Edward Gibbon 1737–94
The Memoirs or Autobiography pieced together from various drafts after Gibbon’s death are a major if selective source of information. A learned fourteen-year-old, he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, which he found sunk in indolence and prejudice in his fourteen-month stay. An intellectual convert to Catholicism, he reconverted to Protestantism on being sent to Lausanne, where he formed a romantic attachment which his father persuaded him to break. His study of ancient and modern literature produced a French Essai on the topic (1761). Meanwhile he served as captain in the Hampshire Militia. On a visit to Rome in 1764, he decided to write the History of the Decline and Fall of the city, later extended to the empire. After years of research, he published his great work in six volumes, 1776–88. During much of this period he was an MP, and for several years a minor official, but he was never a prominent politician; in 1774 he became a member of Johnson’s Club; from 1783–93 he lived mainly in Switzerland. Gibbon’s vast learning and magisterial prose made the Decline and Fall the greatest English history, though its ironic, sceptical manner caused offence to many with its implications that Rome fell as much through Christianity as barbarian attack: his enlightenment belief is in the progress of a rational civilisation.
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