Gibbon and His Visit to Rome

by Edwin Watts Chubb

In that celebrated literary club founded by Dr. Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds were Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick, Fox, Gibbon, and Sheridan. Of these Gibbon is not the least distinguished. He is an illustrious example of what an ordinary personality can accomplish by reason of an extraordinary devotion to one purpose. Some few men achieve fame by their brilliant versatility; some, as in the case of Samuel Johnson, by their commanding personal force; Gibbon has won a permanent place in literary history by spending his life in doing one thing. That one thing he did so well that E.A. Freeman, one of the prominent historians of the nineteenth century, has truthfully said,—"He remains the one historian of the eighteenth century whom modern research has neither set aside nor threatened to set aside."

In his memoirs Gibbon reveals himself as a man with little dignity or heroism. There is a droll story that is apt to suggest itself when one thinks of Gibbon. At one time, when asking a dignified lady for her hand in marriage, he fell upon his knees in proper lover-like manner. Unfortunately Gibbon was so stout that upon her refusal he found himself in the embarrassing need of calling in a servant to help him to his feet again. Memories such as these, however, cannot blind us to the essential worth in the character of the great historian. In the light of his consecration to a worthy purpose his life is not without its heroism. To write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a monumental achievement. To bend every energy to the fulfilling of a high resolve is heroic. From 1764 to 1787 his one aim in life was to write a scholarly history that should cover the vast field that he had chosen. He may lack that spiritual insight which enables one to estimate world movements in the upper regions of religion, but he did not lack unfaltering devotion to his purpose. So well did he do his work that his six volumes can be found in the library of every student of the past. The story is told of a great German who learned English in order to read Gibbon in the original.

In the following extract from his Autobiography is found his own explanation of the circumstances under which he conceived his vast project "amid the ruins of the Capitol," in 1764:

"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 or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation. My guide was Mr. Byers, a Scotch antiquary of experience and taste; but in the daily labor of eighteen weeks, the powers of attention were sometimes fatigued, till I was myself qualified, in a last review, to select and study the capital works of ancient and modern art. Six weeks were borrowed for my tour of Naples, the most populous of cities, relative to its size, whose luxurious inhabitants seem to dwell on the confines of paradise and hell-fire. I was presented to the boy-king by our new envoy, Sir William Hamilton, who, wisely diverting his correspondence from the Secretary of State to the Royal Society and British Museum, has elucidated a country of such inestimable value to the naturalist and antiquarian. On my return, I fondly embraced, for the last time, the miracles of Rome.... In my pilgrimage from Rome to Loretto I again crossed the Apennine; from the coast of the Adriatic I traversed a fruitful and populous country, which could alone disprove the paradox of Montesquieu, that modern Italy is a desert....

"The use of foreign travel has been often debated as a general question; but the conclusion must be finally applied to the character and circumstances of each individual. With the education of boys, where or how they may pass over some juvenile years with the least mischief to themselves or others, I have no concern. But after supposing the previous and indispensable requisites of age, judgment, a competent knowledge of men and books, and a freedom from domestic prejudices, I will briefly describe the qualifications which I deem most essential to a traveler. He should be endowed with an active, indefatigable vigor of mind and body, which can seize every mode of conveyance, and support, with a careless smile, every hardship of the road, the weather, or the inn. The benefits of foreign travel will correspond with the degrees of these qualifications; but, in this sketch, those to whom I am known will not accuse me of framing my own panegyric. It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed 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."