further reply to criticism except casually in the Memoirs, but he found place for some conciliatory compliments to Christianity in his later volumes.
His writing was accelerated by the loss of his seat in Parliament (September 1, 1780). Volumes II and III of the History were published on March 1, 1781. They were quietly received. The barbarian invasions were an old story, and the long and expert discussions of the heresies that had excited the Christian Church in the fourth and fifth centuries were of no interest to a generation of worldly skeptics. Gibbon had sent an advance copy of Volume II to Horace Walpole; he visited Walpole in Berkeley Square, and was chagrined to be told that “there is so much of the Arians and Eunomians and semi-Pelagians … that though you have written the story as well as it could be written, I fear few will have patience to read it.” “From that hour to this,” Walpole wrote, “I have never seen him, though he used to call once or twice a week.”91 Gibbon later agreed with Walpole.92
Volume II recovered life when Constantine came to the front. Gibbon interpreted the famous conversion as an act of statesmanship. The Emperor had perceived that “the operation of the wisest laws is imperfect and precarious. They seldom inspire virtue, they cannot always restrain vice.” Amid the chaos of morals, economy, and government in the disrupted Empire, “a prudent magistrate might observe with pleasure the progress of a religion which diffused among the people a pure, benevolent, and universal system of ethics, adapted to every duty and every condition of life, recommended as the will and reason of the supreme Deity, and enforced by the sanction of eternal rewards or punishments.”93 That is, Constantine recognized that the aid of a supernatural religion was a precious aid to morality, social order, and government. Then Gibbon penned 150 eloquent and impartial pages on Julian the Apostate.
He ended Chapter XXXVIII and Volume III with a footnote praising George III’s “pure and generous love of science and of mankind.” In June, 1781, by the aid of Lord North, Gibbon was re-elected to Parliament, where he resumed his support of the ministry. The fall of Lord North (1782) brought an end to the Board of Trade, and to Gibbon’s post therein; “I was stripped of a convenient salary of £750 a year.”94 When North took a place in the coalition ministry (1783), Gibbon applied for another sinecure; he received none. “Without additional income I could not long or prudently maintain the style of expense to which I was accustomed.”95 He calculated that he could afford that style in Lausanne, where his pounds sterling had twice the purchasing power they had in London. He resigned his seat in Parliament, sold all his impersonal effects except his library, and on September 15, 1783, he left London—“its smoke and wealth and noise”—for Lausanne. There he shared a comfortable mansion with his old friend Georges Deyverdun. “Instead of looking on a paved court twelve feet square, I command a boundless prospect of vale, mountain, and water.”96 His two thousand books reached him after some delay, and he proceeded with Volume IV.
He had originally planned to end The Decline and Fall with the conquest of Rome in 476. But after publishing Volume III he “began to wish for the daily task, the active pursuit, which gave a value to every book, and an object to every inquiry.”97 He decided to interpret “Roman Empire” to mean the Eastern as well as the Western Empire, and to continue his narrative to the destruction of Byzantine rule through the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. So he added a thousand years to his scope, and undertook hundreds of new subjects requiring arduous research.
Volume IV included masterly chapters on Justinian and Belisarius, a chapter on Roman law which won high praise from jurists, and a dreary chapter on the further wars within Christian theology. “I wish,” wrote Walpole, “Mr. Gibbon had never heard of Monophysites, Nestorians, or any such fools!”98 In Volume V Gibbon turned with evident relief to the rise of Mohammed and the Arab conquest of the Eastern Roman Empire, and he lavished upon the Prophet and the martial caliphs all the impartial understanding that had failed him in the case of Christianity. In Volume VI the Crusades gave him another stirring theme, and the capture of Constantinople by Mohammed II provided the climax and crown of his work.
In the final chapter he summarized his labors in a famous sentence: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.”99 Like his unacknowledged teacher, Voltaire, he saw nothing in the Middle Ages but crudity and superstition. He pictured the ruinous state of Rome in 1430, and quoted Poggio’s lament, “This spectacle of the world, how it is fallen, how changed, how defaced!”—the destruction or dilapidation of classic monuments and art, the Forum Romanum overgrown with weeds and possessed by cattle and swine. And Gibbon concluded sadly: “It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candor of the public.” And in his Memoirs he recalled that hour of ambivalent deliverance:
It was on the … night of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer house in my garden. After laying down my pen I took several turns in … a covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains.... I will not dissemble the emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatever might be the future fate of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.100
3. The Man
Gibbon at sixteen was described by M. Pavilliard as “a thin little figure with a large head.”101 Hating exercise and loving food,102 he soon developed a rotundity of body and face, a portly belly sustained by spindly legs; add red hair curled at the side and tied at the back, gentle cherubic features, a button nose, puffy cheeks, multiple chin, and, above all, a broad, high forehead promising “enterprises of great pith and moment,” majesty, and scope. He rivaled Johnson in appetite and Walpole in gout. His scrotum swelled painfully year by year to proportions which his tight breeches set off to disconcerting prominence. Despite his handicaps he was vain of his appearance and his dress, and prefaced Volume II with his portrait by Reynolds. He carried a snuffbox at his waist, and tapped it when nervous or wishing to be heard. He was self-centered, like any man with an absorbing purpose. But he truthfully claimed: “I am endowed with a cheerful temperament, a moderate sensibility [but no sentiment!], and a natural disposition to repose.”103
In 1775 he was elected to “the Club.” He attended frequently but rarely spoke, disliking Johnson’s idea of conversation. Johnson commented too audibly on Gibbon’s “ugliness”;104 Gibbon called the Great Bear an “oracle,” “an unforgiving enemy,” “a bigoted though vigorous mind, greedy of every pretext to hate and persecute those who dissent from his creed.”105 Boswell, feeling no mercy for an infidel, described the historian as “an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow,” who “poisons our Literary Club for me.” Nevertheless Gibbon must have had many friends, for in London he dined out almost every night.
He came from Lausanne to London in August, 1787, to supervise the publication of Volumes IV-VI. They appeared on his fifty-first birthday, May 8, 1788, and brought him £ 4,000, one of the highest fees paid to an author in the eighteenth century. “The conclusion of my work was generally read, and variously judged. … Yet, upon the whole, the History of the Decline and Fall seems to have struck root, both at home and abroad, and may, perhaps, a hundred years hence, still continue to be abused.”106 Already Adam Smith ranked him “at the head of the whole literary tribe at present existing in Europe.”107 On June 13, 1788, during the trial of Hastings in Westminster Hall, Gibbon, in the gallery, had the pleasure of hearing Sheridan, in one of his most dramatic addresses, refer to “the luminous pages of Gibbon.”108 According to an unlikely story, Sheridan later claimed to have said “voluminous”;109 but that adjective could hardly be applied to pages, and “luminous” was surely the fitting word.
In July, 1788, Gibbon returned to Lausanne. A year later Deyverdun died, leaving his home to Gibbon for the duration of the historian’s life. There, with several servants and an income of £ 1,200 a year, Gibbon lived at ease, drank much wine, and added to his gout and girth. “From February 9 to July 1, 1790, I was not able to move from my house or chair.”110 To this period belongs the legend that he knelt at the feet of Mme. de Crousaz with a declaration of love, that she bade him rise, and that he could not, being too heavy.111 The sole source of the story is Mme. de Genlis, whom Sainte-Beuve described as “a woman with a malicious tongue”;112 and her own daughter rejected the tale as, due to a confusion of persons.113
The French Revolution interfered with Gibbon’s tranquillity. Revolutionary sentiments were voiced in the Swiss cantons, and word came of similar agitation in England. He had good reason to fear the collapse of the French monarchy, having invested £ 1,300 in a French government loan.114 In 1788, in an unlucky prophecy, he had written of the French monarchy that “it stood founded, as it might seem, on the rock of time, force, and opinion, supported by the triple Aristocracy of the Church, the Nobility, and the Parliaments.”115 He rejoiced when Burke issued Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); he wrote to Lord Sheffield advising against any reform in the British political structure; “if you admit the smallest and most specious change in our parliamentary system, you are lost.”116 Now he deplored the success of the philosophes in combating religion; “I have sometimes thought of writing a dialogue of the dead, in which Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire should mutually acknowledge the danger of exposing an old superstition to the contempt of the blind and fanatical multitude.”117 He urged some Portuguese leaders not to abandon the Inquisition during this crisis that threatened all thrones.118
Partly to escape the French Revolutionary army that was nearing Lausanne, partly to seek English surgery, and proximately to comfort Lord Sheffield on the death of his wife, Gibbon left Lausanne (May 9, 1793) and hurried to England. There he found Sheffield so busy with politics as to have rapidly recovered from his grief; “the patient was cured,” Gibbon wrote, “before the arrival of the doctor.”119 The historian himself now submitted to the physicians, for his hydrocele had grown “almost as big as a small child.... I crawl about with some labor and much indecency.”120 One operation drained four quarts of “transparent watery liquid” from the affected testicle. But the fluid collected again, and a second tapping drew three quarts. Gibbon was temporarily relieved, and resumed dining out. Once more the hydrocele formed; now it became septic. On January 13, 1794, a third tapping was made. Gibbon seemed to be recovering rapidly; the doctor allowed him meat; Gibbon ate some chicken, and drank three glasses of wine. He was seized with severe gastric pains, which, like Voltaire, he sought to ease with opium. On January 16 he died, aged fifty-six.
4. The Historian
Gibbon was not inspiring in his visible person, character, or career; his greatness was poured into his book, into the grandeur and courage of its conception, the patience and artistry of its composition, the luminous majesty of the whole.
Yes, Sheridan’s word was right. Gibbon’s style is as luminous as irony would allow, and it shed light wherever it turned, except where prejudice darkened his view. His diction was molded by his Latin and French studies; he found simple Anglo-Saxon words unsuitable to the dignity of his manner, and often he wrote like an orator—Livy sharpened with the satire of Tacitus, Burke brightened with the wit of Pascal. He balanced clauses with the skill and delight of a juggler, but played the game so often that sometimes it neared monotony. If his style seems pompous, it fitted the reach and splendor of his theme—the thousand-year crumbling of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The venial sins of his style are lost in the masculine march of the narrative, the vigor of the episodes, the revealing portraits and descriptions, the magisterial summations that cover a century in a paragraph, and marry philosophy to history.
Having undertaken so extensive a subject, Gibbon felt justified in narrowing its limits. “Wars, and the administration of public affairs,” he said, “are the principal subjects of history.”121 He excluded the history of art, science, and literature; so he had nothing to say about Gothic cathedrals or Moslem mosques, about Arabic science or philosophy; he crowned Petrarch, but passed Dante by. He paid almost no attention to the condition of the lower classes, the rise of industry in medieval Constantinople and Florence. He lost interest in Byzantine history after the death of Heraclius (641). “He failed,” in the judgment of Bury, “to bring out the momentous fact that [till] the twelfth century the [Eastern Roman] Empire was the bulwark of Europe against the East; nor did he appreciate its importance in preserving the heritage of Greek civilization.”122 Within his set limits Gibbon achieved greatness by connecting effects with natural causes, and by reducing the immensity of his materials to intelligible order and a guiding perspective of the whole.
His scholarship was immense and detailed. His footnotes are a treasury of learning lightened with wit. He studied the most recondite aspects of classical antiquity, including roads, coins, weights, measures, laws. He made mistakes which specialists have corrected, but the same Bury who pointed out his errors added: “If we take into account the vast range of his work, his accuracy is amazing.”123 He could not (like professional historians confining themselves to a small area of subject, place, and time) burrow into unprinted original sources; to get his work done he restricted himself to printed material, and frankly relied in part on secondary authorities like Ockley’s History of the Saracens or Tillemont’s Histoire des empereurs and Histoire ecclésiastique; and some of the authorities he relied upon are now rejected as untrustworthy.124 He declared his sources in honest detail, and thanked them; so, when he passed beyond the time that Tillemont treated, he said in a footnote: “Here I must take leave forever of that incomparable guide.”125
What conclusions did Gibbon reach from his study of history? Sometimes he followed the philosophes in accepting the reality of progress: “We may acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age in the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.”126 But in less amiable moments—and perhaps because he had taken war and politics (and theology) as the substance of history—he judged history to be “indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”* 127 He saw no design in history; events are the outcome of unguided causes; they are the parallelogram of forces of different origin and composite result. In all this kaleidoscope of events human nature seems to remain unchanged. Cruelty, suffering, and injustice have always afflicted mankind, and always will, for they are written in the nature of man. “Man has much more to fear from the passions of his fellow creatures than from the convulsions of the elements.”129
Child of the Enlightenment, Gibbon longed to be a philosopher, or at least to write history en philosophe. “An enlightened age requires from the historian some tincture of philosophy and criticism.”130 He loved to interrupt his narrative with philosophical comments. But he did not profess to reduce history to laws, or to formulate a “philosophy of history.” On some basic questions, however, he took a stand: he confined the influence of climate to the early stages of civilization; he rejected race as a determining factor;131 and he acknowledged, within limits, the influence of exceptional men. “In human life the most important scenes will depend upon the character of a single actor. … An acrimonious humor falling upon a single fiber of one man may prevent or suspend the misery of nations.”132 When the Koreish could have assassinated Mohammed “the lance of an Arab might have changed the history of the world.”133 If Charles Martel had not defeated the Moors at Tours (732) the Moslems might have overrun all Europe; “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet. From such calamities was Christendom delivered by the genius and fortune of one man.”134 However, for maximum influence on his time, the exceptional individual must stand upon some wide support. “The effects of personal valor are so inconsiderable, except in poetry or romance, that victory … must depend upon the degree of skill with which the passions of the multitude are combined and guided for the service of a single man.”135
All in all, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire may be ranked as the supreme book of the eighteenth century, with Montesquieu’s L’ Esprit des lois as its closest competitor. It was not the most influential; it could not compare in effect upon history with Rousseau’s Social Contract or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. But as a work of literary art it was unsurpassed in its time or kind. When we ask how Gibbon came to produce such a masterpiece, we perceive that it was the accidental combination of ambition with money, leisure, and ability; and we wonder how soon such a combination can be expected to recur. Never, said another historian of Rome, Barthold Niebuhr; “Gibbon’s work will never be excelled.”136