"Another damn'd thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"
?William Henry, 1st Duke of Gloucester; also attributed to Edward, Duke of Cumberland
In the late-night hours of June 27, 1787, Edward Gibbon came to the end of a twenty-three-year journey. His six volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had come to a close. The History was published in quarto format from 1776 to 1789; our octavo set was published from 1783 to 1791.
Covering over fourteen hundred years (180-1590) Gibbon' s work was ? and still is ? the history of one of the greatest civilizations ever known. Add to Gibbon's tireless scholarship the unmistakable voice of the Enlightenment, and a classic is born.
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was the only surviving child of seven children, but was sickly from birth. His studies as a youth were the haphazard product of years spent with tutors, and when he was fifteen he found himself enrolled at Oxford. In his autobiography, Memoirs of My Life and Writings, he writes of Oxford: "I acknowledge no obligation; and she will cheerfully renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother." 1 He left the university after fourteen unprofitable months, flirted with Roman Catholicism to the point of conversion, and was promptly sent by his father to live outside of England in a Calvinist household.
Released from Oxford, he rediscovered the joys of reading and devoured Cicero in Latin, translating the Latin into French, then the French back into Latin, as an exercise. He formed a plan to read through the works of the classic Latin masters ? historians, poets, orators, and philosophers. Living in Lausanne, Switzerland, Gibbon read, translated, and found the time to become enraptured with Suzanne Curchod, a minister's daughter. Had Gibbon's father approved of the match, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire might never have been written. Bowing to his father's wishes, Gibbon gave up Suzanne, never married, and made writing history his life's work.
(After her romance with Gibbon, Suzanne met and married a rich Parisian banker, M. Jacques Necker. Their daughter was the woman we have come to know as Mme. de Stael. History works in mysterious ways.)
In 1765, Edward Gibbon made a year's tour of Italy. With the historian's delight in exact dates and an avid reader's appreciation for details, he describes the moment he first envisioned the History in his autobiography:
It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1774, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryers 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.2
In his introduction to the Modern Library one-volume edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Daniel J. Boorstin points out that Gibbon didn't realize just how monumental a task he had taken on. "Like other amateurs...he had taken his plunge without being ready for it." 3 Gibbon was a gentleman scholar with ample leisure time afforded to him by his father's fortune, but he feared that his Greek language skills were not up to the task he had set for himself. But he was, if nothing else, determined. And he acknowledged the conditions that allowed him to dedicate himself to his work:
I may believe, and even assert, that in circumstances more indigent or more wealthy, I should never have accomplished the task, or acquired the fame, of an historian; that my spirit would have been broken by poverty and contempt, and that my industry might have been relaxed in the labor and luxury of a superfluous fortune.4
The books owned by Gibbon were vital to the History. He writes of the troubles encountered when transferring his household and library from England to Switzerland ? he refers to his books as his "tools" ? and he waxes lyrical over those that held a place in his life:
I indulged myself in a second and even a third perusal of Terence, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, etc.; and studied to imbibe the sense and spirit most congenial to my own. 5
As detailed as the Memoirs are at times, a bibliography of Gibbon's library is lacking. Other than mentioning a few reliable references? the Theodosian Code, with commentary by James Godefroy, for example ? there is little specific information about the books he owned.
It is not too out of line to suppose he had in his library part, or even all, of the Delphin Classics. While sources don't agree on the origin of the word Delphin, it is known that the premier series originated under the guidance of Pierre-Daniel Huet and Jacques Bossuet in the 1670s. The Latin classics were intended to be used in the education of the dauphin at the time, the son of Louis XIV.
The original 25 volumes expanded to include Greek classics as well as Latin. Our set, uniformly bound in half morocco, consists of 158 volumes. Certainly Gibbon was familiar with most, if not all of the authors included:
The Classics, as low as Tacitus, the younger Pliny, and Juvenal, were my old and familiar companions....My pen almost always in my hand, the original records, both Greek and Latin, from Dion Cassius to Ammianus Marcellinus, from the reign of Trajan to the last age of the Western Caesars. 6
If the deep-rooted, traditional study of classic languages has died in England, it has died a hard death. In Good-Bye to All That, Robert Graves writes of mastering his "fifth different pronunciation of Latin" and of the academic scholarship he won at Charterhouse, "because Charterhouse was the only public school whose scholarship examination did not contain a Greek grammar paper...."7 Monty Python gave Latin lessons a tribute in Life of Brian:
Centurion: What's this, then? "Romanes Eunt Domus"? "People called Romanes they go the house"?
Brian: It? it says, "Romans, go home."
Centurion: No, it doesn't. What's Latin for "Roman"? Come on!
No one but an Englishman, tortured by the Latin language as a youth, could have written that scene.
It is largely due to Edward Gibbon and his dedication to scholarship that the waning years of the Roman Empire are accessible to us in English. He preferred to study primary sources when possible, and the History is rich with footnotes that reveal his detailed scholarship. When choosing an edition for your own library, beware the one-volume abridgements; generally they do not include any footnotes or bibliographic material.
Daniel Boorstin calls Gibbon's monumental work "intimate." Certainly there is an element of truth to that ? once accustomed to Gibbon's writing style, the people and events he wrote about come alive. And, Boorstin points out, though the statement quoted by the Duke at the beginning of this essay is "devastating," with its tone of condescension and exasperation, "who do we remember today? Mr. Gibbon, and his books." 8
1. Memoirs of My Life and Writings, Echo Library, p. 20
2. Ibid, p. 64
3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library edition, p. xvii
4. Memoirs of My Life and Writings, p. 72
5. Ibid, p. 35
6. Ibid, p. 70
7. Good-Bye to All That, Anchor Books edition, p. 21
8. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library edition, p. xix