The durability of the works by the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) owes nothing to the advantage, or accident, of direct observation, because he did not write contemporary history when he wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the years 1776-1788, one year before the French revolution. In looking back on the Roman Empire he enjoyed no technical or adventitious advantage over today’s historians, on the contrary.
Gibbon remains modern however. This also applies to his work from 1767, written in French, and only partly completed: History of the liberty of Swiss (Introduction à l’histoire générale de la République des Suisses) and not very well known. A German edition by a Swiss publisher appeared with the title Die Freiheit der Schweizer (Zurich 2015).
It was during his stay in Lausanne that Gibbon got in touch with the grass root democratic developments, trade, trias politica, sovereignty and intellectual accomplishments on Swiss territory. Both De Montesquieu (de l’Esprit des Lois, 1748) , as Voltaire (Essai sur les mœurs, 1756) wrote their famous works in Geneva and Lausanne. .
It was in Lausanne that Gibbon could discover the philosophy to organize his historical readings and writings. Gibbon insisted that facts are indispensable for any historical writing, but they must be controlled by philosophy.
History to a philosopher is what gambling was to the Marquis de Dangeau: he saw a system, relations, consequences, the close connection between institutions and events, between the institutions and the fate of any country.
This would show the more general causes regulating the rise and fall of empires. This philosophy of history underlies his greatest work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and his lesser known work the History of the liberty of the Swiss.
Gibbon was very impressed by the way thirteen Swiss cantons survived amidst expanding, aggressive and from an economic, administrative and bureaucratic point of view disastrous centralized monarchies and aristocratic societies.
He strongly believed in the political, economic and democratic model of Zurich, one of the most powerful cantons. As an analyst of the Roman Empire he could see the benefits of this system and the Swiss Eidgenossenschaft of thirteen cantons as a bottom-up political construction of different cantons with different interests.
Gibbon drew some conclusions which are still relevant today, in particular with regard to political elitist constructions such as the European Union and its (unelected) Kings.
Virtue depends for assured survival, not only on a continuing tradition of freedom, but also on a plural society and on the division of power between separate authorities. Ideally, it requires independent, competing states, preferably with different political systems, independent authorities with these states and economic and intellectual competition.
In the Roman Empire these conditions did not obtain, neither in the European Union.
In Switzerland they do and that is why Switzerland is the happiest country of Europe, an integral part of Europe since the occupation by Rome in 13-15 BC (Geneva since 122 BC).
(Source: H Trevor-Roper,’Introduction’, in Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, London 1993).