Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire […] London, printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell […], 1776-1788. 6 vols. 4to. (27.5 x 22 cms) All first editions; volume one first edition, first issue. pp. [xii], viii, [iv], 586, [ii], lxxxviii, [ii] errata (lacks final blank); [x], 640, [ii] errata; [x], 640, [ii] errata, 8 publisher’s ads; [ii], viii, [viii], 620; [iv], 684; [xii], 646, [lii] index and errata. Half title in volume one, portrait frontispiece engraved by John Hall after Sir Joshua Reynolds, three folding maps engraved by Thomas Kitchin, occasional foxing and light browning. Recent full calf, gilt, with contrasting morocco lettering pieces. Early shelf mark and illegible inscription (?L-dale) on title. NB: the detailed table of contents in volume one, signed *a4-*b2, was actually issued with volume two as was the frontispiece, but here they have been sensibly placed where most useful, as usual. The third volume concludes with the list of books published by Strahan and Cadell mentioned by Norton, which was not issued with all copies.
“Gibbon is one of those few writers who hold as high a place in the history of literature as in the roll of great historians.” Bury’s judgement, opening his authoritative edition of the work, can hardly be bettered and few could disagree with his supporting comment that the “Decline and Fall” has not gone the way of other works, lauded as ‘classics’ and left on the cold shelves. The work was instantly controversial. In his “Life of Johnson” Boswell recalled a conversation of 1776, when he and the `Good Doctor’ “talked of a work much in vogue” which was “written in a very mellifluous style, but which, under pretext of another subject, contained much artful [deistical] infidelity”. Boswell felt that the work should have been accompanied by a warning: “spring-guns and men-traps set here”.
Gibbon’s thesis, or a strand of it at least, that the decline of Rome was partly due to the enervating impact of Christianity, would not be accepted uncritically today. However, Gibbon’s remarkable use of primary material has set the bar for every historian since. The first volume is particularly scarce in this form, as Norton explains. Strahan originally anticipated that 500 copies would be sufficient, but when printing was already well underway he realised that demand would be much greater and doubled the run to 1000, even at the expense of completely resetting the first part of the book. Our example is the uncorrected first state. Norton, Bibliography of the Works of Edward Gibbon, 20,23 & 29; Printing and the Mind of Man: 222.