Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, 1761 (An Essay on the Study of Literature, 1764)
Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid, 1770
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1788
A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” by the Author, 1779
Memoirs of My Life and Writings, 1796
Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, 1796 (2 volumes; Earl of Sheffield, editor), 1814 (5 volumes), 1907 (J. Walker McSpadden, editor)
Edward Gibbon came from an old and wealthy Kentish family. His father, also named Edward, was a member of Parliament from 1734 to 1747 and was a colonel in the Hampshire militia. The future historian was the only one of seven children who survived infancy, and for a long time it was doubtful whether or not he would live through childhood. A weak child who suffered from undiagnosed leg-aches in his youth, the younger Gibbon grew, through physical inaction, to an extreme obesity, enduring, throughout his later years, the severe pains of gout. As a result, his life was for the most part sedentary, devoted almost completely to intellectual pursuits. He never married, though his studies were broken by one short love affair. His services as a member of Parliament in 1774 and again in 1782, and as a commissioner of the Board of Trade from 1779 to 1782, plus a tour of duty in his father’s militia regiment, were the only significant interruptions to his constant studiousness.
Gibbon’s formal education began in a day-school at Putney and continued at Dr. Wooddeson’s school at Kingston-on-Thames, and reached the university level at Westminster. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1752, after a two-year retirement at Bath, and there spent what he termed “the most idle and unprofitable months” of his life. At Oxford he developed an interest in Catholicism. When his father discovered his intention of becoming a convert, he was summarily removed and put under the tutelage of a Calvinist minister in Lausanne, Switzerland. There he gave up Catholicism, learned French (which became his “second native language”), and turned to the serious study of Latin. His father, having sent him to Lausanne to remove him from a religious infatuation, found it necessary to demand his return in order to separate him from an amatory one. In Switzerland Gibbon met Susanne Curchod, later the mother of Madame de Staël, and requested permission to marry her. His father’s disapproval kept them apart for a time; finally relations were severed completely when Gibbon failed to keep an appointment with philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that Curchod had arranged for him.
Gibbon then devoted himself to building a library and to the writings that were to precede his final and major work. Gibbon had yet to decide what that major work was to be, only that it would be historical. He also began his service in the militia, turning his experience into profit by pursuing a concurrent course of study in military literature. There followed an extended visit to Italy (1764 to 1765), the founding of the Roman Club in London, and the writing of a few minor historical essays. Gibbon now knew the topic of his future masterpiece.
Work on his masterpiece was not to begin until after his father’s death in 1770. Gibbon then sold his country estate, moved to London, and began to take part in the stimulating intellectual life of the town. If James Boswell’s authority is to be trusted, he was no welcome addition to Samuel Johnson’s literary circle. Though he contributed little, Gibbon profited greatly; the stimulation he received from others proved what he needed to concentrate on his projected work.
The first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, with immediate success. Not only was Gibbon suddenly famous, but he was also the subject of bitter controversy touched off by his chapters on the growth of Christianity. Aside from his undistinguished activities as a public official, the rest of his days were spent in finishing and in defending his one great work. His erudite and effective Vindication appeared in 1779, followed by the second and third volumes of The Decline and Fall in 1781. Gibbon then moved to his beloved Lausanne and settled there to finish the last three volumes. These appeared, finally, in 1788. He soon began planning another project, an extensive work on English history. However, as his health continued to deteriorate, so did his enthusiasm, and the project never materialized. Gibbon remained in Lausanne until his death during a visit to London in 1794.