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Fragmentary Texts, Contradictory Narrative, and the Roman Historical Tradition

Christopher Simon

Contradictions are scattered across the Roman historical tradition. Some of them are evidentiary,

such as the number of troops or the quantity of spoils recorded for a certain military campaign, while

others comprise features of the (whole) narrative – competing and (apparently) exclusive claims about

events, as well as their order, cause, outcome, interpretation etc. (cf. White 1973). Contradictions of both

sorts can be found not only by comparing the works of different historians, but also by examining the

corpus of a single historian or history. This fact about the Roman historical tradition, which has often

been exploited as grist for the scholarly mill (e.g. Wiseman 2008), exists in tension with the textual

critical practices used to evaluate and compile its fragmentary remains. It is with this tension in mind,

occasioned by the recent three-volume edition of Fragments of the Roman Historians (Cornell et al.

2014), that this paper considers contradiction and its relationship to the fragmented historical narratives

represented by these fragmentary texts.

Textual critical practices have shaped how modern scholars approach contradiction as a feature

of fragmentary texts, and as a consequence, how they assess contradiction as a feature of fragmentary

narratives. Scholars, recognizing a contradiction between fragments, identify it with a given problem,

which they then attempt to ameliorate or resolve by means of various textual critical tools – interpretive

commentary, emendation, or more dramatically, transposition, omission. These editorial decisions, in

turn, inform other choices related to the fragments – e.g. inclusion, extent of quotation, relative order. If

many of these editorial decisions would be difficult to contest on textual grounds, indicative of a problem

are instances where narrative, and not textual, contradictions result in editorial interventions (e.g. FRH

5.17, 21). Indeed, these latter instances strongly suggest that ancient and modern thinking about the

relationship between contradiction and historical narrative has become disjunct, especially with regard to

fragmentary narratives.

In contrast, contradiction has long been a recognized feature of Roman historiography, whether

as a result of socio-political exigencies (e.g. Wiseman 1974, Roller 2010, Farney 2010) or for the purpose

of entertainment (e.g. Cornell 1975, Woodman 1988: 17 ff., Feldherr 1998). Although it remains

impossible to gauge how much and to what extent Roman audiences tolerated such contradictions, it

appears that certain amount of contradiction must have been accepted and that their threshold for

contradiction was relatively higher. Textual criticism, however, and other traditional modes of studying

fragments such as Quellenforschung pit one fragment against another or against the variant accounts

whose narrative and underlying source materials often survive better intact. As Fox has noted, default

assumptions about what has and has not survived closes this circle of interpretation (1996). Narrative

contradictions in Roman historical fragments should thus be distinguished from other forms of

contradiction, and subsequently (re)evaluated on an individual basis. A failure to do so artificially

conflates the exceptional status of fragmentary texts with fragmentary narratives, whose nature is of a

different kind altogether

Session/Panel Title

New Approaches to Fragments and Fragmentary Survival

Session/Paper Number


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