Edward Gibbon: And He Rose Again

Tom Holland argues that the return of religion and the West’s current obsession with decline make Roy Porter’s profile of Edward Gibbon, first published in History Today in 1986, curiously dated.

Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Sir Joshua ReynoldsIt is rare for the reputation of a historian, once it has sunk into obscurity, ever to recover its lustre. Even the most cutting-edge scholarship, after all, will end up blunted by the years. What Geoffrey Elton said of Gibbon is now true of Elton himself: ‘Hardly anyone reads [him] any longer.’ Roy Porter, writing in 1986 and quoting Elton’s dismissive judgement, did not think to dispute it. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), Porter acknowledged, was vastly too corpulent for 20th-century tastes. Not only that, but it was doubly antiquated. Its author had ‘founded no historical school, bred no generations of disciples, and pioneered no dramatic breakthroughs in historical method’. Equally, its themes lacked the awesome resonance that they had possessed for its original readers. The grip of classical education had faded; the hold of religion, too. It was no longer taken for granted by most people that the fall of Rome’s empire was indeed, as Gibbon had claimed, ‘the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind’.

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