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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIII. Historians

§ 8. The original conception of The Decline and Fall

Soon after the disbandment of the militia on the close of the war in 1763, he paid a long visit to the continent, spending some time in Paris and then in Lausanne, where, during the better part of a year, he prepared himself for a sojourn in Italy by a severe course of archaeological study. He crossed the Italian frontier in April, 1764, and reached Rome in October. Here, on the 15th of that month, as he records in a passage which is one of the landmarks of historical literature, it was

  • —as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars 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.
  • For, as he adds, the conception of his life’s work was, at first, confined within these limits, and only gradually grew in his mind into the vaster scheme which he actually carried into execution. We shall, perhaps, not err in attributing a direct incitement towards this expansion to the title, if not to the substance, of Montesquieu’s Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et leur décadence (1734), which, to a mind like Gibbon’s, already occupied with part of the theme, could hardly fail to suggest such an achievement as that to which, in the end, his genius proved capable of rising.

    Still, a long interval separates the original conception of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall from the execution of even its first instalment. During the years 1756 to 1764, he produced a series of miscellaneous historical writings, which, in part, may be described as preliminary studies for the great work of which the design had now dawned upon him. Some of them were in the synoptical form for which he always had a special predilection, characteristic of a mind desirous, with all its inclination to detail, of securing as wide as possible a grasp of the theme on which it was engaged—e. g. the first of the whole series, Outlines of the History of the World—The Ninth Century to the Fifteenth inclusive. Others were of the nature of small monographs, showing Gibbon’s complementary interest in close and accurate investigations—such as Critical Enquiries concerning the Title of Charles the Eighth to the Crown of Naples (1761). To a rather later date belongs the review (in French) (1768) of Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts, which treats this celebrated tour de force politely, but as a striking, rather than convincing, piece of work and ends with arguments derived from Hume, showing that the sentiment général on the subject represents the better grounded conclusion. We pass by the classical studies belonging to the same period (1762 to 1770), noting only the long collection of French “minutes” taken from the magnum opus of Cluverius in 1763 and 1764, as a preparation for his Italian tour, and entitled Nomina Gentesque Antiquae Italiae, and the well-known Observations on the Design of the VIth Book of the Aeneid, Gibbon’s first larger effort in English prose. The attack which the latter piece makes upon Warburton’s hypothesis, that Vergil’s picture symbolises the mystic conception of ancient religion, is very spirited; but modern scholarship is in this instance in sympathy with the theory denounced. During the greater part of the year 1770, in which these Observations appeared (and in which Gibbon also put to paper some Remarks on Blackstone’s Commentaries), Gibbon’s father was afflicted by an illness which, in November, proved fatal; yet the coincidence of this illness with a long interval of silence in the letters addressed by “Junius” to The Public Advertiser and to its printer has been made the starting-point of a theory that Gibbon was the author of the famous Letters!