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

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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

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