Page images



EDWARD GIBBON, whose name is for ever associated with the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was born at Putney, near London, on the 27th of April 1737. His family was of good position, and the members of it had been for some generations noted for their High Church and High Tory sympathies. His grandfather was a Commissioner of Customs in the reign of Queen Anne. He was a sufferer by the South Sea speculation, but lived long enough to retrieve his fortunes. The father of the historian for a short time represented the borough of Petersfield in Parliament, and was a most active and uncompromising opponent of Sir Robert Walpole. He was not distinguished in other respects, and seems to have had the ordinary tastes, and lived the ordinary life, of a country gentleman of the time.

Gibbon bimself was in early boyhood of so sickly a constitution that his education was much interrupted. He was, however, fond of reading, and owed much to the unformal but intelligent teaching of an aunt to whose care he was committed. Hence, when after having been under one or two private tutors, and at Westminster School, he commenced residence at Magdalene College, Oxford, he carried with him, as he himself says, a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would bare been ashamed.” His impressions of Oxford were not favourable; and the picture which he draws of the inner life of the university exbibits it in a very different light from the classic and scholarly, though formal and dogmatic, Oxford of our own day. Little sense of responsibility seems to have been felt by the college tutors; little heed was taken of the character and habits of the undergraduates. No public bonours were awarded to successful scholarship, few literary exercises were imposed, and attendance at lectures was for the most part left very much to the inclination or discretion of the students themselves. Under these circumstances, it is not wonderful that Gibbon should have been led to indulge in idleness and dissipation. It is perhaps rather more surprising,

[ocr errors]

when we consider the cold and sceptical constitution of his mind, that he should have become, during his residence at Oxford, a pervert to Romanism. To this he was, according to his own account, in the first instance led by reading Dr. Middleton's Free Inquiry ;” and the conclusions at which he thereby felt disposed to arrive were ultimately confirmed by Bossuet's Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine, and his History of Protestant Variations. The consequence of this change in his religious views was that he was obliged to leave Oxford ; and his father, who wished to have bim disabused of his errors, sent him to reside with a Calvinistic minister at Lausanne, in Switzerland. The arguments of Mr. Pavilliard, the minister in question, or more probably the sober and rational bent of Gibbon's own mind, soon led him to renounce the faith which he had embraced; but in ceasing to believe the doctrines of the Church of Rome, he ceased also to believe those doctrines of Christianity which Papist and Protestant alike confess to be true and essential. In 1758 he returned to England, and after a short sojourn in London, during which he made acquaintance with the amusements and dissipations of the metropolis, he retired to his father's house at Buriton, where he chiefly spent his time in reading and study.

At this time he published his first work, written in French, and entitled Essai sur l'Etude de la Literature. In 1763 he again visited the Continent, going first to Paris, and thence to Lausanne, where he stayed for about ten months. Thence he proceeded to Rome, and there it was that he first formed the design of writing his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He himself says, that as he “sat musing amongst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to his mind.” He returned to England in 1765, but the first volume of the History was not published till 1776, and the work was not finished till 1787. The latter volumes were written at Lausanne, to which place Gibbon retired in 1783, and where he chiefly resided till 1793, when he visited England, and shortly after died, somewhat unexpectedly, from the effects of a complaint the existence of which he had, through a false shame, studiously endeavoured to conceal.

Before his removal to Lausanne he entered for a short time into political life, and sat in Parliament as Member for Liskeard, and afterwards for Lymington in Hampshire. He was a supporter of Lord North's Ministry, and was rewarded by being appointed a lord-commissioner of trade and the plantations. He, however, made no figure in the House of Commons; and his support of the administration did not reach beyond a silent vote.

His life was in the main that of a student and man of letters. His temperament seems to have been somewhat cold and selfish ; but he was attentive to all his social duties, kind and upright in his relations with the members of his own family, cordial and sympathizing towards his more intimate friends, animated and brilliant in general society.


The miscellaneous works of Gibbon have been published; but though some of the essays and treatises are by no means undeserving of the attention of the reader, they are not very extensively read. It is on his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that his fame depends. And few authors have bequeathed to posterity a grander or more imperishable monument of learning, genius, and research. Whether we consider the interest and extent of the period which the History embraces, or the immense array of authorities consulted and referred to, or the lucid order in which the facts are marshalled, or the grave and philosophic spirit which pervades the narrative, the writer is undoubtedly entitled to rank amongst the foremost historians of any age or country. And our admiration of his powers must be increased when we call to mind the difficulties with which he had to contend-the obscurity and barbarism of many of the records and documents which he found it necessary to consult--the gross darkness which rested on many of those historical epochs which he undertook to illustrate.

But it must be confessed that the extraordinary merit of the work is qualified by some very serious faults. The most obvious and flagrant is the spirit in which he has treated Christianity. Without openly assailing, he seeks indirectly to undermine its authority. He labours to wound it by an insinuation or a sarcasm, while he professes to regard it with reverence and to acknowledge its claims to belief.

But, indeed, the tendency to sneer is too constant a feature of Gibbon's style. Zeal, earnestness, devotion, were but little dreamed of in his philosophy; and wben he saw them elsewhere, he could neither sympathize with them nor believe in them.

There are other proofs that his nature was gross and earthly in some of its tendencies. His pages are not free from indelicacy of thought and expression, and he does not seem unwilling to avail himself of an opportunity of introducing what is indelicate or obscene.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire commencesafter giving a review of the condition of the Roman · Empire under the Antonines --with the reign of the Emperor Commodus. It carries the narrative down to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1454. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it embraces all the main facts of universal history which lie between those two epochs. Into the main thread of the narrative are interwoven the progress of Christianity--the rise of Mahometanism --the victories of the caliphs--the origin, character, and inroads of the various barbaric hordes that overran the Empire-the enterprises of the Normans--the story of the Crusades. The style of this great work is lofty, sententious, and eloquent. The periods move with an almost too uniform stateliness of march. A large proportion of the words belong to the Latin element of our language, and the writer affects a redundant and circuitous mode of expression. There is a want of simplicity and ease ; and, as a judicious writer has remarked, the attention of the reader is often distracted by the obscure splendour through · which the incidents are viewed. On the whole, the style of Gibbon may be described as one which is nervous and dignified, but too cumbrous and elaborate; attractive to read, but dangerous to imitate.




Clovis, when no more than fifteen years of age, succeeded, by his father's death, to the command of the Salian tribe. The narrow limits of his kingdoin were confined to the island of the Batavians, with the ancient dioceses of Tournay and Arras; and at the baptism of Clovis, the number of his warriors could not exceed five thousand. The kindred tribes of the Franks, who had seated themselves along the Belgic rivers, the Scheldt, the Meuse, the Moselle, and the Rhine, were governed by their independent kings, of the Merovingian race; the equals, the allies, and sometimes the enemies of the Salic prince. But the Germans, who obeyed, in peace, the hereditary jurisdiction of their chiefs, were free to follow the standard of a popular and victorious general; and the superior merit of Clovis attracted the respect and allegiance of the national confederacy. When he first took the field, he had neither gold and silver in his coffers, nor wine and corn in his magazines ; but he imitated the example of Cæsar, who, in the same country, had acquired wealth by the sword, and purchased soldiers with the fruits of conquest. After each successful battle or expedition, the spoils were accumulated in one common mass; every warrior received his proportionable share; and the royal prerogative submitted to the equal regulations of military law. The untamed spirit of the Barbarians was taught to acknowledge the advantages of regular discipline. At the annual review of the month of March, their arms were diligently inspected; and when they traversed a peaceful territory they were prohibited from touching a blade of grass. The justice of Clovis was inexorable; and his careless or disobedient soldiers were punished with instant death. It would be superfluous to praise the valour of a Frank; but the valour of Clovis was directed by cool and consummate prudence. In all his transactions with mankind he calculated the weight of interest, of passion, and of opinion; and his measures were sometimes adapted to the sanguinary manners of the Germans, and sometimes moderated by the milder genius of Rome and Christianity. He was intercepted in the career of victory, since he died in the forty-fifth year of his age; but he had already accomplished, in a reign of thirty years, the establishment of the French monarchy in Gaul.

The first exploit of Clovis was the defeat of Syagrius, the son of Ægidius ; and the public quarrel might, on this occasion, be inflamed by private resentment. The glory of the father still insulted the Merovingian race ; the power of the son might excite the jealous . ambition of the king of the Franks. Syagrius inherited, as a patrimonial estate, the city and diocese of Soissons: the desolate remnant of the second Belgic, Rheims and Troyes, Beauvais and Amiens, would naturally submit to the count or patrician; and after the dissolution of the Western Empire, he might reign with the title, or at least with the authority, of King of the Romans. As a Roman, he had been educated in the liberal studies of rhetoric and jurisprudence; but he was engaged by accident and policy in the familiar use of the Germanic idiom. The independent Barbarians resorted to the tribunal of a stranger, who possessed the singular talent of explaining, in their native tongue, the dictates of reason and equity. The diligence and affability of their judge rendered him popular, the impartial wisdom of his decrees obtained their voluntary obedience, and the reign of Syagrius over the Franks and Burgundians seemed to revive the original institution of civil society. In the midst of these peaceful occupations, Syagrius received, and boldly accepted, the hostile defiance of Clovis ; who challenged his rival in the spirit, and almost in the language, of chivalry, to appoint the day, and the


« PreviousContinue »