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Narrator Interventions

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Summary of Article

Published in The Journal of Hellenic Studies David Gribble’s piece titled Narrator Interventions in Thucydides addresses Thucydides’ use of narrator interventions. Gribble shows the reader the techniques for locating narrator interventions within the text. Gribble then shows how Thucydides uses these interventions to emphasize the main themes within the History (Athenian Power, internal disputes, and the defeat of expectations). Gribble concludes in saying that Thucydides wrote and structured his history in such a way that it could be received as definitive while still invoking the same sensitive and intellectual response that Thucydides had from the Peloponnesian war.

David Gribble's Method

Gribble uses a very systematic approach in identifying and unwrapping Thucydides use of narrator interventions. He first deals with Thucydides’ opening where he claims an objective style where his voice as the narrator is concealed, but Gribble points out that this style of narration is often interrupted by narrator interventions. Gribble lists the narrator interventions he finds most significant, including the narrative cues marking them as interventions. The narrative cues are as follows; the presence of first person, jumps in time through retrojection, anticipation, or anachrony, the use of superlatives or counter-factual, and reference to or suggestion of a reader.

One of the themes of intervention that Gribble puts a lot of emphasis on is the use of anachrony. This is when Thucydides’ narration of an event is confronted with Thucydides knowledge of the outcome. He uses this to show two things, ‘the moment of pathos’ and ‘the moment of accuracy or understanding’. The moment of pathos is identified as when Thucydides makes an appeal to the reader’s emotion, “This was the greatest disaster…” (Thucydides 3.113). The moment of accuracy or understanding is when the current event is brought together later events in order to highlight the significance of the current event, like in the speech proceeding the Sicilian expedition “and to a great extent it was this which destroyed the Athenian city” (Thucydides 6.15). Gribble emphasizes how Thucydides uses Pericles to explain the strength of the Athens through its individualism and ambition, then how the strength Pericles shows of the Athenian character leads to his demise, Gribble identifies this as foreshadowing the demise of Athens.

Gribble also identifies a theme in the focalization of the narrator interventions, noting the way Thucydides shifts his narration from one group to another in a structured way in order to convey a point. He describes the structure as such; ‘disaster for Athens- foreshadowing of Athenian power – renewed perception of Athenian strength.’ This theme is emphasized by Thucydides’ knowledge of the outcome of events, to show this Gribble points to the fall of Amphipolis (4.108) and how Thucydides first focus’ on the Athenian’s and their panic, then he moves to their allies eagerness to secede, then he makes a statement about the power of Athens, he then moves back to their allies how they were encouraged to revolt, then he closes with the Athenians sending a garrison and asserting their power once again. So the order of focalization in this intervention goes, Athenians, allies, narrator, allies, Athenians, Thucydides uses this structure to show the power and resilience of the Athenians.

Applying Gribble's Method

In applying Gribble’s Method to a piece of text I chose the work of Sallust in The Conspiracy of Catiline. As Gribble mentions of Thucydides, not every point where the narrator’s voice can be heard is significant, so in examining the work of Sallust I tried to find interventions that are consistent with Sallust’s views on character and greed.

Sallust begins his narrative by reflecting upon the past, speaking of kings, Greece and the birth of Rome, and the origins of greed. “In those days men had not yet learnt to be covetous: each content with what he had.” (175) This statement is the view of Sallust, claiming that in the past men were not covetous, he also implies that men have become covetous by the time of his writing. In describing early Rome Sallust states, “Justice and righteousness were upheld not so much by law as by natural instinct.” (180) Again Sallust makes claims that are supported not so much by facts as by his own beliefs. ‘”Honour and modesty, all laws divine and human, were alike disregarded in a spirit of recklessness and intemperance.”(183) This line echoes Sallust’s direction throughout the preface. The preface can be viewed as a moment of pathos and a moment of accuracy. Sallust appeals to the emotion of the reader with the origins of greed and avarice while the moment of accuracy is when he tells the reader the significance of each historical event he describes.

‘”Had not Catiline been in too great a hurry to give the signal to his accomplices in front of the Senate House, that day would have seen the commission of the most heinous crime in the annals of Rome.” (188) Sallust’s use of superlatives here leads to another appeal for pathos, implying that nothing could be worse than what Catiline had planned. And the title of the chapter, “Catiline’s first attempts at Revolution” informs the reader that Catiline’s plans fail. Sallust describes the fate of Piso, in a Thucydidan use of anachrony he breaks the chronology of the story telling the reader ‘”Piso was killed, in the course of a journey through his province… Some say that the natives could not tolerate the injustice, arrogance, and cruelty of his conduct as governor.” (188) In this moment of accuracy Sallust informs the reader of the fate of the man who almost brought about “the most heinous crime in the annals of Rome,” This digression appears unnecessary but with it Sallust shows how the justice that Piso receives is due to his “unprincipled character.”

When a group of the conspirators are caught, Sallust does something that Gribble cites within Thucydides’ writing; he presents an event, and then he poses a question to the reader, enticing them even though the outcome is already determined. “An abdominal crime had been brought home to citizens of the highest standing. What was the proper course?” (210) this is followed by a debate about how they should treat the convicted and with Lentulus’ death Sallust writes “So did this patrician, descended from the illustrious family of Cornelii, a man who had held consular authority at Rome, meet and end worthy of his character and conduct.”(227) In a moment of accuracy Sallust recounts Lentulus life in order to show the significance of his actions and death. Gribble would also identify the superlatives used to describe the crimes, their standing and the illustriousness of Lentulus’ family. These and the closing comment about the ends fitting his character are all points of narrator intervention, used to appeal to the reader and make a statement about character and ends.

At the end of the final battle Sallust makes another nod towards the greed of men by adding a historically unnecessary description following the conclusion of the Conspiracy of Catiline. Gribble would note Sallust’s description of the feelings as an own intervention. “Many who came from the camp to view the battle field or to loot, as they went about turning over the rebels’ corpses, found friends, relatives, or men who had been their guests or their hosts. Some also recognized the face of an enemy. This divers feeling affected all the army: gladness and rejoicing were tempered by grief and lamentation” (233) With this last three sentences Sallust makes his final statements about man and his greed, loot brings some of them to the battlefield, but there they find that the people they’ve killed are their kin and friends, reflecting that all men suffer from the same vice of greed.

Although Sallust’s voice within his narrative is much louder than that of Thucydides, the same methods of Gribble can be used to identify the voice of the narrator within the text. Sallust, it seems, shouts about the quality of character and how greed and covetousness is the downfall of man. Thucydides is much more concerned with his work being received as the definitive truth than Sallust is, and because of this Thucydides interventions are much more subtle while Sallust’s voice is constantly heard through his work. Sallust would seem to be more concerned with the morals of his story while Thucydides’ concern appears to be in his credit as a historian.

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