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17 February 2011

On this day in history: Volume One of Gibbon`s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published, 1776

Edward Gibbon was born in Putney, Surrey, in April 1737 into a wealthy family with Jacobite sympathies. Edward's mother died when he was ten and his father descended into depression, but even before then his parents had been neglectful of their son. Consequently his "Aunt Kitty," Catherine Porten, raised him through his many childhood illnesses.

Despite his continued illness hampering his education, his father secured him a place at Magdalen College, Oxford. His time there was not happy, so rather than attend college he continued his own undirected reading. His voracious appetite for books resulted in him developing an attraction to Catholicism, which he converted to in 1753.

For many Britons of the time, Roman Catholicism was tantamount to treason, particularly for those linked with the Jacobite cause. Within weeks of Edward's conversion, his father sent him to Lausanne, Switzerland, under the care and tutelage of a Reformed pastor called David Pavillard. On Christmas Day, 1754, Edward Gibbon took communion and returned to Protestantism.

Following Gibbon's return to England, in 1759 he enlisted in the South Hampshire militia and was on active duty until December 1762. Meanwhile, he published his first book, Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature (1761). Following his deactivation from the militia, he traveled around continental Europe on the Grand Tour, including a visit to Rome.

While he was in Rome, Gibbon first conceived of the idea of writing a history of the decline and fall of the ancient city, an idea that he later expanded to take in the entire Roman Empire. Independently wealthy after receiving an inheritance when his father died in 1770, he divided his time between writing and the social whirl of London's literary circle. In 1774 he became a Freemason and also Member of Parliament for Liskeard in Cornwall.

On 17th February 1776, he published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The book became an overnight success, earning its author around £1000 and widespread fame. Over the next twelve years he wrote and published a further five volumes. The last three volumes he wrote while living in Lausanne following his retirement from public life.

Gibbon argued that the Roman Empire fell due to the degeneration of civic virtue. He attributed this decline partly to the adoption of Christianity by the Romans who then became more concerned with the prospect of a better life after death and less inclined to make sacrifices for the Empire. An end to the Roman martial spirit and the hiring of barbarian mercenaries to defend the Empire spelled doom.

With his magnum opus completed Gibbon began work on his memoires as well as other historical texts. In 1793, with the French Revolutionary Wars raging across Europe, Gibbon made the perilous journey back to England to comfort a bereaved friend. Gibbon's own health was failing and he died while in London in January 1794 after succumbing to an infection contracted during surgery on a swelling in his groin.

Project Gutenberg hosts all six volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

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