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Edward Gibbon ( 1737 - 1794 )  Category ( Historians ) [suggest a correction]
 

Edward GibbonEdward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament. He is most famous for his important, exhaustive work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His great opus was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The History is well known for the quality and irony of its prose, use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion.

Gibbon was born in 1737 to a well-to-do English family in the town of Putney, near London. His grandfather had lost a fortune as result of his investments in the South Sea Bubble stock market collapse in 1720, but the family eventually regained much of the wealth.

Gibbon was a sickly child, and even wrote that he was neglected by his own mother and "starved by my nurse." His mother died when he was still a child, and the boy was sent to boarding school, which was owned by his adored "Aunt Kitty," Catherine Porten. Through his aunt's tutelage, Gibbon received a good education and was early noted for his voracious reading appetite and love of history. When he was a teenager, he was sent by his father to study at Oxford. He was not suited for college life, however, and later considered his brief academic tenure as the "most idle and unprofitable" period of his life.

Several years later, while studying in Switzerland, he fell in love with a young woman named Suzanne Curchod. She would later become the mother of the famous Madame de Stael. The two young people became affectionate and Gibbon proposed marriage. However, his father disapproved of the match and Curchod refused to leave Switzerland. The young man obeyed his father and returned home with an obedient, though broken, heart. Upon his return to England, Gibbon published his first book, a treatise on literature. This volume provided him with a taste of celebrity and marked him as a young man of letters and great potential. Following his literary success, he served on active duty in the South Hampshire militia. The following year he embarked on a Grand Tour, which included a visit to Rome. It was during that visit that Gibbon first conceived the idea of a comprehensive and sweeping examination of Roman history. Upon his return to England he began to write, and became well known amongst the better literary and social clubs of London, including Dr. Johnson's famous Literary Club.

After several re-writes and threats to abandon the project entirely, the first volume of his great History was published in early 1776. It was a huge public and financial success. By 1784 the fourth volume was finished, and Gibbon basked in his achievement. In May 1788, the final three volumes reached the press. The publication coincided with Gibbon's fifty-first birthday. The event was attended by a number of English and European literary luminaries.

Sadly, the years that followed Gibbon's great achievement was filled with misery and physical discomfort. He lost one of his dearest friends, and suffered from a disfiguring inflammation. Forced into the life of a recluse, Gibbon became a lonely figure, constantly seeking treatments and procedures that would relieve his pain. Following the last of these, Gibbon developed peritonitis, which spread throughout his body. He died in 1794, at age 56, and was buried in his family's graveyard in Sussex.

Image: Edward Gibbon. Original source: Hundred Greatest Men, The. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885.


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