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Title: Gibbon
Author: Morison, James Cotter, 1832-1888
Language: English
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*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Gibbon" ***

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English Men of Letters

Edited by John Morley



Lincoln College, Oxford

MacMillan and Co.

























Edward Gibbon[1] was born at Putney, near London, on 27th April in
the year 1737. After the reformation of the calendar his birthday
became the 8th of May. He was the eldest of a family of seven
children; but his five brothers and only sister all died in early
infancy, and he could remember in after life his sister alone, whom he
also regretted.


[Footnote 1: Gibbon's Memoirs and Letters are of such easy access that
I have not deemed it necessary to encumber these pages with references
to them. Any one who wishes to control my statements will have no
difficulty in doing so with the Miscellaneous Works, edited by Lord
Sheffield, in his hand. Whenever I advance anything that seems to
require corroboration, I have been careful to give my authority.]

He is at some pains in his Memoirs to show the length and quality of
his pedigree, which he traces back to the times of the Second and
Third Edwards. Noting the fact, we pass on to a nearer ancestor, his
grandfather, who seems to have been a person of considerable energy
of character and business talent. He made a large fortune, which he
lost in the South-Sea Scheme, and then made another before his death.
He was one of the Commissioners of Customs, and sat at the Board with
the poet Prior; Bolingbroke was heard to declare that no man knew
better than Mr. Edward Gibbon the commerce and finances of England.
His son, the historian's father, was a person of very inferior stamp.
He was educated at Westminster and Cambridge, travelled on the
Continent, sat in Parliament, lived beyond his means as a country
gentleman, and here his achievements came to an end. He seems to have
been a kindly but a weak and impulsive man, who however had the merit
of obtaining and deserving his son's affection by genial sympathy and
kindly treatment.

Gibbon's childhood was passed in chronic illness, debility, and
disease. All attempts to give him a regular education were frustrated
by his precarious health. The longest period he ever passed at school
were two years at Westminster, but he was constantly moved from one
school to another. This even his delicacy can hardly explain, and it
must have been fatal to all sustained study. Two facts he mentions of
his school life, which paint the manners of the age. In the year 1746
such was the strength of party spirit that he, a child of nine years
of age, "was reviled and buffeted for the sins of his Tory ancestors."
Secondly, the worthy pedagogues of that day found no readier way of
leading the most studious of boys to a love of science than corporal
punishment. "At the expense of many tears and some blood I purchased
the knowledge of the Latin syntax." Whether all love of study would
have been flogged out of him if he had remained at school, it is
difficult to say, but it is not an improbable supposition that this
would have happened. The risk was removed by his complete failure of
health. "A strange nervous affection, which alternately contracted his
legs and produced, without any visible symptom, the most excruciating
pain," was his chief affliction, followed by intervals of languor and
debility. The saving of his life during these dangerous years Gibbon
unhesitatingly ascribes to the more than maternal care of his aunt,
Catherine Porten, on writing whose name for the first time in his
Memoirs, "he felt a tear of gratitude trickling down his cheek." "If
there be any," he continues, "as I trust there are some, who rejoice
that I live, to that dear and excellent woman they must hold
themselves indebted. Many anxious and solitary hours and days did she
consume in the patient trial of relief and amusement; many wakeful
nights did she sit by my bedside in trembling expectation that every
hour would be my last." Gibbon is rather anxious to get over these
details, and declares he has no wish to expatiate on a "disgusting
topic." This is quite in the style of the _ancien régime_. There was
no blame attached to any one for being ill in those days, but people
were expected to keep their infirmities to themselves. "People knew
how to live and die in those days, and kept their infirmities out of
sight. You might have the gout, but you must walk about all the same
without making grimaces. It was a point of good breeding to hide one's
sufferings."[2] Similarly Walpole was much offended by a too faithful
publication of Madame de Sévigné's _Letters_. "Heaven forbid," he
says, "that I should say that the letters of Madame de Sévigné were
bad. I only meant that they were full of family details and mortal
distempers, to which the most immortal of us are subject." But Gibbon
was above all things a veracious historian, and fortunately has not
refrained from giving us a truthful picture of his childhood.


[Footnote 2: George Sand, quoted in Taine's _Ancien Régime_, p. 181.]

Of his studies, or rather his reading--his early and invincible love
of reading, which he would not exchange for the treasures of India--he
gives us a full account, and we notice at once the interesting fact
that a considerable portion of the historical field afterwards
occupied by his great work had been already gone over by Gibbon before
he was well in his teens. "My indiscriminate appetite subsided by
degrees into the historic line, and since philosophy has exploded all
innate ideas and natural propensities, I must ascribe the choice to
the assiduous perusal of the _Universal History_ as the octavo volumes
successively appeared. This unequal work referred and introduced me to
the Greek and Roman historians, to as many at least as were accessible
to an English reader. All that I could find were greedily devoured,
from Littlebury's lame _Herodotus_ to Spelman's valuable _Xenophon_,
to the pompous folios of Gordon's _Tacitus_, and a ragged _Procopius_
of the beginning of the last century." Referring to an accident which
threw the continuation of Echard's _Roman History_ in his way, he
says, "To me the reigns of the successors of Constantine were
absolutely new, and I was immersed in the passage of the Goths over
the Danube, when the summons of the dinner-bell reluctantly dragged me
from my intellectual feast.... I procured the second and third
volumes of Howell's _History of the World_, which exhibit the
Byzantine period on a larger scale. Mahomet and his Saracens soon
fixed my attention, and some instinct of criticism directed me to the
genuine sources. Simon Ockley first opened my eyes, and I was led from
one book to another till I had ranged round the circle of Oriental
history. Before I was sixteen I had exhausted all that could be
learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks,
and the same ardour urged me to guess at the French of D'Herbelot and
to construe the barbarous Latin of Pocock's _Abulfaragius_." Here is
in rough outline a large portion at least of the _Decline and Fall_
already surveyed. The fact shows how deep was the sympathy that Gibbon
had for his subject, and that there was a sort of pre-established
harmony between his mind and the historical period he afterwards

Up to the age of fourteen it seemed that Gibbon, as he says, was
destined to remain through life an illiterate cripple. But as he
approached his sixteenth year, a great change took place in his
constitution, and his diseases, instead of growing with his growth and
strengthening with his strength, wonderfully vanished. This unexpected
recovery was not seized by his father in a rational spirit, as
affording a welcome opportunity of repairing the defects of a hitherto
imperfect education. Instead of using the occasion thus presented of
recovering some of the precious time lost, of laying a sound
foundation of scholarship and learning on which a superstructure at
the university or elsewhere could be ultimately built, he carried the
lad off in an impulse of perplexity and impatience, and entered him as
a gentleman commoner at Magdalen College just before he had completed
his fifteenth year (1752, April 3). This was perhaps the most unwise
step he could have taken under the circumstances. Gibbon was too young
and too ignorant to profit by the advantages offered by Oxford to a
more mature student, and his status as a gentleman commoner seemed
intended to class him among the idle and dissipated who are only
expected to waste their money and their time. A good education is
generally considered as reflecting no small credit on its possessor;
but in the majority of cases it reflects credit on the wise solicitude
of his parents or guardians rather than on himself. If Gibbon escaped
the peril of being an ignorant and frivolous lounger, the merit was
his own.

At no period in their history had the English universities sunk to a
lower condition as places of education than at the time when Gibbon
went up to Oxford. To speak of them as seats of learning seems like
irony; they were seats of nothing but coarse living and clownish
manners, the centres where all the faction, party spirit, and bigotry
of the country were gathered to a head. In this evil pre-eminence both
of the universities and all the colleges appear to have been upon a
level, though Lincoln College, Oxford, is mentioned as a bright
exception in John Wesley's day to the prevalent degeneracy. The
strange thing is that, with all their neglect of learning and
morality, the colleges were not the resorts of jovial if unseemly boon
companionship; they were collections of quarrelsome and spiteful
litigants, who spent their time in angry lawsuits. The indecent
contentions between Bentley and the Fellows of Trinity were no
isolated scandal. They are best known and remembered on account of the
eminence of the chief disputants, and of the melancholy waste of
Bentley's genius which they occasioned. Hearne writes of Oxford in
1726, "There are such differences now in the University of Oxford
(hardly one college but where all the members are busied in law
business and quarrels not at all relating to the promotion of
learning), that good letters decay every day, insomuch that this
ordination on Trinity Sunday at Oxford there were no fewer (as I am
informed) than fifteen denied orders for insufficiency, which is the
more to be noted because our bishops, and those employed by them, are
themselves illiterate men."[3] The state of things had not much
improved twenty or thirty years later when Gibbon went up, but perhaps
it had improved a little. He does not mention lawsuits as a favourite
pastime of the Fellows. "The Fellows or monks of my time," he says,
"were decent, easy men, who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder:
their days were filled by a series of uniform employments--the chapel,
the hall, the coffee-house, and the common room--till they retired
weary and well satisfied to a long slumber. From the toil of reading,
writing, or thinking they had absolved their consciences. Their
conversation stagnated in a round of college business, Tory politics,
personal anecdotes, and private scandal. Their dull and deep potations
excused the brisk intemperance of youth, and their constitutional
toasts were not expressive of the most lively loyalty to the House of
Hanover." Some Oxonians perhaps could still partly realise the truth
of this original picture by their recollections of faint and feeble
copies of it drawn from their experience in youthful days. It seems to
be certain that the universities, far from setting a model of good
living, were really below the average standard of the morals and
manners of the age, and the standard was not high. Such a satire as
the _Terræ Filius_ of Amhurst cannot be accepted without large
deductions; but the caricaturist is compelled by the conditions of his
craft to aim at the _true seeming_, if he neglects the true, and with
the benefit of this limitation the _Terræ Filius_ reveals a deplorable
and revolting picture of vulgarity, insolence, and licence. The
universities are spoken of in terms of disparagement by men of all
classes. Lord Chesterfield speaks of the "rust" of Cambridge as
something of which a polished man should promptly rid himself. Adam
Smith showed his sense of the defects of Oxford in a stern section of
the _Wealth of Nations_, written twenty years after he had left the
place. Even youths like Gray and West, fresh from Eton, express
themselves with contempt for their respective universities. "Consider
me," says the latter, writing from Christ Church, "very seriously,
here is a strange country, inhabited by things that call themselves
Doctors and Masters of Arts, a country flowing with syllogisms and
ale; where Horace and Virgil are equally unknown." Gray, answering
from Peterhouse, can only do justice to his feelings by quoting the
words of the Hebrew prophet, and insists that Isaiah had Cambridge
equally with Babylon in view when he spoke of the wild beasts and wild
asses, of the satyrs that dance, of an inhabitation of dragons and a
court for owls.


[Footnote 3: _Social Life at the English Universities_. By Christopher
Wordsworth. Page 57.]

Into such untoward company was Gibbon thrust by his careless father at
the age of fifteen. That he succumbed to the unwholesome atmosphere
cannot surprise us. He does not conceal, perhaps he rather
exaggerates, in his Memoirs, the depth of his fall. As Bunyan in a
state of grace accused himself of dreadful sins which in all
likelihood he never committed, so it is probable that Gibbon, in his
old age, when study and learning were the only passions he knew,
reflected with too much severity on the boyish freaks of his
university life. Moreover there appears to have been nothing coarse or
unworthy in his dissipation; he was simply idle. He justly lays much
of the blame on the authorities. To say that the discipline was lax
would be to pay it an unmerited compliment. There was no discipline at
all. He lived in Magdalen as he might have lived at the Angel or the
Mitre Tavern. He not only left his college, but he left the
university, whenever he liked. In one winter he made a tour to Bath,
another to Buckinghamshire, and he made four excursions to London,
"without once hearing the voice of admonition, without once feeling
the hand of control." Of study he had just as much and as little as he

"As soon as my tutor had sounded the insufficiency of his disciple in
school learning, he proposed that we should read every morning from
ten to eleven the comedies of Terence. During the first weeks I
constantly attended these lessons in my tutor's room; but as they
appeared equally devoid of profit and pleasure, I was once tempted to
try the experiment of a formal apology. The apology was accepted with
a smile. I repeated the offence with less ceremony: the excuse was
admitted with the same indulgence; the slightest motive of laziness or
indisposition, the most trifling avocation at home or abroad was
allowed as a worthy impediment, nor did my tutor appear conscious of
my absence or neglect." No wonder he spoke with indignation of such
scandalous neglect. "To the University of Oxford," he says, "I
acknowledge no obligation, and she will as readily renounce me for a
son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen
months at Magdalen College; they proved the most idle and unprofitable
of my whole life. The reader will pronounce between the school and the
scholar." This is only just and fully merited by the abuses denounced.
One appreciates the anguish of the true scholar mourning over lost
time as a miser over lost gold. There was another side of the question
which naturally did not occur to Gibbon, but which may properly occur
to us. Did Gibbon lose as much as he thought in missing the scholastic
drill of the regular public school and university man? Something he
undoubtedly lost: he was never a finished scholar, up to the standard
even of his own day. If he had been, is it certain that the
accomplishment would have been all gain? It may be doubted. At a later
period Gibbon read the classics with the free and eager curiosity of a
thoughtful mind. It was a labour of love, of passionate ardour,
similar to the manly zeal of the great scholars of the Renaissance.
This appetite had not been blunted by enforced toil in a prescribed
groove. How much of that zest for antiquity, of that keen relish for
the classic writers which he afterwards acquired and retained through
life, might have been quenched if he had first made their acquaintance
as school-books? Above all, would he have looked on the ancient world
with such freedom and originality as he afterwards gained, if he had
worn through youth the harness of academical study? These questions do
not suggest an answer, but they may furnish a doubt. Oxford and
Cambridge for nearly a century have been turning out crowds of
thorough-paced scholars of the orthodox pattern. It is odd that the
two greatest historians who have been scholars as well--Gibbon and
Grote--were not university-bred men.

As if to prove by experiment where the fault lay, in "the school or
the scholar," Gibbon had no sooner left Oxford for the long vacation,
than his taste for study returned, and, not content with reading, he
attempted original composition. The subject he selected was a curious
one for a youth in his sixteenth year. It was an attempt to settle the
chronology of the age of Sesostris, and shows how soon the austere
side of history had attracted his attention. "In my childish balance,"
he says, "I presumed to weigh the systems of Scaliger and Petavius, of
Marsham and of Newton; and my sleep has been disturbed by the
difficulty of reconciling the Septuagint with the Hebrew computation."
Of course his essay had the usual value of such juvenile productions;
that is, none at all, except as an indication of early bias to serious
study of history. On his return to Oxford, the age of Sesostris was
wisely relinquished. He indeed soon commenced a line of study which
was destined to have a lasting influence on the remainder of his
course through life.

He had an inborn taste for theology and the controversies which have
arisen concerning religious dogma. "From my childhood," he says, "I
had been fond of religious disputation: my poor aunt has often been
puzzled by the mysteries which she strove to believe." How he carried
the taste into mature life, his great chapters on the heresies and
controversies of the Early Church are there to show. This inclination
for theology, co-existing with a very different temper towards
religious sentiment, recalls the similar case of the author of the
_Historical and Critical Dictionary_, the illustrious Pierre Bayle,
whom Gibbon resembled in more ways than one. At Oxford his religious
education, like everything else connected with culture, had been
entirely neglected. It seems hardly credible, yet we have his word for
it, that he never subscribed or studied the Articles of the Church of
England, and was never confirmed. When he first went up, he was judged
to be too young, but the Vice-Chancellor directed him to return as
soon as he had completed his fifteenth year, recommending him in the
meantime to the instruction of his college. "My college forgot to
instruct; I forgot to return, and was myself forgotten by the first
magistrate of the university. Without a single lecture, either public
or private, either Christian or Protestant, without any academical
subscription, without any episcopal ordination, I was left by light of
my catechism to grope my way to the chapel and communion table, where
I was admitted without question how far or by what means I might be
qualified to receive the sacrament. Such almost incredible neglect was
productive of the worst mischiefs." What did Gibbon mean by this last
sentence? Did he, when he wrote it, towards the end of his life,
regret the want of early religious instruction? Nothing leads us to
think so, or to suppose that his subsequent loss of faith was a heavy
grief, supported, but painful to bear. His mind was by nature
positive, or even pagan, and he had nothing of what the Germans call
_religiosität_ in him. Still there is a passage in his Memoirs where
he oddly enough laments not having selected the _fat slumbers of the
Church_ as an eligible profession. Did he reflect that perhaps the
neglect of his religious education at Oxford had deprived him of a
bishopric or a good deanery, and the learned leisure which such
positions at that time conferred on those who cared for it? He could
not feel that he was morally, or even spiritually, unfit for an office
filled in his own time by such men as Warburton and Hurd. He would not
have disgraced the episcopal bench; he would have been dignified,
courteous, and hospitable; a patron and promoter of learning, we may
be sure. His literary labours would probably have consisted of an
edition of a Greek play or two, and certainly some treatise on the
Evidences of Christianity. But in that case we should not have had the
_Decline and Fall_.

The "blind activity of idleness" to which he was exposed at Oxford,
prevented any result of this kind. For want of anything better to do, he
was led to read Middleton's _Free Enquiry into the Miraculous Powers
which are Supposed to have Subsisted in the Christian Church_. Gibbon
says that the effect of Middleton's "bold criticism" upon him was
singular, and that instead of making him a sceptic, it made him more of
a believer. He might have reflected that it is the commonest of
occurrences for controversialists to produce exactly the opposite result
to that which they intend, and that as many an apology for Christianity
has sown the first seeds of infidelity, so an attack upon it might well
intensify faith. What follows is very curious. "The elegance of style
and freedom of argument were repelled by a shield of prejudice. I still
revered the character, or rather the names of the saints and fathers
whom Dr. Middleton exposes; nor could he destroy my implicit belief
that the gift of miraculous powers was continued in the Church during
the first four or five centuries of Christianity. But I was unable to
resist the weight of historical evidence, that within the same period
most of the leading doctrines of Popery were already introduced in
theory and practice. Nor was my conclusion absurd that miracles are the
test of truth, and that the Church must be orthodox and pure which was
so often approved by the visible interposition of the Deity. The
marvellous tales which are boldly attested by the Basils and
Chrysostoms, the Austins and Jeromes, compelled me to embrace the
superior merits of celibacy, the institution of the monastic life, the
use of the sign of the cross, of holy oil, and even of images, the
invocation of saints, the worship of relics, the rudiments of purgatory
in prayers for the dead, and the tremendous mystery of the sacrifice of
the body and the blood of Christ, which insensibly swelled into the
prodigy of transubstantiation." In this remarkable passage we have a
distinct foreshadow of the Tractarian movement, which came seventy or
eighty years afterwards. Gibbon in 1752, at the age of fifteen, took up
a position practically the same as Froude and Newman took up about the
year 1830. In other words, he reached the famous _via media_ at a bound.
But a second spring soon carried him clear of it, into the bosom of the
Church of Rome.

He had come to what are now called Church principles, by the energy of
his own mind working on the scanty data furnished him by Middleton. By
one of those accidents which usually happen in such cases, he made the
acquaintance of a young gentleman who had already embraced
Catholicism, and who was well provided with controversial tracts in
favour of Romanism. Among these were the two works of Bossuet, the
_Exposition of Catholic Doctrine_ and the _History of the Protestant
Variations_. Gibbon says: "I read, I applauded, I believed, and surely
I fell by a noble hand. I have since examined the originals with a
more discerning eye, and shall not hesitate to pronounce that Bossuet
is indeed a master of all the weapons of controversy. In the
_Exposition_, a specious apology, the orator assumes with consummate
art the tone of candour and simplicity, and the ten horned monster is
transformed at his magic touch into the milk-white hind, who must be
loved as soon as she is seen. In the _History_, a bold and well-aimed
attack, he displays, with a happy mixture of narrative and argument,
the faults and follies, the changes and contradictions of our first
Reformers, whose variations, as he dexterously contends, are the mark
of historical error, while the perpetual unity of the Catholic Church
is the sign and test of infallible truth. To my present feelings it
seems incredible that I should ever believe that I believed in
transubstantiation. But my conqueror oppressed me with the sacramental
words, '_Hoc est corpus meum_,' and dashed against each other the
figurative half meanings of the Protestant sects; every objection was
resolved into omnipotence, and, after repeating at St. Mary's the
Athanasian Creed, I humbly acquiesced in the mystery of the Real

Many reflections are suggested on the respective domains of reason and
faith by these words, but they cannot be enlarged on here. No one,
nowadays, one may hope, would think of making Gibbon's conversion a
subject of reproach to him. The danger is rather that it should be
regarded with too much honour. It unquestionably shows the early and
trenchant force of his intellect: he mastered the logical position in
a moment; saw the necessity of a criterion of faith; and being told
that it was to be found in the practice of antiquity, boldly went
there, and abided by the result. But this praise to his head does not
extend to his heart. A more tender and deep moral nature would not
have moved so rapidly. We must in fairness remember that it was not
his fault that his religious education had been neglected at home, at
school, and at college. But we have no reason to think that had it
been attended to, the result would have been much otherwise. The root
of spiritual life did not exist in him. It never withered, because it
never shot up. Thus when he applied his acute mind to a religious
problem, he contemplated it with the coolness and impartiality of a
geometer or chess player, his intellect operated _in vacuo_ so to
speak, untrammelled by any bias of sentiment or early training. He had
no profound associations to tear out of his heart. He merely altered
the premisses of a syllogism. When Catholicism was presented to him in
a logical form, it met with no inward bar and repugnance. The house
was empty and ready for a new guest, or rather the first guest. If
Gibbon anticipated the Tractarian movement intellectually, he was
farther removed than the poles are asunder from the mystic reverent
spirit which inspired that movement. If we read the _Apologia_ of Dr.
Newman, we perceive the likeness and unlikeness of the two cases. "As
a matter of simple conscience," says the latter, "I felt it to be a
duty to protest against the Church of Rome." At the time he refers to
Dr. Newman was a Catholic to a degree Gibbon never dreamed of. But in
the one case conscience and heart-ties "strong as life, stronger
almost than death," arrested the conclusions of the intellect. Ground
which Gibbon dashed over in a few months or weeks, the great
Tractarian took ten years to traverse. So different is the mystic from
the positive mind.

Gibbon had no sooner settled his new religion than he resolved with a
frankness which did him all honour to profess it publicly. He wrote to
his father, announcing his conversion, a letter which he afterwards
described, when his sentiments had undergone a complete change, as
written with all the pomp, dignity, and self-satisfaction of a martyr.
A momentary glow of enthusiasm had raised him, as he said, above all
worldly considerations. He had no difficulty, in an excursion to
London, in finding a priest, who perceived in the first interview that
persuasion was needless. "After sounding the motives and merits of my
conversion, he consented to admit me into the pale of the Church, and
at his feet on the 8th of June 1753, I solemnly, though privately,
abjured the errors of heresy." He was exactly fifteen years and one
month old. Further details, which one would like to have, he does not
give. The scene even of the solemn act is not mentioned, nor whether
he was baptized again; but this may be taken for granted.

The fact of any one "going over to Rome" is too common an occurrence
nowadays to attract notice. But in the eighteenth century it was a
rare and startling phenomenon. Gibbon's father, who was "neither a
bigot nor a philosopher," was shocked and astonished by his "son's
strange departure from the religion of his country." He divulged the
secret of young Gibbon's conversion, and "the gates of Magdalen
College were for ever shut" against the latter's return. They really
needed no shutting at all. By the fact of his conversion to Romanism
he had ceased to be a member of the University.



The elder Gibbon showed a decision of character and prompt energy in
dealing with his son's conversion to Romanism, which were by no means
habitual with him. He swiftly determined to send him out of the
country, far away from the influences and connections which had done
such harm. Lausanne in Switzerland was the place selected for his
exile, in which it was resolved he should spend some years in
wholesome reflections on the error he had committed in yielding to the
fascinations of Roman Catholic polemics. No time was lost: Gibbon had
been received into the Church on the 8th of June, 1753, and on the
30th of the same month he had reached his destination. He was placed
under the care of a M. Pavillard, a Calvinist minister, who had two
duties laid upon him, a general one, to superintend the young man's
studies, a particular and more urgent one, to bring him back to the
Protestant faith.

It was a severe trial which Gibbon had now to undergo. He was by
nature shy and retiring; he was ignorant of French; he was very young;
and with these disadvantages he was thrown among entire strangers
alone. After the excitement and novelty of foreign travel were over,
and he could realise his position, he felt his heart sink within him.
From the luxury and freedom of Oxford he was degraded to the
dependence of a schoolboy. Pavillard managed his expenses, and his
supply of pocket-money was reduced to a small monthly allowance. "I
had exchanged," he says, "my elegant apartment in Magdalen College for
a narrow gloomy street, the most unfrequented in an unhandsome town,
for an old inconvenient house, and for a small chamber ill-contrived
and ill-furnished, which on the approach of winter, instead of a
companionable fire, must be warmed by the dull and invisible heat of a
stove." Under these gloomy auspices he began the most profitable, and
after a time the most pleasant, period of his whole life, one on which
he never ceased to look back with unmingled satisfaction as the
starting-point of his studies and intellectual progress.

The first care of his preceptor was to bring about his religious
conversion. Gibbon showed an honourable tenacity to his new faith, and
a whole year after he had been exposed to the Protestant dialectics of
Pavillard he still, as the latter observed with much regret, continued
to abstain from meat on Fridays. There is something slightly
incongruous in the idea of Gibbon _fasting_ out of religious scruples,
but the fact shows that his religion had obtained no slight hold of
him, and that although he had embraced it quickly, he also accepted
with intrepid frankness all its consequences. His was not an intellect
that could endure half measures and half lights; he did not belong to
that class of persons who do not know their own minds.

However it is not surprising that his religion, placed where he was,
was slowly but steadily undermined. The Swiss clergy, he says, were
acute and learned on the topics of controversy, and Pavillard seems to
have been a good specimen of his class. An adult and able man, in
daily contact with a youth in his own house, urging persistently but
with tact one side of a thesis, could hardly fail in the course of
time to carry his point. But though Gibbon is willing to allow his
tutor a handsome share in the work of his conversion, he maintains
that it was chiefly effected by his own private reflections. And this
is eminently probable. What logic had set up, logic could throw down.
He gives us a highly characteristic example of the reflections in
question. "I still remember my solitary transport at the discovery of
a philosophical argument against the doctrine of transubstantiation:
that the text of Scripture which seems to inculcate the Real Presence
is attested only by a single sense--our sight; while the real presence
itself is disproved by three of our senses--the sight, the touch, and
the taste." He was unaware of the distinction between the logical
understanding and the higher reason, which has been made since his
time to the great comfort of thinkers of a certain stamp. Having
reached so far, his progress was easy and rapid. "The various articles
of the Romish creed disappeared like a dream, and after a full
conviction, on Christmas-day, 1754, I received the sacrament in the
church of Lausanne. It was here that I suspended my religious
inquiries, acquiescing with implicit belief in the tenets and
mysteries which are adopted by the general consent of Catholics and
Protestants." He thus had been a Catholic for about eighteen months.

Gibbon's residence at Lausanne was a memorable epoch in his life on
two grounds. Firstly, it was during the five years he spent there that
he laid the foundations of that deep and extensive learning by which
he was afterwards distinguished. Secondly, the foreign education he
there received, at the critical period when the youth passes into the
man, gave a permanent bent to his mind, and made him a continental
European rather than an insular Englishman--two highly important
factors in his intellectual growth.

He says that he went up to Oxford with a "stock of erudition which
might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a
schoolboy might have been ashamed." Both erudition and ignorance were
left pretty well undisturbed during his short and ill-starred
university career. At Lausanne he found himself, for the first time,
in possession of the means of successful study, good health, calm,
books, and tuition, up to a certain point: that point did not reach
very far. The good Pavillard, an excellent man, for whom Gibbon ever
entertained a sincere regard, was quite unequal to the task of forming
such a mind. There is no evidence that he was a ripe or even a fair
scholar, and the plain fact is that Gibbon belongs to the honourable
band of self-taught men. "My tutor," says Gibbon, "had the good sense
to discern how far he could be useful, and when he felt that I
advanced beyond his speed and measure, he wisely left me to my
genius." Under that good guidance he formed an extensive plan of
reviewing the Latin classics, in the four divisions of (1) Historians,
(2) Poets, (3) Orators, and (4) Philosophers, in "chronological series
from the days of Plautus and Sallust to the decline of the language
and empire of Rome." In one year he read over the following authors:
Virgil, Sallust, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, Tacitus,
Suetonius, Quintus Curtius, Justin, Florus, Plautus, Terence, and
Lucretius. We may take his word when he says that this review, however
rapid, was neither hasty nor superficial. Gibbon had the root of all
scholarship in him, the most diligent accuracy and an unlimited
faculty of taking pains. But he was a great scholar, not a minute one,
and belonged to the robust race of the Scaligers and the Bentleys,
rather than to the smaller breed of the Elmsleys and Monks, and of
course he was at no time a professed philologer, occupied chiefly with
the niceties of language. The point which deserves notice in this
account of his studies is their wide sweep, so superior and bracing,
as compared with that narrow restriction to the "authors of the best
period," patronised by teachers who imperfectly comprehend their own
business. Gibbon proceeded on the common-sense principle, that if you
want to obtain a real grasp of the literature, history, and genius of
a people, you must master that literature with more or less
completeness from end to end, and that to select arbitrarily the
authors of a short period on the grounds that they are models of
style, is nothing short of foolish. It was the principle on which
Joseph Scaliger studied Greek, and indeed occurs spontaneously to a
vigorous mind eager for real knowledge.[4]


[Footnote 4: Vix delibatis conjugationibus Græcis, Homerum cum
interpretatione arreptum uno et viginti diebus totum didici. Reliquos vero
poetas Græcos omnes intra quatuor menses devoravi. Neque ullum oratorem aut
historicum prius attigi quam poetas omnes tenerem.--_Scaligeri Epistolæ,
Lib. 1. Epis. 1._]

Nor did he confine himself to reading: he felt that no one is sure of
knowing a language who limits his study of it to the perusal of
authors. He practised diligently Latin prose composition, and this in
the simplest and most effectual way. "I translated an epistle of
Cicero into French, and after throwing it aside till the words and
phrases were obliterated from my memory, I retranslated my French into
such Latin as I could find, and then compared each sentence of my
imperfect version with the ease, the grace, the propriety of the Roman
orator." The only odd thing in connection with this excellent method
is that Gibbon in his Memoirs seems to think it was a novel discovery
of his own, and would recommend it to the imitation of students,
whereas it is as old as the days of Ascham at least. There is no
indication that he ever in the least degree attempted Latin verse, and
it is improbable that he should have done so, reading alone in
Lausanne, under the slight supervision of such a teacher as Pavillard.
The lack of this elegant frivolity will be less thought of now than it
would some years ago. But we may admit that it would have been
interesting to have a copy of hexameters or elegiacs by the historian
of Rome. So much for Latin. In Greek he made far less progress. He had
attained his nineteenth year before he learned the alphabet, and even
after so late a beginning he did not prosecute the study with much

M. Pavillard seems to have taught him little more than the rudiments.
"After my tutor had left me to myself I worked my way through about
half the _Iliad_, and afterwards interpreted alone a large portion of
Xenophon and Herodotus. But my ardour, destitute of aid and emulation,
gradually cooled, and from the barren task of searching words in a
lexicon I withdrew to the free and familiar conversation of Virgil and
Tacitus." This statement of the Memoirs is more than confirmed by the
journal of his studies, where we find him, as late as the year 1762,
when he was twenty-five years of age, painfully reading Homer, it
would appear, for the first time. He read on an average about a book a
week, and when he had finished the _Iliad_ this is what he says: "I
have so far met with the success I hoped for, that I have acquired a
great facility in reading the language, and treasured up a very great
stock of words. What I have rather neglected is the grammatical
construction of them, and especially the many various inflections of
the verbs." To repair this defect he wisely resolved to bestow some
time every morning on the perusal of the Greek Grammar of Port Royal.
Thus we see that at an age when many men are beginning to forget their
Greek, Gibbon was beginning to learn it. Was this early deficiency
ever repaired in Greek as it was in Latin? I think not. He never was
at home in old Hellas as he was in old Rome. This may be inferred from
the discursive notes of his great work, in which he has with admirable
skill incorporated so much of his vast and miscellaneous reading. But
his references to classic Greek authors are relatively few and timid
compared with his grasp and mastery of the Latin. His judgments on
Greek authors are also, to say the least, singular. When he had
achieved the _Decline and Fall_, and was writing his Memoirs in the
last years of his life, the Greek writer whom he selects for especial
commendation is Xenophon. "Cicero in Latin and Xenophon in Greek are
indeed the two ancients whom I would first propose to a liberal
scholar, not only for the merit of their style and sentiments, but for
the admirable lessons which may be applied almost to every situation
of public and private life." Of the merit of Xenophon's sentiments,
most people would now admit that the less said the better. The warmth
of Gibbon's language with regard to Xenophon contrasts with the
coldness he shows with regard to Plato. "I involved myself," he says,
"in the philosophic maze of the writings of Plato, of which perhaps
the dramatic is more interesting than the argumentative part." That
Gibbon knew amply sufficient Greek for his purposes as an historian no
one doubts, but his honourable candour enables us to see that he was
never a Greek scholar in the proper sense of the word.

It would be greatly to misknow Gibbon to suppose that his studies at
Lausanne were restricted to the learned languages. He obtained
something more than an elementary knowledge of mathematics, mastered
De Crousaz' _Logic_ and Locke's _Essay_, and filled up his spare time
with that wide and discursive reading to which his boundless curiosity
was always pushing him. He was thoroughly happy and contented, and
never ceased throughout his life to congratulate himself on the
fortunate exile which had placed him at Lausanne. In one respect he
did not use his opportunities while in Switzerland. He never climbed a
mountain all the time he was there, though he lived to see in his
later life the first commencement of the Alpine fever. On the other
hand, as became a historian and man of sense, the social and political
aspects of the country engaged his attention, as well they might. He
enjoyed access to the best society of the place, and the impression he
made seems to have been as favourable as the one he received.

The influence of a foreign training is very marked in Gibbon,
affecting as it does his general cast of thought, and even his style.
It would be difficult to name any writer in our language, especially
among the few who deserve to be compared with him, who is so
un-English, not in a bad sense of the word, as implying objectionable
qualities, but as wanting the clear insular stamp and native flavour.
If an intelligent Chinese or Persian were to read his book in a French
translation, he would not readily guess that it was written by an
Englishman. It really bears the imprint of no nationality, and is
emphatically European. We may postpone the question whether this is a
merit or a defect, but it is a characteristic. The result has
certainly been that he is one of the best-known of English prose
writers on the Continent, and one whom foreigners most readily
comprehend. This peculiarity, of which he himself was fully aware, we
may agree with him in ascribing to his residence at Lausanne. At the
"flexible age of sixteen he soon learned to endure, and gradually to
adopt," foreign manners. French became the language in which he
spontaneously thought; "his views were enlarged, and his prejudices
were corrected." In one particular he cannot be complimented on the
effect of his continental education, when he congratulates himself
"that his taste for the French theatre had abated his idolatry for the
gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy
as the first duty of Englishmen." Still it is well to be rid of
idolatry and bigotry even with regard to Shakespeare. We must remember
that the insular prejudices from which Gibbon rejoiced to be free were
very different in their intensity and narrowness from anything of the
kind which exists now. The mixed hatred and contempt for foreigners
which prevailed in his day, were enough to excite disgust in any
liberal mind.

The lucid order and admirable literary form of Gibbon's great work are
qualities which can escape no observant reader. But they are
qualities which are not common in English books. The French have a
saying, "Les Anglais ne savent pas faire un livre." This is unjust,
taken absolutely, but as a general rule it is not without foundation.
It is not a question of depth or originality of thought, nor of the
various merits belonging to style properly so-called. In these
respects English authors need not fear competition. But in the art of
clear and logical arrangement, of building up a book in such order and
method that each part contributes to the general effect of the whole,
we must own that we have many lessons to learn of our neighbours. Now
in this quality Gibbon is a Frenchman. Not Voltaire himself is more
perspicuous than Gibbon. Everything is in its place, and disposed in
such apparently natural sequence that the uninitiated are apt to think
the matter could not have been managed otherwise. It is a case, if
there ever was one, of consummate art concealing every trace, not only
of art, but even of effort. Of course the grasp and penetrating
insight which are implied here, were part of Gibbon's great endowment,
which only Nature could give. But it was fortunate that his genius was
educated in the best school for bringing out its innate quality.

It would be difficult to explain why, except on that principle of
decimation by which Macaulay accounted for the outcry against Lord
Byron, Gibbon's solitary and innocent love passage has been made the
theme of a good deal of malicious comment. The parties most
interested, and who, we may presume, knew the circumstances better
than any one else, seem to have been quite satisfied with each other's
conduct. Gibbon and Mdlle. Curchod, afterwards Madame Necker, remained
on terms of the _most_ intimate friendship till the end of the
former's life. This might be supposed sufficient. But it has not been
so considered by evil tongues. The merits of the case, however, may be
more conveniently discussed in a later chapter. At this point it will
be enough to give the facts.

Mdlle. Susanne Curchod was born about the year 1740; her father was
the Calvinist minister of Crassier, her mother a French Huguenot who
had preferred her religion to her country. She had received a liberal
and even learned education from her father, and was as attractive in
person as she was accomplished in mind. "She was beautiful with that
pure virginal beauty which depends on early youth" (Sainte-Beuve). In
1757 she was the talk of Lausanne, and could not appear in an assembly
or at the play without being surrounded by admirers; she was called La
Belle Curchod. Gibbon's curiosity was piqued to see such a prodigy,
and he was smitten with love at first sight. "I found her" he says
"learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment,
and elegant in manners." He was twenty and she seventeen years of age;
no impediment was placed in the way of their meeting; and he was a
frequent guest in her father's house. In fact Gibbon paid his court
with an assiduity which makes an exception in his usually unromantic
nature. "She listened," he says, "to the voice of truth and passion,
and I might presume to hope that I had made some impression on a
virtuous heart." We must remember that this and other rather glowing
passages in his Memoirs were written in his old age, when he had
returned to Lausanne, and when, after a long separation and many
vicissitudes, he and Madame Necker were again thrown together in an
intimacy of friendship which revived old memories. Letters of hers to
him which will be quoted in a later chapter show this in a striking
light. He indulged, he says, his dream of felicity, but on his return
to England he soon discovered that his father would not hear of this
"strange alliance," and then follows the sentence which has lost him
in the eyes of some persons. "After a painful struggle I yielded to my
fate: I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." What else he was to do
under the circumstances does not appear. He was wholly dependent on
his father, and on the Continent at least parental authority is not
regarded as a trifling impediment in such cases. Gibbon could only
have married Mdlle. Curchod as an exile and a pauper, if he had openly
withstood his father's wishes. "All for love" is a very pretty maxim,
but it is apt to entail trouble when practically applied. Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, who had the most beautiful sentiments on paper, but who in
real life was not always a model of self-denial, found, as we shall
see, grave fault with Gibbon's conduct. Gibbon, as a plain man of
rather prosaic good sense, behaved neither heroically nor meanly.
Time, absence, and the scenes of a new life, which he found in
England, had their usual effect; his passion vanished. "My cure," he
says, "was accelerated by a faithful report of the tranquillity and
cheerfulness of the lady herself, and my love subsided in friendship
and esteem." The probability, indeed, that he and Mdlle. Curchod would
ever see each other again, must have seemed remote in the extreme.
Europe and England were involved in the Seven Years War; he was fixed
at home, and an officer in the militia; Switzerland was far off: when
and where were they likely to meet? They did, contrary to all
expectation, meet again, and renewed terms not so much of friendship
as of affection. Mdlle. Curchod, as the wife of Necker, became
somewhat of a celebrity, and it is chiefly owing to these last-named
circumstances that the world has ever heard of Gibbon's early love.

While he was at Lausanne Gibbon made the acquaintance of Voltaire, but
it led to no intimacy or fruitful reminiscence. "He received me with
civility as an English youth, but I cannot boast of any peculiar
notice or distinction." Still he had "the satisfaction of hearing--an
uncommon circumstance--a great poet declaim his own productions on the
stage." One is often tempted, in reading Gibbon's Memoirs, to regret
that he adopted the austere plan which led him "to condemn the
practice of transforming a private memorial into a vehicle of satire
or praise." As he truly says, "It was assuredly in his power to amuse
the reader with a gallery of portraits and a collection of anecdotes."
This reserve is particularly disappointing when a striking and
original figure like Voltaire passes across the field, without an
attempt to add one stroke to the portraiture of such a physiognomy.

Gibbon had now (1758) been nearly five years at Lausanne, when his
father suddenly intimated that he was to return home immediately. The
Seven Years War was at its height, and the French had denied a passage
through France to English travellers. Gibbon, or more properly his
Swiss friends, thought that the alternative road through Germany might
be dangerous, though it might have been assumed that the Great
Frederick, so far as he was concerned, would make things as pleasant
as possible to British subjects, whose country had just consented to
supply him with a much-needed subsidy. The French route was preferred,
perhaps as much from a motive of frolic as anything else. Two Swiss
officers of his acquaintance undertook to convey Gibbon from France as
one of their companions, under an assumed name, and in borrowed
regimentals. His complete mastery of French removed any chance of
detection on the score of language, and with a "mixture of joy and
regret" on the 11th April, 1758, Gibbon left Lausanne. He had a
pleasant journey, but no adventures, and returned to his native land
after an absence of four years, ten months, and fifteen days.



The only person whom, on his return, Gibbon had the least wish to see
was his aunt, Catherine Porten. To her house he at once hastened, and
"the evening was spent in the effusions of joy and tenderness." He
looked forward to his first meeting with his father with no slight
anxiety, and that for two reasons. First, his father had parted from
him with anger and menace, and he had no idea how he would be received
now. Secondly, his mother's place was occupied by a second wife, and
an involuntary but strong prejudice possessed him against his
step-mother. He was most agreeably disappointed in both respects. His
father "received him as a man, as a friend, all constraint was
banished at our first interview, and we ever after continued on the
same terms of easy and equal politeness." So far the prospect was
pleasant. But the step-mother remained a possible obstacle to all
comfort at home. He seems to have regarded his father's second
marriage as an act of displeasure with himself, and he was disposed to
hate the rival of his mother. Gibbon soon found that the injustice was
in his own fancy, and the imaginary monster was an amiable and
deserving woman. "I could not be mistaken in the first view of her
understanding; her knowledge and the elegant spirit of her
conversation, her polite welcome, and her assiduous care to study and
gratify my wishes announced at least that the surface would be smooth;
and my suspicions of art and falsehood were gradually dispelled by the
full discovery of her warm and exquisite sensibility." He became
indeed deeply attached to his step-mother. "After some reserve on my
side, our minds associated in confidence and friendship, and as Mrs.
Gibbon had neither children nor the hopes of children, we more easily
adopted the tender names and genuine characters of mother and son." A
most creditable testimony surely to the worth and amiability of both
of them. The friendship thus begun continued without break or coolness
to the end of Gibbon's life. Thirty-five years after his first
interview with his step-mother, and only a few months before his own
death, when he was old and ailing, and the least exertion, by reason
of his excessive corpulence, involved pain and trouble, he made a long
journey to Bath for the sole purpose of paying Mrs. Gibbon a visit. He
was very far from being the selfish Epicurean that has been sometimes

He had brought with him from Lausanne the first pages of a work which,
after much bashfulness and delay, he at length published in the French
language, under the title of _Essai sur l'Étude de la Littérature_, in
the year 1761, that is two years after its completion. In one respect
this juvenile work of Gibbon has little merit. The style is at once
poor and stilted, and the general quality of remark eminently
commonplace, where it does not fall into paradox. On the other hand,
it has an interesting and even original side. The main idea of the
little book, so far as it has one, was excellent, and really above the
general thought of the age, namely, the vindication of classical
literature and history generally from the narrow and singular
prejudice which prevailed against them, especially in France. When
Gibbon ascribes the design of his first work to a "refinement of
vanity, the desire of justifying and praising the object of a
favourite pursuit," he does himself less than justice. This first
utterance of his historic genius was prompted by an unconscious but
deep reaction against that contempt for the past, which was the
greatest blot in the speculative movement of the eighteenth century.
He resists the temper of his time rather from instinct than reason,
and pleads the cause of learning with the hesitation of a man who has
not fully seen round his subject, or even mastered his own thoughts
upon it. Still there is his protest against the proposal of
D'Alembert, who recommended that after a selection of facts had been
made at the end of every century the remainder should be delivered to
the flames. "Let us preserve them all," he says, "most carefully. A
Montesquieu will detect in the most insignificant, relations which the
vulgar overlook." He resented the haughty pretensions of the
mathematical sciences to universal dominion, with sufficient vigour to
have satisfied Auguste Comte. "Physics and mathematics are at present
on the throne. They see their sister sciences prostrate before them,
chained to their chariot, or at most occupied in adorning their
triumph. Perhaps their downfall is not far off." To speak of a
positive downfall of exact sciences was a mistake. But we may fairly
suppose that Gibbon did not contemplate anything beyond a relative
change of position in the hierarchy of the sciences, by which history
and politics would recover or attain to a dignity which was denied
them in his day. In one passage Gibbon shows that he had dimly
foreseen the possibility of the modern inquiries into the conditions
of savage life and prehistoric man. "An Iroquois book, even were it
full of absurdities, would be an invaluable treasure. It would offer a
unique example of the nature of the human mind placed in circumstances
which we have never known, and influenced by manners and religious
opinions, the complete opposite of ours." In this sentence Gibbon
seems to call in anticipation for the researches which have since been
prosecuted with so much success by eminent writers among ourselves,
not to mention similar inquirers on the Continent.

But in the meantime Gibbon had entered on a career which removed him
for long months from books and study. Without sufficiently reflecting
on what such a step involved, he had joined the militia, which was
embodied in the year 1760; and for the next two and a half years led,
as he says, a wandering life of military servitude. At first, indeed,
he was so pleased with his new mode of life that he had serious
thoughts of becoming a professional soldier. But this enthusiasm
speedily wore off, and our "mimic Bellona soon revealed to his eyes
her naked deformity." It was indeed no mere playing at soldiering that
he had undertaken. He was the practical working commander of "an
independent corps of 476 officers and men." "In the absence, or even
in the presence of the two field officers" (one of whom was his
father, the major) "I was intrusted with the effective labour of
dictating the orders and exercising the battalion." And his duty did
not consist in occasional drilling and reviews, but in serious
marches, sometimes of thirty miles in a day, and camping under canvas.
One encampment, on Winchester Downs, lasted four months. Gibbon does
not hesitate to say that the superiority of his grenadiers to the
detachments of the regular army, with which they were often mingled,
was so striking that the most prejudiced regular could not have
hesitated a moment to admit it. But the drilling, and manoeuvring, and
all that pertained to the serious side of militia business interested
Gibbon, and though it took up time it gave him knowledge of a special
kind, of which he quite appreciated the value. He was much struck, for
instance, by the difference between the nominal and effective force of
every regiment he had seen, even when supposed to be complete, and
gravely doubts whether a nominal army of 100,000 men often brings
_fifty_ thousand into the field. What he found unendurable was the
constant shifting of quarters, the utter want of privacy and leisure
it often entailed, and the distasteful society in which he was forced
to live. For eight months at a stretch he never took a book in his
hand. "From the day we marched from Blandford, I had hardly a moment I
could call my own, being almost continually in motion, or if I was
fixed for a day, it was in the guardroom, a barrack, or an inn." Even
worse were the drinking and late hours; sometimes in "rustic" company,
sometimes in company in which joviality and wit were more abundant
than decorum and common sense, which will surprise no one who hears
that the famous John Wilkes, who was colonel of the Buckingham
militia, was not unfrequently one of his boon companions. A few
extracts from his journal will be enough. "To-day (August 28, 1762),
Sir Thomas Worsley," the colonel of the battalion, "came to us to
dinner. Pleased to see him, we kept bumperising till after
roll-calling, Sir Thomas assuring us every fresh bottle how infinitely
sober he was growing." September 23rd. "Colonel Wilkes, of the
Buckingham militia, dined with us, and renewed the acquaintance Sir
Thomas and myself had begun with him at Reading. I scarcely ever met
with a better companion; he has inexhaustible spirits, infinite wit
and humour, and a great deal of knowledge.... This proved a very
debauched day; we drank a great deal both after dinner and supper; and
when at last Wilkes had retired, Sir Thomas and some others (of whom I
was not one) broke into his room and made him drink a bottle of claret
in bed." December 17. "We found old Captain Meard at Arlesford with
the second division of the Fourteenth. He and all his officers supped
with us, which made the evening rather a drunken one." Gibbon might
well say that the militia was unfit for and unworthy of him.

Yet it is quite astonishing to see, as recorded in his journal, how
keen an interest he still managed to retain in literature in the midst
of all this dissipation, and how fertile he was of schemes and
projects of future historical works to be prosecuted under more
favourable auspices. Subject after subject occurred to him as eligible
and attractive; he caresses the idea for a time, then lays it aside
for good reasons. First, he pitched upon the expedition of Charles
VIII. of France into Italy. He read and meditated upon it, and wrote a
dissertation of ten folio pages, besides large notes, in which he
examined the right of Charles VIII. to the crown of Naples, and the
rival claims of the houses of Anjou and Aragon. In a few weeks he
gives up this idea, firstly, for the rather odd reason that the
subject was too remote from us; and, secondly, for the very good
reason that the expedition was rather the introduction to great events
than great and important in itself. He then successively chose and
rejected the Crusade of Richard the First; the Barons' War against
John and Henry III.; the history of Edward the Black Prince; the lives
and comparisons of Henry V. and the Emperor Titus; the life of Sir
Philip Sidney, and that of the Marquis of Montrose. At length he fixed
on Sir Walter Raleigh as his hero. On this he worked with all the
assiduity that his militia life allowed, read a great quantity of
original documents relating to it, and, after some months of labour,
declared that "his subject opened upon him, and in general improved
upon a nearer prospect." But half a year later he "is afraid he will
have to drop his hero." And he covers half a page with reasons to
persuade himself that he was right in doing so. Besides the obvious
one that he would be able to add little that was not already
accessible in Oldys' _Life of Raleigh_, that the topic was exhausted,
and so forth, he goes on to make these remarks, which have more
signification to us now than perhaps they had to him when he wrote
them. "Could I even surmount these obstacles, I should shrink with
terror from the modern history of England, where every character is a
problem and every reader a friend or an enemy: when a writer is
supposed to hoist a flag of party, and is devoted to damnation by the
adverse faction. Such would be _my_ reception at home; and abroad the
historian of Raleigh must encounter an indifference far more bitter
than censure or reproach. The events of his life are interesting; but
his character is ambiguous; his actions are obscure; his writings are
English, and his fame is confined to the narrow limits of our language
and our island. _I must embrace a safer and more extensive theme._"
Here we see the first gropings after a theme of cosmopolitan interest.
He has arrived at two negative conclusions: that it must not be
English, and must not be narrow. What it is to be, does not yet
appear, for he has still a series of subjects to go through, to be
taken up and discarded. The history of the liberty of the Swiss, which
at a later period he partially achieved, was one scheme; the history
of Florence under the Medici was another. He speaks with enthusiasm of
both projects, adding that he will most probably fix upon the latter;
but he never did anything of the kind.

These were the topics which occupied Gibbon's mind during his service
in the militia, escaping when he could from the uproar and vulgarity
of the camp and the guardroom to the sanctuary of the historic muse,
to worship in secret. But these private devotions could not remove his
disgust at "the inn, the wine, and the company" he was forced to
endure, and latterly the militia became downright insupportable to
him. But honourable motives kept him to his post. "From a service
without danger I might have retired without disgrace; but as often as
I hinted a wish of resigning, my fetters were riveted by the friendly
intreaties of the colonel, the parental authority of the major, and my
own regard for the welfare of the battalion." At last the
long-wished-for day arrived, when the militia was disbanded. "Our two
companies," he writes in his journal, "were disembodied (December
23rd, 1762), mine at Alton, my father's at Buriton. They fired three
volleys, lodged the major's colours, delivered up their arms, received
their money, partook of a dinner at the major's expense, and then
separated, with great cheerfulness and regularity. Thus ended the
militia." The compression that his spirit had endured was shown by the
rapid energy with which he sought a change of scene and oblivion of
his woes. Within little more than a month after the scene just
described, Gibbon was in Paris beginning the grand tour.

With that keen sense of the value of time which marked him, Gibbon
with great impartiality cast up and estimated the profit and loss of
his "bloodless campaigns." Both have been alluded to already. He
summed up with great fairness in the entry that he made in his journal
on the evening of the day on which he recovered his liberty. "I am
glad that the militia has been, and glad that it is no more." This
judgment he confirmed thirty years afterwards, when he composed his
Memoirs. "My principal obligation to the militia was the making me an
Englishman and a soldier. After my foreign education, with my reserved
temper, I should long have continued a stranger in my native country,
had I not been shaken in this various scene of new faces and new
friends; had not experience forced me to feel the characters of our
leading men, the state of parties, the forms of office, the operations
of our civil and military system. In this peaceful service I imbibed
the rudiments of the language and science of tactics, which opened a
new field of study and observation. I diligently read and meditated
the _Mémoires Militaires_ of Quintus Icilius, the only writer who has
united the merits of a professor and a veteran. The discipline and
evolution of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the
phalanx and the legion, and the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers
(the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the
Roman Empire." No one can doubt it who compares Gibbon's numerous
narratives of military operations with the ordinary performances of
civil historians in those matters. The campaigns of Julian,
Belisarius, and Heraclius, not to mention many others, have not only
an uncommon lucidity, but also exhibit a clear appreciation of the
obstacles and arduousness of warlike operations, which is rare or
unknown to non-military writers. Macaulay has pointed out that Swift's
party pamphlets are superior in an especial way to the ordinary
productions of that class, in consequence of Swift's unavowed but very
serious participation in the cabinet councils of Oxford and
Bolingbroke. In the same manner Gibbon had an advantage through his
military training, which gives him no small superiority to even the
best historical writers who have been without it.

The course of foreign travel which Gibbon was now about to commence
had been contemplated before, but the war and the militia had
postponed it for nearly three years. It appears that as early as the
year 1760 the elder Gibbon had conceived the project of procuring a
seat in Parliament for his son, and was willing to incur the
anticipated expense of £1500 for that object. Young Gibbon, who seems
to have very accurately gauged his own abilities at that early age,
was convinced that the money could be much better employed in another
way. He wrote in consequence, under his father's roof, a letter to the
latter which does such credit to his head and to his heart, that,
although it is somewhat long, it cannot with propriety be omitted


     "DEAR SIR,

     "An address in writing from a person who has the pleasure of
     being with you every day may appear singular. However I have
     preferred this method, as upon paper I can speak without a
     blush and be heard without interruption. If my letter
     displeases you, impute it, dear sir, to yourself. You have
     treated me, not like a son, but like a friend. Can you be
     surprised that I should communicate to a friend all my
     thoughts and all my desires? Unless the friend approve them,
     let the father never know them; or at least let him know at
     the same time that however reasonable, however eligible, my
     scheme may appear to me, I would rather forget it for ever
     than cause him the slightest uneasiness.

     "When I first returned to England, attentive to my future
     interests, you were so good as to give me hopes of a seat in
     Parliament. This seat, it was supposed, would be an expense
     of fifteen hundred pounds. This design flattered my vanity,
     as it might enable me to shine in so august an assembly. It
     flattered a nobler passion: I promised myself that, by the
     means of this seat, I might one day be the instrument of
     some good to my country. But I soon perceived how little
     mere virtuous inclination, unassisted by talents, could
     contribute towards that great end, and a very short
     examination discovered to me that those talents had not
     fallen to my lot. Do not, dear sir, impute this declaration
     to a false modesty--the meanest species of pride. Whatever
     else I may be ignorant of, I think I know myself, and shall
     always endeavour to mention my good qualities without vanity
     and my defects without repugnance. I shall say nothing of
     the most intimate acquaintance with his country and
     language, so absolutely necessary to every senator; since
     they may be acquired, to allege my deficiency in them would
     seem only the plea of laziness. But I shall say with great
     truth that I never possessed that gift of speech, the first
     requisite of an orator, which use and labour may improve,
     but which nature can alone bestow; that my temper, quiet,
     retired, somewhat reserved, could neither acquire
     popularity, bear up against opposition, nor mix with ease in
     the crowds of public life; that even my genius (if you allow
     me any) is better qualified for the deliberate compositions
     of the closet than for the extempore discourses of
     Parliament. An unexpected objection would disconcert me, and
     as I am incapable of explaining to others what I do not
     understand myself, I should be meditating when I ought to be
     answering. I even want necessary prejudices of party and of
     nation. In popular assemblies it is often necessary to
     inspire them, and never orator inspired well a passion which
     he did not feel himself. Suppose me even mistaken in my own
     character, to set out with the repugnance such an opinion
     must produce offers but an indifferent prospect. But I hear
     you say it is not necessary that every man should enter into
     Parliament with such exalted hopes. It is to acquire a title
     the most glorious of any in a free country, and to employ
     the weight and consideration it gives in the service of
     one's friends. Such motives, though not glorious, yet are
     not dishonourable, and if we had a borough in our command,
     if you could bring me in without any great expense, or if
     our fortune enabled us to despise that expense, then indeed
     I should think them of the greatest strength. But with our
     private fortune, is it worthwhile to purchase at so high a
     rate a title honourable in itself, but which I must share
     with every fellow that can lay out 1500 pounds? Besides,
     dear sir, a merchandise is of little value to the owner when
     he is resolved not to sell it.

     "I should affront your penetration did I not suppose you now
     see the drift of this letter. It is to appropriate to
     another use the sum with which you destined to bring me into
     Parliament; to employ it, not in making me great, but in
     rendering me happy. I have often heard you say yourself that
     the allowance you had been so indulgent as to grant me,
     though very liberal in regard to your estate, was yet but
     small when compared with the almost necessary extravagances
     of the age. I have indeed found it so, notwithstanding a
     good deal of economy, and an exemption from many of the
     common expenses of youth. This, dear sir, would be a way of
     supplying these deficiencies without any additional expense
     to you. But I forbear--if you think my proposals reasonable,
     you want no intreaties to engage you to comply with them, if
     otherwise all will be without effect.

     "All that I am afraid of, dear sir, is that I should seem
     not so much asking a favour, as this really is, as exacting
     a debt. After all I can say, you will remain the best judge
     of my good and your own circumstances. Perhaps, like most
     landed gentlemen, an addition to my annuity would suit you
     better than a sum of money given at once; perhaps the sum
     itself may be too considerable. Whatever you may think
     proper to bestow on me, or in whatever manner, will be
     received with equal gratitude.

     "I intended to stop here, but as I abhor the least
     appearance of art, I think it better to lay open my whole
     scheme at once. The unhappy war which now desolates Europe
     will oblige me to defer seeing France till a peace. But that
     reason can have no influence on Italy, a country which every
     scholar must long to see. Should you grant my request, and
     not disapprove of my manner of employing your bounty, I
     would leave England this autumn and pass the winter at
     Lausanne with M. de Voltaire and my old friends. In the
     spring I would cross the Alps, and after some stay in Italy,
     as the war must then be terminated, return home through
     France, to live happily with you and my dear mother. I am
     now two-and-twenty; a tour must take up a considerable time;
     and although I believe you have no thoughts of settling me
     soon (and I am sure I have not), yet so many things may
     intervene that the man who does not travel early runs a
     great risk of not travelling at all. But this part of my
     scheme, as well as the whole of it, I submit entirely to

     "Permit me, dear sir, to add that I do not know whether the
     complete compliance with my wishes could increase my love
     and gratitude, but that I am very sure no refusal could
     diminish those sentiments with which I shall always remain,
     dear sir, your most dutiful and obedient son and servant.

     "E. GIBBON, JUN."

Instead of going to Italy in the autumn of 1760, as he fondly hoped
when he wrote this letter, Gibbon was marching about the south of
England at the head of his grenadiers. But the scheme sketched in the
above letter was only postponed, and ultimately realised in every
particular. The question of a seat in Parliament never came up again
during his father's life, and no doubt the money it would have cost
was, according to his wise suggestion, devoted to defray the expenses
of his foreign tour, which he is now about to begin.



Gibbon reached Paris on the 28th January, 1763; thirty-six days, as he
tells us, after the disbanding of the militia. He remained a little
over three months in the French capital, which on the whole pleased
him so well that he thinks that if he had been independent and rich,
he might have been tempted to make it his permanent residence.

On the other hand he seems to have been little if at all aware of the
extraordinary character of the society of which he became a spectator
and for a time a member. He does not seem to have been conscious that
he was witnessing one of the most singular social phases which have
yet been presented in the history of man. And no blame attaches to him
for this. No one of his contemporaries saw deeper in this direction
than he did. It is a remarkable instance of the way in which the
widest and deepest social movements are veiled to the eyes of those
who see them, precisely because of their width and depth. Foreigners,
especially Englishmen, visited Paris in the latter half of the
eighteenth century and reported variously of their experience and
impressions. Some, like Hume and Sterne, are delighted; some, like
Gibbon, are quietly, but thoroughly pleased; some, like
Walpole--though he perhaps is a class by himself--are half pleased and
half disgusted. They all feel that there is something peculiar in what
they witness, but never seem to suspect that nothing like it was ever
seen before in the world. One is tempted to wish that they could have
seen with our eyes, or, much more, that we could have had the
privilege of enjoying their experience, of spending a few months in
that singular epoch when "society," properly so called, the assembling
of men and women in drawing-rooms for the purpose of conversation, was
the most serious as well as the most delightful business of life. Talk
and discussion in the senate, the market-place, and the schools are
cheap; even barbarians are not wholly without them. But their
refinement and concentration in the _salon_--of which the president is
a woman of tact and culture--this is a phenomenon which never appeared
but in Paris in the eighteenth century. And yet scholars, men of the
world, men of business passed through this wonderland with eyes
blindfolded. They are free to enter, they go, they come, without a
sign that they have realised the marvellous scene that they were
permitted to traverse. One does not wonder that they did not perceive
that in those graceful drawing-rooms, filled with stately company of
elaborate manners, ideas and sentiments were discussed and evolved
which would soon be more explosive than gunpowder. One does not wonder
that they did not see ahead of them--men never do. One does rather
wonder that they did not see what was before their eyes. But wonder is
useless and a mistake. People who have never seen a volcano cannot be
expected to fear the burning lava, or even to see that a volcano
differs from any other mountain.

Gibbon had brought good introductions from London, but he admits that
they were useless, or rather superfluous. His nationality and his
_Essai_ were his best recommendations. It was the day of Anglomania,
and, as he says, "every Englishman was supposed to be a patriot and a
philosopher." "I had rather be," said Mdlle. de Lespinasse to Lord
Shelburne, "the least member of the House of Commons than even the
King of Prussia." Similar things must have been said to Gibbon, but he
has not recorded them; and generally it may be said that he is
disappointingly dull and indifferent to Paris, though he liked it well
enough when there. He never caught the Paris fever as Hume did, and
Sterne, or even as Walpole did, for all the hard things he says of the
underbred and overbearing manners of the philosophers. Gibbon had
ready access to the well-known houses of Madame Geoffrin, Madame
Helvétius and the Baron d'Holbach; and his perfect mastery of the
language must have removed every obstacle in the way of complete
social intercourse. But no word in his Memoirs or Letters shows that
he really saw with the eyes of the mind the singularities of that
strange epoch. And yet he was there at an exciting and important
moment. The Order of the Jesuits was tottering to its fall; the latter
volumes of the _Encyclopedia_ were being printed, and it was no
secret; the coruscating wit and audacity of the _salons_ were at their
height. He is not unjust or prejudiced, but somewhat cold. He dines
with Baron d'Holbach, and says his dinners were excellent, but nothing
of the guests. He goes to Madame Geoffrin, and pronounces her house an
excellent one. Such faint and commonplace praise reflects on the
eulogist. The only man of letters of whom he speaks with warmth is
Helvétius. He does not appear in this first visit to have known Madame
du Deffand, who was still keeping her _salon_ with the help of the
pale deep-eyed L'Espinasse, though the final rupture was imminent.
Louis Racine died, and so did Marivaux, while he was in Paris. The old
Opera-house in the Palais Royal was burnt down when he had been there
a little over a month, and the representations were transferred to the
Salle des Machines, in the Tuileries. The equestrian statue of Louis
XV. was set up in the Place to which it gave its name (where the Luxor
column now stands, in the Place de la Concorde) amidst the jeers and
insults of the mob, who declared it would never be got to pass the
hotel of Madame de Pompadour. How much or how little of all this
touched Gibbon, we do not know. We do know one thing, that his English
clothes were unfashionable and looked very foreign, the French being
"excessively long-waisted." Doubtless his scanty purse could not
afford a new outfit, such as Walpole two years afterwards, under the
direction of Lady Hertford, promptly procured. On the 8th of May he
hurried off to Lausanne.[5]


[Footnote 5: The chronicle of events which occurred during Gibbon's
sojourn in Paris will be found in the interesting _Mémoires de

His ultimate object was Italy. But he wisely resolved to place a
period of solid study between the lively dissipation of Paris and his
classic pilgrimage. He knew the difference between seeing things he
had read about and reading about things after he had seen them; how
the mind, charged with associations of famous scenes, is delicately
susceptible of impressions, and how rapidly old musings take form and
colour, when, stirred by outward realities; and contrariwise, how slow
and inadequate is the effort to reverse this process, and to clothe
with memories, monuments and sites over which the spirit has not sent
a halo of previous meditation. So he settled down quietly at Lausanne
for the space of nearly a year, and commenced a most austere and
systematic course of reading on the antiquities of Italy. The list of
learned works which he perused "with his pen in his hand" is
formidable, and fills a quarto page. But he went further than this,
and compiled an elaborate treatise on the nations, provinces, and
towns of ancient Italy (which we still have) digested in alphabetical
order, in which every Latin author, from Plautus to Rutilius, is laid
under contribution for illustrative passages, which are all copied out
in full. This laborious work was evidently Gibbon's own guidebook in
his Italian travels, and one sees not only what an admirable
preparation it was for the object in view, but what a promise it
contained of that scrupulous thoroughness which was to be his mark as
an historian. His mind was indeed rapidly maturing, and becoming
conscious in what direction its strength lay.

His account of his first impressions of Rome has been often quoted,
and deserves to be so again. "My temper is not very susceptible of
enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm which I do not feel I have ever scorned
to affect. But at the distance of twenty-five years I can neither
forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I
first approached and entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless
night, I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum. Each memorable
spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Cæsar fell, was at once
present to my eye, and several days of intoxication were lost and
enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute examination." He
gave eighteen weeks to the study of Rome only, and six to Naples, and
we may rest assured that he made good use of his time. But what makes
this visit to Rome memorable in his life and in literary history is
that it was the occasion and date of the first conception of his great
work. "It was at Rome, on the 15th October, 1764, as I sat musing amid
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." The scene, the
contrast of the old religion and the new, the priests of Christ
replacing the flamens of Jupiter, the evensong of Catholic Rome
swelling like a dirge over the prostrate Pagan Rome might well
concentrate in one grand luminous idea the manifold but unconnected
thoughts with which his mind had so long been teeming. Gibbon had
found his work, which was destined to fill the remainder of his life.
Henceforth there is a fixed centre around which his thoughts and
musings cluster spontaneously. Difficulties and interruptions are not
wanting. The plan then formed is not taken in hand at once; on the
contrary, it is contemplated at "an awful distance"; but it led him on
like a star guiding his steps, till he reached his appointed goal.

After crossing the Alps on his homeward journey, Gibbon had had some
thoughts of visiting the southern provinces of France. But when he
reached Lyons he found letters "expressive of some impatience" for his
return. Though he does not exactly say as much, we may justly conclude
that the elder Gibbon's pecuniary difficulties were beginning to be
oppressive. So the traveller, with the dutifulness that he ever showed
to his father, at once bent his steps northward. Again he passed
through Paris, and the place had a new attraction in his eyes in the
person of Mdlle. Curchod, now become Madame Necker, and wife of the
great financier.

This perhaps will be the most convenient place to notice and estimate
a certain amount of rather spiteful gossip, of which Gibbon was the
subject in Switzerland about this time. Rousseau and his friend
Moultou have preserved it for us, and it is probable that it has lost
none of its pungency in passing through the hands of the latter. The
substance of it is this:--that in the year 1763, when Gibbon revisited
Lausanne, as we have seen, Susanne Curchod was still in a pitiable
state of melancholy and well nigh broken-hearted at Gibbon's manifest
coldness, which we know he considered to be "friendship and esteem."
Whether he even saw her on this visit cannot be considered certain,
but it is at least highly probable. Be that as it may: this is the
picture of her condition as drawn by Moultou in a letter to Rousseau:
"How sorry I am for our poor Mdlle. Curchod! Gibbon, whom she loves,
and to whom I know she has sacrificed some excellent matches, has come
to Lausanne, but cold, insensible, and as entirely cured of his old
passion as she is far from cure. She has written me a letter that
makes my heart ache." Rousseau says in reply, "He who does not
appreciate Mdlle. Curchod is not worthy of her; he who appreciates her
and separates himself from her is a man to be despised. She does not
know what she wants. Gibbon serves her better than her own heart. I
would rather a hundred times that he left her poor and free among you
than that he should take her off to be rich and miserable in
England." One does not quite see how Gibbon could have acted to the
contentment of Jean-Jacques. For not taking Mdlle. Curchod to
England--as we may presume he would have done if he had married
her--he is contemptible. Yet if he does take her he will make her
miserable, and Rousseau would rather a hundred times he left her
alone--precisely what he was doing; but then he was despicable for
doing it. The question is whether there is not a good deal of
exaggeration in all this. Only a year after the tragic condition in
which Moultou describes Mdlle. Curchod she married M. Necker, and
became devoted to her husband. A few months after she married Necker
she cordially invited Gibbon to her house every day of his sojourn in
Paris. If Gibbon had behaved in the unworthy way asserted, if she had
had her feelings so profoundly touched and lacerated as Moultou
declares, would she, or even could she, have acted thus? If she was
conscious of being wronged, and he was conscious--as he must have
been--of having acted basely, or at least unfeelingly, is it not as
good as certain that both parties would have been careful to see as
little of each other as possible? A broken-off love-match, even
without complication of unworthy conduct on either side, is generally
an effective bar to further intercourse. But in this case the
intercourse is renewed on the very first opportunity, and never
dropped till the death of one of the persons concerned.

Two letters have been preserved of Gibbon and Madame Necker
respectively, nearly of the same date, and both referring to this
rather delicate topic of their first interviews after her marriage.
Gibbon writes to his friend Holroyd, "The Curchod (Madame Necker) I
saw in Paris. She was very fond of me, and the husband particularly
civil. Could they insult me more cruelly? Ask me every evening to
supper, go to bed and leave me alone with his wife--what impertinent
security! It is making an old lover of mighty little consequence. She
is as handsome as ever, and much genteeler; seems pleased with her
wealth rather than proud of it. I was exalting Nanette d'Illens's good
luck and the fortune" (this evidently refers to some common
acquaintance, who had changed her name to advantage). "'What fortune,'
she said with an air of contempt:--'not above twenty thousand livres a
year.' I smiled, and she caught herself immediately, 'What airs I give
myself in despising twenty thousand livres a year, who a year ago
looked upon eight hundred as the summit of my wishes.'"

Let us turn to the lady's account of the same scenes. "I do not know
if I told you," she writes to a friend at Lausanne, "that I have seen
Gibbon, and it has given me more pleasure than I know how to express.
Not indeed that I retain any sentiment for a man who I think does not
deserve much" (this little toss of pique or pride need not mislead
us); "but my feminine vanity could not have had a more complete and
honest triumph. He stayed two weeks in Paris, and I had him every day
at my house; he has become soft, yielding, humble, decorous to a
fault. He was a constant witness of my husband's kindness, wit, and
gaiety, and made me remark for the first time, by his admiration for
wealth, the opulence with which I am surrounded, and which up to this
moment had only produced a disagreeable impression upon me."
Considering the very different points of view of the writers, these
letters are remarkably in unison. The solid fact of the daily visits
is recorded in both. It is easy to gather from Madame Necker's letter
that she was very glad to show Mr. Gibbon that for going farther and
not marrying him she had not fared worse. The rather acid allusion to
"opulence" is found in both letters; but much more pronounced in hers
than in his. Each hints that the other thought too much of wealth. But
he does so with delicacy, and only by implication; she charges him
coarsely with vulgar admiration for it. We may reasonably suspect that
riches had been the subject of not altogether smooth conversation
between them, in the later part of the evening, perhaps, after M.
Necker had retired in triumph to bed. One might even fancy that there
was a tacit allusion by Madame Necker to the dialogue recorded by
Gibbon to Holroyd, when his smile checked her indirect pride in her
own wealth, and that she remembered that smile with just a touch of
resentment. If so, nothing was more natural and comforting than to
charge him with the failing that he had detected in her. But here are
the facts. Eight months after her marriage, Madame Necker admits that
she had Gibbon every day to her house. He says that she was very
cordial. She would have it understood that she received him only for
the sake of gratifying a feminine vanity. For her own sake one might
prefer his interpretation to hers. It is difficult to believe that the
essentially simple-minded Madame Necker would have asked a man every
day to her house merely to triumph over him; and more difficult still
to believe that the man would have gone if such had been the object. A
little tartness in these first interviews, following on a relation of
some ambiguity, cannot surprise one. But it was not the dominant
ingredient, or the interviews must have ceased of their own accord. In
any case few will admit that either of the persons concerned would
have written as they did if Moultou's statement were correct. In
neither epistle is there any trace of a grand passion felt or
slighted. We discover the much lower level of vanity and badinage. And
the subsequent relations of Gibbon and Madame Necker all tend to prove
that this was the real one.



Gibbon now (June, 1765) returned to his father's house, and remained
there till the latter's death in 1770. He describes these five years
as having been the least pleasant and satisfactory of his whole life.
The reasons were not far to seek. The unthrifty habits of the elder
Gibbon were now producing their natural result. He was saddled with
debt, from which two mortgages, readily consented to by his son, and
the sale of the house at Putney, only partially relieved him. Gibbon
now began to fear that he had an old age of poverty before him. He had
pursued knowledge with single-hearted loyalty and now became aware
that from a worldly point of view knowledge is not often a profitable
investment. A more dejecting discovery cannot be made by the sincere
scholar. He is conscious of labour and protracted effort, which the
prosperous professional man and tradesman who pass him on their road
to wealth with a smile of scornful pity have never known. He has
forsaken comparatively all for knowledge, and the busy world meets him
with a blank stare, and surmises shrewdly that he is but an idler,
with an odd taste for wasting his time over books. It says much for
Gibbon's robustness of spirit that he did not break down in these
trying years, that he did not weakly take fright at his prospect, and
make hasty and violent efforts to mend it. On the contrary, he
remained steadfast and true to the things of the mind. With diminished
cheerfulness perhaps, but with no abatement of zeal, he pursued his
course and his studies, thereby proving that he belonged to the select
class of the strong and worthy who, penetrated with the loveliness of
science, will not be turned away from it.

His first effort to redeem the time was a project of a history of
Switzerland. His choice was decided by two circumstances: (1) his love
for a country which he had made his own by adoption; (2) by the fact
that he had in his friend Deyverdun, a fellow-worker who could render
him most valuable assistance. Gibbon never knew German, which is not
surprising when we reflect what German literature amounted to, in
those days; and he soon discovered that the most valuable authorities
of his projected work were in the German language. But Deyverdun was a
perfect master of that tongue, and translated a mass of documents for
the use of his friend. They laboured for two years in collecting
materials, before Gibbon felt himself justified in entering on the
"more agreeable task of composition." And even then he considered the
preparation insufficient, as no doubt it was. He felt he could not do
justice to his subject; uninformed as he was "by the scholars and
statesmen, and remote from the archives and libraries of the Swiss
republic." Such a beginning was not of good augury for the success of
the undertaking. He never wrote more than about sixty quarto pages of
the projected work, and these, as they were in French, were submitted
to the judgment of a literary society of foreigners in London, before
whom the MS. was read. The author was unknown, and Gibbon attended the
meeting, and thus listened without being observed "to the free
strictures and unfavourable sentence of his judges." He admits that
the momentary sensation was painful; but the condemnation was ratified
by his cooler thoughts: and he declares that he did not regret the
loss of a slight and superficial essay, though it "had cost some
expense, much labour, and more time." He says in his Memoirs that he
burnt the sheets. But this, strange to say, was a mistake on his part.
They were found among his papers after his death, and though not
published by Lord Sheffield in the first two volumes of his
Miscellaneous Works, which the latter edited in 1796, they appeared in
the supplemental third volume which came out in 1815. We thus can
judge for ourselves of their value. One sees at once why and how they
failed to satisfy their author's mature judgment. They belong to that
style of historical writing which consists in the rhetorical
transcription and adornment of the original authorities, but in which
the writer never gets close enough to his subject to apply the
touchstone of a clear and trenchant criticism. Such criticism indeed
was not common in Switzerland in his day, and one cannot blame Gibbon
for not anticipating the researches of modern investigators. But his
historical sense was aroused to suspicion by the story of William
Tell, which he boldly sets down as a fable. Altogether, one may
pronounce the sketch to be pleasantly written in a flowing,
picturesque narrative, and showing immense advance in style beyond the
essay on the Study of Literature. David Hume, to whom he submitted
it, urged him to persevere, and the advice was justified under the
circumstances, although one cannot now regret that it was not

After the failure of this scheme Gibbon, still in connection with
Deyverdun, planned a periodical work under the title of _Mémoires
Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne_. Only two volumes ever appeared,
and the speculation does not seem to have met with much success.
Gibbon "presumes to say that their merit was superior to their
reputation, though they produced more reputation than emolument." The
first volume is executed with evident pains, and gives a fair picture
of the literary and social condition of England at the time. The heavy
review articles are interspersed with what is intended to be lighter
matter on the fashions, foibles, and prominent characters of the day.
Gibbon owns the authorship of the first article on Lord Lyttelton's
history of Henry the Second, and his hand is discernible in the
account of the fourth volume of Lardner's work _On the Credibility of
the Gospel History_. The first has no merit beyond a faithful report.
The latter is written with much more zest and vigour, and shows the
interest that he already took in Christian antiquities. Other
articles, evidently from the pen of Deyverdun, on the English theatre
and Beau Nash of Bath, are the liveliest in the collection. The
magazine was avowedly intended for Continental readers, and might have
obtained success if it had been continued long enough. But it died
before it had time to make itself known.[6]


[Footnote 6: Two volumes appeared of the _Mémoires Littéraires_. Of
these only the first is to be found in the British Museum. It is a
small 12mo, containing 230 pages. Here is the Table des
Matières:--(1) Histoire de Henri II., par Milord Lyttelton; (2) Le
Nouveau Guide de Bath; (3) Essai sur l'Histoire de la Société Civile,
par M. Ferguson; (4) Conclusions des Mémoires de Miss Sydney Bidulph;
Théologie (5) Recueil des Témoignages Anciens, par Lardner; (6) Le
Confessional; (7) Transactions Philosophiques; (8) Le Gouverneur, par
D. L. F. Spectacles, Beaux Arts, Nouvelles Littéraires.]

When the _Mémoires Littéraires_ collapsed Gibbon was again left
without a definite object to concentrate his energy, and with his work
still to seek. One might wonder why he did not seriously prepare for
the _Decline and Fall_. It must have been chiefly at this time that it
was "contemplated at an awful distance," perhaps even with numbing
doubt whether the distance would ever be lessened and the work
achieved, or even begun. The probability is he had too little peace of
mind to undertake anything that required calm and protracted labour.
"While so many of my acquaintance were married, or in Parliament, or
advancing with a rapid step in the various roads of honour or fortune
I stood alone, immovable, and insignificant.... The progress and the
knowledge of our domestic disorders aggravated my anxiety, and I began
to apprehend that in my old age I might be left without the fruits of
either industry or inheritance." Perhaps a reasonable apprehension of
poverty is more paralysing than the reality. In the latter case prompt
action is so imperatively commanded that the mind has no leisure for
the fatal indulgence of regrets; but when indigence seems only
imminent, and has not yet arrived, a certain lethargy is apt to be
produced out of which only the most practical characters can rouse
themselves, and these are not, as a rule, scholars by nature. We need
not be surprised that Gibbon during these years did nothing serious,
and postponed undertaking his great work. The inspiration needed to
accomplish such a long and arduous course as it implied could not be
kindled in a mind harassed by pecuniary cares. The fervent heat of a
poet's imagination may glow as brightly in poverty as in opulence, but
the gentle yet prolonged enthusiasm of the historian is likely to be
quenched when the resources of life are too insecure.[7]


[Footnote 7: Scholarship has been frequently cultivated amidst great
poverty; but from the time of Thucydides, the owner of mines, to
Grote, the banker, historians seem to have been in, at least, easy

It is perhaps not wholly fanciful to suspect that Gibbon's next
literary effort was suggested and determined by the inward
discomposure he felt at this time. By nature he was not a
controversialist; not that he wanted the abilities to support that
character, but his mind was too full, fertile, and fond of real
knowledge to take much pleasure in the generally barren occupation of
gainsaying other men. But at this point in his life he made an
exception, and an unprovoked exception. When he wrote his famous
vindication of the first volume of the _Decline and Fall_ he was
acting in self-defence, and repelling savage attacks upon his
historical veracity. But in his _Critical Observations on the Sixth
Book of the Æneid_ he sought controversy for its own sake, and became
a polemic--shall we say out of gaiety or bitterness of heart? That
inward unrest easily produces an aggressive spirit is a matter of
common observation, and it may well have been that in attacking
Warburton he sought a diversion from the worry of domestic cares. Be
that as it may, his _Observations_ are the most pungent and dashing
effusion he ever allowed himself. It was his first effort in English
prose, and it is doubtful whether he ever managed his mother tongue
better, if indeed he ever managed it so well. The little tract is
written with singular spirit and rapidity of style. It is clear,
trenchant, and direct to a fault. It is indeed far less critical than
polemical, and shows no trace of lofty calm, either moral or
intellectual. We are not repelled much by his eagerness to refute and
maltreat his opponent. That was not alien from the usages of the time,
and Warburton at least had no right to complain of such a style of
controversy. But there is no width and elevation of view. The writer
does not carry the discussion up to a higher level, and dominate his
adversary from a superior standpoint. Controversy is always ephemeral
and vulgar, unless it can rise to the discussion and establishment of
facts and principles valuable for themselves, independently of the
particular point at issue. It is this quality which has made the
master-works of Chillingworth and Bentley supereminent. The particular
point for which the writers contended is settled or forgotten. But in
moving up to that point they touched--such was their large discourse
of reason--on topics of perennial interest, did such justice, though
only in passing, to certain other truths, that they are gratefully
remembered ever after. Thus Bentley's dissertation on Phalaris is
read, not for the main thesis--proof of the spuriousness of the
letters--but for the profound knowledge and admirable logic with which
subsidiary positions are maintained on the way to it. Tried by this
standard, and he deserves to be tried by a high standard, Gibbon fails
not much, but entirely. The _Observations_ are rarely, if ever,
quoted as an authority of weight by any one engaged on classical or
Virgilian literature. This arises from the attitude of the writer, who
is nearly solely occupied with establishing negative conclusions that
Æneas was _not_ a lawgiver, that the Sixth Æneid is _not_ an allegory,
that Virgil had _not_ been initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries when
he wrote it, and so forth. Indeed the best judges now hold that he has
not done full justice to the grain of truth that was to be found in
Warburton's clumsy and prolix hypothesis.[8] It should be added that
Gibbon very candidly admits and regrets the acrimonious style of the
pamphlet, and condemns still more "in a personal attack his cowardly
concealment of his name and character."


[Footnote 8: Conington, _Introduction to the Sixth Æneid_. "A reader
of the present day will, I think, be induced to award the palm of
learning and ingenuity to Warburton." "The language and imagery of the
sixth book more than once suggest that Virgil intended to embody in
his picture the poetical view of that inner side of ancient religion
which the mysteries may be supposed to have presented."--_Suggestion
on the Study of the Æneid_, by H. Nettleship, p. 13.]

The _Observations_ were the last work which Gibbon published in his
father's lifetime. His account of the latter's death (November 10,
1770) is feelingly written, and shows the affectionate side of his own
nature to advantage. He acknowledges his father's failings, his
weakness and inconstancy, but insists that they were compensated by
the virtues of the head and heart, and the warmest sentiments of
honour and humanity. "His graceful person, polite address, gentle
manners, and unaffected cheerfulness recommended him to the favour of
every company." And Gibbon recalls with emotion "the pangs of shame,
tenderness, and self-reproach" which preyed on his father's mind at
the prospect, no doubt, of leaving an embarrassed estate and
precarious fortune to his son and widow. He had no taste for study in
the fatal summer of 1770, and declares that he would have been ashamed
if he had. "I submitted to the order of nature," he says, in words
which recall his resignation on losing his mistress--"I submitted to
the order of nature, and my grief was soothed by the conscious
satisfaction that I had discharged all the duties of filial piety." We
see Gibbon very fairly in this remark. He had tenderness, steady and
warm attachments, but no passion.

Nearly two years elapsed after his father's death, before he was able
to secure from the wreck of his estate a sufficient competence to
establish himself in London. His house was No. 7, Bentinck Street,
near Manchester Square, then a remote suburb close to the country
fields. His housekeeping was that of a solitary bachelor, who could
afford an occasional dinner-party. Though not absolutely straitened in
means, we shall presently see that he was never quite at his ease in
money matters while he remained in London. But he had now freedom and
no great anxieties, and he began seriously to contemplate the
execution of his great work.

Gibbon, as we have seen, looked back with little satisfaction on the
five years between his return from his travels and his father's death.
They are also the years during which his biographer is able to follow
him with the least certainty. Hardly any of his letters which refer to
that period have been preserved, and he has glided rapidly over it in
his Memoirs. Yet it was, in other respects besides the matter of
pecuniary troubles, a momentous epoch in his life. The peculiar views
which he adopted and partly professed on religion must have been
formed then. But the date, the circumstance, and the occasion are left
in darkness. Up to December 18, 1763, Gibbon was evidently a believer.
In an entry in his private journal under that date he speaks of a
Communion Sunday at Lausanne as affording an "edifying spectacle," on
the ground that there is "neither business nor parties, and they
interdict even whist" on that day. How soon after this his opinions
began to change, it is impossible to say. But we are conscious of a
markedly different tone in the _Observations_, and a sneer at "the
ancient alliance between the avarice of the priests and the credulity
of the people" is in the familiar style of the Deists from Toland to
Chubb. There is no evidence of his familiarity with the widely
diffused works of the freethinkers, and as far as I am aware he does
not quote or refer to them even once. But they could hardly have
escaped his notice. Still his strong historic sense and solid
erudition would be more likely to be repelled than attracted by their
vague and inaccurate scholarship, and chimerical theories of the light
of Nature. Still we know that he practically adopted, in the end, at
least the negative portion of these views, and the question is, When
did he do so? His visit to Paris, and the company that he frequented
there, might suggest that as a probable date of his change of
opinions. But the entry just referred to was subsequent by several
months to that visit, and we may with confidence assume that no
freethinker of the eighteenth century would pronounce the austerities
of a Communion Sunday in a Calvinist town an edifying spectacle. It is
probable that his relinquishing of dogmatic faith was gradual, and for
a time unconscious. It was an age of tepid belief, except among the
Nonjurors and Methodists; and with neither of these groups could he
have had the least sympathy. His acquaintance with Hume, and his
partiality for the writings of Bayle, are more probable sources of a
change of sentiment which was in a way predestined by natural bias and
cast of mind. Any occasion would serve to precipitate the result. In
any case, this result had been attained some years before the
publication of the first volume of the _Decline and Fall_, in 1776.
Referring to his preparatory studies for the execution of that work,
he says, "As I believed, and as I still believe, that the propagation
of the Gospel and the triumph of the Church are inseparably connected
with the decline of the Roman monarchy, I weighed the causes and
effects of the revolution, and contrasted the narratives and apologies
of the Christians themselves with the glances of candour or enmity
which the pagans have cast on the rising sects. The Jewish and heathen
testimonies, as they are collected and illustrated by Dr. Lardner,
directed without superseding my search of the originals, and in an
ample dissertation on the miraculous darkness of the Passion I
privately drew my conclusions from the silence of an unbelieving age."
Here we have the argument which concludes the sixteenth chapter
distinctly announced. But the previous travail of spirit is not
indicated. Gibbon has marked with precision the stages of his
conversion to Romanism. But the following chapters of the history of
his religious opinions he has not written, or he has suppressed them,
and we can only vaguely guess their outline.



Gibbon's settlement in London as master in his own house did not come
too soon. A few more years of anxiety and dependence, such as he had
passed of late with his father in the country, would probably have
dried up the spring of literary ambition and made him miss his career.
He had no tastes to fit him for a country life. The pursuit of farming
only pleased him in Virgil's _Georgics_. He seems neither to have
liked nor to have needed exercise, and English rural sports had no
charms for him. "I never handled a gun, I seldom mounted a horse, and
my philosophic walks were soon terminated by a shady bench, where I
was long detained by the sedentary amusement of reading or
meditation." He was a born _citadin_. "Never," he writes to his friend
Holroyd, "never pretend to allure me by painting in odious colours the
dust of London. I love the dust, and whenever I move into the Weald it
is to visit you, and not your trees." His ideal was to devote the
morning, commencing early--at seven, say--to study, and the afternoon
and evening to society and recreation, not "disdaining the innocent
amusement of a game at cards." And this plan of a happy life he very
fairly realised in his little house in Bentinck Street. The letters
that we have of his relating to this period are buoyant with spirits
and self-congratulation at his happy lot. He writes to his step-mother
that he is every day more satisfied with his present mode of life,
which he always believed was most calculated to make him happy. The
stable and moderate stimulus of congenial society, alternating with
study, was what he liked. The excitement and dissipation of a town
life, which purchase pleasure to-day at the expense of fatigue and
disgust to-morrow, were as little to his taste as the amusements of
the country. In 1772, when he settled in London, he was young in
years, but he was old in tastes, and he enjoyed himself with the
complacency often seen in healthy old men. "My library," he writes to
Holroyd in 1773, "Kensington Gardens, and a few parties with new
acquaintance, among whom I reckon Goldsmith and Sir Joshua Reynolds,"
(poor Goldsmith was to die the year following), "fill up my time, and
the monster _ennui_ preserves a very respectful distance. By the by,
your friends Batt, Sir John Russell, and Lascelles dined with me one
day before they set off: _for I sometimes give the prettiest little
dinner in the world_." One can imagine Gibbon, the picture of
plumpness and content, doing the honours of his modest household.
Still he was never prominent in society, even after the publication of
his great work had made him famous. Lord Sheffield says that his
conversation was superior to his writings, and in a circle of intimate
friends it is probable that this was true. But in the free encounter
of wit and argument, the same want of readiness that made him silent
in parliament would most likely restrict his conversational power. It
may be doubted if there is a striking remark or saying of his on
record. His name occurs in Boswell, but nearly always as a _persona
muta_. Certainly the arena where Johnson and Burke encountered each
other was not fitted to bring out a shy and not very quick man.
Against Johnson he manifestly harboured a sort of grudge, and if he
ever felt the weight of Ursa Major's paw it is not surprising.

He rather oddly preserved an instance of his conversational skill, as
if aware that he would not easily get credit for it. The scene was in
Paris. "At the table of my old friend M. de Foncemagne, I was involved
in a dispute with the Abbé de Mably.... As I might be partial in my
own cause, I shall transcribe the words of an unknown critic. 'You
were, my dear Théodon, at M. de Foncemagne's house, when the Abbé de
Mably and Mr. Gibbon dined there along with a number of guests. The
conversation ran almost entirely on history. The Abbé, being a
profound politician, turned it while at dessert on the administration
of affairs, and as by genius and temper, and the habit of admiring
Livy, he values only the republican system, he began to boast of the
excellence of republics, being well persuaded that the learned
Englishman would approve of all he said and admire the profoundity of
genius that had enabled a Frenchman to discover all these advantages.
But Mr. Gibbon, knowing by experience the inconveniences of a popular
government, was not at all of his opinion, and generously took up the
defence of monarchy. The Abbé wished to convince him out of Livy, and
by some arguments drawn from Plutarch in favour of the Spartans. Mr.
Gibbon, being endowed with a most excellent memory, and having all
events present to his mind, soon got the command of the conversation.
The Abbé grew angry, they lost possession of themselves, and said hard
things of each other. The Englishman retaining his native coolness,
watched for his advantages, and pressed the Abbé with increasing
success in proportion as he was more disturbed by passion. The
conversation grew warmer, and was broken off by M. de Foncemagne's
rising from table and passing into the parlour, where no one was
tempted to renew it."

But if not brilliant in society, he was very _répandu_, and was
welcomed in the best circles. He was a member of Boodle's, White's,
Brooks's, and Almack's,[9] and "there were few persons in the literary
or political world to whom he was a stranger." It is to be regretted
that the best sketch of him at this period borders on caricature. "The
learned Gibbon," says Colman, "was a curious counterbalance to the
learned (may I not say the less learned) Johnson. Their manners and
tastes, both in writing and conversation, were as different as their
habiliments. On the day I first sat down with Johnson in his
rusty-brown suit and his black worsted stockings, Gibbon was placed
opposite to me in a suit of flowered velvet, with a bag and sword.
Each had his measured phraseology, and Johnson's famous parallel
between Dryden and Pope might be loosely parodied in reference to
himself and Gibbon. Johnson's style was grand, and Gibbon's elegant:
the stateliness of the former was sometimes pedantic, and the latter
was occasionally finical. Johnson marched to kettledrums and trumpets,
Gibbon moved to flutes and hautboys. Johnson hewed passages through
the Alps, while Gibbon levelled walks through parks and gardens.
Mauled as I had been by Johnson, Gibbon poured balm upon my bruises by
condescending once or twice in the course of the evening to talk with
me. The great historian was light and playful, suiting his matter to
the capacity of the boy: but it was done _more suo_--still his
mannerism prevailed, still he tapped his snuff-box, still he smirked
and smiled, and rounded his periods with the same air of
good-breeding, as if he were conversing with men. His mouth,
mellifluous as Plato's, was a round hole nearly in the centre of his
visage." (Quoted in Croker's _Boswell_.)


[Footnote 9: Not the assembly-room of that name, but a gaming-club
where the play was high. I find no evidence that Gibbon ever yielded
to the prevalent passion for gambling.]

Now and then he even joins in a masquerade, "the finest thing ever
seen," which costs two thousand guineas. But the chief charm of it to
him seems to have been the pleasure that it gave to his Aunt Porten.
These little vanities are however quite superficial, and are never
allowed to interfere with work.

Now indeed he was no loiterer. In three years after his settlement in
London he had produced the first volume of the _Decline and Fall_: an
amount of diligence which will not be underrated by those who
appreciate the vast difference between commencing and continuing an
undertaking of that magnitude. "At the outset," he says, "all was dark
and doubtful; even the title of the work, the true æra of the decline
and fall of the empire, the limits of the Introduction, the division
of the chapters, and the order of the narrative,--and I was often
tempted to cast away the labour of seven years;"--alternations no
doubt of hope and despair familiar to every sincere and competent
student. But he had taken the best and only reliable means of securing
himself from the danger of these fluctuations of spirit. He finished
his reading and preparation before he began to write, and when he at
last put pen to paper his course lay open before him, with no fear of
sudden and disquieting stoppages arising from imperfect knowledge and
need of further inquiry. It is a pity that we cannot follow the
elaboration of the work in detail. That portion of his Memoirs in
which he speaks of it is very short and fragmentary, and the defect is
not supplied by his letters. He seems to have worked with singular
ease and mastery of his subject, and never to have felt his task as a
strain or a fatigue. Even his intimate friends were not aware that he
was engaged on a work of such magnitude, and it is amusing to see his
friend Holroyd warn him against a hasty and immature publication when
he learned that the book was in the press. He had apparently heard
little of it before. This alone would show with what ease and
smoothness Gibbon must have worked. He had excellent health--a strange
fact after his sickly childhood; society unbent his mind instead of
distracting it; his stomach was perfect--perhaps too good, as about
this time he began to be admonished by the gout. He never seems to
have needed change. "Sufficient for the summer is the evil thereof,
viz., one distant country excursion." There was an extraordinary
difference in this respect between the present age and those which
went before it; restlessness and change of scene have become almost a
necessity of life with us, whereas our ancestors could continue
healthy and happy for months and years without stirring from home.
What is there to explain the change? We must not pretend that we work
harder than they did.[10] However, Gibbon was able to keep himself in
good condition with his long spell of work in the morning, and his
dinner-parties at home or elsewhere in the afternoon, and to have kept
at home as much as he could. Whenever he went away to the country, it
was on invitations which he could not well refuse. The result was a
leisurely, unhasting fulness of achievement, calm stretches of
thorough and contented work, which have left their marks on the
_Decline and Fall_. One of its charms is a constant good humour and
complacency; not a sign is visible that the writer is pressed for
time, or wants to get his performance out of hand; but, on the
contrary, a calm lingering over details, sprightly asides in the
notes, which the least hurry would have suppressed or passed by, and a
general impression conveyed of thorough enjoyment in the immensity of
the labour.


[Footnote 10: The most remarkable instance of all is the case of
Newton, who, according to Dr. Whewell, resided in Trinity College "for
thirty-five years without the interruption of a month."--_Hist. of the
Inductive Sciences_, vol. ii. book vii.]

One would have liked to see this elaboration more clearly, to have
been allowed a glimpse into his workshop while he was so engaged.
Unfortunately the editor of his journals has selected the relatively
unimportant records of his earlier studies, and left us in the dark as
regards this far more interesting period. He was such an indefatigable
diarist that it is unlikely that he neglected to keep a journal in
this crisis of his studies. But it has not been published, and it may
have been destroyed. All that we have is this short paragraph in his

     "The classics, as low as Tacitus and the younger Pliny and
     Juvenal, were my old and familiar companions. I insensibly
     plunged into the ocean of the Augustan history, and in the
     descending series I investigated, with my pen almost always
     in my hand, the original records, both Greek and Latin, from
     Dion Cassius to Ammianus Marcellinus, from the reign of
     Trajan to the last age of the Western Cæsars. The subsidiary
     rays of medals and inscriptions of geography and chronology,
     were thrown on their proper objects, and I applied the
     collections of Tillemont to fix and arrange within my reach
     the loose and scattered atoms of historical information.
     Through the darkness of the middle ages I explored my way in
     the _Annals and Antiquities of Italy_ of the learned
     Muratori, and diligently compared them with the parallel or
     transverse lines of Sigonius and Maffei, Baronius and Pagi,
     till I almost grasped the ruins of Rome in the fourteenth
     century, without suspecting that this final chapter must be
     attained by the labour of six quartos and twenty years."

When the time for composition arrived, he showed a fastidiousness
which was full of good augury. "Three times did I compose the first
chapter, and twice the second and third, before I was tolerably
satisfied with their effect." His hand grew firmer as he advanced. But
the two final chapters interposed a long delay, and needed "three
successive revisals to reduce them from a volume to their present
size." Gibbon spent more time over his first volume than over any one
of the five which followed it. To these he devoted almost regularly
two years apiece, more or less, whereas the first cost him three
years--so disproportionately difficult is the start in matters of this

While engaged in the composition of the first volume, he became a
member of Parliament. One morning at half past seven, "as he was
destroying an army of barbarians," he heard a double rap at his door.
It was a friend who came to inquire if he was desirous of entering
the House of Commons. The answer may be imagined, and he took his seat
as member for the borough of Liskeard after the general election in

Gibbon's political career is the side of his history from which a
friendly biographer would most readily turn away. Not that it was
exceptionally ignoble or self-seeking if tried by the standard of the
time, but it was altogether commonplace and unworthy of him. The fact
that he never even once opened his mouth in the House is not in itself
blameworthy, though disappointing in a man of his power. It was indeed
laudable enough if he had nothing to say. But why had he nothing to
say? His excuse is timidity and want of readiness. We may reasonably
assume that the cause lay deeper. With his mental vigour he would soon
have overcome such obstacles if he had really wished and tried to
overcome them. The fact is that he never tried because he never
wished. It is a singular thing to say of such a man, but nevertheless
true, that he had no taste or capacity whatever for politics. He lived
at one of the most exciting periods of our history; he assisted at
debates in which constitutional and imperial questions of the highest
moment were discussed by masters of eloquence and state policy, and he
hardly appears to have been aware of the fact. It was not that he
despised politics as Walpole affected to do, or that he regarded party
struggles as "barbarous and absurd faction," as Hume did; still less
did he pass by them with the supercilious indifference of a mystic
whose eyes are fixed on the individual spirit of man as the one spring
of good and evil. He never rose to the level of the ordinary citizen
or even partisan, who takes an exaggerated view perhaps of the
importance of the politics of the day, but who at any rate thereby
shows a sense of social solidarity and the claims of civic communion.
He called himself a Whig, but he had no zeal for Whig principles. He
voted steadily with Lord North, and quite approved of taxing and
coercing America into slavery; but he had no high notions of the royal
prerogative, and was lukewarm in this as in everything. With such
absence of passion one might have expected that he would be at least
shrewd and sagacious in his judgments on politics. But he is nothing
of the kind. In his familiar letters he reserves generally a few lines
for parliamentary gossip, amid chat about the weather and family
business. He never approaches to a broad survey of policy, or
expresses serious and settled convictions on home or foreign affairs.
Throughout the American war he never seems to have really made up his
mind on the nature of the struggle, and the momentous issues that it
involved. Favourable news puts him in high spirits, which are promptly
cooled by the announcement of reverses; not that he ever shows any
real anxiety or despondency about the commonwealth. His opinions on
the subject are at the mercy of the last mail. It is disappointing to
find an elegant trifler like Horace Walpole not only far more
discerning in his appreciation of such a crisis, but also far more
patriotically sensitive as to the wisdom of the means of meeting it,
than the historian of Rome. Gibbon's tone often amounts to levity, and
he chronicles the most serious measures with an unconcern really
surprising. "In a few days we stop the ports of New England. I cannot
write volumes: but I am more and more convinced that with firmness all
may go well: yet I sometimes doubt." (February 8, 1775.) "Something
will be done this year; but in the spring the force of the country
will be exerted to the utmost: Scotch Highlanders, Irish Papists,
Hanoverians, Canadians, Indians, &c., will all in various shapes be
employed." (August 1, 1775.) "What think you of the season, of Siberia
is it not? A pleasant campaign in America." (January 29, 1776.) At
precisely the same time the sagacious coxcomb of Strawberry Hill was
writing thus: "The times are indeed very serious. Pacification with
America is not the measure adopted. More regiments are ordered
thither, and to-morrow a plan, I fear equivalent to a declaration of
war, is to be laid before both Houses. They are bold ministers
methinks who do not hesitate on civil war, in which victory may bring
ruin, and disappointment endanger their heads.... Acquisition alone
can make burdens palatable, and in a war with our own colonies we must
inflict instead of acquiring them, and we cannot recover them without
undoing them. I am still to learn wisdom and experience, if these
things are not so." (Letter to Mann, January 25, 1775.) "A war with
our colonies, which is now declared, is a proof how much influence
jargon has on human actions. A war on our own trade is popular."
(February 15, 1775.) "The war with America goes on briskly, that is as
far as voting goes. A great majority in both houses is as brave as a
mob ducking a pick-pocket. They flatter themselves they shall terrify
the colonies into submission in three months, and are amazed to hear
that there is no such probability. They might as well have
excommunicated them, and left it to the devil to put the sentence into
execution." (February 18, 1775.) Not only is Walpole's judgment wiser,
but the elements of a wise judgment were present to him in a way in
which they were not so to Gibbon. When the latter does attempt a
forecast, he shows, as might be expected, as little penetration of the
future as appreciation of the present. Writing from Paris on August
11, 1777, when all French society was ablaze with enthusiasm for
America, and the court just on the point of yielding to the current,
he is under no immediate apprehensions of a war with France, and
"would not be surprised if next summer the French were to lend their
cordial assistance to England as the weaker party." The emptiness of
his letters as regards home politics perhaps admits of a more
favourable explanation, and may be owing to the careful suppression by
their editor, Lord Sheffield, of everything of real interest. It is
impossible to estimate the weight of this consideration, but it may be
great. Still we have a sufficient number of his letters to be able to
say that on the whole they are neither thoughtful nor graphic: they
give us neither pictures of events nor insight into the times. It must
be, however, remembered that Gibbon greatly disliked letter-writing,
and never wrote unless he was obliged.

It was no secret that Gibbon wanted a place under government. Moderate
as his establishment seems to have been, it was more expensive than he
could afford, and he looked, not without warrant, to a supplement of
income from one of the rich windfalls which, in that time of sinecures
were wont to refresh the spirits of sturdy supporters of
administration. He had influential friends, and even relatives, in and
near the government, and but for his parliamentary nullity he would
probably have been provided with a comfortable berth at an early
period. But his "sincere and silent vote" was not valuable enough to
command a high price from his patrons. Once only was he able to help
them with his pen, when he drew up, at the request of Lords Thurlow
and Weymouth, his _Mémoire Justificatif_, in French, in which "he
vindicated against the French manifesto the justice of the British
arms." It was a service worthy of a small fee, which no doubt he
received. He had to wait till 1779, when he had been five years in
Parliament, before his cousin Mr. Eliot, and his friend Wedderburne,
the Attorney-General, were able to find him a post as one of the Lords
Commissioners of Trade and Plantations. The Board of Trade, of which
he became one of the eight members, survives in mortal memory only
from being embalmed in the bright amber of one of Burke's great
speeches. "This board, Sir, has had both its original formation and
its regeneration in a job. In a job it was conceived, and in a job its
mother brought it forth.... This board is a sort of temperate bed of
influence: a sort of gently ripening hothouse, where eight members of
Parliament receive salaries of a thousand a year for a certain given
time, in order to mature at a proper season a claim to two thousand,
granted for doing less" (_Speech on Economical Reform_). Gibbon, with
entire good humour, acknowledges the justice of Burke's indictment,
and says he was "heard with delight, even by those whose existence he
proscribed." After all, he only enjoyed the emolument of his office
for three years, and he places that emolument at a lower figure than
Burke did. He could not have received more than between two and three
thousand pounds of public money; and when we consider what manner of
men have fattened on the national purse, it would be churlish to
grudge that small sum to the historian of the _Decline and Fall_. The
misfortune is that, reasonably or otherwise, doubts were raised as to
Gibbon's complete straightforwardness and honourable adhesion to party
ties in accepting office. He says himself: "My acceptance of a place
provoked some of the leaders of opposition with whom I had lived in
habits of intimacy, and I was most unjustly accused of deserting a
party in which I had never enlisted." There is certainly no evidence
that those who were most qualified to speak, those who gave him the
place and reckoned on his vote, ever complained of want of allegiance.
On the other hand, Gibbon's own letter to Edward Elliot, accepting the
place, betrays a somewhat uneasy conscience. He owns that he was far
from approving all the past measures of the administration, even some
of those in which he himself had silently concurred; that he saw many
capital defects in the characters of some of the present ministers,
and was sorry that in so alarming a situation of public affairs the
country had not the assistance of several able and honest men who were
now in opposition. Still, for various reasons, he did not consider
himself in any way implicated, and rather suspiciously concludes with
an allusion to his pecuniary difficulties and a flourish. "The
addition of the salary which is now offered will make my situation
perfectly easy, but I hope that you will do me the justice to believe
that my mind could not be so unless I were conscious of the rectitude
of my conduct."

The strongest charge against Gibbon in reference to this matter is
asserted to come from his friend Fox, in this odd form. "In June 1781,
Mr. Fox's library came to be sold. Amongst his other books the first
volume of Mr. Gibbon's history was brought to the hammer. In the
blank leaf of this was a note in the handwriting of Mr. Fox, stating a
remarkable declaration of our historian at a well-known tavern in Pall
Mall, and contrasting it with Mr. Gibbon's political conduct
afterwards. 'The author,' it observed, 'at Brooks's said that there
was no salvation for this country until six heads of the principal
persons in administration' (Lord North being then prime minister)
'were laid upon the table. Yet,' as the observation added, 'eleven
days afterwards this same gentleman accepted a place of a lord of
trade under these very ministers, and has acted with them ever
since.'" It is impossible to tell what amount of truth there is in
this story, and not very important to inquire. It rests on the
authority of a strong personal enemy, and the cordial intimacy which
ever subsisted between Gibbon and Fox seems to show that it was mere
calumny. Perhaps the fact that Gibbon had really no opinions in
politics may have led persons of opposite parties to think that he
agreed with them more than he did, and when he merely followed his own
interest, they may have inferred that he was deserting their
principles. After losing his post on the Board of Trade he still hoped
for Government employ, "either a secure seat at the Board of Customs
or Excise," or in a diplomatic capacity. He was disappointed. If Lord
Sheffield is to be believed, it was his friend Fox who frustrated his
appointment as secretary of embassy at Paris, when he had been already
named to that office.

The way in which Gibbon acted and afterwards spoke in reference to the
celebrated Coalition gives perhaps the best measure of his political
calibre. He voted among the rank and file of Lord North's followers
for the Coalition with meek subserviency. He speaks of a "principle of
gratitude" which actuated him on this occasion. Lord North had given
him his seat, and if a man's conscience allows him to think rather of
his patron than of his country, there is nothing to be said, except
that his code of political ethics is low. We may admit that his vote
was pledged; but there is also no doubt that any gratitude that there
was in the matter was stimulated by a lively sense of favours to come.
The Portland ministry had not been long in office when he wrote in the
following terms to his friend Deyverdun: "You have not forgotten that
I went into Parliament without patriotism and without ambition, and
that all my views tended to the convenient and respectable place of a
lord of trade. This situation I at length obtained. I possessed it for
three years, from 1779 to 1782, and the net produce, which amounted to
750_l._ sterling, augmented my income to my wants and desires. But in
the spring of last year the storm burst over our heads. Lord North was
overthrown, your humble servant turned out, and even the Board of
Trade, of which I was a member, abolished and broken up for ever by
Mr. Burke's reform. To complete my misfortunes, I still remain a
member of the Lower House. At the end of the last Parliament, Mr.
Eliot withdrew his nomination. But the favour of Lord North
facilitated my re-election, and gratitude imposed on me the duty of
making available for his service the rights which I held in part from
him. That winter we fought under the allied standards of Lord North
and Mr. Fox: we triumphed over Lord Shelburne and the peace, and my
friend (_i.e._ Lord North) remounted his steed in the quality of a
secretary of state. Now he can easily say to me, 'It was a great deal
for me, it was nothing for you;' and in spite of the strongest
assurances, I have too much reason to allow me to have much faith.
With great genius and very respectable talents, he has now neither the
title nor the credit of prime minister; more active colleagues carry
off the most savoury morsels which their voracious creatures
immediately devour; our misfortunes and reforms have diminished the
number of favours; either through pride or through indolence I am but
a bad suitor, and if at last I obtain something, it may perhaps be on
the eve of a fresh revolution, which will in an instant snatch from me
that which has cost me so many cares and pains."

Such a letter speaks for itself. Gibbon might well say that he entered
parliament without patriotism and without ambition. The only redeeming
feature is the almost cynical frankness with which he openly regards
politics from a personal point of view. However, it may be pleaded
that the letter was written to a bosom friend at a moment of great
depression, and when Gibbon's pecuniary difficulties were pressing him
severely. The Coalition promised him a place, and that was enough; the
contempt for all principle which had brought it about was not thought
of. But even this minute excuse does not apply to the way in which,
years after, when he was in comfort at Lausanne, he refers to the
subject in his Memoirs. The light in which the Coalition deserved to
be regarded was clear by that time. Yet he speaks of it, not only
without blame or regret, but contrives to cast suspicion on the
motives of those who were disgusted by it, and bestowed their
allegiance elsewhere.

     "It is not the purpose of this narrative to expatiate on the
     public or secret history of the times: the schism which
     followed the death of the Marquis of Rockingham, the
     appointment of the Earl of Shelbourne, the resignation of
     Mr. Fox and his famous coalition with Lord North. But I may
     assert with some degree of assurance that in their political
     conflict those great antagonists had never felt any personal
     animosity to each other, that their reconciliation was easy
     and sincere, and that their friendship has never been
     clouded by the shadow of suspicion or jealousy. The _most
     violent_ or _venal_ of their respective followers embraced
     this fair occasion of revolt, but their alliance still
     commanded a majority of the House of Commons, the peace was
     censured, Lord Shelbourne resigned, and the two friends
     knelt on the same cushion to take the oath of secretary of
     state. From a principle of gratitude I adhered to the
     Coalition; my vote was counted in the day of battle, but I
     was overlooked in the division of the spoil."

From this we learn that it was only the _violent_ and the _venal_ who
disapproved of the Coalition. One would like to know how Gibbon
explained the fact that at the general election of 1784 no less than
one hundred and sixty of the supporters of the Coalition lost their
seats, and that Fox's political reputation was all but irretrievably
ruined from this time forward.

Meanwhile, he had not neglected, his own proper work. The first volume
of his history was published in February, 1776. It derived, he says,
"more credit from the name of the shop than from that of the author."
In the first instance he intended to print only five hundred copies,
but the number was doubled by the "prophetic taste" of his printer,
Mr. Strahan. The book was received with a burst of applause--it was a
_succès fou_. The first impression was exhausted in a few days, and a
second and third edition were scarcely adequate to the demand. The
wiser few were as warm in their eulogies as the general public. Hume
declared that if he had not been personally acquainted with the
author, he should have been surprised by such a performance coming
from any Englishman in that age. Dr. Robertson, Adam Ferguson, and
Horace Walpole joined in the chorus. Walpole betrays an amusing
mixture of admiration and pique at not having found the author out
before. "I know him a little, and never suspected the extent of his
talents; for he is perfectly modest, or I want penetration, which I
know too; but I intend to know him a great deal more." He oddly enough
says that Gibbon was the "son of a foolish alderman," which shows at
least how little the author was known in the great world up to this
time. Now, however, society was determined to know more of him, the
surest proof, not of merit, but of success. It must have been a rather
intoxicating moment, but Gibbon had a cool head not easily turned. It
would be unfair not to add that he had something much better, a really
warm and affectionate regard for old friends, the best preservative
against the fumes of flattery and sudden fame. Holroyd, Deyverdun,
Madame Necker were more to him than all the great people with whom he
now became acquainted. Necker and his wife came over from Paris and
paid him a long visit in Bentinck Street, when his laurels were just
fresh. "I live with her" he writes, "just as I used to do twenty years
ago, laugh at her Paris varnish, and oblige her to become a simple
reasonable Suissesse. The man, who might read English husbands lessons
of proper and dutiful behaviour, is a sensible, good-natured
creature." The next year he returned the visit to Paris. His fame had
preceded him, and he received the cordial but discriminating welcome
which _the ancien régime_ at that time specially reserved for _gens
d'esprit_. Madame du Deffand writes to Walpole, "Mr. Gibbon has the
greatest success here; it is quite a struggle to get him." He did not
deny himself a rather sumptuous style of living while in Paris.
Perhaps the recollection of the unpleasant effect of his English
clothes and the long waists of the French on his former visit dwelt in
his mind, for now, like Walpole, he procured a new outfit at once.
"After decking myself out with silks and silver, the ordinary
establishment of coach, lodgings, servants, eating, and pocket
expenses, does not exceed 60_l._ per month. Yet I have two footmen in
handsome liveries behind my coach, and my apartment is hung with

The remainder of his life in London has nothing important. He
persevered assiduously with his history, and had two more quartos
ready in 1781. They were received with less enthusiasm than the first,
although they were really superior. Gibbon was rather too modestly
inclined to agree with the public and "to believe that, especially in
the beginning, they were more prolix and less entertaining" than the
previous volume. He also wasted some weeks on his vindication of the
fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of that volume, which had excited a
host of feeble and ill-mannered attacks. His defence was complete, and
in excellent temper. But the piece has no permanent value. His
assailants were so ignorant and silly that they gave no scope for a
great controversial reply. Neither perhaps did the subject admit of
it. A literary war generally makes people think of Bentley's
incomparable _Phalaris_. But that was almost a unique occasion and
victory in the history of letters. Bentley himself, the most
pugnacious of men, never found such another.

And so the time glided by, till we come to the year 1783. Lord North
had resigned office, the Board of Trade was abolished, and Gibbon had
lost his convenient salary. The outlook was not pleasant. The seat on
the Board of Customs or Excise with which his hopes had been for a
time kept up, receded into a remote distance, and he came to the
conclusion "that the reign of pensions and sinecures was at an end."
It was clearly necessary to take some important step in the way of
retrenchment. After he had lost his official income, his expenses
exceeded his revenue by something like four hundred pounds. A less
expensive style of living in London never seems to have presented
itself as an alternative. So, like many an Englishman before and
since, he resolved to go abroad to economise.

His old friend Deyverdun was now settled in a comfortable house at
Lausanne, overlooking the Lake of Geneva. They had not met for eight
years. But the friendship had begun a quarter of a century before, in
the old days when Gibbon was a boarder in Pavillard's house, and the
embers of old associations only wanted stirring to make them shoot up
into flame. In a moment of expansion Gibbon wrote off a warm and eager
letter to his friend, setting forth his unsatisfactory position, and
his wish and even necessity to change it. He gradually and with much
delicacy discloses his plan, that he and Deyverdun, both now old
bachelors, should combine their solitary lives in a common household
and carry out an old project, often discussed in younger days, of
living together. "You live in a charming house. I see from here my
apartment, the rooms we shall share with one another, our table, our
walks. But such a marriage is worthless unless it suits both parties,
and I easily feel that circumstances, new tastes, and connections may
frustrate a design which appeared charming in the distance. To settle
my mind and to avoid regrets, you must be as frank as I have been, and
give me a true picture, external and internal, of George Deyverdun."

This letter, written in fluent and perfect French, is one of the best
that we have of Gibbon. Deyverdun answered promptly, and met his
friend's advances with at least equal warmth. The few letters that
have been preserved of his connected with this subject give a highly
favourable idea of his mind and character, and show he was quite
worthy of the long and constant attachment that Gibbon felt for him.
He cannot express the delight he has felt at his friend's proposal; by
the rarest piece of good fortune, it so happens that he himself is in
a somewhat similar position of uncertainty and difficulty; a year ago
Gibbon's letter would have given him pleasure, now it offers
assistance and support. After a few details concerning the tenant who
occupies a portion of his house, he proceeds to urge Gibbon to carry
out the project he had suggested, to break loose from parliament and
politics, for which he was not fit, and to give himself up to the
charms of study and friendship. "Call to mind, my dear friend," he
goes on, "that I saw you enter parliament with regret, and I think I
was only too good a prophet. I am sure that career has caused you more
privations than joys, more pains than pleasures. Ever since I have
known you I have been convinced that your happiness lay in your study
and in society, and that any path which led you elsewhere was a
departure from happiness." Through nine pages of gentle and friendly
eloquence Deyverdun pursues his argument to induce his friend to
clinch the bargain. "I advise you not only not to solicit a place, but
to refuse one if it were offered to you. Would a thousand a year make
up to you for the loss of five days a week?... By making this retreat
to Switzerland, besides the beauty of the country and the pleasures of
its society, you will acquire two blessings which you have lost,
liberty and competence. You will also be useful, your works will
continue to enlighten us, and, independently of your talents, the man
of honour and refinement is never useless." He then skilfully exhibits
the attractions he has to offer. "You used to like my house and
garden; what would you do now? On the first floor, which looks on the
declivity of Ouchy, I have fitted up an apartment which is enough for
me. I have a servant's room, two _salons_, two cabinets. On a level
with the terrace two other _salons_, of which one serves as a
dining-room in summer, and the other a drawing-room for company. I
have arranged three more rooms between the house and the coachhouse,
so that I can offer you all the large apartment, which consists
actually of eleven rooms, great and small, looking east and south, not
splendidly furnished, I allow, but with a certain elegance which I
hope you will like. The terrace is but little altered ... it is lined
from end to end with boxes of orange-trees. The vine-trellis has
prospered, and extends nearly to the end. I have purchased the
vineyard below the garden, and in front of the house made it into a
lawn, which is watered by the water of the fountain.... In a word,
strangers come to see the place, and in spite of my pompous
description of it I think you will like it.... If you come, you will
find a tranquillity which you cannot have in London, and a friend who
has not passed a single day without thinking of you, and who, in spite
of his defects, his foibles, and his inferiority, is still one of the
companions who suits you best."

More letters followed from both sides in a similar strain. Yet Gibbon
quailed before a final resolution. His aunt, Mrs. Porten, his mother,
Mrs. Gibbon, his friend, Lord Sheffield, all joined in deprecating his
voluntary exile. "That is a nonsensical scheme," said the latter, "you
have got into your head of returning to Lausanne--a pretty fancy; you
remember how much you liked it in your youth, but now you have seen
more of the world, and if you were to try it again you would find
yourself woefully disappointed." Deyverdun, with complete sympathy,
begged him not to be in too great a hurry to decide on a course which
he himself desired so much. "I agree with you," he wrote to Gibbon,
"that this is a sort of marriage, but I could never forgive myself if
I saw you dissatisfied in the sequel, and in a position to reproach
me." Gibbon felt it was a case demanding decision of character, and he
came to a determination with a promptitude and energy not usual with
him. He promised Deyverdun in the next letter an ultimatum, stating
whether he meant to _go_ or to _stay_, and a week after he wrote, "I
go." He had prudently refrained from consulting Lord Sheffield during
this critical period, knowing that his certain disapprobation of the
scheme would only complicate matters and render decision more
difficult. Then he wrote, "I have given Deyverdun my word of honour to
be at Lausanne at the beginning of October, and no power of
persuasion can divert me from this _irrevocable_ resolution, which I
am every day proceeding to execute."

This was no exaggeration. He cancelled the lease of his house in
Bentinck Street, packed the more necessary portion of his books and
shipped them for Rouen, and as his postchaise moved over Westminster
Bridge, "bade a long farewell to the _fumum et opes strepitumque
Romæ_." The only real pang he felt in leaving arose from the "silent
grief" of his Aunt Porten, whom he did not hope to see again. Nor did
he. He started on September 15, 1783, slept at Dover, was flattered
with the hope of making Calais harbour by the same tide in "three
hours and a half, as the wind was brisk and fair," but was driven into
Boulogne. He had not a symptom of seasickness. Then he went on by easy
stages through Aire, Bethune, Douay, Cambray, St. Quentin, La Fère,
Laon, Rheims, Chalons, St. Dizier, Langres, Besançon, and arrived at
Lausanne on the 27th. The inns he found more agreeable to the palate
than to the sight or the smell. At Langres he had an excellent bed
about six feet high from the ground. He beguiled the time with Homer
and Clarendon, talking with his servant, Caplin, and his dog Muff, and
sometimes with the French postilions, and he found them the least
rational of the animals mentioned.

He reached his journey's end, to alight amid a number of minor
troubles, which to a less easy tempered man would have been real
annoyances. He found that Deyverdun had reckoned without his host, or
rather his tenant, and that they could not have possession of the
house for several months, so he had to take lodgings. Then he sprained
his ankle, and this brought on a bad attack of the gout, which laid
him up completely. However, his spirits never gave way. In time his
books arrived, and the friends got installed in their own house. His
satisfaction has then no bounds, with the people, the place, the way
of living, and his daily companion. We must now leave him for a short
space in the enjoyment of his happiness, while we briefly consider the
labours of the previous ten years.



The historian who is also an artist is exposed to a particular
drawback from which his brethren in other fields are exempt. The mere
lapse of time destroys the value and even the fidelity of his
pictures. In other arts correct colouring and outline remain correct,
and if they are combined with imaginative power, age rather enhances
than diminishes their worth. But the historian lives under another
law. His reproduction of a past age, however full and true it may
appear to his contemporaries, appears less and less true to his
successors. The way in which he saw things ceases to be satisfactory;
we may admit his accuracy, but we add a qualification referring to the
time when he wrote, the point of view that he occupied. And we feel
that what was accurate for him is no longer accurate for us. This
superannuation of historical work is not similar to the superseding of
scientific work which is ever going on, and is the capital test of
progress. Scientific books become rapidly old-fashioned, because the
science to which they refer is in constant growth, and a work on
chemistry or biology is out of date by reason of incompleteness or
the discovery of unsuspected errors. The scientific side of history,
if we allow it to have a scientific side, conforms to this rule, and
presents no singularity. Closer inspection of our materials, the
employment of the comparative method, occasionally the bringing to
light of new authorities--all contribute to an increase of real
knowledge, and historical studies in this respect do not differ from
other branches of research. But this is not the sole or the chief
cause of the renovation and transformation constantly needed in
historic work. That depends on the ever-moving standpoint from which
the past is regarded, so that society in looking back on its previous
history never sees it for long together at quite the same angle, never
sees, we may say, quite the same thing. The past changes to us as we
move down the stream of time, as a distant mountain changes through
the windings of the road on which we travel away from it. To drop
figure and use language now becoming familiar, the social organism is
in constant growth, and receiving new additions, and each new addition
causes us to modify our view of the whole. The historian, in fact, is
engaged in the study of an unfinished organism, whose development is
constantly presenting him with surprises. It is as if the biologist
were suddenly to come upon new and unheard-of species and families
which would upset his old classification, or as if the chemist were to
find his laws of combination replaced by others which were not only
unknown to him, but which were really new and recent in the world.
Other inquirers have the whole of the phenomena with which their
science is concerned before them, and they may explore them at their
leisure. The sociologist has only an instalment, most likely a very
small instalment, of the phenomena with which his science is
concerned before him. They have not yet happened, are not yet
phenomena, and as they do happen and admit of investigation they
necessarily lead to constant modification of his views and deductions.
Not only does he acquire new knowledge like other inquirers, but he is
constantly having the subject-matter from which he derives his
knowledge augmented. Even in modern times society has thrown out with
much suddenness rapid and unexpected developments, of such scope and
volume that contemporaries have often lost self-possession at the
sight of them, and wondered if social order could survive. The
Reformation and the French Revolution are cases in point. And what a
principal part do these two great events always play in any
speculations instituted subsequent to them! How easy it is to see
whether a writer lived before the Reign of Terror, or after it, from
his gait and manner of approaching social inquiries! Is there any
reason to suppose that such mutations are now at an end? None. The
probability, well nigh a certainty, is that metamorphoses of the
social organism are in store for us which will equal, if they do not
vastly exceed, anything that the past has offered.

Considerations of this kind need to be kept in view if we would be
just in our appreciation of historical writings which have already a
certain age. It is impossible that a history composed a century ago
should fully satisfy us now; but we must beware of blaming the writer
for his supposed or real shortcomings, till we have ascertained how
far they arose from his personal inadequacy to his task, and were not
the result of his chronological position. It need not be said that
this remark does not refer to many books which are called histories,
but are really contemporary memoirs and original authorities
subservient to history proper. The works of Clarendon and Burnet, for
instance, can never lose a certain value on this account. The immortal
book which all subsequent generations have agreed to call a possession
for ever, is the unapproachable ideal of this class. But neither
Thucydides nor Clarendon were historians in the sense in which Gibbon
was an historian, that is, engaged in the delineation of a remote
epoch by the help of such materials as have escaped the ravages of
time. It is historians like Gibbon who are exposed to the particular
unhappiness referred to a little way back--that of growing out of date
through no fault of their own, but through the changed aspect
presented by the past in consequence of the movement which has brought
us to the present. But if this is the field of historical disaster, it
is also the opportunity of historical genius. In proportion as a
writer transcends the special limitations of his time, will "age fail
to wither him." That he cannot entirely shake off the fetters which
fasten him to his epoch is manifest. But in proportion as his vision
is clear, in proportion as he has with singleness of eye striven to
draw the past with reverent loyalty, will his bondage to his own time
be loosened, and his work will remain faithful work for which due
gratitude will not be withheld.

The sudden and rapid expansion of historic studies in the middle of
the eighteenth century constitutes one of the great epochs in
literature. Up to the year 1750 no great historical work had appeared
in any modern language.[11] The instances that seem to make against
this remark will be found to confirm it. They consist of memoirs,
contemporary documents, in short materials for history, but not
history itself. From Froissart and De Comines, or even from the
earlier monastic writers to St. Simon (who was just finishing his
incomparable Memoirs), history with wide outlook and the conception of
social progress and interconnection of events did not exist. Yet
history in its simple forms is one of the most spontaneous of human
achievements. Stories of mighty deeds, of the prowess and death of
heroes, are among the earliest productions of even semi-civilised
man--the earliest subjects of epic and lyric verse. But this
rudimentary form is never more than biographical. With increasing
complexity of social evolution it dies away, and history proper, as
distinct from annals and chronicle, does not arise till circumstances
allow of general and synthetic views, till societies can be surveyed
from a sufficient distance and elevation for their movements to be
discerned. Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus do not appear till Greece and
Home have reached their highest point of homogeneous national life.
The tardy dawn of history in the modern world was owing to its immense
complexity. Materials also were wanting. They gradually emerged out of
manuscript all over Europe, during what may be called the great pedant
age (1550-1650), under the direction of meritorious antiquaries,
Camden, Savile, Duchesne, Gale, and others. Still official documents
and state papers were wanting, and had they been at hand would hardly
have been used with competence. The national and religious
limitations were still too marked and hostile to permit a free survey
over the historic field. The eighteenth century, though it opened with
a bloody war, was essentially peaceful in spirit: governments made
war, but men and nations longed for rest. The increased interest in
the past was shown by the publication nearly contemporary of the great
historic collections of Rymer (A.D. 1704), Leibnitz (1707), and
Muratori (1723). Before the middle of the century the historic muse
had abundant oil to feed her lamp. Still the lamp would probably not
have been lighted but for the singular pass to which French thought
had come.


[Footnote 11: Mézeray's great history of France is next to valueless
till he reaches the sixteenth century, that was a period bordering on
his own. Thuanus deals with contemporary events.]

From the latter years of Louis XIV. till the third quarter of the
eighteenth century was all but closed, France had a government at once
so weak and wicked, so much below the culture of the people it
oppressed, that the better minds of the nation turned away in disgust
from their domestic ignominy, and sought consolation in contemplating
foreign virtue wherever they thought it was to be found; in short,
they became cosmopolitan. The country which has since been the
birthplace of Chauvinism, put away national pride almost with passion.
But this was not all. The country whose king was called the Eldest Son
of the Church, and with which untold pains had been taken to keep it
orthodox, had lapsed into such an abhorrence of the Church and of
orthodoxy that anything seemed preferable to them in its eyes.

Thus, as if by enchantment, the old barriers disappeared, both
national and religious. Man and his fortunes, in all climes and all
ages, became topics of intense interest, especially when they tended
to degrade by contrast the detested condition of things at home. This
was the weak side of historical speculation in France: it was
essentially polemical; prompted less by genuine interest in the past
than by strong hatred of the present. Of this perturbation note must
be taken. But it is none the less true that the disengagement of
French thought from the narrow limits of nation and creed produced, as
it were in a moment, a lofty conception of history such as subsequent
ages may equal, but can hardly surpass.

The influence of French thought was European, and nowhere more
beneficial than in England. In other countries it was too despotic,
and produced in Germany, at least, Lessing's memorable reaction. But
the robust national and political life of England reduced it to a
welcome flavouring of our insular temperament. The Scotch, who had a
traditional connection with France, were the first importers of the
new views. Hume, who had practically grown in the same soil as
Voltaire, was only three years behind him in the historic field. The
_Age of Louis XIV._ was published in 1751, and the first volume of the
_History of England_ in 1754. Hume was no disciple of Voltaire; he
simply wrote under the stimulus of the same order of ideas. Robertson,
who shortly followed him, no doubt drew direct inspiration from
Voltaire, and his weightiest achievement, the View of the State of
Europe, prefixed to his _History of Charles V._, was largely
influenced, if it was not absolutely suggested, by the _Essay on
Manners_. But both Hume and Robertson surpassed their masters, if we
allow, as seems right, that the French were their masters. The Scotch
writers had no quarrel with their country or their age as the French
had. One was a Tory, the other a Whig; and Hume allowed himself to be
unworthily affected by party bias in his historical judgment. But
neither was tempted to turn history into a covert attack on the
condition of things amid which they lived. Hence a calmness and
dignity of tone and language, very different from the petulant
brilliancy of Voltaire, who is never so happy as when he can make the
past look mean and ridiculous, merely because it was the parent of the
odious present. But, excellent as were the Scotch historians--Hume, in
style nearly perfect; Robertson, admirable for gravity and shrewd
sense--they yet left much to be desired. Hume had despatched his five
quartos, containing the whole history of England from the Roman period
to the Revolution, in nine years. Considering that the subject was new
to him when he began, such rapidity made genuine research out of the
question. Robertson had the oddest way of consulting his friends as to
what subject it would be advisable for him to treat, and was open to
proposals from any quarter with exemplary impartiality; this only
showed how little the stern conditions of real historic inquiry were
appreciated by him. In fact it is not doing them injustice to say that
these eminent men were a sort of modern Livies, chiefly occupied with
the rhetorical part of their work, and not over inclined to waste
their time in ungrateful digging in the deep mines of historic lore.
Obviously the place was open for a writer who should unite all the
broad spirit of comprehensive survey, with the thorough and minute
patience of a Benedictine; whose subject, mellowed by long brooding,
should have sought him rather than he it; whose whole previous course
of study had been an unconscious preparation for one great effort
which was to fill his life. When Gibbon sat down to write his book,
the man had been found who united these difficult conditions.

The decline and fall of Rome is the greatest event in history. It
occupied a larger portion of the earth's surface, it affected the
lives and fortunes of a larger number of human beings, than any other
revolution on record. For it was essentially one, though it took
centuries to consummate, and though it had for its theatre the
civilised world. Great evolutions and catastrophes happened before it,
and have happened since, but nothing which can compare with it in
volume and mere physical size. Nor was it less morally. The
destruction of Rome was not only a destruction of an empire, it was
the destruction of a phase of human thought, of a system of human
beliefs, of morals, politics, civilisation, as all these had existed
in the world for ages. The drama is so vast, the cataclysm so
appalling, that even at this day we are hardly removed from it far
enough to take it fully in. The mind is oppressed, the imagination
flags under the load imposed upon it. The capture and sack of a town
one can fairly conceive: the massacre, outrage, the flaming roofs, the
desolation. Even the devastation of a province can be approximately
reproduced in thought. But what thought can embrace the devastation
and destruction of all the civilised portions of Europe, Africa, and
Asia? Who can realise a Thirty Years War lasting five hundred years? a
devastation of the Palatinate extending through fifteen generations?
If we try to insert into the picture, as we undoubtedly should do, the
founding of the new, which was going on beside this destruction of the
old, the settling down of the barbarian hosts in the conquered
provinces, the expansion of the victorious Church, driving paganism
from the towns to the country and at last extinguishing it entirely,
the effort becomes more difficult than ever. The legend of the Seven
Sleepers testifies to the need men felt, even before the tragedy had
come to an end, to symbolize in a manageable form the tremendous
changes they saw going on around them. But the legend only refers to
the changes in religion. The fall of Rome was much more than that. It
was the death of the old pagan world and the birth of the new
Christian world--the greatest transition in history.

This, and no less than this, is Gibbon's subject.

He has treated it in such a way as even now fills competent judges
with something like astonishment. His accuracy, coupled with the
extraordinary range of his matter, the variety of his topics, the
complexity of his undertaking, the fulness and thoroughness of his
knowledge, never failing at any point over the vast field, the ease
and mastery with which he lifts the enormous load, are appreciated in
proportion to the information and abilities of his critic. One
testimonial will suffice. Mr. Freeman says: "That Gibbon should ever
be displaced seems impossible. That wonderful man monopolised, so to
speak, the historical genius and the historical learning of a whole
generation, and left little, indeed, of either for his contemporaries.
He remains the one historian of the eighteenth century whom modern
research has neither set aside nor threatened to set aside. We may
correct and improve from the stores which have been opened since
Gibbon's time; we may write again large parts of his story from other
and often truer and more wholesome points of view, but the work of
Gibbon as a whole, as the encyclopædic history of 1300 years, as the
grandest of historical designs, carried out alike with wonderful power
and with wonderful accuracy, must ever keep its place. Whatever else
is read, Gibbon must be read too."

Gibbon's immense scheme did not unfold itself to him at once: he
passed through at least two distinct stages in the conception of his
work. The original idea had been confined to the decline and fall of
the city of Rome. Before he began to write, this had been expanded to
the fall of the empire of the West. The first volume, which we saw him
publish in the last chapter, was only an instalment, limited to the
accession of Constantine, through a doubt as to how his labours would
be received. The two following volumes, published in 1781, completed
his primitive plan. Then he paused exactly a year before he resolved
to carry on his work to its true end, the taking of Constantinople by
the Turks in 1453. The latter portion he achieved in three volumes
more, which he gave to the world on his fifty-first birthday, in 1788.
Thus the work naturally falls into two equal parts. It will be more
convenient to disregard in our remarks the interval of five years
which separated the publication of the first volume from its two
immediate companions. The first three volumes constitute a whole in
themselves, which we will now consider.

From the accession of Commodus, A.D. 180, to the last of the Western
Cæsars, A.D. 476, three centuries elapsed. The first date is a real
point of departure, the commencement of a new stage of decay in the
empire. The second is a mere official record of the final
disappearance of a series of phantom sovereigns, whose vanishing was
hardly noticed. Between these limits the empire passed from the
autumnal calm of the Antonine period, through the dreadful century of
anarchy between Pertinax and Diocletian, through the relative peace
brought about by Diocletian's reforms, the civil wars of the sons of
Constantine, the disastrous defeat of Julian, the calamities of the
Gothic war, the short respite under Theodosius, the growing anarchy
and misery under his incompetent sons, the three sieges of Rome and
its sack by the Goths, the awful appearance of Attila and his Huns,
the final submergence of the Western Empire under the barbarians, and
the universal ruin which marked the close of the fifth century. This
was the temporal side of affairs. On the spiritual, we have the silent
occult growth of the early Church, the conversion of Constantine, the
tremendous conflict of hostile sects, the heresy of Arius, the final
triumph of Athanasius, the spread of monasticism, the extinction of
paganism. Antiquity has ended, the middle ages have begun.

Over all this immense field Gibbon moves with a striking attitude of
power, which arose from his consciousness of complete preparation.
What there was to be known of his subject he felt sure that he knew.
His method of treatment is very simple, one might say primitive, but
it is very effective. He masters his materials, and then condenses and
clarifies them into a broad, well-filled narrative, which is always or
nearly always perfectly lucid through his skill in grouping events and
characters, and his fine boldness in neglecting chronological sequence
for the sake of clearness and unity of action. It is doing the book
injustice to consult it only as a work of reference, or even to read
it in detached portions. It should be read through, if we would
appreciate the art with which the story is told. No part can be
fairly judged without regard to the remainder. In fact, Gibbon was
much more an artist than perhaps be suspected, and less of a
philosophic thinker on history than he would have been willing to
allow. His shortcomings in this latter respect will be adverted to
presently; we are now considering his merits. And among these the very
high one of lofty and vigorous narrative stands pre-eminent. The
campaigns of Julian, Belisarius, and Heraclius are painted with a dash
and clearness which few civil historians have equalled. His
descriptive power is also very great. The picture of Constantinople in
the seventeenth chapter is, as the writer of these pages can testify,
a wonderful achievement, both for fidelity and brilliancy, coming from
a man who had never seen the place.

     "If we survey Byzantium in the extent which it acquired with
     the august name of Constantinople, the figure of the
     imperial city may be represented under that of an unequal
     triangle. The obtuse point, which advances towards the east
     and the shores of Asia, meets and repels the waves of the
     Thracian Bosphorus. The northern side of the city is bounded
     by the harbour; and the southern is washed by the Propontis,
     or Sea of Marmora. The basis of the triangle is opposed to
     the west, and terminates the continent of Europe. But the
     admirable form and division of the circumjacent land and
     water cannot, without a more ample explanation, be clearly
     or sufficiently understood.

     "The winding channel through which the waters of the Euxine
     flow with rapid and incessant course towards the
     Mediterranean received the appellation of Bosphorus, a name
     not less celebrated in the history than in the fables of
     antiquity. A crowd of temples and of votive altars,
     profusely scattered along its steep and woody banks,
     attested the unskilfulness, the terrors, and the devotion of
     the Grecian navigators, who, after the example of the
     Argonauts, explored the dangers of the inhospitable Euxine.
     On these banks tradition long preserved the memory of the
     palace of Phineus, infested by the obscene Harpies, and of
     the sylvan reign of Amycus, who defied the son of Leda to
     the combat of the cestus. The straits of the Bosphorus are
     terminated by the Cyanean rocks, which, according to the
     description of the poets, had once floated on the surface of
     the waters, and were destined by the gods to protect the
     entrance of the Euxine against the eye of profane curiosity.
     From the Cyanean rocks to the point and harbour of Byzantium
     the winding length of the Bosphorus extends about sixteen
     miles, and its most ordinary breadth may be computed at
     about one mile and a half. The _new_ castles of Europe and
     Asia are constructed on either continent upon the
     foundations of two celebrated temples of Serapis and Jupiter
     Urius. The _old_ castles, a work of the Greek emperors,
     command the narrowest part of the channel, in a place where
     the opposite banks advance within five hundred yards of each
     other. These fortresses were destroyed and strengthened by
     Mahomet the Second when he meditated the siege of
     Constantinople; but the Turkish conqueror was most probably
     ignorant that near two thousand years before his reign
     Darius had chosen the same situation to connect the two
     continents by a bridge of boats. At a small distance from
     the old castles we discover the little town of Chrysopolis
     or Scutari, which may almost be considered as the Asiatic
     suburb of Constantinople. The Bosphorus, as it begins to
     open into the Propontis, passes between Byzantium and
     Chalcedon. The latter of these two cities was built by the
     Greeks a few years before the former, and the blindness of
     its founders, who overlooked the superior advantages of the
     opposite coast, has been stigmatised by a proverbial
     expression of contempt.

     "The harbour of Constantinople, which may be considered as
     an arm of the Bosphorus, obtained in a very remote period,
     the denomination of the _Golden Horn_. The curve which it
     describes might be compared to the horn of a stag, or as it
     should seem with more propriety, to that of an ox. The
     epithet of _golden_ was expressive of the riches which every
     wind wafted from the most distant countries into the secure
     and capacious port of Constantinople. The river Lycus,
     formed by the conflux of two little streams, pours into the
     harbour a perpetual supply of fresh water, which serves to
     cleanse the bottom and to invite the periodical shoals of
     fish to seek their retreat in that convenient recess. As the
     vicissitudes of the tides are scarcely felt in those seas,
     the constant depth of the harbour allows goods to be landed
     on the quays without the assistance of boats, and it has
     been observed that in many places the largest vessels may
     rest their prows against the houses while their sterns are
     floating in the water. From the mouth of the Lycus to that
     of the harbour, this arm of the Bosphorus is more than seven
     miles in length. The entrance is about five hundred yards
     broad, and a strong chain could be occasionally drawn across
     it, to guard the port and the city from the attack of an
     hostile navy.

     "Between the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, the shores of
     Europe and Asia receding on either side include the Sea of
     Marmora, which was known to the ancients by the denomination
     of the Propontis. The navigation from the issue of the
     Bosphorus to the entrance of the Hellespont is about one
     hundred and twenty miles. Those who steer their westward
     course through the middle of the Propontis may at once
     descry the highlands of Thrace and Bithynia and never lose
     sight of the lofty summit of Mount Olympus, covered with
     eternal snows. They leave on the left a deep gulf, at the
     bottom of which Nicomedia was seated, the imperial residence
     of Diocletian, and they pass the small islands of Cyzicus
     and Proconnesus before they cast anchor at Gallipoli, where
     the sea which separates Asia from Europe is again contracted
     to a narrow channel.

     "The geographers, who with the most skilful accuracy have
     surveyed the form and extent of the Hellespont, assign about
     sixty miles for the winding course and about three miles for
     the ordinary breadth of those celebrated straits. But the
     narrowest part of the channel is found to the northward of
     the old Turkish castles between the cities of Sestos and
     Abydos. It was here that the adventurous Leander braved the
     passage of the flood for the possession of his mistress. It
     was here, likewise, in a place where the distance between
     the opposite banks cannot exceed five hundred paces, that
     Xerxes imposed a stupendous bridge of boats for the purpose
     of transporting into Europe an hundred and seventy myriads
     of barbarians. A sea contracted within such narrow limits
     may seem but ill to deserve the singular epithet of _broad_,
     which Homer, as well as Orpheus, has frequently bestowed on
     the Hellespont. But our ideas of greatness are of a relative
     nature; the traveller, and especially the poet, who sailed
     along the Hellespont, who pursued the windings of the stream
     and contemplated the rural scenery which appeared on every
     side to terminate the prospect, insensibly lost the
     remembrance of the sea, and his fancy painted those
     celebrated straits with all the attributes of a mighty river
     flowing with a swift current in the midst of a woody and
     inland country, and at length through a wide mouth
     discharging itself into the Ægean or Archipelago. Ancient
     Troy, seated on an eminence at the foot of Mount Ida,
     overlooked the mouth of the Hellespont, which scarcely
     received an accession of waters from the tribute of those
     immortal rivulets the Simois and Scamander. The Grecian camp
     had stretched twelve miles along the shore from the Sigæan
     to the Rhætian promontory, and the flanks of the army were
     guarded by the bravest chiefs who fought under the banners
     of Agamemnon. The first of these promontories was occupied
     by Achilles with his invincible Myrmidons, and the dauntless
     Ajax pitched his tents on the other. After Ajax had fallen a
     sacrifice to his disappointed pride and to the ingratitude
     of the Greeks, his sepulchre was erected on the ground where
     he had defended the navy against the rage of Jove and
     Hector, and the citizens of the rising town of Rhætium
     celebrated his memory with divine honours. Before
     Constantine gave a just preference to the situation of
     Byzantium he had conceived the design of erecting the seat
     of empire on this celebrated spot, from whence the Romans
     derived their fabulous origin. The extensive plain which
     lies below ancient Troy towards the Rhætian promontory was
     first chosen for his new capital; and though the undertaking
     was soon relinquished, the stately remains of unfinished
     walls and towers attracted the notice of all who sailed
     through the straits of the Hellespont.

     "We are at present qualified to view the advantageous
     position of Constantinople; which appears to have been
     formed by nature for the centre and capital of a great
     monarchy. Situated in the forty-first degree of latitude,
     the imperial city commanded from her seven hills the
     opposite shores of Europe and Asia; the climate was healthy
     and temperate; the soil fertile; the harbour secure and
     capacious; and the approach on the side of the continent was
     of small extent and easy defence. The Bosphorus and the
     Hellespont may be considered as the two gates of
     Constantinople, and the prince who possesses those important
     passages could always shut them against a naval enemy and
     open them to the fleets of commerce. The preservation of the
     eastern provinces may in some degree be ascribed to the
     policy of Constantine, as the barbarians of the Euxine, who
     in the preceding age had poured their armaments into the
     heart of the Mediterranean, soon desisted from the exercise
     of piracy, and despaired of forcing this insurmountable
     barrier. When the gates of the Hellespont and Bosphorus were
     shut, the capital still enjoyed within their spacious
     inclosure every production which could supply the wants or
     gratify the luxury of its numerous inhabitants. The
     sea-coasts of Thrace and Bithynia, which languish under the
     weight of Turkish oppression, still exhibit a rich prospect
     of vineyards, of gardens, and of plentiful harvests; and the
     Propontis has ever been renowned for an inexhaustible store
     of the most exquisite fish that are taken in their stated
     seasons without skill and almost without labour. But when
     the passages of the straits were thrown open for trade, they
     alternately admitted the natural and artificial riches of
     the north and south, of the Euxine and the Mediterranean.
     Whatever rude commodities were collected in the forests of
     Germany and Scythia, and as far as the sources of the Tanais
     and Borysthenes; whatsoever was manufactured by the skill of
     Europe or Asia, the corn of Egypt, the gems and spices of
     the furthest India, were brought by the varying winds into
     the port of Constantinople, which for many ages attracted
     the commerce of the ancient world.

     "The prospect of beauty, of safety, and of wealth united in
     a single spot was sufficient to justify the choice of
     Constantine. But as some mixture of prodigy and fable has in
     every age been supposed to reflect a becoming majesty on the
     origin of great cities, the emperor was desirous of
     ascribing his resolution not so much to the uncertain
     counsels of human policy as to the eternal and infallible
     decrees of divine wisdom. In one of his laws he has been
     careful to instruct posterity that in obedience to the
     commands of God he laid the everlasting foundations of
     Constantinople, and though he has not condescended to relate
     in what manner the celestial inspiration was communicated to
     his mind, the defect of his modest silence has been
     liberally supplied by the ingenuity of succeeding writers,
     who describe the nocturnal vision which appeared to the
     fancy of Constantine as he slept within the walls of
     Byzantium. The tutelar genius of the city, a venerable
     matron sinking under the weight of years and infirmities,
     was suddenly transformed into a blooming maid, whom his own
     hands adorned with all the symbols of imperial greatness.
     The monarch awoke, interpreted the auspicious omen, and
     obeyed without hesitation the will of Heaven. The day which
     gave birth to a city or a colony was celebrated by the
     Romans with such ceremonies as had been ordained by a
     generous superstition: and though Constantine might omit
     some rites which savoured too strongly of their pagan
     origin, yet he was anxious to leave a deep impression of
     hope and respect on the minds of the spectators. On foot,
     with a lance in his hand, the emperor himself led the solemn
     procession: and directed the line which was traced as the
     boundary of the destined capital: till the growing
     circumference was observed with astonishment by the
     assistants, who at length ventured to observe that he had
     already exceeded the most ample measure of a great city. 'I
     shall still advance,' replied Constantine, 'till HE, the
     invisible Guide who marches before me, thinks proper to

Gibbon proceeds to describe the extent, limits, and edifices of
Constantinople. Unfortunately the limits of our space prevent us from
giving more than a portion of his brilliant picture.

     "In the actual state of the city the palace and gardens of
     the Seraglio occupy the eastern promontory, the first of the
     seven hills, and cover about one hundred and fifty acres of
     our own measure. The seat of Turkish jealousy and despotism
     is erected on the foundations of a Grecian republic: but it
     may be supposed that the Byzantines were tempted by the
     conveniency of the harbour to extend their habitations on
     that side beyond the modern limits of the Seraglio. The new
     walls of Constantine stretched from the port to the
     Propontis across the enlarged breadth of the triangle, at
     the distance of fifteen stadia from the ancient
     fortifications: and with the city of Byzantium they inclosed
     five of the seven hills, which to the eyes of those who
     approach Constantinople appear to rise above each other in
     beautiful order. About a century after the death of the
     founder the new buildings, extending on one side up the
     harbour, and on the other the Propontis, already covered the
     narrow ridge of the sixth and the broad summit of the
     seventh hill. The necessity of protecting those suburbs from
     the incessant inroads of the barbarians engaged the younger
     Theodosius to surround his capital with an adequate and
     permanent inclosure of walls. From the eastern promontory to
     the Golden Gate, the extreme length of Constantinople was
     above three Roman miles; the circumference measured between
     ten and eleven; and the surface might be computed as equal
     to about two thousand English acres. It is impossible to
     justify the vain and credulous exaggerations of modern
     travellers, who have sometimes stretched the limits of
     Constantinople over the adjacent villages of the European
     and even Asiatic coasts. But the suburbs of Pera and Galata,
     though situate beyond the harbour, may deserve to be
     considered as a part of the city, and this addition may
     perhaps authorise the measure of a Byzantine historian, who
     assigns sixteen Greek (about sixteen Roman) miles for the
     circumference of his native city. Such an extent may seem
     not unworthy of an imperial residence. Yet Constantinople
     must yield to Babylon and Thebes, to ancient Rome, to
     London, and even to Paris....

     "Some estimate may be formed of the expense bestowed with
     imperial liberality on Constantinople, by the allowance of
     about two millions five hundred thousand pounds for the
     construction of the walls, the porticoes, and the aqueducts.
     The forests that overshadowed the shores of the Euxine, and
     the celebrated quarries of white marble in the little
     island of Proconnesus, supplied an inexhaustible stock of
     materials ready to be conveyed by the convenience of a short
     water carriage to the harbour of Byzantium. A multitude of
     labourers and artificers urged the conclusion of the work
     with incessant toil, but the impatience of Constantine soon
     discovered that in the decline of the arts the skill as well
     as the number of his architects bore a very unequal
     proportion to the greatness of his design.... The buildings
     of the new city were executed by such artificers as the age
     of Constantine could afford, but they were decorated by the
     hands of the most celebrated masters of the age of Pericles
     and Alexander.... By Constantine's command the cities of
     Greece and Asia were despoiled of their most valuable
     ornaments. The trophies of memorable wars, the objects of
     religious veneration, the most finished statues of the gods
     and heroes, of the sages and poets of ancient times,
     contributed to the splendid triumph of Constantinople.

     "... The Circus, or Hippodrome, was a stately building of
     about four hundred paces in length and one hundred in
     breadth. The space between the two _metæ_, or goals, was
     filled with statues and obelisks, and we may still remark a
     very singular fragment of antiquity--the bodies of three
     serpents twisted into one pillar of brass. Their triple
     heads had once supported the golden tripod which, after the
     defeat of Xerxes, was consecrated in the temple of Delphi by
     the victorious Greeks. The beauty of the Hippodrome has been
     long since defaced by the rude hands of the Turkish
     conquerors; but, under the similar appellation of Atmeidan,
     it still serves as a place of exercise for their horses.
     From the throne whence the emperor viewed the Circensian
     games a winding staircase descended to the palace, a
     magnificent edifice, which scarcely yielded to the residence
     of Rome itself, and which, together with the dependent
     courts, gardens, and porticoes, covered a considerable
     extent of ground upon the banks of the Propontis between the
     Hippodrome and the church of St. Sophia. We might likewise
     celebrate the baths, which still retained the name of
     Zeuxippus, after they had been enriched by the magnificence
     of Constantine with lofty columns, various marbles, and
     above three score statues of bronze. But we should deviate
     from the design of this history if we attempted minutely to
     describe the different buildings or quarters of the city....
     A particular description, composed about a century after its
     foundation, enumerates a capitol or school of learning, a
     circus, two theatres, eight public and one hundred and
     fifty-three private baths, fifty-two porticoes, five
     granaries, eight aqueducts or reservoirs of water, four
     spacious halls for the meeting of the senate or courts of
     justice, fourteen churches, fourteen palaces, and four
     thousand three hundred and eighty-eight houses, which for
     their size or beauty deserved to be distinguished from the
     multitude of plebeian habitations."

Gibbon's conception of history was that of a spacious panorama, in
which a series of tableaux pass in succession before the reader's eye.
He adverts but little, far too little, to that side of events which
does not strike the visual sense. He rarely generalises or sums up a
widely-scattered mass of facts into pregnant synthetic views. But
possibly he owes some of the permanence of his fame to this very
defect. As soon as ever a writer begins to support a thesis, to prove
a point, he runs imminent danger of one-sidedness and partiality in
his presentation of events. Gibbon's faithful transcript of the past
has neither the merit nor the drawback of generalisation, and he has
come in consequence to be regarded as a common mine of authentic facts
to which all speculators can resort.

The first volume, which was received with such warm acclamation, is
inferior to those that followed. He seems to have been partly aware of
this himself, and speaks of the "concise and superficial narrative
from Commodus to Alexander." But the whole volume lacks the grasp and
easy mastery which distinguish its successors. No doubt the
subject-matter was comparatively meagre and ungrateful. The century
between Commodus and Diocletian was one long spasm of anarchy and
violence, which was, as Niebuhr said, incapable of historical
treatment. The obscure confusion of the age is aggravated into almost
complete darkness by the wretched materials which alone have survived,
and the attempt to found a dignified narrative on such scanty and
imperfect authorities was hardly wise. Gibbon would have shown a
greater sense of historic proportion if he had passed over this period
with a few bold strokes, and summed up with brevity such general
results as may be fairly deduced. We may say of the first volume that
it was tentative in every way. In it the author not only sounded his
public, but he was also trying his instrument, running over the keys
in preparatory search for the right note. He strikes it full and clear
in the two final chapters on the Early Church; these, whatever
objections may be made against them on other grounds, are the real
commencement of the Decline and Fall.

From this point onwards he marches with the steady and measured tramp
of a Roman legion. His materials improve both in number and quality.
The fourth century, though a period of frightful anarchy and disaster
if compared to a settled epoch, is a period of relative peace and
order when compared to the third century. The fifth was calamitous
beyond example; but ecclesiastical history comes to the support of
secular history in a way which might have excited more gratitude in
Gibbon than it did. From Constantine to Augustulus Gibbon is able to
put forth all his strength. His style is less superfine, as his matter
becomes more copious; and the more definite cleavage of events brought
about by the separation between the Eastern and Western Empires,
enables him to display the higher qualities which marked him as an

The merit of his work, it is again necessary to point out, will not be
justly estimated unless the considerations suggested at the beginning
of this chapter be kept in view. We have to remember that his culture
was chiefly French, and that his opinions were those which prevailed
in France in the latter half of the eighteenth century. He was the
friend of Voltaire, Helvétius, and D'Holbach; that is, of men who
regarded the past as one long nightmare of crime, imposture, and
folly, instigated by the selfish machinations of kings and priests. A
strong infusion of the spirit which animated not only Voltaire's
_Essay on Manners_, but certain parts of Hume's _History of England_
might have been expected as a matter of course. It is essentially
absent. Gibbon's private opinions may have been what they will, but he
has approved his high title to the character of an historian by
keeping them well in abeyance. When he turned his eyes to the past and
viewed it with intense gaze, he was absorbed in the spectacle, his
peculiar prejudices were hushed, he thought only of the object before
him and of reproducing it as well as he could. This is not the common
opinion, but, nevertheless, a great deal can be said to support it.

It will be as well to take two concrete tests--his treatment of two
topics which of all others were most likely to betray him into
deviations from historic candour. If he stands these, he may be
admitted to stand any less severe. Let them be his account of Julian,
and his method of dealing with Christianity.

The snare that was spread by Julian's apostasy for the philosophers of
the last century, and their haste to fall into it, are well known.
The spectacle of a philosopher on the throne who proclaimed
toleration, and contempt for Christianity, was too tempting and too
useful controversially to allow of much circumspection in handling it.
The odious comparisons it offered were so exactly what was wanted for
depreciating the Most Christian king and his courtly Church, that all
further inquiry into the apostate's merits seemed useless. Voltaire
finds that Julian had all the qualities of Trajan without his defects;
all the virtues of Cato without his ill-humour; all that one admires
in Julius Cæsar without his vices; he had the continency of Scipio,
and was in all ways equal to Marcus Aurelius, the first of men. Nay,
more. If he had only lived longer, he would have retarded the fall of
the Roman Empire, if he could not arrest it entirely. We here see the
length to which "polemical fury" could hurry a man of rare insight.
Julian had been a subject of contention for years between the hostile
factions. While one party made it a point of honour to prove that he
was a monster, warring consciously against the Most High, the other
was equally determined to prove that he was a paragon of all virtue,
by reason of his enmity to the Christian religion. The deep interest
attaching to the pagan reaction in the fourth century, and the social
and moral problems it suggests, were perceived by neither side, and it
is not difficult to see why they were not. The very word reaction, in
its modern sense, will hardly be found in the eighteenth century, and
the thing that it expresses was very imperfectly conceived. We, who
have been surrounded by reactions, real or supposed, in politics, in
religion, in philosophy, recognise an old acquaintance in the efforts
of the limited, intense Julian to stem the tide of progress as
represented in the Christian Church. It is a fine instance of the way
in which the ever-unfolding present is constantly lighting up the
past. Julian and his party were the Ultramontanes of their day in
matters of religion, and the Romantics in matters of literature. Those
radical innovators and reformers, the Christians, were marching from
conquest to conquest, over the old faith, making no concealment of
their revolutionary aims and intentions to wipe out the past as
speedily as possible. The conservatives of those times, after long
despising the reformers, passed easily to fearing them and hating them
as their success became threatening. "The attachment to paganism,"
says Neander, "lingered especially in many of the ancient and noble
families of Greece and Rome." Old families, or new rich ones who
wished to be thought old, would be sure to take up the cause of
ancestral wisdom as against modern innovation. Before Julian came to
the throne, a pagan reaction was imminent, as Neander points out.
Julian himself was a remarkable man, as men of his class usually are.
In the breaking up of old modes of belief, as Mill has said, "the most
strong-minded and discerning, next to those who head the movement, are
generally those who bring up the rear." The energy of his mind and
character was quite exceptional, and if we reflect that he only
reigned sixteen months, and died in his thirty-second year, we must
admit that the mark he has left in history is very surprising. He and
his policy are now discussed with entire calm by inquirers of all
schools, and sincere Christians like Neander and Dean Milman are as
little disposed to attack him with acrimony, as those of a different
way of thought are inclined to make him a subject of unlimited

Through this difficult subject Gibbon has found his way with a
prudence and true insight which extorted admiration, even in his own
day. His account of Julian is essentially a modern account. The
influence of his private opinions can hardly be traced in the
brilliant chapters that he has devoted to the Apostate. He sees
through Julian's weaknesses in a way in which Voltaire never saw or
cared to see. His pitiful superstition, his huge vanity, his weak
affectation are brought out with an incisive clearness and subtle
penetration into character which Gibbon was not always so ready to
display. At the same time he does full justice to Julian's real
merits. And this is perhaps the most striking evidence of his
penetration. An error on the side of injustice to Julian is very
natural in a man who, having renounced allegiance to Christianity, yet
fully realises the futility of attempting to arrest it in the fourth
century. A certain intellectual disdain for the reactionary emperor is
difficult to avoid. Gibbon surmounts it completely, and he does so,
not in consequence of a general conception of the reactionary spirit,
as a constantly emerging element in society, but by sheer historical
insight, clear vision of the fact before him. It may be added that
nowhere is Gibbon's command of vivid narrative seen to greater
advantage than in the chapters that he has devoted to Julian. The
daring march from Gaul to Illyricum is told with immense spirit; but
the account of Julian's final campaign and death in Persia is still
better, and can hardly be surpassed. It has every merit of clearness
and rapidity, yet is full of dignity, which culminates in this fine
passage referring to the night before the emperor received his mortal

     "While Julian struggled with the almost insuperable
     difficulties of his situation, the silent hours of the night
     were still devoted to study and contemplation. Whenever he
     closed his eyes in short and interrupted slumbers, his mind
     was agitated by painful anxiety; nor can it be thought
     surprising that the Genius of the empire should once more
     appear before him, covering with a funereal veil his head
     and his horn of abundance, and slowly retiring from the
     Imperial tent. The monarch started from his couch, and,
     stepping forth to refresh his wearied spirits with the
     coolness of the midnight air, he beheld a fiery meteor,
     which shot athwart the sky and suddenly vanished. Julian was
     convinced that he had seen the menacing countenance of the
     god of war: the council which he summoned, of Tuscan
     Haruspices, unanimously pronounced that he should abstain
     from action; but on this occasion necessity and reason were
     more prevalent than superstition, and the trumpets sounded
     at the break of day."[12]


[Footnote 12: It is interesting to compare Gibbon's admirable picture
with the harsh original Latin of his authority, Ammianus Marcellinus.
"Ipse autem ad sollicitam suspensamque quietem paullisper protractus,
cum somno (ut solebat) depulso, ad æmulationem Cæsaris Julii quædam
sub pellibus scribens, obscuro noctis altitudine sensus cujusdam
philosophi teneretur, vidit squalidius, ut confessus est proximis,
speciem illam Genii publici, quam quum ad Augustum surgeret culmen,
conspexit in Galliis, velata cum capite cornucopia per aulæa tristius
discedentem. Et quamquam ad momentum hæsit, stupore defixus, omni
tamen superior metu, ventura decretis cælestibus commendabat; relicto
humi strato cubili, adulta jam excitus nocte, et numinibus per sacra
depulsoria supplicans, flagrantissimam facem cadenti similem visam,
aëris parte sulcata evanuisse existimavit: horroreque perfusus est, ne
ita aperte minax Martis adparuerit sidus."--_Amm. Marc._ lib. xxv.
cap. 2.]

It will not be so easy to absolve Gibbon from the charge of prejudice
in reference to his treatment of the Early Church. It cannot be denied
that in the two famous chapters, at least, which concluded his first
volume, he adopted a tone which must be pronounced offensive, not only
from the Christian point of view, but on the broad ground of
historical equity. His preconceived opinions were too strong for him
on this occasion, and obstructed his generally clear vision. Yet a
distinction must be made. The offensive tone in question is confined
to these two chapters. We need not think that it was in consequence of
the clamour they raised that he adopted a different style with
reference to church matters in his subsequent volumes. A more
creditable explanation of his different tone, which will be presently
suggested, is at least as probable. In any case, these two chapters
remain the chief slur on his historical impartiality, and it is worth
while to examine what his offence amounts to.

Gibbon's account of the early Christians is vitiated by his narrow and
distorted conception of the emotional side of man's nature. Having no
spiritual aspirations himself, he could not appreciate or understand
them in others. Those emotions which have for their object the unseen
world and its centre, God, had no meaning for him; and he was tempted
to explain them away when he came across them, or to ascribe their
origin and effects to other instincts which were more intelligible to
him. The wonderland which the mystic inhabits was closed to him, he
remained outside of it and reproduced in sarcastic travesty the
reports he heard of its marvels. What he has called the secondary
causes of the growth of Christianity, were much rather its effects.
The first is "the inflexible and intolerant zeal of the Christians"
and their abhorrence of idolatry. With great power of language, he
paints the early Christian "encompassed with infernal snares in every
convivial entertainment, as often as his friends, invoking the
hospitable deities, poured out libations to each other's happiness.
When the bride, struggling with well-affected reluctance, was forced
in hymenæal pomp over the threshold of her new habitation, or when the
sad procession of the dead slowly moved towards the funeral pile, the
Christian on these interesting occasions was compelled to desert the
persons who were dearest to him, rather than contract the guilt
inherent in those impious ceremonies." It is strange that Gibbon did
not ask himself what was the cause of this inflexible zeal. The zeal
produced the effects alleged, but what produced the zeal? He says that
it was derived from the Jewish religion, but neglects to point out
what could have induced Gentiles of every diversity of origin to
derive from a despised race tenets and sentiments which would make
their lives one long scene of self-denial and danger. The whole vein
of remark is so completely out of date, that it is not worth dwelling
on, except very summarily.

The second cause is "the doctrine of a future life, improved by every
additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that
important truth." Again we have an effect treated as a cause. "The
ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present
existence, and by a just confidence of immortality." Very true; but
the fact of their being so animated was what wanted explaining. Gibbon
says it "was no wonder that so advantageous an offer" as that of
immortality was accepted. Yet he had just before told us that the
ablest orators at the bar and in the senate of Rome, could expose
this offer of immortality to ridicule without fear of giving offence.
Whence arose, then, the sudden blaze of conviction with which the
Christians embraced it?

The third cause is the miraculous powers _ascribed_ to the primitive
Church. Gibbon apparently had not the courage to admit that he agreed
with his friend Hume in rejecting miracles altogether. He conceals his
drift in a cloud of words, suggesting indirectly with innuendo and
sneer his real opinion. But this does not account for the stress he
lays on the _ascription_ of miracles. He seems to think that the claim
of supernatural gifts somehow had the same efficacy as the gifts
themselves would have had, if they had existed.

The fourth cause is the virtues of the primitive Christians. The
paragraphs upon it, Dean Milman considers the most uncandid in all the
history, and they certainly do Gibbon no credit. With a strange
ignorance of the human heart, he attributes the austere morals of the
early Christians to their care for their reputation. The ascetic
temper, one of the most widely manifested in history, was beyond his

The fifth cause was the union and discipline of the Christian
republic. For the last time the effect figures as the cause. Union and
discipline we know are powerful, but we know also that they are the
result of deep antecedent forces, and that prudence and policy alone
never produced them.

It can surprise no one that Gibbon has treated the early Church in a
way which is highly unsatisfactory if judged by a modern standard. Not
only is it a period which criticism has gone over again and again with
a microscope, but the standpoint from which such periods are observed
has materially changed since his day. That dim epoch of nascent faith,
full of tender and subdued tints, with a high light on the brows of
the Crucified, was not one in which he could see clearly, or properly
see at all. He has as little insight into the religious condition of
the pagan world, as of the Christian. It is singular how he passes
over facts which were plain before him, which he knew quite well, as
he knew nearly everything connected with his subject, but the real
significance of which he missed. Thus he attributes to the scepticism
of the pagan world the easy introduction of Christianity. Misled by
the "eloquence of Cicero and the wit of Lucian," he supposes the
second century to have been vacant of beliefs, in which a "fashion of
incredulity" was widely diffused, and "many were almost disengaged
from artificial prejudices." He was evidently unaware of the striking
religious revival which uplifted paganism in the age of Hadrian, and
grew with the sinking empire: the first stirrings of it may even be
discerned in Tacitus, and go on increasing till we reach the theurgy
of the Neoplatonists. A growing fear of the gods, a weariness of life
and longing for death, a disposition to look for compensation for the
miseries of this world to a brighter one beyond the grave--these
traits are common in the literature of the second century, and show
the change which had come over the minds of men. Gibbon is
colour-blind to these shades of the religious spirit: he can only see
the banter of Lucian.[13] In reference to these matters he was a true
son of his age, and could hardly be expected to transcend it.


[Footnote 13: On the religious revival of the second century, see
Hausrath's _Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte_, vol. iii., especially
the sections, "Hadrian's Mysticismus" and "Religiöse Tendenzen in
Kunst und Literatur," where this interesting subject is handled with a
freshness and insight quite remarkable.]

He cannot be cleared of this reproach. On the other hand, we must
remember that Gibbon's hard and accurate criticism set a good example
in one respect. The fertile fancy of the middle ages had run into wild
exaggerations of the number of the primitive martyrs, and their
legends had not always been submitted to impartial scrutiny even in
the eighteenth century. We may admit that Gibbon was not without bias
of another kind, and that his tone is often very offensive when he
seeks to depreciate the evidence of the sufferings of the early
confessors. His computation, which will allow of "an annual
consumption of a hundred and fifty martyrs," is nothing short of
cynical. Still he did good service in insisting on chapter and verse
and fair historical proof of these frightful stories, before they were
admitted. Dean Milman acknowledges so much, and defends him against
the hot zeal of M. Guizot, justly adding that "truth must not be
sacrificed even to well-grounded moral indignation," in which
sentiment all now will no doubt be willing to concur.

The difference between the Church in the Catacombs, and the Church in
the Palaces at Constantinople or Ravenna, measures the difference
between Gibbon's treatment of early Christian history and his
treatment of ecclesiastical history. Just as the simple-hearted
emotions of God-fearing men were a puzzle and an irritation to him, so
he was completely at home in exposing the intrigues of courtly bishops
and in the metaphysics of theological controversy. His mode of dealing
with Church matters from this point onward is hardly ever unfair, and
has given rise to few protestations. He has not succeeded in pleasing
everybody. What Church historian ever does? But he is candid,
impartial, and discerning. His account of the conversion of
Constantine is remarkably just, and he is more generous to the first
Christian Emperor than Niebuhr or Neander. He plunges into the Arian
controversy with manifest delight, and has given in a few pages one of
the clearest and most memorable _résumés_ of that great struggle. But
it is when he comes to the hero of that struggle, to an historic
character who can be seen with clearness, that he shows his wonted
tact and insight. A great man hardly ever fails to awaken Gibbon into
admiration and sympathy. The "Great Athanasius," as he often calls
him, caught his eye at once, and the impulse to draw a fine character,
promptly silenced any prejudices which might interfere with faithful
portraiture. "Athanasius stands out more grandly in Gibbon, than in
the pages of the orthodox ecclesiastical historians"--Dr. Newman has
said,--a judge whose competence will not be questioned. And as if to
show how much insight depends on sympathy, Gibbon is immediately more
just and open to the merits of the Christian community, than he had
been hitherto. He now sees "that the privileges of the Church had
already revived a sense of order and freedom in the Roman government."
His chapter on the rise of monasticism is more fair and discriminating
than the average Protestant treatment of that subject. He distinctly
acknowledges the debt we owe the monks for their attention to
agriculture, the useful trades, and the preservation of ancient
literature. The more disgusting forms of asceticism he touches with
light irony, which is quite as effective as the vehement denunciations
of non-Catholic writers. It must not be forgotten that his
ecclesiastical history derives a great superiority of clearness and
proportion by its interweaving with the general history of the times,
and this fact of itself suffices to give Gibbon's picture a permanent
value even beside the master works of German erudition which have been
devoted exclusively to Church matters. If we lay down Gibbon and take
up Neander, for instance, we are conscious that with all the greater
fulness of detail, engaging candour, and sympathetic insight of the
great Berlin Professor, the general impression of the times is less
distinct and lasting. There is no specialism in Gibbon; his book is a
broad sociological picture in which the whole age is portrayed.

To sum up. In two memorable chapters Gibbon has allowed his prejudices
to mar his work as an historian. But two chapters out of seventy-one
constitute a small proportion. In the remainder of his work he is as
free from bias and unfairness as human frailty can well allow. The
annotated editions of Milman and Guizot are guarantees of this. Their
critical animadversions become very few and far between after the
first volume is passed. If he had been animated by a polemical object
in writing; if he had used the past as an arsenal from which to draw
weapons to attack the present, we may depend that a swift blight would
have shrivelled his labours, as it did so many famous works of the
eighteenth century, when the great day of reaction set in. His mild
rebuke of the Abbé Raynal should not be forgotten. He admired the
_History of the Indies_. It is one of the few books that he has
honoured with mention and praise in the text of his own work. But he
points out that the "zeal of the philosophic historian for the rights
of mankind" had led him into a blunder. It was not only Gibbon's
scholarly accuracy which saved him from such blunders. Perhaps he had
less zeal for the rights of mankind than men like Raynal, whose
general views he shared. But it is certain that he did not write with
their settled _parti pris_ of making history a vehicle of controversy.
His object was to be a faithful historian, and due regard being had to
his limitations, he attained to it.

If we now consider the defects of the _Decline and Fall_--which the
progress of historic study, and still more the lapse of time, have
gradually rendered visible, they will be found, as was to be expected,
to consist in the author's limited conception of society, and of the
multitudinous forces which mould and modify it. We are constantly
reminded by the tone of remark that he sees chiefly the surface of
events, and that the deeper causes which produce them have not been
seen with the same clearness. In proportion as an age is remote, and
therefore different from that in which a historian writes, does it
behove him to remember that the social and general side of history is
more important than the individual and particular. In reference to a
period adjacent to our own the fortunes of individuals properly take a
prominent place, the social conditions amid which they worked are
familiar to us, and we understand them and their position without
effort. But with regard to a remote age the case is different. Here
our difficulty is to understand the social conditions, so unlike those
with which we are acquainted, and as society is greater than man, so
we feel that society, and not individual men, should occupy the chief
place in the picture. Not that individuals are to be suppressed or
neglected, but their subordination to the large historic background
must be well maintained. The social, religious, and philosophic
conditions amid which they played their parts should dominate the
scene, and dwarf by their grandeur and importance the human actors who
move across it. The higher historical style now demands what may be
called compound narrative, that is narrative having reference to two
sets of phenomena--one the obvious surface events, the other the
larger and wider, but less obvious, sociological condition. A better
example could hardly be given than Grote's account of the mutilation
of the Hermæ. The fact of the mutilation is told in the briefest way
in a few lines, but the social condition which overarched it, and made
the disfiguring of a number of half-statues "one of the most
extraordinary events in Greek history," demands five pages of
reflections and commentary to bring out its full significance. Grote
insists on the duty "to take reasonable pains to realise in our minds
the religious and political associations of the Athenians," and helps
us to do it by a train of argument and illustration. The larger part
of the strength of the modern historical school lies in this method,
and in able hands it has produced great results.

It would be unfair to compare Gibbon to these writers. They had a
training in social studies which he had not. But it is not certain
that he has always acquitted himself well, even if compared to his
contemporaries and predecessors, Montesquieu, Mably, and Voltaire. In
any case his narrative is generally wanting in historic perspective
and suggestive background. It adheres closely to the obvious surface
of events with little attempt to place behind them the deeper sky of
social evolution. In many of his crowded chapters one cannot see the
wood for the trees. The story is not lifted up and made lucid by
general points of view, but drags or hurries along in the hollow of
events, over which the author never seems to raise himself into a
position of commanding survey. The thirty-sixth chapter is a marked
instance of this defect. But the defect is general. The vigorous and
skilful narrative, and a certain grandeur and weightiness of language,
make us overlook it. It is only when we try to attain clear and
succinct views, which condense into portable propositions the enormous
mass of facts collected before us, that we feel that the writer has
not often surveyed his subject from a height and distance sufficient
to allow the great features of the epoch to be seen in bold outline.
By the side of the history of concrete events, we miss the
presentation of those others which are none the less events for being
vague, irregular, and wide-reaching, and requiring centuries for their
accomplishment. Gibbon's manner of dealing with the first is always
good, and sometimes consummate, and equal to anything in historical
literature. The thirty-first chapter, with its description of Rome,
soon to fall a prey to the Goths and Alaric, is a masterpiece,
artistic and spacious in the highest degree; though it is unnecessary
to cite particular instances, as nearly every chapter contains
passages of admirable historic power. But the noble flood of narrative
never stops in meditative pause to review the situation, and point out
with pregnant brevity what is happening in the sum total, abstraction
made of all confusing details. Besides the facts of the time, we seek
to have the tendencies of the age brought before us in their flow and
expansion, the filiation of events over long periods deduced in clear
sequence, a synoptical view which is to the mind what a picture is to
the eye. In this respect Gibbon's method leaves not a little to be

Take for instance two of the most important aspects of the subject
that he treated: the barbarian invasions, and the causes of the
decline and fall of the Roman empire. To the concrete side of both he
has done ample justice. The rational and abstract side of neither has
received the attention from him which it deserved. On the interesting
question of the introduction of the barbarians into the frontier
provinces, and their incorporation into the legions, he never seems to
have quite made up his mind. In the twelfth chapter he calls it a
"great and beneficial plan." Subsequently he calls it a disgraceful
and fatal expedient. He recurs frequently to the subject in isolated
passages, but never collects the facts, into a focus, with a view of
deducing their real meaning. Yet the point is second to none in
importance. Its elucidation throws more light on the fall of Rome than
any other considerations whatever. The question is, Whether Rome was
conquered by the barbarians in the ordinary sense of the word,
conquered. We know that it was not, and Gibbon knew that it was not.
Yet perhaps most people rise from reading his book with an impression
that the empire succumbed to the invasion of the barbarians, as
Carthage, Gaul, and Greece had succumbed to the invasion of the
Romans; that the struggle lay between classic Rome and outside
uncivilised foes; and that after two centuries of hard fighting the
latter were victorious. The fact that the struggle lay between
barbarians, who were within and friendly to the empire, and barbarians
who were without it, and hostile rather to their more fortunate
brethren, than to the empire which employed them, is implicitly
involved in Gibbon's narrative, but it is not explicitly brought out.
Romanised Goths, Vandals, and Franks were the defenders, nearly the
only defenders, of the empire against other tribes and nations who
were not Romanised, and nothing can be more plain than that Gibbon saw
this as well as any one since, but he has not set it forth with
prominence and clearness. With his complete mastery of the subject he
would have done it admirably, if he had assumed the necessary point of

Similarly, with regard to the causes of the fall of the empire. It is
quite evident that he was not at all unconscious of the deep economic
and social vices which undermined the great fabric. Depopulation,
decay of agriculture, fiscal oppression, the general prostration
begotten of despotism--all these sources of the great collapse may be
traced in his text, or his wonderful notes, hinted very often with a
flashing insight which anticipates the most recent inquiries into the
subject. But these considerations are not brought together to a
luminous point, nor made to yield clear and tangible results. They lie
scattered, isolated, and barren over three volumes, and are easily
overlooked. One may say that generalised and synthetic views are
conspicuous by their absence in Gibbon.

But what of that? These reflections, even if they be well founded,
hardly dim the majesty of the _Decline and Fall_. The book is such a
marvel of knowledge at once wide and minute, that even now, after
numbers of labourers have gone over the same ground, with only special
objects in view, small segments of the great circle which Gibbon fills
alone, his word is still one of the weightiest that can be quoted.
Modern research has unquestionably opened out points of view to which
he did not attain. But when it comes to close investigation of any
particular question, we rarely fail to find that he has seen it,
dropped some pregnant hint about it, more valuable than the
dissertations of other men. As Mr. Freeman says, "Whatever else is
read, Gibbon must be read too."



After the preliminary troubles which met him on his arrival at
Lausanne, Gibbon had four years of unbroken calm and steady work, of
which there is nothing to record beyond the fact that they were filled
with peaceful industry. "One day," he wrote, "glides by another in
tranquil uniformity." During the whole period he never stirred ten
miles out of Lausanne. He had nearly completed the fourth volume
before he left England. Then came an interruption of a year--consumed
in the break-up of his London establishment, his journey, the
transport of his library, the delay in getting settled at Lausanne.
Then he sat down in grim earnest to finish his task, and certainly the
speed he used, considering the quality of the work, left nothing to be
desired. He achieved the fifth volume in twenty-one months, and the
sixth in little more than a year. He had hoped to finish sooner, but
it is no wonder that he found his work grow under his hands when he
passed from design to execution. "A long while ago, when I
contemplated the distant prospect of my work," he writes to Lord
Sheffield, "I gave you and myself some hopes of landing in England
last autumn; but alas! when autumn grew near, hills began to rise on
hills, Alps on Alps, and I found my journey far more tedious and
toilsome than I had imagined. When I look back on the length of the
undertaking and the variety of materials, I cannot accuse or suffer
myself to be accused of idleness; yet it appeared that unless I
doubled my diligence, another year, and perhaps more, would elapse
before I could embark with my complete manuscript. Under these
circumstances I took, and am still executing, a bold and meritorious
resolution. The mornings in winter, and in a country of early dinners,
are very concise. To them, my usual period of study, I now frequently
add the evenings, renounce cards and society, refuse the most
agreeable evenings, or perhaps make my appearance at a late supper. By
this extraordinary industry, which I never practised before, and to
which I hope never to be again reduced, I see the last part of my
history growing apace under my hands." He was indeed, as he said, now
straining for the goal which was at last reached "on the day, or
rather the night, of the 27th of June, 1787. Between the hours of
eleven and twelve I wrote the last lines of the last page in a
summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several
turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a
prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was
temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was
reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not
dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and
perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled,
and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had
taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and
that whatsoever might be the future fate of my history, the life of
the historian must be short and precarious."

A faint streak of poetry occasionally shoots across Gibbon's prose.
But both prose and poetry had now to yield to stern business. The
printing of three quarto volumes in those days of handpresses was a
formidable undertaking, and unless expedition were used the publishing
season of the ensuing year would be lost. A month had barely elapsed
before Gibbon with his precious cargo started for England. He went
straight to his printers. The printing of the fourth volume occupied
three months, and both author and publisher were warned that their
common interest required a quicker pace. Then Mr. Strahan "fulfilled
his engagement, which few printers could sustain, of delivering every
week three thousand copies of nine sheets." On the 8th of May, 1788,
the three concluding volumes were published, and Gibbon had discharged
his debt for the entertainment that he had had in this world.

He returned as speedily as he could to Lausanne, to rest from his
labours. But he had a painful greeting in the sadly altered look of
his friend Deyverdun. Soon an apoplectic seizure confirmed his
forebodings, and within a twelvemonth the friend of his youth, whom he
had loved for thirty-three years, was taken away by death (July 4,


[Footnote 14: The letter in which Gibbon communicated the sad news to
Lord Sheffield was written on the 14th July, 1789, the day of the
taking of the Bastille. So "that evening sun of July" sent its beams
on Gibbon mourning the dead friend, as well as on "reapers amid
peaceful woods and fields, on old women spinning in cottages, on ships
far out on the silent main, on balls at the Orangerie of Versailles,
where high-rouged dames of the palace are even now dancing with
double-jacketed Hussar officers."]

Gibbon never got over this loss. His staid and solid nature was not
given to transports of joy or grief. But his constant references to
"poor Deyverdun," and the vacancy caused by his loss, show the depth
of the wound. "I want to change the scene," he writes, "and, beautiful
as the garden and prospect must appear to every eye, I feel that the
state of my mind casts a gloom over them: every spot, every walk,
every bench recalls the memory of those hours, those conversations,
which will return no more.... I almost hesitate whether I shall run
over to England to consult with you on the spot, and to fly from poor
Deyverdun's shade, which meets me at every turn." Not that he lacked
attached friends, and of mere society and acquaintance he had more
than abundance. He occupied at Lausanne a position of almost
patriarchal dignity, "and may be said," writes Lord Sheffield, "to
have almost given the law to a set of as willing subjects as any man
ever presided over." Soon the troubles in France sent wave after wave
of emigrants over the frontiers, and Lausanne had its full share of
the exiles. After a brief approval of the reforms in France he passed
rapidly to doubt, disgust, and horror at the "new birth of time"
there. "You will allow me to be a tolerable historian," he wrote to
his step-mother, "yet on a fair review of ancient and modern times I
can find none that bear any affinity to the present." The last social
evolution was beyond his power of classification. The mingled
bewilderment and anger with which he looks out from Lausanne on the
revolutionary welter, form an almost amusing contrast to his usual
apathy on political matters. He is full of alarm lest England should
catch the revolutionary fever. He is delighted with Burke's
_Reflections_. "I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I
adore his chivalry, and I can forgive even his superstition." His
wrath waxes hotter at every post. "Poor France! The state is
dissolved! the nation is mad." At last nothing but vituperation can
express his feelings, and he roundly calls the members of the
Convention "devils," and discovers that "democratical principles lead
by a path of flowers into the abyss of hell."

In 1790 his friends the Neckers had fled to Switzerland, and on every
ground of duty and inclination he was called upon to show them the
warmest welcome, and he did so in a way that excited their liveliest
gratitude. Necker was cast down in utter despair, not only for the
loss of place and power, but on account of the strong animosity which
was shown to him by the exiled French, none of whom would set their
foot in his house. The Neckers were now Gibbon's chief intimates till
the end of his sojourn in Switzerland. They lived at Coppet, and
constant visits were exchanged there and at Lausanne. Madame Necker
wrote to him frequent letters, which prove that if she had ever had
any grievance to complain of in the past, it was not only forgiven,
but entirely forgotten. The letters, indeed, testify a warmth of
sentiment on her part which, coming from a lady of less spotless
propriety, would almost imply a revival of youthful affection for her
early lover. "You have always been dear to me," she writes, "but the
friendship you have shown to M. Necker adds to that which you inspire
me with on so many grounds, and I love you at present with a double
affection."--"Come to us when you are restored to health and to
yourself; that moment should always belong to your first and your
last friend (_amie_), and I do not know which of those titles is the
sweetest and dearest to my heart."--"Near you, the recollections you
recalled were pleasant to me, and you connected them easily with
present impressions; the chain of years seemed to link all times
together with electrical rapidity; you were at once twenty and fifty
years old for me. Away from you the different places, which I have
inhabited are only the milestones of my life telling me of the
distance I have come." With much more in the same strain. Of Madame de
Staël Gibbon does not speak in very warm praise. Her mother, who was
far from being contented with her, may perhaps have prejudiced him
against her. In one letter to him she complains of her daughter's
conduct in no measured terms. Yet Gibbon owns that Madame de Staël was
a "pleasant little woman;" and in another place says that she was
"wild, vain, but good-natured, with a much larger provision of wit
than of beauty." One wonders if he ever knew of her childish scheme of
marrying him in order that her parents might always have the pleasure
of his company and conversation.

These closing years of Gibbon's life were not happy, through no fault
of his. No man was less inclined by disposition to look at the dark
side of things. But heavy blows fell on him in quick succession. His
health was seriously impaired, and he was often laid up for months
with the gout. His neglect of exercise had produced its effect, and he
had become a prodigy of unwieldy corpulency. Unfortunately his
digestion seems to have continued only too good, and neither his own
observation nor the medical science of that day sufficed to warn him
against certain errors of regimen which were really fatal. All this
time, while the gout was constantly torturing him, he drank Madeira
freely. There is frequent question of a pipe of that sweet wine in his
correspondence with Lord Sheffield. He cannot bear the thought of
being without a sufficient supply, as "good Madeira is now become
essential to his health and reputation." The last three years of his
residence at Lausanne were agitated by perpetual anxiety and dread of
an invasion of French democratic principles, or even of French troops.
Reluctance to quit "his paradise" keeps him still, but he is always
wondering how soon he will have to fly, and often regrets that he has
not done so already. "For my part," he writes, "till Geneva falls, I
do not think of a retreat; but at all events I am provided with two
strong horses and a hundred louis in gold." Fate was hard on the
kindly epicurean, who after his long toil had made his bed in the sun,
on which he was preparing to lie down in genial content till the end
came. But he feels he must not think of rest; and that, heavy as he
is, and irksome to him as it is to move, he must before long be a
rover again. Still he is never peevish upon his fortune; he puts the
best face on things as long as they will bear it.

He was not so philosophical under the bereavements that he now
suffered. His aunt, Mrs. Porten, had died in 1786. He deplored her as
he was bound to do, and feelingly regrets and blames himself for not
having written to her as often as he might have done since their last
parting. Then came the irreparable loss of Deyverdun. Shortly, an old
Lausanne friend, M. de Severy, to whom he was much attached, died
after a long illness. Lastly and suddenly, came the death of Lady
Sheffield, the wife of his friend Holroyd, with whom he had long lived
on such intimate terms that he was in the habit of calling her his
sister. The Sheffields, father and mother and two daughters, had spent
the summer of 1791 with him at Lausanne. The visit was evidently an
occasion of real happiness and _épanchement de coeur_ to the two old
friends, and supplied Gibbon for nearly two years with tender regrets
and recollections. Then, without any warning, he heard of Lady
Sheffield's death. In a moment his mind was made up: he would go at
once to console his friend. All the fatigue and irksomeness of the
journey to one so ailing and feeble, all the dangers of the road lined
and perhaps barred by hostile armies, vanished on the spot. Within
twelve days he had made his preparations and started on his journey.
He was forced to travel through Germany, and in his ignorance of the
language he required an interpreter; young de Severy, the son of his
deceased friend, joyfully, and out of mere affection for him,
undertook the office of courier. "His attachment to me," wrote Gibbon,
"is the sole motive which prompts him to undertake this troublesome
journey." It is clear that he had the art of making himself loved. He
travelled through Frankfort, Cologne, Brussels, Ostend, and was by his
friend's side in little more than a month after he had received the
fatal tidings. Well might Lord Sheffield say, "I must ever regard it
as the most enduring proof of his sensibility, and of his possessing
the true spirit of friendship, that, after having relinquished the
thought of his intended visit, he hastened to England, in spite of
increasing impediments, to soothe me by the most generous sympathy,
and to alleviate my domestic affliction; neither his great corpulency
nor his extraordinary bodily infirmities, nor any other consideration,
could prevent him a moment from resolving on an undertaking that might
have deterred the most active young man. He almost immediately, with
an alertness by no means natural to him, undertook a great circuitous
journey along the frontier of an enemy worse than savage, within the
sound of their cannon, within the range of the light troops of the
different armies, and through roads ruined by the enormous machinery
of war."

In this public and private gloom he bade for ever farewell to
Lausanne. He was himself rapidly approaching

     "The dark portal,
      Goal of all mortal,"

but of this he knew not as yet. While he is in the house of mourning,
beside his bereaved friend, we will return for a short space to
consider the conclusion of his great work.



The thousand years between the fifth and the fifteenth century
comprise the middle age, a period which only recently, through utterly
inadequate conceptions of social growth, was wont to be called the
dark ages. That long epoch of travail and growth, during which the old
field of civilisation was broken up and sown afresh with new and
various seed unknown to antiquity, receives now on all hands due
recognition, as being one of the most rich, fertile, and interesting
in the history of man. The all-embracing despotism of Rome was
replaced by the endless local divisions and subdivisions of feudal
tenure. The multiform rites and beliefs of polytheism were replaced by
the single faith and paramount authority of the Catholic Church. The
philosophies of Greece were dethroned, and the scholastic theology
reigned in their stead. The classic tongues crumbled away, and out of
their _débris_ arose the modern idioms of France, Italy, and Spain, to
which were added in Northern Europe the new forms of Teutonic speech.
The fine and useful arts took a new departure; slavery was mitigated
into serfdom; industry and commerce became powers in the world as they
had never been before; the narrow municipal polity of the old world
was in time succeeded by the broader national institutions based on
various forms of representation. Gunpowder, America, and the art of
printing were discovered, and the most civilised portion of mankind
passed insensibly into the modern era.

Such was the wide expanse which spread out before Gibbon when he
resolved to continue his work from the fall of the Western Empire to
the capture of Constantinople. Indeed his glance took in a still wider
field, as he was concerned as much with the decay of Eastern as of
Western Rome, and the long-retarded fall of the former demanded large
attention to the Oriental populations who assaulted the city and
remaining empire of Constantine. So bold an historic enterprise was
never conceived as when, standing on the limit of antiquity in the
fifth century, he determined to pursue in rapid but not hasty survey
the great lines of events for a thousand years, to follow in detail
the really great transactions while discarding the less important,
thereby giving prominence and clearness to what is memorable, and
reproducing on a small scale the flow of time through the ages. It is
to this portion of Gibbon's work that the happy comparison has been
made, that it resembles a magnificent Roman aqueduct spanning over the
chasm which separates the ancient from the modern world. In these
latter volumes he frees himself from the trammels of regular
annalistic narrative, deals with events in broad masses according to
their importance, expanding or contracting his story as occasion
requires; now painting in large panoramic view the events of a few
years, now compressing centuries into brief outline. Many of his
massive chapters afford materials for volumes, and are well worthy of
a fuller treatment than he could give without deranging his plan. But
works of greater detail and narrower compass can never compete with
Gibbon's history, any more than a county map can compete with a map of
England or of Europe.

The variety of the contents of these last three volumes is amazing,
especially when the thoroughness and perfection of the workmanship are
considered. Prolix compilations or sketchy outlines of universal
history have their use and place, but they are removed by many degrees
from the _Decline and Fall_, or rather they belong to another species
of authorship. It is not only that Gibbon combines width and depth,
that the extent of his learning is as wonderful as its accuracy,
though in this respect he has hardly a full rival in literature. The
quality which places him not only in the first rank of historians, but
in a class by himself, and makes him greater than the greatest, lies
in his supreme power of moulding into lucid and coherent unity, the
manifold and rebellious mass of his multitudinous materials, of
coercing his divergent topics into such order that they seem
spontaneously to grow like branches out of one stem, clear and visible
to the mind. There is something truly epic in these latter volumes.
Tribes, nations, and empires are the characters; one after another
they come forth like Homeric heroes, and do their mighty deeds before
the assembled armies. The grand and lofty chapters on Justinian; on
the Arabs; on the Crusades, have a rounded completeness, coupled with
such artistic subordination to the main action, that they read more
like cantos of a great prose poem than the ordinary staple of
historical composition. It may well be questioned whether there is
another instance of such high literary form and finish, coupled with
such vast erudition. And two considerations have to be borne in mind,
which heighten Gibbon's merit in this respect. (1.) Almost the whole
of his subject had been as yet untouched by any preceding writer of
eminence, and he had no stimulus or example from his precursors. He
united thus in himself the two characters of pioneer and artist. (2.)
The barbarous and imperfect nature of the materials with which he
chiefly had to work,--dull inferior writers, whose debased style was
their least defect. A historian who has for his authorities masters of
reason and language such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus
is borne up by their genius; apt quotation and translation alone
suffice to produce considerable effects; or in the case of subjects
taken from modern times, weighty state papers, eloquent debates, or
finished memoirs supply ample materials for graphic narrative. But
Gibbon had little but dross to deal with. Yet he has smelted and cast
it into the grand shapes we see.

The fourth volume is nearly confined to the reign, or rather epoch, of
Justinian,--a magnificent subject, which he has painted in his
loftiest style of gorgeous narrative. The campaigns of Belisarius and
Narses are related with a clearness and vigour that make us feel that
Gibbon's merits as a military historian have not been quite
sufficiently recognised. He had from the time of his service in the
militia taken continued interest in tactics and all that was connected
with the military art. It was no idle boast when he said that the
captain of the Hampshire grenadiers had not been useless to the
historian of the Roman empire. Military matters perhaps occupy a
somewhat excessive space in his pages. Still, if the operations of
war are to be related, it is highly important that they should be
treated with intelligence, and knowledge how masses of men are moved,
and by a writer to whom the various incidents of the camp, the march,
and the bivouac, are not matters of mere hearsay, but of personal
experience. The campaign of Belisarius in Africa may be quoted as an

     "In the seventh year of the reign of Justinian, and about
     the time of the summer solstice, the whole fleet of six
     hundred ships was ranged in martial pomp before the gardens
     of the palace. The patriarch pronounced his benediction, the
     emperor signified his last commands, the general's trumpet
     gave the signal of departure, and every heart, according to
     its fears or wishes, explored with anxious curiosity the
     omens of misfortune or success. The first halt was made at
     Perintheus, or Heraclea, where Belisarius waited five days
     to receive some Thracian horses, a military gift of his
     sovereign. From thence the fleet pursued their course
     through the midst of the Propontis; but as they struggled to
     pass the straits of the Hellespont, an unfavourable wind
     detained them four days at Abydos, where the general
     exhibited a remarkable lesson of firmness and severity. Two
     of the Huns who, in a drunken quarrel, had slain one of
     their fellow-soldiers, were instantly shown to the army
     suspended on a lofty gibbet. The national dignity was
     resented by their countrymen, who disclaimed the servile
     laws of the empire and asserted the free privileges of
     Scythia, where a small fine was allowed to expiate the
     sallies of intemperance and anger. Their complaints were
     specious, their clamours were loud, and the Romans were not
     averse to the example of disorder and impunity. But the
     rising sedition was appeased by the authority and eloquence
     of the general, and he represented to the assembled troops
     the obligation of justice, the importance of discipline, the
     rewards of piety and virtue, and the unpardonable guilt of
     murder, which, in his apprehension, was aggravated rather
     than excused by the vice of intoxication. In the navigation
     from the Hellespont to the Peloponnesus, which the Greeks
     after the siege of Troy had performed in four days, the
     fleet of Belisarius was guided in their course by his
     master-galley, conspicuous in the day by the redness of the
     sails, and in the night by torches blazing from the
     masthead. It was the duty of the pilots as they steered
     between the islands and turned the capes of Malea and
     Tænarium to preserve the just order and regular intervals of
     such a multitude. As the wind was fair and moderate, their
     labours were not unsuccessful, and the troops were safely
     disembarked at Methone, on the Messenian coast, to repose
     themselves for a while after the fatigues of the sea....
     From the port of Methone the pilots steered along the
     western coast of Peloponnesus, as far as the island of
     Zacynthus, or Zante, before they undertook the voyage (in
     their eyes a most arduous voyage) of one hundred leagues
     over the Ionian sea. As the fleet was surprised by a calm,
     sixteen days were consumed in the slow navigation.... At
     length the harbour of Caucana, on the southern side of
     Sicily, afforded a secure and hospitable shelter....
     Belisarius determined to hasten his operations, and his wise
     impatience was seconded by the winds. The fleet lost sight
     of Sicily, passed before the island of Malta, discovered the
     capes of Africa, ran along the coast with a strong gale from
     the north-east, and finally cast anchor at the promontory of
     Caput Vada, about five days journey to the south of

     "Three months after their departure from Constantinople, the
     men and the horses, the arms and the military stores were
     safely disembarked, and five soldiers were left as a guard
     on each of the ships, which were disposed in the form of a
     semicircle. The remainder of the troops occupied a camp on
     the seashore, which they fortified, according to ancient
     discipline, with a ditch and rampart, and the discovery of a
     source of fresh water, while it allayed the thirst, excited
     the superstitious confidence of the Romans.... The small
     town of Sullecte, one day's journey from the camp, had the
     honour of being foremost to open her gates and resume her
     ancient allegiance; the larger cities of Leptis and
     Adrumetum imitated the example of loyalty as soon as
     Belisarius appeared, and he advanced without opposition as
     far as Grasse, a palace of the Vandal kings, at the distance
     of fifty miles from Carthage. The weary Romans indulged
     themselves in the refreshment of shady groves, cool
     fountains, and delicious fruits.... In three generations
     prosperity and a warm climate had dissolved the hardy virtue
     of the Vandals, who insensibly became the most luxurious of
     mankind. In their villas and gardens, which might deserve
     the Persian name of Paradise, they enjoyed a cool and
     elegant repose, and after the daily use of the bath, the
     barbarians were seated at a table profusely spread with the
     delicacies of the land and sea. Their silken robes, loosely
     flowing after the fashion of the Medes, were embroidered
     with gold, love and hunting were the labours of their life,
     and their vacant hours were amused by pantomimes,
     chariot-races, and the music and dances of the theatre.

     "In a march of twelve days the vigilance of Belisarius was
     constantly awake and active against his unseen enemies, by
     whom in every place and at every hour he might be suddenly
     attacked. An officer of confidence and merit, John the
     Armenian, led the vanguard of three hundred horse. Six
     hundred Massagetæ covered at a certain distance the left
     flank, and the whole fleet, steering along the coast, seldom
     lost sight of the army, which moved each day about twelve
     miles, and lodged in the evening in strong camps or in
     friendly towns. The near approach of the Romans to Carthage
     filled the mind of Gelimer with anxiety and terror....

     "Yet the authority and promises of Gelimer collected a
     formidable army, and his plans were concerted with some
     degree of military skill. An order was despatched to his
     brother Ammatas to collect all the forces of Carthage, and
     to encounter the van of the Roman army at the distance of
     ten miles from the city: his nephew Gibamund with two
     thousand horse was destined to attack their left, when the
     monarch himself, who silently followed, should charge their
     rear in a situation which excluded them from the aid and
     even the view of their fleet. But the rashness of Ammatas
     was fatal to himself and his country. He anticipated the
     hour of attack, outstripped his tardy followers, and was
     pierced with a mortal wound, after he had slain with his own
     hand twelve of his boldest antagonists. His Vandals fled to
     Carthage: the highway, almost ten miles, was strewed with
     dead bodies, and it seemed incredible that such multitudes
     could be slaughtered by the swords of three hundred Romans.
     The nephew of Gelimer was defeated after a slight combat by
     the six hundred Massagetæ; they did not equal the third part
     of his numbers, but each Scythian was fired by the example
     of his chief, who gloriously exercised the privilege of his
     family by riding foremost and alone to shoot the first arrow
     against the enemy. In the meantime Gelimer himself, ignorant
     of the event, and misguided by the windings of the hills,
     inadvertently passed the Roman army and reached the scene of
     action where Ammatas had fallen. He wept the fate of his
     brother and of Carthage, charged with irresistible fury the
     advancing squadrons, and might have pursued and perhaps
     decided the victory, if he had not wasted those inestimable
     moments in the discharge of a vain though pious duty to the
     dead. While his spirit was broken by this mournful office,
     he heard the trumpet of Belisarius, who, leaving Antonina
     and his infantry in the camp, pressed forward with his
     guards and the remainder of the cavalry to rally his flying
     troops, and to restore the fortune of the day. Much room
     could not be found in this disorderly battle for the talents
     of a general; but the king fled before the hero, and the
     Vandals, accustomed only to a Moorish enemy, were incapable
     of withstanding the arms and the discipline of the

     "As soon as the tumult had subsided, the several parts of
     the army informed each other of the accidents of the day,
     and Belisarius pitched his camp on the field of victory, to
     which the tenth milestone from Carthage had applied the
     Latin appellation of _Decimus_. From a wise suspicion of the
     stratagems and resources of the Vandals, he marched the next
     day in the order of battle; halted in the evening before the
     gates of Carthage, and allowed a night of repose, that he
     might not, in darkness and disorder, expose the city to the
     licence of the soldiers, or the soldiers themselves to the
     secret ambush of the city. But as the fears of Belisarius
     were the result of calm and intrepid reason, he was soon
     satisfied that he might confide without danger in the
     peaceful and friendly aspect of the capital. Carthage blazed
     with innumerable torches, the signal of the public joy; the
     chain was removed that guarded the entrance of the port, the
     gates were thrown open, and the people with acclamations of
     gratitude hailed and invited their Roman deliverers. The
     defeat of the Vandals and the freedom of Africa were
     announced to the city on the eve of St. Cyprian, when the
     churches were already adorned and illuminated for the
     festival of the martyr whom three centuries of superstition
     had almost raised to a local deity.... One awful hour
     reversed the fortunes of the contending parties. The
     suppliant Vandals, who had so lately indulged the vices of
     conquerors, sought an humble refuge in the sanctuary of the
     church; while the merchants of the east were delivered from
     the deepest dungeon of the palace by their affrighted
     keeper, who implored the protection of his captives, and
     showed them through an aperture in the wall the sails of the
     Roman fleet. After their separation from the army, the naval
     commanders had proceeded with slow caution along the coast,
     till they reached the Hermæan promontory, and obtained the
     first intelligence of the victory of Belisarius. Faithful to
     his instructions, they would have cast anchor about twenty
     miles from Carthage, if the more skilful had not represented
     the perils of the shore and the signs of an impending
     tempest. Still ignorant of the revolution, they declined
     however the rash attempt of forcing the chain of the port,
     and the adjacent harbour and suburb of Mandracium were
     insulted only by the rapine of a private officer, who
     disobeyed and deserted his leaders. But the imperial fleet,
     advancing with a fair wind, steered through the narrow
     entrance of the Goletta and occupied the deep and capacious
     lake of Tunis, a secure station about five miles from the
     capital. No sooner was Belisarius informed of the arrival
     than he despatched orders that the greatest part of the
     mariners should be immediately landed to join the triumph
     and to swell the apparent numbers of the Romans. Before he
     allowed them to enter the gates of Carthage he exhorted
     them, in a discourse worthy of himself and the occasion, not
     to disgrace the glory of their arms, and to remember that
     the Vandals had been the tyrants, but that _they_ were the
     deliverers of the Africans, who must now be respected as the
     voluntary and affectionate subjects of their common
     sovereign. The Romans marched through the street in close
     ranks, prepared for battle if an enemy had appeared; the
     strict order maintained by their general imprinted on their
     minds the duty of obedience; and in an age in which custom
     and impunity almost sanctified the abuse of conquest, the
     genius of one man repressed the passions of a victorious
     army. The voice of menace and complaint was silent, the
     trade of Carthage was not interrupted; while Africa changed
     her master and her government, the shops continued open and
     busy; and the soldiers, after sufficient guards had been
     posted, modestly departed to the houses which had been
     allotted for their reception. Belisarius fixed his residence
     in the palace, seated himself on the throne of Genseric,
     accepted and distributed the barbaric spoil, granted their
     lives to the suppliant Vandals, and laboured to restore the
     damage which the suburb of Mandracium had sustained in the
     preceding night. At supper he entertained his principal
     officers with the form and magnificence of a royal banquet.
     The victor was respectfully served by the captive officers
     of the household, and in the moments of festivity, when the
     impartial spectators applauded the fortune and merit of
     Belisarius, his envious flatterers secretly shed their venom
     on every word and gesture which might alarm the suspicions
     of a jealous monarch. One day was given to these pompous
     scenes, which may not be despised as useless if they
     attracted the popular veneration; but the active mind of
     Belisarius, which in the pride of victory could suppose
     defeat, had already resolved that the Roman empire in Africa
     should not depend on the chance of arms or the favour of the
     people. The fortifications of Carthage had alone been
     excepted from the general proscription; but in the reign of
     ninety-five years they were suffered to decay by the
     thoughtless and indolent Vandals. A wiser conqueror restored
     with incredible despatch the walls and ditches of the city.
     His liberality encouraged the workmen; the soldiers, the
     mariners, and the citizens vied with each other in the
     salutary labour; and Gelimer, who had feared to trust his
     person in an open town, beheld with astonishment and
     despair the rising strength of an impregnable fortress."

But we have hardly finished admiring the brilliant picture of the
conquest of Africa and Italy, before Gibbon gives us further proofs of
his many-sided culture and catholicity of mind. His famous chapter on
the Roman law has been accepted by the most fastidious experts of an
esoteric science as a masterpiece of knowledge, condensation, and
lucidity. It has actually been received as a textbook in some of the
continental universities, published separately with notes and
illustrations. When we consider the neglect of Roman jurisprudence in
England till quite recent times, and its severe study on the
Continent, we shall better appreciate the mental grasp and vigour
which enabled an unprofessional Englishman in the last century to
produce such a dissertation. A little further on (chapter forty-seven)
the history of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the controversies
that sprang up around it, are discussed with a subtlety worthy of a
scientific theologian. It is perhaps the first attempt towards a
philosophical history of dogma, less patient and minute than the works
of the specialists of modern Germany on the same subject, but for
spirit, clearness, and breadth it is superior to those profound but
somewhat barbarous writers. The flexibility of intellect which can do
justice in quick succession to such diverse subjects is very
extraordinary, and assuredly implies great width of sympathy and large
receptivity of nature.

Having terminated the period of Justinian, Gibbon makes a halt, and
surveys the varied and immense scene through which he will presently
pass in many directions. He rapidly discovers _ten_ main lines, along
which he will advance in succession to his final goal, the conquest
of Constantinople. The two pages at the commencement of the
forty-eighth chapter, in which he sketches out the remainder of his
plan and indicates the topics which he means to treat, are admirable
as a luminous _précis_, and for the powerful grasp which they show of
his immense subject. It lay spread out all before him, visible in
every part to his penetrating eye, and he seems to rejoice in his
conscious strength and ability to undertake the historical conquest on
which he is about to set out. "Nor will this scope of narrative," he
says, "the riches and variety of these materials, be incompatible with
the unity of design and composition. As in his daily prayers the
Mussulman of Fez or Delhi still turns his face towards the temple of
Mecca, the historian's eye will always be fixed on the city of
Constantinople." Then follows the catalogue of nations and empires
whose fortunes he means to sing. A grander vision, a more majestic
procession, never swept before the mind's eye of poet or historian.

And the practical execution is worthy of the initial inspiration.
After a rapid and condensed narrative of Byzantine history till the
end of the twelfth century, he takes up the brilliant theme of Mahomet
and his successors. A few pages on the climate and physical features
of Arabia fittingly introduce the subject. And it may be noted in
passing that Gibbon's attention to geography, and his skill and taste
for geographical description, are remarkable among his many gifts. He
was as diligent a student of maps and travels as of historical
records, and seems to have had a rare faculty of realising in
imagination scenes and countries of which he had only read. In three
chapters, glowing with oriental colour and rapid as a charge of Arab
horse, he tells the story of the prophet and the Saracen empire. Then
the Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Russians appear on the scene, to be
soon followed by the Normans, and their short but brilliant dominion
in Southern Italy. But now the Seljukian Turks are emerging from the
depths of Asia, taking the place of the degenerate Saracens, invading
the Eastern empire and conquering Jerusalem. The two waves of hostile
fanaticism soon meet in the Crusades. The piratical seizure of
Constantinople by the Latins brings in view the French and Venetians,
the family of Courtenay and its pleasant digression. Then comes the
slow agony of the restored Greek empire. Threatened by the Moguls, it
is invaded and dismembered by the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople seems
ready to fall into their hands. But the timely diversion of Tamerlane
produces a respite of half a century. Nothing can be more artistic
than Gibbon's management of his subject as he approaches its
termination. He, who is such a master of swift narrative, at this
point introduces artful pauses, _suspensions_ of the final
catastrophe, which heighten our interest in the fate which is hanging
over the city of Constantine. In 1425 the victorious Turks have
conquered all the Greek empire save the capital. Amurath II. besieged
it for two months, and was only prevented from taking it by a domestic
revolt in Asia Minor. At the end of his sixty-fifth chapter Gibbon
leaves Constantinople hanging on the brink of destruction, and paints
in glowing colours the military virtues of its deadly enemies, the
Ottomans. Then he interposes one of his most finished chapters, of
miscellaneous contents, but terminating in the grand and impressive
pages on the revival of learning in Italy. There we read of the
"curiosity and emulation of the Latins," of the zeal of Petrarch and
the success of Boccace in Greek studies, of Leontius, Pilatus,
Bessarion, and Lascaris. A glow of sober enthusiasm warms the great
scholar as he paints the early light of that happy dawn. He admits
that the "arms of the Turks pressed the flight of the Muses" from
Greece to Italy. But he "trembles at the thought that Greece might
have been overwhelmed with her schools and libraries, before Europe
had emerged from the deluge of barbarism, and that the seeds of
science might have been scattered on the winds, before the Italian
soil was prepared for their cultivation." In one of the most perfect
sentences to be found in English prose he thus describes the Greek
tongue: "In their lowest depths of servitude and depression, the
subjects of the Byzantine throne were still possessed of a golden key
that could unlock the treasures of antiquity, of a musical and
prolific language that gives a soul to the objects of sense and a body
to the abstractions of philosophy." Meanwhile we are made to feel that
the subjects of the Byzantine throne, with their musical speech, that
Constantinople with her libraries and schools, will all soon fall a
prey to the ravening and barbarous Turk. This brightening light of the
Western sky contending with the baleful gloom which is settling down
over the East, is one of the most happy contrasts in historical
literature. Then comes the end, the preparations and skill of the
savage invader, the futile but heroic defence, the overwhelming ruin
which struck down the Cross and erected the Crescent over the city of
Constantine the Great.

It is one of the many proofs of Gibbon's artistic instinct that he did
not end with this great catastrophe. On the contrary, he adds three
more chapters. His fine tact warned him that the tumult and thunder of
the final ruin must not be the last sounds to strike the ear. A
resolution of the discord was needed; a soft chorale should follow the
din and lead to a mellow _adagio_ close. And this he does with supreme
skill. With ill-suppressed disgust, he turns from New to Old Home.
"Constantinople no longer appertains to the Roman historian--nor shall
I enumerate the civil and religious edifices that were profaned or
erected by its Turkish masters." Amid the decayed temples and
mutilated beauty of the Eternal City, he moves down to a melodious and
pathetic conclusion--piously visits the remaining fragments of ancient
splendour and art, deplores and describes the ravages wrought by time,
and still more by man, and recurring once again to the scene of his
first inspiration, bids farewell to the Roman empire among the ruins
of the Capitol.

We have hitherto spoken in terms of warm, though perhaps not excessive
eulogy of this great work. But praise would lack the force of
moderation and equipoise, if allusion were not made to some of its
defects. The pervading defect of it all has been already referred to
in a preceding chapter--an inadequate conception of society as an
organism, living and growing, like other organisms, according to
special laws of its own. In these brilliant volumes on the Middle
Ages, the special problems which that period suggests are not stated,
far less solved; they are not even suspected. The feudal polity, the
Catholic Church, the theocratic supremacy of the Popes, considered as
institutions which the historian is called upon to estimate and judge;
the gradual dissolution of both feudalism and Catholicism, brought
about by the spread of industry in the temporal order and of science
in the spiritual order, are not even referred to. Many more topics
might be added to this list of weighty omissions. It would be needless
to say that no blame attaches to Gibbon for neglecting views of
history which had not emerged in his time, if there were not persons
who, forgetting the slow progress of knowledge, are apt to ascribe the
defects of a book to incompetence in its author. If Gibbon's
conception of the Middle Ages seems to us inadequate now, it is
because since his time our conceptions of society in that and in all
periods have been much enlarged. We may be quite certain that if
Gibbon had had our experience, no one would have seen the
imperfections of particular sides of his work as we now have it more
clearly than he.

Laying aside, therefore, reflexions of this kind as irrelevant and
unjust, we may ask whether there are any other faults which may fairly
be found with him. One must admit that there are. After all, they are
not very important.

(1.) Striking as is his account of Justinian's reign, it has two
blemishes. First, the offensive details about the vices of Theodora.
Granting them to be well authenticated, which they are not, it was
quite unworthy of the author and his subject to soil his pages with
such a _chronique scandaleuse_. The defence which he sets up in his
Memoirs, that he is "justified in painting the manners of the times,
and that the vices of Theodora form an essential feature in the reign
and character of Justinian," cannot be admitted. First, we are not
sure that the vices existed, and were not the impure inventions of a
malignant calumniator. Secondly, Gibbon is far from painting the
manners of the time as a moralist or an historian; he paints them with
a zest for pruriency worthy of Bayle or Brantome. It was an occasion
for a wise scepticism to register grave doubts as to the infamous
stories of Procopius. A rehabilitation of Theodora is not a theme
calculated to provoke enthusiasm, and is impossible besides from the
entire want of adequate evidence. But a thoughtful writer would not
have lost his time, if he referred to the subject at all, in pointing
out the moral improbability of the current accounts. He might have
dwelt on the _unsupported_ testimony of the only witness, the
unscrupulous Procopius, whom Gibbon himself convicts on another
subject of flagrant mendacity. But he would have been especially slow
to believe that a woman who had led the life of incredible profligacy
he has described, would, in consequence of "some vision either of
sleep or fancy," in which future exaltation was promised to her,
assume "like a skilful actress, a more decent character, relieve her
poverty by the laudable industry of spinning wool, and affect a life
of chastity and solitude in a small house, which she afterwards
changed into a magnificent temple." Magdalens have been converted, no
doubt, from immoral living, but not by considerations of astute
prudence suggested by day-dreams of imperial greatness. Gibbon might
have thought of the case of Madame de Maintenon, and how her
reputation fared in the hands of the vindictive courtiers of
Versailles; how a woman, cold as ice and pure as snow, was freely
charged with the most abhorrent vices without an atom of foundation.
But the truth probably is that he never thought of the subject
seriously at all, and that, yielding to a regrettable inclination, he
copied his licentious Greek notes with little reluctance.

(2.) The character of Belisarius, enigmatical enough in itself, is
made by him more enigmatical still. He concludes the forty-first
chapter, in which the great deeds of the conqueror of Italy and
Africa, and the ingratitude with which Justinian rewarded his
services, are set forth in strong contrast, with the inept remark that
"Belisarius appears to be either below or above the character of a
MAN." The grounds of the apparent meekness with which Belisarius
supported his repeated disgraces cannot now be ascertained: but the
motives of Justinian's conduct are not so difficult to find. As Finlay
points out in his thoughtful history of Greece, Belisarius must have
been a peculator on a large and dangerous scale. "Though he refused
the Gothic throne and the empire of the West, he did not despise nor
neglect wealth: he accumulated riches which could not have been
acquired by any commander-in-chief amidst the wars and famines of the
period, without rendering the military and civil administration
subservient to his pecuniary profit. On his return from Italy he lived
at Constantinople in almost regal splendour, and maintained a body of
7,000 cavalry attached to his household. In an empire where
confiscation was an ordinary financial resource, and under a sovereign
whose situation rendered jealousy only common prudence, it is not
surprising that the wealth of Belisarius excited the imperial
cupidity, and induced Justinian to seize great part of it" (_Greece
under the Romans_, chap. 3). There is shrewd insight in this, and
though we may regret that we cannot attain to more, it is better than
leaving the subject with an unmeaning paradox.

It may be said generally that Gibbon has not done justice to the
services rendered to Europe by the Byzantine empire. In his crowded
forty-eighth chapter, which is devoted to the subject, he passes over
events and characters with such speed that his history in this part
becomes little more than a chronicle, vivid indeed, but barren of
thoughtful political views. His account of the Isaurian period may be
instanced among others as an example of defective treatment. If we
turn to the judicious Finlay, we see what an immense but generally
unacknowledged debt Europe owes to the Greek empire. The saving of
Christendom from Mohammedan conquest is too easily attributed to the
genius of Charles Martel and his brave Franks. The victory at Tours
was important no doubt, but almost a century previously the followers
of the prophet had been checked by Heraclius; and their memorable
repulse before Constantinople under the Isaurian Leo was the real
barrier opposed to their conquest of the West. It requires but little
reflection to see that without this brave resistance to the Moslem
invasion, the course of mediæval history would have been completely
changed. Next in time, but hardly second in value to the services of
the Greeks at Marathon and Salamis, must be reckoned the services of
the Byzantine emperors in repelling the barbarians. Such an important
consideration as this should hardly have escaped Gibbon.

Gibbon's account of Charlemagne is strangely inadequate. It is perhaps
the only instance in his work where he has failed to appreciate a
truly great man, and the failure is the more deplorable as it concerns
one of the greatest men who have ever lived. He did not realise the
greatness of the man, of his age, or of his work. Properly
considered, the eighth century is the most important and memorable
which Europe has ever seen. During its course the geographical limits,
the ecclesiastical polity, and the feudal system within and under
which our western group of nations was destined to live for five or
six centuries, were provisionally settled and determined. The
wonderful house of the Carolings, which produced no less than five
successive rulers of genius (of whom two had extraordinary genius,
Charles Martel and Charlemagne), were the human instruments of this
great work. The Frankish Monarchy was hastening to ruin when they
saved it. Saxons in the East and Saracens in the South were on the
point of extinguishing the few surviving embers of civilisation which
still existed. The Bishop of Rome was ready to fall a prey to the
Lombards, and the progressive papacy of Hildebrand and Innocent ran
imminent risk of being extirpated at its root. Charles and his
ancestors prevented these evils. Of course it is open to any one to
say that there were no evils threatening, that Mohammedanism is as
good as Christianity, that the Papacy was a monstrous calamity, that
to have allowed Eastern Germany to remain pagan and barbarous would
have done no harm. The question cannot be discussed here. But every
law of historic equity compels us to admit that whether the result was
good or bad, the genius of men who could leave such lasting
impressions on the world as the Carolings did, must have been
exceptionally great. And this is what Gibbon has not seen; he has not
seen that, whether their work was good or bad in the issue, it was
colossal. His tone in reference to Charlemagne is unworthy to a
degree. "Without injustice to his fame, I may discern some blemishes
in the sanctity and greatness of the restorer of the Western Empire.
Of his moral virtues, chastity was not the most conspicuous." This
from the pen of Gibbon seems hardly serious. Again: "I touch with
reverence the laws of Charlemagne, so highly applauded by a
respectable judge. They compose not a system, but a series of
occasional and minute edicts, for the correction of abuses, the
reformation of manners, the economy of his farms, the care of his
poultry, and even the sale of his eggs." And yet Gibbon had read the
Capitularies. The struggle and care of the hero to master in some
degree the wide welter of barbarism surging around him, he never
recognised. It is a spot on Gibbon's fame.

Dean Milman considers that Gibbon's account of the Crusades is the
least accurate and satisfactory chapter in his history, and "that he
has here failed in that lucid arrangement which in general gives
perspicuity to his most condensed and crowded narratives." This blame
seems to be fully merited, if restricted to the second of the two
chapters which Gibbon has devoted to the Crusades. The fifty-eighth
chapter, in which he treats of the First Crusade, leaves nothing to be
desired. It is not one of his best chapters, though it is quite up to
his usually high level. But the fifty-ninth chapter, it must be owned,
is not only weak, but what is unexampled elsewhere in him, confused
and badly written. It is not, as in the case of Charlemagne, a
question of imperfect appreciation of a great man or epoch; it is a
matter of careless and slovenly presentation of a period which he had
evidently mastered with his habitual thoroughness, but, owing to the
rapidity with which he composed his last volume, he did not do full
justice to it. He says significantly in his Memoirs, that "he wished
that a pause, an interval, had been allowed for a serious revisal" of
the last three volumes, and there can be little doubt that this
chapter was one of the sources of his regrets. It is in fact a mere
tangle. The Second and the Third Crusades are so jumbled together,
that it is only a reader who knows the subject very well who can find
his way through the labyrinth. Gibbon seems at this point, a thing
very unusual with him, to have become impatient with his subject, and
to have wished to hurry over it. "A brief parallel," he says, "may
save the repetition of a tedious narrative." The result of this
expeditious method has been far from happy. It is the only occasion
where Gibbon has failed in his usual high finish and admirable
literary form.

Gibbon's style was at one period somewhat of a party question. Good
Christians felt a scruple in discerning any merits in the style of a
writer who had treated the martyrs of the early Church with so little
ceremony and generosity. On the other hand, those whose opinions
approached more or less to his, expatiated on the splendour and
majesty of his diction. Archbishop Whately went out of his way in a
note to his _Logic_ to make a keen thrust at an author whom it was
well to depreciate whenever occasion served. "His way of writing," he
says, "reminds one of those persons who never dare look you full in
the face." Such criticisms are out of date now. The faults of Gibbon's
style are obvious enough, and its compensatory merits are not far to
seek. No one can overlook its frequent tumidity and constant want of
terseness. It lacks suppleness, ease, variety. It is not often
distinguished by happy selection of epithet, and seems to ignore all
delicacy of _nuance_. A prevailing grandiloquence, which easily slides
into pomposity, is its greatest blemish. The acute Porson saw this and
expressed it admirably. In the preface to his letters to Archdeacon
Travis, he says of Gibbon, "Though his style is in general correct and
elegant, he sometimes 'draws out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument.' In endeavouring to avoid vulgar
terms he too frequently dignifies trifles, and clothes common thoughts
in a splendid dress that would be rich enough for the noblest ideas.
In short we are too often reminded of that great man, Mr. Prig, the
auctioneer, whose manner was so inimitably fine that he had as much to
say on a ribbon as on a Raphael." It seems as if Gibbon had taken the
stilted tone of the old French tragedy for his model, rather than the
crisp and nervous prose of the best French writers. We are constantly
offended by a superfine diction lavished on barbarous chiefs and rough
soldiers of the Lower Empire, which almost reproduces the high-flown
rhetoric in which Corneille's and Racine's characters address each
other. Such phrases as the "majesty of the throne," "the dignity of
the purple," the "wisdom of the senate," recur with a rather jarring
monotony, especially when the rest of the narrative is designed to
show that there was no majesty nor dignity nor wisdom involved in the
matter. We feel that the writer was thinking more of his sonorous
sentence than of the real fact. On the other hand, nothing but a want
of candour or taste can lead any one to overlook the rare and great
excellences of Gibbon's style. First of all, it is singularly correct:
a rather common merit now, but not common in his day. But its
sustained vigour and loftiness will always be uncommon; above all its
rapidity and masculine length of stride are quite admirable. When he
takes up his pen to describe a campaign, or any great historic scene,
we feel that we shall have something worthy of the occasion, that we
shall be carried swiftly and grandly through it all, without the
suspicion of a breakdown of any kind being possible. An indefinable
stamp of weightiness is impressed on Gibbon's writing; he has a
baritone manliness which banishes everything small, trivial, or weak.
When he is eloquent (and it should be remembered to his credit that he
never affects eloquence, though he occasionally affects dignity), he
rises without effort into real grandeur. On the whole we may say that
his manner, with certain manifest faults, is not unworthy of his
matter, and the praise is great.

It is not quite easy to give expression to another feeling which is
often excited in reading Gibbon. It is somewhat of this kind, that it
is more fitted to inspire admiration than love or sympathy. Its merits
are so great, the mass of information it contains is so stupendous,
that all competent judges of such work feel bound to praise it.
Whether they like it in the same degree, may be questioned. Among
reading men and educated persons it is not common--such is my
experience--to meet with people who know their Gibbon well. Superior
women do not seem to take to him kindly, even when there is no
impediment on religious grounds. Madame du Deffand, writing to
Walpole, says, "I whisper it to you, but I am not pleased with Mr.
Gibbon's work. It is declamatory, oratorical.... I lay it aside
without regret, and it requires an effort to take it up again."
Another of Walpole's correspondents, the Countess of Ossory, seems to
have made similar strictures. If we admit that women are less capable
than masculine scholars of doing justice to the strong side of Gibbon,
we may also acknowledge that they are better fitted than men to
appreciate and to be shocked by his defective side, which is a
prevailing want of moral elevation and nobility of sentiment. His
cheek rarely flushes in enthusiasm for a good cause. The tragedy of
human life never seems to touch him, no glimpse of the infinite ever
calms and raises the reader of his pages. Like nearly all the men of
his day, he was of the earth earthy, and it is impossible to get over
the fact.



Gibbon had now only about six months to live. He did not seem to have
suffered by his rapid journey from Lausanne to London. During the
summer which he spent with his friend Lord Sheffield, he was much as
usual; only his friend noticed that his habitual dislike to motion
appeared to increase, and he was so incapable of exercise that he was
confined to the library and dining-room. "Then he joined Mr. F. North
in pleasant arguments against exercise in general. He ridiculed the
unsettled and restless disposition that summer, the most uncomfortable
of all seasons, as he said, generally gives to those who have the use
of their limbs." The true disciples of Epicurus are not always the
least stout and stoical in the presence of irreparable evils.

After spending three or four months at Sheffield Place, he went to
Bath to visit his step-mother, Mrs. Gibbon. His conduct to her through
life was highly honourable to him. It should be remembered that her
jointure, paid out of his father's decayed estate, was a great tax on
his small income. In his efforts to improve his position by selling
his landed property, Mrs. Gibbon seems to have been at times somewhat
difficult to satisfy as regards the security of her interests. It was
only prudent on her part. But it is easy to see what a source of
alienation and quarrel was here ready prepared, if both parties had
not risen superior to sordid motives. There never seems to have been
the smallest cloud between them. When one of his properties was sold
he writes: "Mrs. Gibbon's jointure is secured on the Buriton estate,
and her legal consent is requisite for the sale. Again and again I
must repeat my hope that she is perfectly satisfied, and that the
close of her life may not be embittered by suspicion, fear, or
discontent. What new security does she prefer--the funds, a mortgage,
or your land? At all events, she must be made easy." So Gibbon left
town and lay at Reading on his road to Bath: here he passed about ten
days with his step-mother, who was now nearly eighty years of age. "In
mind and conversation she is just the same as twenty years ago," he
writes to Lord Sheffield; "she has spirits, appetite, legs, and eyes,
and talks of living till ninety. I can say from my heart, Amen." And
in another letter, a few days later, he says: "A _tête-à-tête_ of
eight or nine hours every day is rather difficult to support; yet I do
assure you that our conversation flows with more ease and spirit when
we are alone, than when any auxiliaries are summoned to our aid. She
is indeed a wonderful woman, and I think all her faculties of the mind
stronger and more active than I have ever known them.... I shall
therefore depart next Friday, but I may possibly reckon without my
host, as I have not yet apprised Mrs. G. of the term of my visit, and
will certainly not quarrel with her for a short delay." He then went
to Althorpe, and it is the last evidence of his touching a
book--"exhausted the morning (of the 5th November) among the first
editions of Cicero." Then he came to London, and in a few days was
seized with the illness which in a little more than two months put an
end to his life.

His malady was dropsy, complicated with other disorders. He had most
strangely neglected a very dangerous symptom for upwards of thirty
years, not only having failed to take medical advice about it, but
even avoiding all allusion to it to bosom friends like Lord Sheffield.
But longer concealment was now impossible. He sent for the eminent
surgeon Farquhar (the same who afterwards attended William Pitt), and
he, together with Cline, at once recognised the case as one of the
utmost gravity, though they did not say as much to the patient. On
Thursday, the 14th of November, he was tapped and greatly relieved. He
said he was not appalled by the operation, and during its progress he
did not lay aside his usual good-humoured pleasantry. He was soon out
again, but only for a few days, and a fortnight after another tapping
was necessary. Again he went out to dinners and parties, which must
have been most imprudent at his age and in his state. But he does not
seem to have acted contrary to medical advice. He was very anxious to
meet the prime minister, William Pitt, with whom he was not
acquainted, though he must have seen him in old days in the House. He
saw him twice; once at Eden Farm for a whole day, and was much
gratified, we are told. At last he got to what he called his home--the
house of his true and devoted friend, Lord Sheffield. "But," says the
latter, whose narrative of his friend's last illness is marked by a
deep and reserved tenderness that does him much honour, "this last
visit to Sheffield Place became far different from any he had ever
made before. That ready, cheerful, various and illuminating
conversation which we had before admired in him, was not always to be
found in the library or the drawing-room. He moved with difficulty,
and retired from company sooner than he had been used to do. On the
23rd of December his appetite began to fail him. He observed to me
that it was a very bad sign _with him_ when he could not eat his
breakfast, which he had done at all times very heartily; and this
seems to have been the strongest expression of apprehension that he
was ever observed to utter." He soon became too ill to remain beyond
the reach of the highest medical advice. On the 7th of January, 1794,
he left a houseful of company and friends for his lodgings in St.
James's Street. On arriving he sent the following note to Lord
Sheffield, the last lines he ever wrote:--


    "This date says everything. I was almost killed between
    Sheffield Place and East Grinstead by hard, frozen, long, and
    cross ruts, that would disgrace the approach of an Indian
    wigwam. The rest was somewhat less painful, and I reached
    this place half dead, but not seriously feverish or ill. I
    found a dinner invitation from Lord Lucan; but what are
    dinners to me? I wish they did not know of my departure. I
    catch the flying post. What an effort! Adieu till Thursday or

The end was not far off. On the 13th of January he underwent another
operation, and, as usual, experienced much relief. "His spirits
continued good. He talked of passing his time at houses which he had
often frequented with great pleasure--the Duke of Devonshire's, Mr.
Craufurd's, Lord Spencer's, Lord Lucan's, Sir Ralph Payne's, Mr.
Batt's." On the 14th of January "he saw some company--Lady Lucan and
Lady Spencer--and thought himself well enough to omit the opium
draught which he had been used to take for some time. He slept very
indifferently; before nine the next morning he rose, but could not eat
his breakfast. However, he appeared tolerably well, yet complained at
times of a pain in his stomach. At one o'clock he received a visit of
an hour from Madame de Sylva; and at three, his friend, Mr. Craufurd,
of Auchinames (whom he always mentioned with particular regard),
called, and stayed with him till past five o'clock. They talked, as
usual, on various subjects; and twenty hours before his death Mr.
Gibbon happened to fall into a conversation not uncommon with him, on
the probable duration of his life. He said that he thought himself a
good life for ten, twelve, or perhaps twenty years. About six he ate
the wing of a chicken and drank three glasses of Madeira. After dinner
he became very uneasy and impatient, complained a good deal, and
appeared so weak that his servant was alarmed.

"During the evening he complained much of his stomach, and of a
feeling of nausea. Soon after nine, he took his opium draught and went
to bed. About ten he complained of much pain, and desired that warm
napkins might be applied to his stomach. He almost incessantly
expressed a sense of pain till about four o'clock in the morning, when
he said he found his stomach much easier. About seven the servant
asked whether he should send for Mr. Farquhar. He answered, No; that
he was as well as the day before. At about half-past eight he got out
of bed, and said he was 'plus adroit' than he had been for three
months past, and got into bed again without assistance, better than
usual. About nine he said he would rise. The servant, however,
persuaded him to remain in bed till Mr. Farquhar, who was expected at
eleven, should come. Till about that hour he spoke with great
facility. Mr. Farquhar came at the time appointed, and he was then
visibly dying. When the _valet-de-chambre_ returned, after attending
Mr. Farquhar out of the room, Mr. Gibbon said, 'Pourquoi est ce que
vous me quittez?' This was about half-past eleven. At twelve he drank
some brandy and water from a teapot, and desired his favourite servant
to stay with him. These were the last words he pronounced
articulately. To the last he preserved his senses; and when he could
no longer speak, his servant having asked a question, he made a sign
to show that he understood him. He was quite tranquil, and did not
stir, his eyes half shut. About a quarter before one he ceased to
breathe." He wanted just eighty-three days of fifty-seven years of

Thus, in consequence of his own strange self-neglect and imprudence,
was extinguished one of the most richly-stored minds that ever lived.
Occurring when it did, so near the last summons, Gibbon's prospective
hope of continued life "for ten, twelve, or twenty years" is harshly
pathetic, and full of that irony which mocks the vain cares of men.
But, truly, his forecast was not irrational if he had not neglected
ordinary precautions. In spite of his ailments he felt full, and was
full, of life, when he was cut off. We cannot be sure if lengthened
days would have added much to his work already achieved. There is
hardly a parallel case in literature of the great powers of a whole
life being so concentrated on one supreme and magnificent effort. Yet,
if he had lived to 1804, or as an extreme limit, to 1814, we should
have been all gainers. In the first place, he certainly would have
finished his admirable autobiography. We cannot imagine what he would
have made of it, judging from the fragment which exists. And yet that
fragment is almost a masterpiece. But his fertile mind had other
schemes in prospect; and what such a diligent worker would have done
with a decade or two more of years it is impossible to say, except
that it is certain they would not have been wasted. The extinction of
a real mind is ever an irreparable loss.

As it was, he went to his rest after one of the greatest victories
ever achieved in his own field of humane letters, and lived long
enough to taste the fruits of his toil. He was never puffed up, but
soberly and without arrogance received his laurels. His unselfish zeal
and haste to console his bereaved friend showed him warm and loving to
the last; and we may say that his last serious effort was consecrated
to the genius of pious friendship.

In 1796, two years after Gibbon's death, Lord Sheffield published two
quarto volumes of the historian's miscellaneous works. They have been
republished in one thick octavo, and many persons suppose that it
contains the whole of the posthumous works; not unnaturally, as a
fraudulent statement on the title-page, "complete in one volume," is
well calculated to produce that impression. But in 1814 Lord Sheffield
issued a second edition in five volumes octavo, containing much
additional matter, which additional matter was again published in a
quarto form, no doubt for the convenience of the purchasers of the
original quarto edition.

Of the posthumous works, the Memoirs are by far the most important
portion. Unfortunately, they were left in a most unfinished state, and
what we now read is nothing else than a mosaic put together by Lord
Sheffield from _six_ different sketches. Next to the Memoirs are the
journals and diaries of his studies. As a picture of Gibbon's method,
zeal, and thoroughness in the pursuit of knowledge, they are of the
highest interest. But they refer to an early period of his studies,
long previous to the concentration of his mind on his great work, and
one would like to know whether they present the best selection that
might have been made from these records. It is interesting to follow
Gibbon in his perusal of Homer and Juvenal at five-and-twenty. But one
would much like to be admitted to his study when he was a far riper
scholar, and preparing for or writing the _Decline and Fall_. Lord
Sheffield positively prohibited, by a clause in his will, any further
publication of the Gibbon papers, and although Dean Milman was
permitted to see them, it was with the express understanding that none
of their contents should be divulged. After the Memoirs and the
journals, the most interesting portion of the miscellaneous works are
_The Antiquities of the House of Brunswick_, which in their present
form are merely the preparatory sketch of a large work. It is too
imperfect to allow us to judge of what Gibbon even designed to make of
it. But it contains some masterly pages, and the style in many places
seems more nervous and supple than that of the _Decline and Fall._

For instance, this account of Albert Azo the Second:--

     "Like one of his Tuscan ancestors Azo the Second was
     distinguished among the princes of Italy by the epithet of
     the _Rich_. The particulars of his rentroll cannot now be
     ascertained. An occasional though authentic deed of
     investiture enumerates eighty-three fiefs or manors which he
     held of the empire in Lombardy and Tuscany, from the
     Marquisate of Este to the county of Luni; but to these
     possessions must be added the lands which he enjoyed as the
     vassal of the Church, the ancient patrimony of Otbert (the
     terra Obertenga) in the counties of Arezzo, Pisa, and Lucca,
     and the marriage portion of his first wife, which, according
     to the various readings of the manuscripts, may be computed
     either at twenty or two hundred thousand English acres. If
     such a mass of landed property were now accumulated on the
     head of an Italian nobleman, the annual revenue might
     satisfy the largest demands of private luxury or avarice,
     and the fortunate owner would be rich in the improvement of
     agriculture, the manufactures of industry, the refinement of
     taste, and the extent of commerce. But the barbarism of the
     eleventh century diminished the income and aggravated the
     expense of the Marquis of Este. In a long series of war and
     anarchy, man and the works of man had been swept away, and
     the introduction of each ferocious and idle stranger had
     been overbalanced by the loss of five or six perhaps of the
     peaceful industrious natives. The mischievous growth of
     vegetation, the frequent inundations of the rivers were no
     longer checked by the vigilance of labour; the face of the
     country was again covered with forests and morasses; of the
     vast domains which acknowledged Azo for their lord, the far
     greater part was abandoned to the beasts of the field, and a
     much smaller portion was reduced to the state of constant
     and productive husbandry. An adequate rent may be obtained
     from the skill and substance of a free tenant who fertilizes
     a grateful soil, and enjoys the security and benefit of a
     long lease. But faint is the hope and scanty is the produce
     of those harvests which are raised by the reluctant toil of
     peasants and slaves condemned to a bare subsistance and
     careless of the interests of a rapacious master. If his
     granaries are full, his purse is empty, and the want of
     cities or commerce, the difficulty of finding or reaching a
     market, obliges him to consume on the spot a part of his
     useless stock, which cannot be exchanged for merchandise or
     money.... The entertainment of his vassals and soldiers,
     their pay and rewards, their arms and horses, surpassed the
     measure of the most oppressive tribute, and the destruction
     which he inflicted on his neighbours was often retaliated on
     his own lands. The costly elegance of palaces and gardens
     was superseded by the laborious and expensive construction
     of strong castles on the summits of the most inaccessible
     rocks, and some of these, like the fortress of Canossa in
     the Apennine, were built and provided to sustain a three
     years' siege against a royal army. But his defence in this
     world was less burdensome to a wealthy lord than his
     salvation in the next; the demands of his chapel, his
     priests, his alms, his offerings, his pilgrimages were
     incessantly renewed; the monastery chosen for his sepulchre
     was endowed with his fairest possessions, and the naked heir
     might often complain that his father's sins had been
     redeemed at too high a price. The Marquis Azo was not exempt
     from the contagion of the times; his devotion was animated
     and inflamed by the frequent miracles that were performed in
     his presence; and the monks of Vangadizza, who yielded to
     his request the arm of a dead saint, were not ignorant of
     the value of that inestimable jewel. After satisfying the
     demands of war and superstition he might appropriate the
     rest of his revenue to use and pleasure. But the Italians of
     the eleventh century were imperfectly skilled in the liberal
     and mechanical arts; the objects of foreign luxury were
     furnished at an exorbitant price by the merchants of Pisa
     and Venice; and the superfluous wealth which could not
     purchase the real comforts of life, were idly wasted on some
     rare occasions of vanity and pomp. Such were the nuptials of
     Boniface, Duke or Marquis of Tuscany, whose family was long
     after united with that of Azo by the marriage of their
     children. These nuptials were celebrated on the banks of the
     Mincius, which the fancy of Virgil has decorated with a more
     beautiful picture. The princes and people of Italy were
     invited to the feasts, which continued three months; the
     fertile meadows, which are intersected by the slow and
     winding course of the river, were covered with innumerable
     tents, and the bridegroom displayed and diversified the
     scenes of his proud and tasteless magnificence. All the
     utensils of the service were of silver, and his horses were
     shod with plates of the same metal, loosely nailed and
     carelessly dropped, to indicate his contempt of riches. An
     image of plenty and profusion was expressed in the banquet;
     the most delicious wines were drawn in buckets from the
     well; and the spices of the East were ground in water-mills
     like common flour. The dramatic and musical arts were in the
     rudest state; but the Marquis had summoned the most popular
     singers, harpers, and buffoons to exercise their talents in
     this splendid theatre. After this festival I might remark a
     singular gift of this same Boniface to the Emperor Henry
     III., a chariot and oxen of solid silver, which were
     designed only as a vehicle for a hogshead of vinegar. If
     such an example should seem above the imitation of Azo
     himself, the Marquis of Este was at least superior in wealth
     and dignity to the vassals of his compeer. One of these
     vassals, the Viscount of Mantua, presented the German
     monarch with one hundred falcons and one hundred bay horses,
     a grateful contribution to the pleasures of a royal
     sportsman. In that age the proud distinction between the
     nobles and princes of Italy was guarded with jealous
     ceremony. The Viscount of Mantua had never been seated at
     the table of his immediate lord; he yielded to the
     invitation of the Emperor; and a stag's skin filled with
     pieces of gold was graciously accepted by the Marquis of
     Tuscany as the fine of his presumption.

     "The temporal felicity of Azo was crowned by the long
     possession of honour and riches; he died in the year 1097,
     aged upwards of an hundred years; and the term of his mortal
     existence was almost commensurate with the lapse of the
     eleventh century. The character as well as the situation of
     the Marquis of Este rendered him an actor in the revolutions
     of that memorable period; but time has cast a veil over the
     virtues and vices of the man, and I must be content to mark
     some of the eras, the milestones of his which measure the
     extent and intervals of the vacant way. Albert Azo the
     Second was no more than seventeen when he first drew the
     sword of rebellion and patriotism, when he was involved with
     his grandfather, his father, and his three uncles in a
     common proscription. In the vigour of his manhood, about his
     fiftieth year, the Ligurian Marquis governed the cities of
     Milan and Genoa as the minister of Imperial authority. He
     was upwards of seventy when he passed the Alps to vindicate
     the inheritance of Maine for the children of his second
     marriage. He became the friend and servant of Gregory VII.,
     and in one of his epistles that ambitious pontiff recommends
     the Marquis Azo, as the most faithful and best beloved of
     the Italian princes, as the proper channel through which a
     king of Hungary might convey his petitions to the apostolic
     throne. In the mighty contest between the crown and the
     mitre, the Marquis Azo and the Countess Matilda led the
     powers of Italy. And when the standard of St. Peter was
     displayed, neither the age of the one nor the sex of the
     other could detain them from the field. With these two
     affectionate clients the Pope maintained his station in the
     fortress of Canossa, while the Emperor, barefoot on the
     frozen ground, fasted and prayed three days at the foot of
     the rock; they were witnesses to the abject ceremony of the
     penance and pardon of Henry IV.; and in the triumph of the
     Church a patriot might foresee the deliverance of Italy from
     the German yoke. At the time of this event the Marquis of
     Este was above fourscore; but in the twenty following years
     he was still alive and active amidst the revolutions of
     peace and war. The last act which he subscribed is dated
     above a century after his birth; and in that the venerable
     chief possesses the command of his faculties, his family,
     and his fortune. In this rare prerogative the longevity of
     Albert Azo the Second stands alone. Nor can I remember in
     the _authentic_ annals of mortality a single example of a
     king or prince, of a statesman or general, of a philosopher
     or poet, whose life has been extended beyond the period of a
     hundred years.... Three approximations which will not
     hastily be matched have distinguished the present century,
     Aurungzebe, Cardinal Fleury, and Fontenelle. Had a fortnight
     more been given to the philosopher, he might have celebrated
     his secular festival; but the lives and labours of the Mogul
     king and the French minister were terminated before they had
     accomplished their ninetieth year."

Then follow several striking and graceful pages on Lucrezia Borgia and
Renée of France, Duchess of Ferrara. The following description of the
University of Padua and the literary tastes of the house of Este is
all that we can give here:--

     "An university had been founded at Padua by the house of
     Este, and the scholastic rust was polished away by the
     revival of the literature of Greece and Rome. The studies of
     Ferrara were directed by skilful and eloquent professors,
     either natives or foreigners. The ducal library was filled
     with a valuable collection of manuscripts and printed books,
     and as soon as twelve new plays of Plautus had been found in
     Germany, the Marquis Lionel of Este was impatient to obtain
     a fair and faithful copy of that ancient poet. Nor were
     these elegant pleasures confined to the learned world. Under
     the reign of Hercules I. a wooden theatre at a moderate
     cost of a thousand crowns was constructed in the largest
     court of the palace, the scenery represented some houses, a
     seaport and a ship, and the _Menechmi_ of Plautus, which had
     been translated into Italian by the Duke himself, was acted
     before a numerous and polite audience. In the same language
     and with the same success the _Amphytrion_ of Plautus and
     the _Eunuchus_ of Terence were successively exhibited. And
     these classic models, which formed the taste of the
     spectators, excited the emulation of the poets of the age.
     For the use of the court and theatre of Ferrara, Ariosto
     composed his comedies, which were often played with
     applause, which are still read with pleasure. And such was
     the enthusiasm of the new arts that one of the sons of
     Alphonso the First did not disdain to speak a prologue on
     the stage. In the legitimate forms of dramatic composition
     the Italians have not excelled; but it was in the court of
     Ferrara that they invented and refined the _pastoral
     comedy_, a romantic Arcadia which violates the truth of
     manners and the simplicity of nature, but which commands our
     indulgence by the elaborate luxury of eloquence and wit. The
     _Aminta_ of Tasso was written for the amusement and acted in
     the presence of Alphonso the Second, and his sister Leonora
     might apply to herself the language of a passion which
     disordered the reason without clouding the genius of her
     poetical lover. Of the numerous imitations, the _Pastor
     Fido_ of Guarini, which alone can vie with the fame and
     merit of the original, is the work of the Duke's secretary
     of state. It was exhibited in a private house in Ferrara....
     The father of the Tuscan muses, the sublime but unequal
     Dante, had pronounced that Ferrara was never honoured with
     the name of a poet; he would have been astonished to behold
     the chorus of bards, of melodious swans (their own
     allusion), which now peopled the banks of the Po. In the
     court of Duke Borso and his successor, Boyardo Count
     Scandiano, was respected as a noble, a soldier, and a
     scholar: his vigorous fancy first celebrated the loves and
     exploits of the paladin Orlando; and his fame has been
     preserved and eclipsed by the brighter glories and
     continuation of his work. Ferrara may boast that on classic
     ground Ariosto and Tasso lived and sung; that the lines of
     the _Orlando Furioso_, the _Gierusalemme Liberata_ were
     inscribed in everlasting characters under the eye of the
     First and Second Alphonso. In a period of near three
     thousand years, five great epic poets have arisen in the
     world, and it is a singular prerogative that two of the five
     should be claimed as their own by a short age and a petty

It perhaps will be admitted that if the style of these passages is
less elaborate than that of the _Decline and Fall_, the deficiency, if
it is one, is compensated by greater ease and lightness of touch.

It may be interesting to give a specimen of Gibbon's French style. His
command of that language was not inferior to his command of his native
idiom. One might even be inclined to say that his French prose is
controlled by a purer taste than his English prose. The following
excerpt, describing the Battle of Morgarten, will enable the reader to
judge. It is taken from his early unfinished work on the History of
the Swiss Republic, to which reference has already been made (p.

     "Léopold était parti de Zug vers le milieu de la nuit. Il se
     flattait d'occuper sans résistance le défilé de Morgarten
     qui ne perçait qu'avec difficulté entre le lac Aegré et le
     pied d'une montagne escarpée. Il marchait à la tête de sa
     gendarmerie. Une colonne profonde d'infanterie le suivait de
     près, et les uns et les autres se promettaient une victoire
     facile si les paysans osaient se présenter à leur rencontre.
     Ils étaient à peine entrés dans un chemin rude et étroit, et
     qui ne permettait qu'à trois ou quatre de marcher de front,
     qu'ils se sentirent accablés d'une grêle de pierres et de
     traits. Rodolphe de Reding, landamman de Schwitz et général
     des Confédérés, n'avait oublié aucun des avantages que lui
     offrit la situation des lieux. Il avait fait couper des
     rochers énormes, qui en s'ébranlant dès qu'on retirait les
     faibles appuis qui les retenaient encore, se détachaient du
     sommet de la montaigne et se précipitaient avec un bruit
     affreux sur les bataillons serrés des Autrichiens. Déjà les
     chevaux s'éffrayaient, les rangs se confondaient, et le
     désordre égarait le courage et le rendait inutile, lorsque
     les Suisses descendirent de la montagne en poussant de
     grands cris. Accoutumés à poursuivre le chamois sur les
     bords glissants des précipices, ils couraient d'un pas
     assuré au milieu des neiges. Ils étaient armés de grosses et
     pesantes hallebardes, auxquelles le fer le mieux trempé ne
     résistait point. Les soldats de Léopold chancelants et
     découragés cédèrent bientôt aux efforts désespérés d'une
     troupe qui combattait pour tout ce qu'il y a de plus cher
     aux hommes. L'Abbé d'Einsidlen, premier auteur de cette
     guerre malheureuse, et le comte Henri de Montfort, donnèrent
     les premiers l'example de la fuite. Le désordre devint
     général, le carnage fut affreux, et les Suisses se livraient
     au plaisir de la vengeance. A neuf heures du matin la
     bataille était gagnée.... Un grand nombre d'Autrichiens se
     précipitant les uns sur les autres, cherchèrent vainement
     dans le lac un asyle contre la fureur de leurs ennemis. Ils
     y périrent presque tous. Quinze cents hommes restèrent sur
     le champ de bataille. Ils étaient pour la plupart de la
     gendarmerie, qu'une valeur malheureuse et une armure pesante
     arrêtaient dans un lieu où l'un et l'autre leur étaient
     inutiles. Longtemps après l'on s'apercevait dans toutes les
     provinces voisines que l'élite de la noblesse avait péri
     dans cette fatale journée. L'infanterie beaucoup moins
     engagée dans le défilé, vit en tremblant la défaite des
     chevaliers qui passaient pour invincibles, et dont les
     escadrons effrayés se renversaient sur elle. Elle s'arrêta,
     voulut se retirer, et dans l'instant cette retraite devint
     une fuite honteuse. Sa perte fut assez peu considérable,
     mais les historiens de la nation ont conservé la mémoire de
     cinquante braves Zuriquois dont on trouva les rangs couchés
     morts sur la place. Léopold lui-même fut entrainé par la
     foule qui le portait du côté de Zug. On le vit entrer dans
     sa ville de Winterthur. La frayeur, la honte et
     l'indignation étaient encore peintes sur son front. Dès que
     la victoire se fut déclarée en faveur des Suisses, ils
     s'assemblèrent sur le champ de bataille, s'embrassèrent e
     versant des larmes d'allégresse, et remercièrent Dieu de la
     grace qu'il venait de leur faire, et qui ne leur avait coûté
     que quatorze de leurs compagnons."

His familiar letters and a number of essays, chiefly written in youth,
form the remainder of the miscellaneous works. Of the letters, some
have been quoted in this volume, and the reader can form his own
judgment of them. Of the small essays we may say that they augment, if
it is possible, one's notion of Gibbon's laborious diligence and
thoroughness in the field of historic research, and confirm his title
to the character of an intrepid student.

The lives of scholars are proverbially dull, and that of Gibbon is
hardly an exception to the rule. In the case of historians, the
protracted silent labour of preparation, followed by the conscientious
exposition of knowledge acquired, into which the intrusion of the
writer's personality rarely appears to advantage, combine to give
prominence to the work achieved, and to throw into the background the
author who achieves it. If indeed the historian, forsaking his high
function and austere reserve, succumbs to the temptations that beset
his path, and turns history into political pamphlet, poetic rhapsody,
moral epigram, or garish melodrama, he may become conspicuous to a
fault at the expense of his work. Gibbon avoided these seductions. If
the _Decline and Fall_ has no superior in historical literature, it is
not solely in consequence of Gibbon's profound learning, wide survey,
and masterly grasp of his subject. With wise discretion, he
subordinated himself to his task. The life of Gibbon is the less
interesting, but his work remains monumental and supreme.

       *       *       *       *       *



_These Short Books are addressed to the general public with a view
both to stirring and satisfying an interest in literature and its
great topics in the minds of those who have to run as they read. An
immense class is growing up, and must every year increase, whose
education will have made them alive to the importance of the masters
of our literature, and capable of intelligent curiosity as to their
performances. The Series is intended to give the means of nourishing
this curiosity, to an extent that shall be copious enough to be
profitable for knowledge and life, and yet be brief enough to serve
those whose leisure is scanty_.

_The following are arranged for_:--

_SPENSER_       _The Dean of St. Paul's._

_HUME_          _Professor Huxley._          _In the Press._

_BUNYAN_        _James Anthony Froude._

_JOHNSON_       _Leslie Stephen._            [_Ready._

_GOLDSMITH_     _William Black._             [_In the Press._

_MILTON_        _Mark Pattison._

_WORDSWORTH_    _Goldwin Smith._

_SWIFT_         _John Morley._

_BURNS_         _Principal Shairp._

_SCOTT_         _Richard H. Hutton._         [_Ready._

_SHELLEY_       _J. A. Symonds._             [_Ready._

_GIBBON_        _J. C. Morison._             [_Ready._

_BYRON_         _Professor Nichol._

_DEFOE_         _W. Minto._

_GRAY_          _John Morley._


       *       *       *       *       *


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