Gibbon, Edward

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Gibbon, Edward

Edward Gibbon, 1737–94, English historian, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His childhood was sickly, and he had little formal education but read enormously and omnivorously. He went at the age of 15 to Oxford, but was forced to leave because of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. His father sent him (1753) to Lausanne, where he was formally reconverted to Protestantism. Actually, he became a skeptic and later greatly offended the pious by his famous chapters of historical criticism of Christianity in his great work. In Lausanne he fell in love with the penniless daughter of a pastor, Suzanne Curchod (who was later to be the great intellectual, Mme Necker). The two were engaged to be married, but Gibbon's father refused consent. Gibbon "sighed as a lover" but "obeyed as a son" and gave up the match. He left Lausanne in 1758. It was on a visit to Rome that he conceived the idea of his magnificent and panoramic history. This appeared as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vol., 1776–88) and won immediate acclaim, despite some harsh criticism. Gibbon himself was assured of the greatness of his work, which is, indeed, one of the most-read historical works of modern times. He entered upon a short and highly inglorious political career, serving as a member of Parliament from 1774 to 1783. He violently opposed the American Revolution, although later he was to look with favor on the more radical French Revolution. In 1783 he withdrew to Lausanne, where he completed his masterpiece. His own Memoirs of His Life and Writings, commonly called the Autobiography, first appeared in a heavily bowderlized form in the edition of his miscellaneous works by Lord Sheffield in 1796 (repr. 1959). The autobiography is, however, one of the most subtle and interesting works of its kind in English. An edition of Gibbon's original six drafts appeared as The Autobiographies in 1896. A new edition, edited by G. A. Bonnard, was published in 1969 (Am. ed.). Editions of the Decline and Fall are legion. The modern standard edition is that of J. B. Bury (7 vol., 1896–1900).

See his collected letters (ed. by J. E. Norton, 3 vol., 1956); biographies by J. W. Swain (1966), G. De Beer (1968), P. B. Craddock (1982, 1988), and J. W. Burrow (1985); studies by D. P. Jordan (1971) and R. N. Parkinson (1974).

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