Edward Gibbon finds unlikely inspiration in a crumbling city
A disappointing trip to the once-great city of Rome inspires the scholar to write his finest work
The autumn of 1764 found the 27-year-old Edward Gibbon in Italy, enjoying the delights of the Grand Tour. After leaving Oxford, Gibbon spent years studying in Switzerland and serving with the Hampshire militia during the Seven Years’ War. Now he had made a pilgrimage to what had once been the greatest of all cities, Rome.
As Gibbon recalled, he would never forget “the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city”. To a learned young man, to see the “ruins of the Forum” or the “memorable spot where Romulus stood… or Caesar fell” was almost unimaginably thrilling. Yet Rome’s glory days were gone. The city in the 1760s was a crumbling relic, unimaginable as the capital of the greatest empire in the world.
By Gibbon’s own account, the gulf between past and present weighed heavily on his mind. He later wrote: “It was at Rome, on 15 October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
Gibbon’s biographers often describe this as a fanciful invention, and perhaps it was. But there is no doubt that the trip had an effect on Gibbon. And 12 years later, the great historian published the first of six volumes of his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
View of the Arch of Constantine with the Colosseum by Canaletto, 1742– 45. When Edward Gibbon visited Rome in 1764, “the city was a crumbling relic, unimaginable as the capital of the greatest empire in the world”, says Dominic Sandbrook