15 October 2016

Gibbon's moment of inspiration

Walk around the Forum sparked idea for epic work 

Edward Gibbon, as depicted by the English portrait artist Joshua Reynolds
Edward Gibbon, as depicted by the English
portrait artist Joshua Reynolds
The English writer and historian Edward Gibbon claimed that the inspiration to write the book that - unbeknown to him - would grant him literary immortality came to him while exploring the ruins of the Forum in Rome on this day in 1764.

Gibbon, who had enjoyed modest success with his first book, entitled Essay on the Study of Literature, was in Rome after deciding to embark on the Grand Tour, taking in the Italian cities of Florence, Naples and Venice as well as the capital.

Later, in his memoirs, Gibbon wrote that:

"It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars 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."

In the event, the book expanded to cover rather more than the city of Rome.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ran to six volumes and as many as 5,000 pages in the original version and saw Gibbon, whose second work - Memoires Litteraires de la Grande Bretagne - had been dismissed as having little merit by fellow writers and historians, eventually recognised as in the forefront of historians in Europe.

The scope of the work was vast, covering a period in the history of the empire from 98 to 1590.  He began the project in the 1770s and the first volume was published in 1776 by Strahan & Cadell of London.

All six volumes of the epic work can still be purchased
All six volumes of the epic
work can still be purchased
Encouraged by its success - he was paid £1,000 and the book had to be reprinted six times - Gibbon continued with the subsequent volumes, although it was not until 1789 that it was completed with the publication of the final three volumes.

The book took in early Christianity, the Roman State Church and the broader history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West.

Its objectivity and the heavy use of primary sources was unusual at the time and signalled a change in methodology that became a model for later historians. Gibbon was dubbed the first "modern historian of ancient Rome".

It is still being reprinted today, in the full six volumes or in a number of abridged versions.

Gibbon's theory about the collapse of the Roman Empire was that it succumbed to barbarian invasions mainly due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.

They had become weak, he argued, and to defend the Empire its leaders had to call upon the help of barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans themselves, he believed, began to reject the tough military lifestyle that had been required of them.

He argued that the rise of Christianity had created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference among Roman citizens to the idea of sacrificing themselves for a greater purpose. Christians, moreover, were comparatively pacifist compared with the Romans.

A general view of the site of the Roman Forum
A general view of the site of the Roman Forum
Gibbon also pointed the finger at the Praetorian Guard for plotting against emperors who did not suit them and for continually demanding increased pay.

He attracted criticism for what appeared to be a scathing assessment of Christianity, which resulted in the book being banned in several countries.  Gibbon was accused of disrespecting the idea of sacred Christian doctrine by treating the rise of Christianity as a historical phenomenon rather than something with a supernatural explanation.

Gibbon, who had converted to Catholicism as a young man but reverted to Protestantism under threat of being disowned by his father, from whom he would later inherit a substantial fortune, explained that he wanted to write a history not influenced by official church doctrine, although he undermined any claim that he was aiming for a neutral perspective by accusing the Christian movement of "supplanting in an unnecessarily destructive way the great culture that preceded it" and for "the outrage of [practising] religious intolerance and warfare".

Decline and Fall had so absorbed Gibbon that he felt a sense of loss when the final draft was completed.  "A sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion," he wrote.

His later years were unhappy ones.  He struggled with depression and the physical discomfort of various ailments and died in 1794 at the age of 56.

Travel tip:

Rome's historic Forum, situated between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum, was at the heart both of the ancient city of Rome and the Roman Empire itself, the nucleus of political affairs and commercial business, a place where elections took place and great speeches were made.  The site fell into disrepair with the fall of the Empire and over time buildings were dismantled for the stone and marble, with much debris left behind.  Eventually it was abandoned and became overgrown and was used mainly for grazing cattle.  Attempts at uncovering and restoring buildings began in the early 19th century and the process of excavating areas long buried continues today.  The impressive and extensive ruins are now one of Rome's major tourist attractions.

The triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus
The triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus
Travel tip:

Entry to the Forum costs €12 (€7.50 for concessions), which also permits entry to the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.  The site opens at 8.30am and closes one hour before sunset.  Visitors should allow at least two hours to explore the Forum and an hour to tour the Colosseum, although many will spend much longer.  Monuments that would be popular choices on a must-see list include the white marble Arch of Septimius Severus, the Curia Julia, where the Senate met, and the circular Temple of Vesta. 

(Photo of Forum by Marco Verch CC BY 2.0)
(Photo of Septimius Arch by Jebulon CC0)


1 comment:

  1. The volume of books that Gibbon wrote is a true masterpiece, not only as a historical account and dissection of the Roman Empire's collapse, but also as a masterpiece that stands as one of the great summits of literary genius. Anyone who has either an appreciation for the origin of Western culture or an appreciation of the English language will revel in this great work.