History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' by Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794) is a work that is instantly familiar to most ears, even to those who would never consider reading it. It comprises 71 chapters, approximately 1,500,000 words, and nearly 8,000 footnotes and covers a time span of close to 1,500 years. Still in use as a reliable record of the period, it has been described as 'the greatest prose epic in the English tongue'.
Edward Gibbon was born on 8th May 1737 in Putney, Surrey. He was the son of Edward and Judith Gibbon of Lime Grove, Putney, Surrey. He had six siblings: five brothers and one sister, all of whom died in infancy.
As a youth, his health was under constant threat. He described himself as “a puny child, neglected by my Mother, starved by my nurse”. Aged nine, Gibbon was sent to Dr. Woddeson’s school at Kingston upon Thames, shortly after which his mother died. He then took up residence in the Westminster School boarding house, owned by Catherine Porten – his adored ‘Aunt Kitty’.
By 1751, Gibbon’s reading was already extensive and certainly pointed toward his future pursuits. Following a stay at Bath in 1752 to improve his health, at the age of 15 Gibbon was sent by his father to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner. He was ill-suited however, to the college atmosphere and later rued his 14 months there as the “most idle and unprofitable” of his life. But his penchant for theological controversy (his aunt’s influence) fully bloomed when he came under the spell of rationalist theologian Conyers Middleton (1683–1750), the author of Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749). In that tract, Middleton denied the validity of such powers; Gibbon promptly objected. The product of that disagreement, with some assistance from the work of Catholic Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), and that of the Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Parsons (1546–1610), yielded the most memorable event of his time at Oxford: his conversion to Roman Catholicism on June 8, 1753.
After travelling through Switzerland to read Latin and study its canton’s constitutions he published his first book, Essai sur l’Étude de la Littérature in 1761, which produced an initial taste of celebrity and distinguished him, in Paris at least, as a man of letters.
His father died in 1770, and after tending to the estate, which was by no means in good condition, there remained enough money for Gibbon to settle fashionably, independent of financial concerns, at seven Bentinck Street, London.
By February 1773 he was writing in earnest, but not without the occasional self-imposed distraction. In late 1774, he was initiated a freemason of the Premier Grand Lodge of England. After several rewrites, with Gibbon “often tempted to throw away the labours of seven years”, the first volume of what would become his life’s major achievement, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published on February 17, 1776.
Throughout 1777, the reading public eagerly consumed three editions, for which Gibbon was rewarded handsomely: two-thirds of the profits amounting to approximately £1000. The years following Gibbon’s completion of The History were filled largely with sorrow and increasing physical discomfort, as it was believed that he suffered from hydrocele testis. After numerous surgical procedures he died on 16th January 1794 at the age of 56.