Classics as Source: Edward Gibbon’s Library

Books as Inspiration

Edward Gibbon is perhaps one of the best known historians to ever write in the English language, and this more than 200 years after his death. Though many of his conclusions have been challenged, his methodology was surprisingly contemporary and he is sometimes considered the forbear of modern scientific historicism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of his magisterial six volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

Its breadth of treatment, large perspectives, meticulous accuracy, and its author’s mastery of style are among its principal merits.

Cross & Livingston, 2005, “Gibbon, Edward”

Gibbon was, given his erudition, not unsurprisingly, an avid reader and book collector as well as historical innovator. According to the Oxford Companion to the Book “Gibbon called his library ‘the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life’” (Caines, 2011). That a catalog of Gibbon’s library still exists and is available through HathiTrust is truly intriguing and unexpected.

Portrait of Gibbon reproduced in Keynes (1980)
Written on the Back of actual playing cards were Gibbon’s own card files. Keynes (1980).
One of Gibbon’s Book Plates. Keynes (1980)

It should be noted as well, that numerous private letters of Gibbon’s have also been published and provide insight into Gibbon’s opinions concerning matters contemporary to him, such as the American revolution, as well as treating of his scholarly interests and personal matters. To hear the insights of a learned man on the important matters of his day are always of interest and provide new ways of viewing historical events.

For example, in one excerpt from a letter written in 1778, at the height of the American War of Independence Gibbon writes to a friend:

No news from America, yet there are people, large ones too, who talk of conquering it next summer with the help of 20,000 Russians. I fancy you are better satisfied with private than public War. The Lisbon Packet in coming home met about forty of our privateers.

Gibbon & Gibbon. (1907: 220).

In another letter form 1791 Gibbon touches on British colonialism in India.

I know not what to say at present of India bonds — do they not Sink? Our affairs in that Country seem in a very ticklish situation. At all events consult with Darrel, he has knowledge of that sort and is a real friend. Yet I am almost ashamed to complain of some stagnation of interest, when I am witness to the natural and acquired philosophy of so many French, who are reduced from riches, not to indigence, but to absolute want and beggary.

Gibbon & Gibbon. (1907: 403).

Cains, Michael (2010). “Gibbon, Edward.” In The Oxford Companion to the Book. : Oxford University Press.

Cross, F., & Livingstone, E. (Eds.) (2005). “Gibbon, Edward.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. : Oxford University Press.

Gibbon, E. (1961). Gibbon’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire. London: J.M. Dent .

Gibbon, E., & Gibbon, B. Ernle. (1907). Private letters of Edward Gibbon, 1753-1794. [S.l.]: New York, Fred de Fau.

Keynes, G. (1980). The library of Edward Gibbon: a catalogue. 2d ed. Godalming: St. Paul’s Bibliographies.

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