Edward Gibbon

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Edward Gibbon
BirthplacePutney, Surrey, England

Gibbon, Edward,

1737–94, English historian, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His childhood was sickly, and he had little formal education but read enormously and omnivorously. He went at the age of 15 to Oxford, but was forced to leave because of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. His father sent him (1753) to Lausanne, where he was formally reconverted to Protestantism. Actually, he became a skeptic and later greatly offended the pious by his famous chapters of historical criticism of Christianity in his great work. In Lausanne he fell in love with the penniless daughter of a pastor, Suzanne Curchod (who was later to be the great intellectual, Mme Necker). The two were engaged to be married, but Gibbon's father refused consent. Gibbon "sighed as a lover" but "obeyed as a son" and gave up the match. He left Lausanne in 1758. It was on a visit to Rome that he conceived the idea of his magnificent and panoramic history. This appeared as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vol., 1776–88) and won immediate acclaim, despite some harsh criticism. Gibbon himself was assured of the greatness of his work, which is, indeed, one of the most-read historical works of modern times. He entered upon a short and highly inglorious political career, serving as a member of Parliament from 1774 to 1783. He violently opposed the American Revolution, although later he was to look with favor on the more radical French Revolution. In 1783 he withdrew to Lausanne, where he completed his masterpiece. His own Memoirs of His Life and Writings, commonly called the Autobiography, first appeared in a heavily bowderlized form in the edition of his miscellaneous works by Lord Sheffield in 1796 (repr. 1959). The autobiography is, however, one of the most subtle and interesting works of its kind in English. An edition of Gibbon's original six drafts appeared as The Autobiographies in 1896. A new edition, edited by G. A. Bonnard, was published in 1969 (Am. ed.). Editions of the Decline and Fall are legion. The modern standard edition is that of J. B. Bury (7 vol., 1896–1900).


See his collected letters (ed. by J. E. Norton, 3 vol., 1956); biographies by J. W. Swain (1966), G. De Beer (1968), P. B. Craddock (1982, 1988), and J. W. Burrow (1985); studies by D. P. Jordan (1971) and R. N. Parkinson (1974).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Gibbon, Edward


Born Apr. 27, 1737, in the county of Surrey; died Jan. 16, 1794, in London. English historian.

Edward Gibbon’s major work, A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (translated into Russian by V. N. Nevedomskii, 1883-86), consists of an exposition, based on a detailed study of sources, of the political history of the Roman Empire and Byzantium from the end of the second century up to 1453 (the fall of Constantinople), with digressions into the history of Russia and of the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Gibbon saw the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire as being the increased arbitrariness and despotism of the emperors (who suppressed the initiative and self-reliance of the masses), the financial oppression and coercion practiced by the imperial bureaucracy, and the weakening of discipline within the army, which was unable to defend the state against the barbarians. In Gibbon’s opinion, the fall of the empire was accelerated by the spread of Christianity, which killed the spirit of patriotism and civic duty. Gibbon attempted to review the development of the Christian church. The ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment were reflected in his work.


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vols. 1-7. London, 1903-06.


Kosminskii, E. A. Istoriografiia srednikh vekov, V v.-ser. XIX v.: Lektsii. [Moscow] 1963. Pages 247-49.
Liutov, M. M. Zhizn’ i trudy Gibbona, 2nd ed. St. Petersburg, 1900.
Zhebelev, S. A. Drevnii Rim, part 2. Petrograd, 1923.
Bond, H. L. The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon. Oxford, 1960.


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