Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall

Bust level artwork of portly man in curled wig, seated, facing left
Edward Gibbon. BBC.

The author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was fifty-two years old when “after the completion of a toilsome and successful work” he set about writing his autobiography. “Truth, naked and unblushing” was to be his exposition, the style simple, though the long habit of correct writing might have produced an “appearance of art and study.” To be avoided were the pains and pleasures of the body, deemed to be “an indelicate subject of conversation.”1,2

Some admirers of the great historian might have been disappointed to learn that their hero was not particularly “physically favored by nature. . . not handsome. . . very short. . . even as a youth, plump. . . and in later life. . . grossly fat.”3 Yet he had “the sexual ardor of a normal man. . . an eye for the girls. . . was a flirt. . . and women of all ages found him charming.”3

Gibbon was the only survivor of seven siblings, six of whom died in infancy.1 He avoided smallpox by being inoculated, a procedure recently introduced in England but “still opposed by medical, religious, and even political prejudice.” He was a sickly child, often “afflicted by lethargies and fevers.” He was once bitten by a dog “most vehemently suspected of madness” (i.e. rabies) and had an unspecified eye condition, a “fistula,” for which he was treated by the notorious charlatan Chevalier Taylor.1

For most of his childhood the family finances were burdened by the fees of doctors, apothecaries, and surgeons. Gibbon recalls often swallowing more physic than food, and his body remained forever marked with the “indelible scars of lancets and caustics.”1 He may have suffered from rheumatic fever, but some of his complaints may have been psychosomatic.3,4

At age fifteen he went for higher education to Magdalen College at Oxford and found that the professors rarely taught and had no incentive to do so. He almost became a Catholic, to the great displeasure of his father, who arranged in 1752 to exile him to Lausanne—in the French part of Switzerland.1

It was there that he immersed himself in the study of the classics. He began to think and write in French, and “almost stopped being an Englishman.”1 He had a brief romance with the brilliant Susanne Curchot, who later became the wife of the famous French minister of finance of Louis XVI, Jacques Necker. When Gibbon’s father forbade the liaison, Gibbon stoically declared that he “sighed as a lover, he obeyed as a son.”1,2

In his autobiography, Gibbon suggests that one should compute one’s age not from birth but from around puberty, meaning of course the intellectual and not the biological age.1 It was at that time that he became interested in literature and history; he describes how early on he “greedily devoured” the works of the ancient classics while attending school, visiting well-endowed libraries, and later acquiring the great books himself. By the age of sixteen he “had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and the Turks.” He had studied the dynasties of Assyria and Egypt, the history of Greece, Rome, the barbarian invasions, Byzantium, and the conquests of the Saracens. He arrived at Oxford with a “stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor.”1

He continued his studies at Lausanne. There he developed an extensive plan of study, reviewing the classics under the four divisions of historians, poets, orators, and philosophers. He perfected his style by the time-honored technique of translating a text from one language to another and then translating it back to the original.1 He returned to England after an absence of almost five years, and during the Seven Years War he and his father enrolled in the local Hampshire militia.

Though contemptuous of his “rustic” fellow officers, he joined them in their ways and developed a life-long habit of hard drinking. Preferring Madeira wine, he drank at least two bottles of wine a day, sometimes more.3 At age thirty-four (in 1771) he had his first attack of gout. This recurred regularly for most of his life, usually in the winter. He may also have had subclinical cirrhosis of the liver.3

At the end of the war, he returned to Europe and undertook a grand tour, visiting the famous cities of Italy, their historical sites, and their museums (1764). In Rome he conceived the idea of writing a history of the Roman Empire. In a much-quoted paragraph embellished by the passage of some twenty literary years, he described how the idea came to him while he was musing on the ruins of the Capitol and listening to the friars’ singing the vespers in the Temple of Jupiter.1,2

He labored on his project for some twenty years in London and at times in Lausanne. He wrote “the last lines of the last page” in Lausanne on 27 June 1787, and he recalls in another much-quoted paragraph how the joy and pride of his “deliverance” was soon humbled by the melancholy thought that life is short and the future uncertain.1,2

On concluding his history he lived mainly in London but returned periodically to Lausanne, the last time during the French Revolution. He ended his autobiography in 1791, reflecting wistfully that the present is but a fleeting moment and all efforts vanity. According to the laws of probability, “so true in general, so fallacious in particular,” he expected to live fifteen more years, but lived only five.1,2

Already in 1761 he had noted a swelling in his groin. It became more visible by the mid-1770s and then grew, impairing walking and even sitting. It eventually made him incontinent so that “one could not endure being close to him” and it increased in size “most stupendously.” Three distinguished surgeons pronounced it to be a hydrocele and tapped it three times.4 Each time, they removed between four to six liters of fluid. Each time the fluid reaccumulated. It was all they could do in providing “temporary relief from a horrible and increasing incapacity, untreatable at the time.”4 Fatal sepsis ensued after the third tapping (1794). Necropsy revealed a huge, inflamed, ulcerated, and partially gangrenous bag that hung as low as his knee and contained omentum and colon, and had even drawn down the lower part of the stomach towards the pubic area.4

Posterity regards Gibbon as one of the great historians of all times, though he was criticized for his harsh treatment of the early fathers of Christianity. For educators focusing on university education, his life shows how much can be learned and achieved earlier, before college, in childhood and adolescence, and also how an early passion or interest in a particular subject will provide benefits that will last all one’s life.

 

References

  1. Gibbon, E. Memoirs of my life. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1966, 1, 130, 180, and 189.
  2. Dunea, G. “Edward Gibbon.” Hektoen International Literary Vignettes Winter 2021.
  3. Foster, WD. “Edward Gibbon’s health.” British Medical Journal 1979;2:1633 (22-29 December)
  4. Jellinek, EH. “Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall.” J Roy Soc Med 1999;92:374.

 


 

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

 

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