Since two pioneering studies appeared in 1954, Arnaldo Momigliano's 'Gibbon's Contribution to Historical Method', and Giuseppe Giarrizzo's Edward Gibbon e la cultura europea del Settecento, the historian of the Roman Empire has himself become the object of serious historical study. It can still be maintained that his work is, in D.R. Woolf's words, 'probably the most famous and perhaps the most misunderstood history written in the past three centuries', and that this is the consequence of an excessive focus on the Decline and Fall's first volume, which appeared in 1776 and had no successor until 1781. Because the reading public has been more interested in classical Rome than in late antique or medieval history, Gibbon is remembered as the author of this volume's first 14 chapters, which recount the break-up of the Augustan and Antonine principate. The 15th and 16th chapters, which conclude the volume with a survey of Christian history before the victory of Constantine, instantly occasioned a fierce controversy over Gibbon's evident unbelief and his use of irony to convey it, so that his writings on the history of the Church have been viewed through the glass of this controversy, and he is known as a polished and derisive sceptic carrying on the offensive against Christianity begun by Voltaire and continued by Parisian philosophy.
LRB 14 November 2002 | PDF Download