Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Peter Cosgrove | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Translating the Sources: Dialogue or
Bricolage?

I

HISTORY-WRITING IS REFERENTIAL; IT REFERS TO THE SOURCES, HISTORICAL NARrative strives to combine the records of the past into a single point of view, whether this view is presented as an objective rendering of the past or, as in Gibbon's case, as the power of a dominant impartial narrator. To some extent the goal of history is to look through the sources in order to achieve direct access to the past. Through figures of speech reinforcing the narrator's power—tricks of design that warn us of his powers of concentration, self-presentation, and impartiality both in personal assertions and demonstration—the narrator of the Decline and Fall elevates himself above the sources. Yet the sources too have a point of view—one that cannot be overlooked— since in some ways the past is accessible, if at all, only through them. These voices, however muted, must still be taken into account in any consideration of the power of the impartial stranger.

The intertextual crisis of narrative overlap in the Decline and Fall is exacerbated by what we have already seen Arnaldo Momigliano refer to as "what Gibbon takes over from Zozimus," in other words, the degree to which citation of the sources is an intrinsic part of the construction of the text. A peculiarity of Gibbon's work from a modern standpoint is the foregrounding of the compendium by the act of translation. Though the narrator attempts to occupy the cognitive high ground with regard to the traces of the past, much of the book consists of translations directly from the source text into his own. Gibbon takes over not only from Zozimus but from a multitude of ancient authorities even to the extent of close translation, or as close as translation ever gets. The reader of the Decline and Fall at times is simultaneously reading a transcription of Ammianus Marcellinus for the reigns of Constantius, Julian, and Jovian; Procopius for the

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Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 5
  • Contents 9
  • Acknowledgements 11
  • Introduction 13
  • Chapter 1 - Tropes of Transcendence 48
  • Chapter 2 - Pandemonium and Romance 100
  • Chapter 3 - The Genres of the Fact 160
  • Chapter 4 - Translating the Sources: Dialogue or Bricolage? 199
  • Conclusion 252
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 273
  • Index 282
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