While Edward Gibbon was publishing his six-volume opus, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” a large portion of Britain’s empire was declaring its independence and fighting to break free of the mother country.
The first volume of Gibbon’s history was published in 1776, just months before representatives from the 13 American Colonies met in Philadelphia to sign the radical and audacious document that declared, “All men are created equal.” While not quite “the shot heard round the world,” Gibbon’s history immediately captured the attention of the reading public and became a best-seller. Harvard acquired its copy in 1790.
Looking at the antiquated typography and faded penmanship on display in a new exhibit, “The Luminous Historian: Edward Gibbon in the Collections of Houghton Library,” organized by John Overholt, assistant curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, it is well to remember that Gibbon’s work emerges from a period of great political and intellectual turmoil. The Enlightenment, whose ideas fueled the American Revolution, inspiring leaders to throw off thousands of years of aristocratic rule and set up the world’s first constitutional democracy, informs Gibbon’s history as well.
Not that Gibbon favored the American cause; he didn’t. But his Enlightenment perspective led him to view another sacred institution, Christianity, with critical detachment and to question whether its long-established dominance over European culture was altogether a good thing.
Raised in the Church of England, Gibbon converted to Roman Catholicism as a teenager, which caused him to be thrown out of Magdalen College, Oxford. His horrified father sent him off to Lausanne, Switzerland, to be “deprogrammed” by a strict Protestant pastor. The experience weaned him off Catholicism, but it left him with a skeptical attitude toward religion in general.
The lack of a college education did not prevent Gibbon from becoming one of the most deeply read scholars of his day. After his father’s death, he inherited enough money to live comfortably and devote himself fulltime to scholarship and writing.
Among the examples of Gibbon’s literary output in the Houghton exhibition is an edition of his first book “Essai sur l’Étude de la Littérature” (1761), which he wrote in French; one of his research notebooks; letters to friends and colleagues; and a copy of “The Decline and Fall,” volumes 2 and 3, inscribed to his aunt Catherine Porten, who took in the young Gibbon after the death of his mother.
The idea for his great work came to Gibbon (as he tells us in his posthumously published autobiography) while traveling in Italy.
“It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars 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.”
While historians before Gibbon’s time were inclined to see the eclipse of paganism by Christianity as a positive development in the history of the West, Gibbon wasn’t so sure. Ironically, he wonders why the contemporaries of Jesus and his followers took no notice of the many miracles described in the Gospels or why none of the great philosophers of antiquity converted to or even gave an account of the new religion.
Gibbon’s lack of proper reverence for Christianity did not go unnoticed in his own day. Indeed, one of the cases in the Houghton exhibit is filled with pamphlets attacking Gibbon for his skeptical attitude. There is also a copy of Gibbon’s “Vindication,” published in 1779, in which he strikes out at his critics, calling them “Watchmen of the Holy City.” There are also a number of later pamphlets attacking Gibbon’s self-defense.
But there is more to Gibbon than his Enlightenment skepticism. According to Christopher Jones, the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics and of History, Gibbon possessed three of the essential qualities that distinguish the greatest historians.
“He had a prodigious memory, he was extraordinarily intelligent, and he was a wonderful stylist. Very few historians combine all three.”
Jones, an expert on Latin and Greek literature and on the social history of ancient Rome, is teaching a sophomore tutorial on Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall.” The exhibit at Houghton was meant to coincide with Jones’ course. While stipulating that Gibbon could not have earned a Ph.D. in a modern graduate school because he neglected to consult any but literary sources, Jones still believes there is much that students can learn from reading his work.
“He has many qualities that students of history should aspire to. He was in his way a very careful researcher. Although he worked exclusively with printed sources, he knew which were reliable and which were not. He also had a colossal range of interests that included China, Inner Asia, North Africa. In ‘The Decline and Fall’ he covers 13 centuries. You couldn’t do that nowadays.”