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1. Map of Northern Italy.
Adapted with permission from images © Ancient World Mapping Center, CC BY-NC-ND.

1. Life of Nepos

© Bret Mulligan, CC BY 4.0

For a man who devoted such energy to chronicling the exploits of famous men, Cornelius Nepos left behind few clues about his own life. Nepos was likely born within a decade of 100 BC in Cisalpine Gaul, the district of northern Italy bounded to the north by the Alps and to the south by the Rubicon River. This prosperous region would produce many of the great Roman authors, including Catullus, Virgil, Livy, Pliny the Elder, and his nephew Pliny the Younger. Nepos’ hometown is unknown, but Ticinum and Mediolanum are plausible candidates.

We can be sure that Nepos was not a member of the senatorial elite.1 Nevertheless, Nepos’ family possessed sufficient wealth to finance his education and then support his academic pursuits in Rome. He may have immigrated to Rome—Nepos comments on how Roman fashions changed after Sulla gained power in the late 80s.2 He had certainly arrived in the city by 65 BC, in time to hear Cicero defend the former tribune C. Cornelius against charges of sedition.3 Rome was likely his home for the remainder of his life, although, like many affluent Romans, Nepos travelled—to Greece, Asia Minor, and North Africa, and perhaps even further afield. Nepos died soon after 27 BC, in the early years of Augustus’ reign.4

Historical Context

Nepos lived during the tumultuous final years of the Roman republic. He was likely born in the closing decade of the second century BC, within a few years of Atticus (110 BC), Catiline (108 BC), Cicero and Pompey (106 BC), and Caesar (100 BC). Around this same time, migrating Germanic tribes repeatedly defeated Roman armies and even threatened northern Italy with invasion (113‒101 BC). To confront this peril, the consul Marius transformed the Roman army into a permanent and professional force open to all Roman citizens, a development that decisively resolved the manpower crisis that had constrained Roman military power since the Punic Wars, but which contributed to no small amount of mischief and sorrow over the subsequent eighty years, as generals supported by armies of loyal veterans tore the Roman republic apart.

When Nepos was still a child, Rome experienced the twin traumas of the Social War (91‒88 BC)—a vicious conflict resolved only when Rome’s Italian allies were granted full citizenship rights—and the chaos of the 80s, when a series of rival Roman generals occupied Rome and political power was wielded at sword point. It was likely soon after Spartacus’ slave revolt (73‒71 BC) that Nepos arrived in Rome. There he would have witnessed Cicero’s suppression of the Catilinarian conspiracy (64‒63 BC) and the consequent recriminations that led to Cicero’s exile (58‒56 BC). Nepos lived in Rome for much of the next four decades, witnessing the ascendency of Pompey (67‒49 BC), Caesar’s triumph in the civil war and his eventual assassination (49‒44 BC), the uneasy peace between Octavian and Marcus Antonius in the 30s, and, finally, Octavian’s consolidation of power after his victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Apart from a few isolated jabs at disreputable figures like Spinther and Mamurra, Nepos seems to inhabit a world apart from the epochal events that he must have witnessed—a man in but not of his time. He may as well have been speaking of himself when he praises Atticus’ cautious neutrality:

He did not mingle in civil tumults, because he thought that those who had plunged into them were not more under their own control than those who were tossed by the waves of the sea.5

Nevertheless, some hints of Nepos’ views on the changing political landscape of the late republic emerge from his Lives. His biographies display a systematic interest in how events can make and unmake a state. Nepos often emphasizes the importance of obedience to the state over personal ambition and how the decisions made by leaders can contribute to peace or bring about civic disaster. Throughout his works, men are praised for striving to preserve the difficult work of liberty in the face of the temptations of tyranny. It is not difficult to see these themes as implicit commentary on the behavior of Caesar, Brutus, Cicero, Antonius, and Octavian.

A comment in his Life of Eumenes indicates that Nepos was a keen observer of the troubles that gripped Rome during this period. As he reflected on the conquests of Alexander the Great, Nepos observed how success had induced Alexander’s Macedonian soldiers to “claim the right to command its leaders instead of obeying them”.6 Nepos perceived the same troubling loss of discipline among Rome’s veterans, who he feared would “ruin everything by their intemperance and excessive licentiousness, both those that they support and those that they fight”.7 If we could read his letters or his biographies on politically active Romans, we would doubtless have a better sense of how Nepos understood the transformation of Roman politics and culture during his lifetime; his Life of Cicero would likely be especially telling in this regard. In their absence, our impression of Nepos remains that of a dedicated scholar, a man who, like his friend Atticus, socialized with the movers and shakers of his day, but remained aloof from the murderous politics of the late republic.

Works of Nepos

Like Atticus, Varro, and the other Roman polymaths who lived during the late republic, Nepos was a prolific author who wrote in many genres. In addition to his collection of biographies, he composed poetry and wrote works on history, geography, and rhetoric. Nepos is credited with several literary “firsts”. One of these arose by chance: he is the first biographer from Classical antiquity—Greek or Latin—from whom a complete biography survives. Although he did not invent the genre, Nepos did introduce political biography of Greek statesmen to a Roman audience. Nepos appears to have been the first author to attempt a systematic collection of biographies across a range of professions. Nepos’ account of the life of his friend Atticus may have been the first biography written about a living contemporary and is the only surviving Latin biography about an eques—a member of Rome’s commercial class. Nepos was also the first Roman to attempt to synchronize Italian history with the mature tradition of Greek historiography—an audacious feat that elicited generous praise from the discriminating poet Catullus. Accustomed as we are today to a standardized, international chronological system, it is difficult to appreciate Nepos’ achievement in this area, which required him to synthesize events recorded in numerous conflicting and discontinuous calendrical systems maintained by individual cities around the Mediterranean.

The Lives of Famous Men

Nepos’ most ambitious project was The Lives of Famous Men (De viris illustribus), most of which is now lost. This collection of biographies likely included sixteen books divided into eight thematic pairs. The first book of each pair contained biographies of non‒Romans, for the most part Greeks, who were preeminent in a particular profession. The next book of each pair presented the lives of exceptional Romans in the same field. Nepos certainly produced volumes containing the biographies of commanders and historians. We can be reasonably confident that Nepos also composed biographies of philosophers, poets, and orators, among other professionals. All told, the Lives once contained hundreds of biographies—a work of scholarship that was spectacular and sweeping, if not without its faults.

The Lives of Foreign Commanders

Only one book of Nepos’ Lives has survived: his biographies of foreign commanders. Nepos dedicated this book to his close friend Atticus, who could well have encouraged Nepos to undertake this grand comparative project. Nepos published the first edition of the Lives, which included the biographies of nineteen Greek commanders arranged in rough chronological order, a few years before Atticus passed away in 32 BC. The lives of three non‒Greek commanders—those of Hannibal, his father Hamilcar, and the Persian general Datames—may have been added in a second edition published sometime before 27 BC.

In its current form, The Lives of Foreign Commanders displays several unusual features that suggest that Nepos may not have published this book of Lives in the exact form that we now possess. Taken together, these twenty‒two biographies would represent one of the longest books to survive from antiquity. In addition to the atypical length of the book, we must account for the clipped nature of Nepos’ style and the not infrequent errors and often vexing omissions that pepper the biographies—failings that are utterly at odds with Nepos’ reputation in antiquity. These features could suggest that the Lives were altered, perhaps extensively, after Nepos’ death.

When might such alterations have occurred? As the Classical world transitioned into the Middle Ages, many works, especially those of considerable length like Nepos’ collected Lives, were shortened, epitomized, or otherwise simplified. It seems almost certain that Nepos’ work was subjected to extensive editing and manipulation during this period. Some of the longer Lives may have been condensed; the Life of Aristides and a few others may even have been forged at this time. Indeed, it was a misunderstanding related to this editorial process that resulted in the Lives being misattributed during the Middle Ages to a late antique copyist (and minor poet) by the name Aemilius Probus. It was only in the sixteenth century that Nepos reclaimed his status as the genuine author of the Lives.

The challenges posed by a redacted text like the Lives serve as a powerful reminder of the complex journey undertaken by almost every text that survives from antiquity. Apart from those few works that survive in ancient inscriptions or on papyri, most works of Classical antiquity are products of a perilous, often haphazard transmission from antiquity to modernity. Although written by Nepos, the Lives passed through the innumerable hands of copyists, editors, redactors, and scholars until they reached the form that we read today. At one point in the twelfth century, Nepos survived in only a single manuscript—that was how close Nepos came to oblivion. While we can and should ponder what has been lost and altered in the process, we can also marvel at the millennial undertaking that preserved (often just barely) the works of antiquity for readers in the modern age.

Other Works

Apart from The Lives of Foreign Commanders, only two complete works survive from Nepos’ voluminous writings: an innovative biography of his friend and contemporary Atticus (his longest biography) and a very concise summary of his biography of Cato the Elder, which was written at Atticus’ request. Excerpts of a letter from Cornelia, the mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, were transmitted with Nepos’ works. It is unclear if Nepos himself quoted these excerpts in a now lost work or if they were simply appended to Nepos’ works at some point by a later scribe.

In addition to the Lives, Nepos composed several other works, now lost:

  • Extensive biographies of Cato the Elder and Cicero in two books. A redacted version of the biography of Cato survives; Gellius mentions the biography of Cicero.8
  • Correspondence with Cicero, and we might assume other notable contemporaries.
  • The Chronica (Chronicle), a chronology in three books. The first work of Roman historiography not concerned exclusively with Roman or Italian history, it sought to synchronize the histories of Rome, Greece, and the Near East from the dawn of humanity down to Nepos’ time. Catullus’ knowledge of the work indicates that it must have been published before the poet’s death (ca. 54 BC), and probably some years earlier. Despite Catullus’ praise, the Chronica was soon eclipsed by Atticus’ more succinct Liber annalis (published in 47 BC; also lost).
  • The Exempla (Models), a compendium of moralizing historical anecdotes in at least five books, published after 43 BC.9 Designed to serve as a reference guide for orators and authors, it was perhaps the first work of its kind and was much imitated. Of Nepos’ works it was the most frequently cited in antiquity.
  • A treatise on geography, perhaps focused on the periphery of Europe and those areas settled by the Celts.10
  • A mysterious treatise on literary terminology, which included a discussion about literati, scholars who interpreted the works of poets.11
  • Love poems, perhaps in the neoteric style favored by Catullus and his friends. Pliny the Younger mentions Nepos’ poetry and his sterling character in a defense of his own decision to compose light poetry.12

Reputation in Antiquity and Beyond

Nepos was well‒respected as a historian and biographer throughout antiquity, and a hundred years after his death Pliny the Younger would rank Nepos as one of the most distinguished men from his hometown (wherever it was).13 The geographer Pomponius Mela cites Nepos as an authority for his assertion that the entire world was surrounded by ocean.14 Pliny the Elder believed he was a reliable source on geography from North Africa to Asia Minor to the Caspian Sea and preferred him to many other sources, although he also cautioned that Nepos was prone to believing fantastic stories.15 Pliny the Younger placed Nepos in the illustrious company of Ennius, the tragedian Accius, and Virgil as great authors who hailed from humble backgrounds.16 In late antiquity, Jerome would describe Nepos as “a famous writer of history” and “the most notable biographer”.17

Nepos long retained his reputation as an authoritative scholar. In the fifth or sixth century AD, an anonymous author began circulating a forged “true history” of the Trojan War. This forgery, The History of the Fall of Troy, purported to be an eyewitness account of the war by Dares, a minor Trojan priest mentioned in passing by Homer. Before the start of the History, the forger affixed a letter by “Nepos” to his friend, the historian Sallust. In this forged letter, “Nepos” claims to have rediscovered Dares’ work while conducting research in Athens. He immediately made “an exact translation into Latin, neither adding nor omitting anything, nor giving any personal touch” and forwarded his “word for word” translation to Sallust. The use of Nepos’ name to legitimize this forgery speaks to the authority that he continued to have as a scholar and researcher even in the waning decades of Classical antiquity.

Although the Romans admired Nepos for his wit, knowledge, and aesthetic judgment, many modern scholars have found fault with his Lives. What can explain the gap between his ancient reputation as a sophisticated author and the repetitive style—and not infrequent errors, omissions, and other blunders—that modern readers have detected in his work? First, we should remember that Nepos’ Lives were not works of original scholarship. Rather, they drew almost exclusively from previous sources for their information regarding historical figures. He did not aim to discover an accurate portrayal of historical truth, nor was he attempting to produce definitive and exhaustive biographies of his subjects. Nepos aimed instead to provide biographical sketches that revealed higher truths and eternal virtues. This is not to dismiss those errors that are present; but these should be assessed in light of Nepos’ goals and interests in undertaking his biographical project. Second, we should recognize that Nepos has been ill‒served by the section of the Lives that happened to survive. Of all his biographies, the exploits of foreign generals stood the furthest from his own training and personal experiences. Had the lost books detailing the more familiar lives of the Roman generals or those on Roman poets or orators survived, we might well have a different opinion of Nepos’ accuracy and judgment.

Friendships & Social Context

In Rome, Nepos devoted himself to his studies, avoiding the increasingly dangerous politics of the late republic. He forged durable friendships with several famous Romans: the politician Metellus Celer, the scholar Atticus, the statesman Cicero, and the poet Catullus. These relationships provide glimpses into Nepos’ life, as well as valuable information about the intellectual context for his writings.

The Caecilii Metelli

There is indirect evidence that Nepos enjoyed a close relationship with the Caecilii Metelli, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Rome. Nepos’ writings often display a special interest in commemorating the achievements of members of this family. And on several occasions Nepos maligned the decadent luxury of one of the family’s notorious political rivals: Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther. From the historian Pomponius Mela we learn that Nepos was a personal acquaintance of Metellus Celer, brother to Metellus Nepos and husband of the notorious Clodia (the lover of Catullus). According to Mela, Metellus Celer once told Nepos about the fantastic sea voyage endured by a group of Indian merchants. Carried all the way to northern Europe by a terrible storm, the Indians were captured by a local German chieftain, who then presented them as a gift to Celer.18 Nepos may have been a client of this powerful family, or his intellectual pursuits may have led to a more equal friendship with Celer. Regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, his association with this powerful family demonstrates Nepos’ access to the upper echelons of Roman society.

Atticus & Cicero

Soon after arriving in Rome, Nepos forged a lasting friendship with Titus Pomponius Atticus (ca. 109‒ca. 32 BC), the adopted son of Quintus Caecilius Metellus. Atticus was a close friend of Cicero and a distinguished patron of the literary arts in Rome. Nepos would compose a laudatory biography of Atticus (the longest of his works to survive) and dedicate several works to his friend, including the book of biographies that contains the Life of Hannibal. Atticus, who often goaded Cicero to attempt writing in new literary genres, convinced Nepos to write his Life of Cato and may likewise have encouraged Nepos to begin work on his innovative project of comparative biography.

It may have been through Atticus that Nepos met Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator. Like Nepos, Cicero had immigrated to Rome as a young man from a small Italian town. But unlike Nepos, Cicero had devoted himself to politics, becoming one of the central figures in the contentious partisan drama of the late republic. Despite their different dispositions, Nepos became one of Cicero’s more frequent correspondents—two books of letters from Cicero to Nepos were known in antiquity, although these are now lost.19 According to Aulus Gellius (ca. AD 125‒180), Nepos was “one of Cicero’s most intimate friends” (maxime amicus familiaris).20 Other evidence, however, points to a relationship that was more cordial than close.

Disagreement about the value of philosophy seems to have contributed to the tension between Cicero and Nepos. In 44 BC, when Atticus mentioned that Nepos was eager to read Cicero’s latest philosophical work, Cicero expressed his doubts about Nepos’ sincerity, since Nepos had previously disparaged Cicero’s philosophical works as merely a venue in which he could “display his pride”.21 While Cicero sought solace and wisdom from philosophy in the final years of his life, Nepos was skeptical that philosophy could be an “instructor of life” (magistram vitae). Nepos observed that the same philosophers who taught “most cunningly in the school about modesty and continence” were often those who lived the most hedonistic lives of luxury.22 For Nepos, good character was cultivated by observing and emulating virtuous behavior, not by abstract philosophizing.

Nepos’ friendship with Cicero illustrates the difficulties we face in attempting to reconstruct the life of the biographer. Since Cicero’s letters to Nepos have not survived, our best evidence about their relationship comes from passing comments that Cicero made to Atticus, who often acted as an intermediary between his two friends. For example, it was Atticus who informed Cicero that Nepos’ young son had passed away in 44 BC. Cicero expresses his sadness at Nepos’ loss, but also, in an obscure passage, claims that he was unaware of the child’s existence.23 Was the child so young that Cicero had not yet heard of his birth? Was their relationship more intellectual—based on debating points of literature, history, and philosophy—than personal? Or were Cicero and Nepos rarely in touch by this late point in Cicero’s life?

Other comments by Cicero are even more difficult to assess. Atticus once joked that he was inferior to Nepos just as Ajax was inferior to Achilles. Cicero corrected his friend, saying that Atticus was not second‒best but, was, like Achilles, the best of all men, while Nepos should be considered an “immortal”.24 Is Cicero suggesting that Nepos’ talents truly place him in another class? Or is Cicero making a now obscure joke at Nepos’ expense? Likewise, what could Cicero have meant in another letter when he chides Nepos, saying “to top it off you ambushed me with false gifts!” (hoc restituit a te fictis aggrederer donis!).25 Is Cicero’s indignation sincere? The pretentious introduction, the derogatory fictis, the unusual imperfect passive of aggrederer, and the surprising conclusion—what are “false gifts”?—suggest a semi‒serious or even jocular tone, as Cicero feigns annoyance with a close friend. But without context, we cannot be sure.

Despite the apparent coolness of their relationship, Nepos had enormous respect for Cicero’s political talents. He composed a lengthy (but sadly lost) biography for his friend. Reflecting on Cicero’s letters, Nepos effused that the statesman had “not only predicted the events that did take place during his life, but had even prophesized those events that are now coming to pass”.26 Nepos also greatly esteemed Cicero’s eloquence and praised his potential as a historian, going so far as to declare that Cicero’s murder had not only deprived Rome of a great statesman, but denied to Latin historiography the same polish and elegance that Cicero’s labors had furnished to oratory and philosophy. Cicero, in turn, respected Nepos’ aesthetic judgment and his knowledge of oratory and historical writing. After Cicero was assassinated, Nepos helped Atticus publish the statesman’s letters. Nepos would later say that these letters captured the truth of events better than any history.27


Nepos must have already earned a reputation as a learned historian by the 50s BC, when Catullus, the young poet and a fellow emigrant from northern Italy, dedicated a collection of his poems to the scholar (Catullus 1):

cui dono lepidum novum

“To whom do I give this modern, elegant booklet

arida modo pumice expolitum?

Just now polished with a dry pumice stone?

Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas

To you, Cornelius. For you were accustomed

meas esse aliquid putare nugas.

To think my trifles worthwhile.

Iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum

Even then, when you alone of all Italians dared

omne aevum tribus explicare cartis...

To unfold all of history in three scrolls…

Doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis!

Scholarly, by Jupiter, and full of effort!

Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli—

Therefore take this booklet, whatever it is,

qualecumque, quod, o patrona virgo,

And whatever it is worth, and, patron maiden,

plus uno maneat perenne saeclo!

Let it endure for more than one cycle.

Reading the poem, we learn that Nepos valued Catullus’ poetry in the past and that Catullus believes that Nepos will appreciate his latest effort. Catullus suggests that his poetry shares some affinities with Nepos’ (lost) Chronica, a concise universal history. Several phrases in Catullus’ dedicatory poem indicate that the poet was familiar with Nepos’ writings. Nepos was fond of characterizing the excellence of his subjects by noting that they were the only man (unus) to have accomplished some notable achievement. He also twice describes the process of the writing of history by using the verb explicare. These favorite terms influenced Catullus’ own praise of Nepos as the man who “alone of all Italians” (unus Italorum) had “dared to explain” Roman and Greek history (ausus es...explicare). The description of Nepos’ work as “scholarly” (doctis) engages a key interpretive term for Catullus, indicating a laudable talent for composing and appreciating works that flaunt specialized (or even arcane) knowledge of history, language and myth. Through these verbal echoes of Nepos’ work—and since so many of Nepos’ texts are now lost, there may well be more that are now obscure to us—Catullus further associates his poetry with his friend’s historical works.

Yet Catullus’ praise of Nepos is not without ambiguity: is Nepos’ history “full of effort” (laboriosis) because it is the laudable product of intense scholarship or because it is a chore to read—or perhaps both? For Catullus, labor need not suggest a lack of craftsmanship or pleasure. He describes his playful day spent composing poems with his friend Licinius as a labor.28 And he calls the Zmyrna—a dense, learned poem over which his friend Cinna labored for nine years—a “little monument” and a “personal favorite”.29

Whatever teasing ambiguity may animate the poem, Catullus’ decision to dedicate his collection to Nepos confirms the esteem that the poet had for the scholar. It also suggests that Nepos enjoyed a lofty reputation among Catullus’ Roman audience, since we would expect Catullus to dedicate his collection to a figure who would bring credit to his poetry. Their personal connection may have been strengthened by a mutual distaste for Mammura, Caesar’s sybaritic associate, whom Catullus reviled in several poems. Nepos also criticized Mamurra, observing that he was the first Roman to cover his walls with marble, an innovation that exhibited his “utter lack of class”.30 Many years later, Nepos would return the compliment of Catullus’ dedication by praising his deceased friend as one of the finest poets of his lifetime, ranking him as the equal of the magnificent didactic poet Lucretius.31

1 Pliny the Younger, Epistles 5.3.6.

2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4.28.

3 Jerome, Against John of Jerusalem 12.

4 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.137 and 10.60.

5 Nepos, Life of Atticus 6.1

6 Nepos, Life of Eumenes 8.2‒3.

7 Ibid., 8.3.

8 Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 15.28.2.

9 Charisius, Ars Grammatica, I 146K; Aulus Gellius, 6.18.11.

10 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3.4, 3.132, 4.77.

11 Suetonius, De grammaticis 4.

12 Pliny the Younger, Letters 5.3.6.

13 Ibid., 4.28.

14 Pomponius Mela, 3.44.

15 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.4.

16 Pliny the Younger, Letters 5.3.6.

17 Jerome, Chronicle 1977.

18 Pomponius Mela, 3.44.

19 Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.1.14; Suetonius, Julius 55.

20 Aulus Gellius, 15.28.2.

21 Cicero, Letters to Atticus 16.5.5.

22 Nepos’ criticisms of Cicero’s philosophical works were preserved by Christian authors who were always on the lookout for anecdotes that exposed the hypocrisy of pagan philosophers: Lactantius, Divine Institutes 3.15.10 and Augustine, Unfinished Work Against Julian 4.43.

23 Cicero, Letters to Atticus 16.14.4.

24 Ibid., 16.5.5.

25 Priscan, Institutes 8.4.17.

26 Nepos, Life of Atticus 16.4.

27 Fronto, Letter to Marcus 1.7; Nepos, Life of Atticus 16.3‒4.

28 Catullus 50.

29 Ibid., 95.

30 Pliny, Natural History 36.48.

31 Nepos, Life of Atticus 12.