Cornelius Nepos : Translator's Introduction

Introduction to the translation by J.C. Rolfe (1929).


  The Life and Works of Cornelius Nepos   

  p355 Cornelius Nepos (his praenomen is unknown) was bom in Cisalpine Gaul, the native land of Catullus, Vergil Livy and the Plinys. The elder Pliny speaks of him as Padi accola, and since we know that he was a native of that part of Cisalpine Gaul which took its name from the Insubres, it has been conjectured that his birthplace was Ticinum, the modern Pavia.   

  The dates of his birth and death are not known with certainty. He appears to have lived from about 99 to about 24 B.C. ; for we know that he survived Atticus, who died in 32 B.C., and that he lived to an advanced age. The elder Pliny twice refers  to "Cornelius Nepos, qui divi Augusti principatu obiit."    

  Nepos took up his residence in Rome early and spent the greater part of his life there. He seems to have had an independent fortune and to have devoted his entire attention to literary work. He apparently took no part in political life; at least, we know from one of Pliny's letters that he was not of senatorial rank. He exchanged letters with Cicero and he p356 was intimate with Atticus after the latter's return from Athens in 65 B.C. Catullus dedicated a book of poems to him in complimentary lines.   

  A reference of Fronto seems to indicate that Nepos, like his friend Atticus, was a publisher, as well as a writer, of books.   

  Nepos was a prolific author in several branches of literature. The greater part of his works has been lost and is known to us only through references of other writers. The list is as follows:   


  Of this work we have the entire book De Excellentibus Ducibus Exterarum Gentium, and two lives from the book De Historicis Latinis, besides a few fragments. The former was for a long time believed to be the work of Aemilius Probus, a grammarian of the time of Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450) on account of an epigram of his which appears in some of the manuscripts after the Life of Hannibal.   

  It reads as follows: 
  Vade, liber, nostri fato meliore memento; 
   Cum leget haec dominus, te sciat esse meum. 
   Nec metuas fulvo strictos diademate crines, 
   Ridentes blandum vel pietate oculos. 
   p358 Communis cunctis hominem, sed regna tenere 
   Se meminit; vincit hinc magis ille homines. 
   Ornentur steriles fragili tectura libelli; 
   Theodosio et doctis carmina nuda placent. 
   Si rogat auctorem, paulatim detege nostrum 
   Tunc domino nomen; me sciat esse Probum. 
   Corpore in hoc manus est genitoris avique meaque; 
   Felices, dominum quae meruere, manus.    

  "Go forth, my book, and under a better destiny be mindful of me. When my Lord shall read this, let him know that you are mine. Fear not the golden diadem that binds his locks, his eyes smiling with kindness and goodness. Gracious to all, he remembers that he is a mortal man, but a man who rules an empire; thus he binds men the closer. Let the frail covering of useless books be adorned, but to Theodosius and the cultured unadorned songs are pleasing. If he ask for the author, then gradually reveal my name to my Lord. Let him know that I am Probus. In this work is the hand of my father, my grandfather and myself. Happy the hands that have found favour with my Lord."   

  As early as the sixteenth century it was shown that the author of the book on Great Generals must have belonged to the later days of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Furthermore, the resemblances in language and style to the lives of Cato p359 and Atticus, which have come down to us under the name of Cornelius Nepos, are so great as to leave no doubt that they are the work of the same writer. Aemilius Probus, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father, was apparently the editor of a collection of Selected Lives from the De Viris Illustribus of Nepos.   

  The entire work was published before the death of Atticus in 32 B.C., probably in 34 or 35. At some time before 27 B.C. a second edition was issued, in which the brief extract On Kings and the lives of Datames, Hamilcar and Hannibal seem to have been added to the existing collection and additions made to the biography of Atticus. Thus the first edition contained only Greeks and Romans.   

  According to his own statement, Nepos wrote biography and not history, and it is as the oldest existing biographical work that has come down to us under the name of its author that the surviving part of the De Viris Illustribus may claim a modest place in the history of literature. The lives were addressed to the general public rather than to scholars, and their purpose was to entertain and at the same time point a moral. They therefore should, and in the majority of instances do, belong to the Peripatetic type, represented by the Parallel Lives of Plutarch. Nepos falls far short of Plutarch as a biographer; he preceded him in comparing Romans with foreigners, although in this method of gratifying Roman national p360 pride he had himself been anticipated by Varro and other writers of the period.   

  Nepos was not skilled in the art of composition, and as a result his work presents a combination of nearly all possible types of biography. Besides the Peripatetic biographies we have brief summaries in the Alexandrine-philological manner ( Cimon, Canon, Iphicrates, Chabrias and Timotheus ), and eulogies ( encomia or laudationes ) either in an approximation to the conventional form taught in the schools of rhetoric and based on the virtues of the hero ( Epaminondas ), or with a superficial resemblance to the Agesilaus of Xenophon and based upon the hero's exploits ( Agesilaus ). The Atticus, which is also a eulogy, is unique in being originally written of a person who was still living; after his death, as has been said, it was somewhat changed. It is in the main of the type represented by Xenophon's Agesilaus and the brief laudation of Germanicus in Suetonius' Caligula.   

  Nepos writes as a rule in the "plain style. His vocabulary is limited, and he expresses himself ordinarily in short sentences. The results of rhetorical training are shown in his attempts to adorn his narrative, especially, although not consistently, in more elevated passages, when he depicts the virtues of his heroes or puts speeches into their mouths. He occasionally attempts long periods, but p361 is obviously not at home in them. His principal rhetorical devices are rhythmical clausulae, alliteration and antithesis. The last-named figure is used to such excess that his sentences are frequently overloaded at the beginning, and end weakly. Although he was a contemporary of Caesar and Cicero, his Latinity belongs with that of Varro and the writers of the supplements to Caesar's Civil War. He has some archaisms, numerous colloquial words and expressions, and some words that are common to him and writers of a later date. He has little variety in his diction; in particular he uses nam and enim to an extent which taxes the ingenuity of a translator. He is also fond of the pronoun hic, probably owing to the influence of the Alexandrine biographers.   

  Although Nepos makes direct mention of Thucydides, Xenophon's Agesilaus, Plato's Symposium, Theopompus, Dinon, Timaeus, Silenus, Sosylus, Polybius, Sulpicius Blitho, Atticus and the writings of Hannibal, it is obvious that he rarely, if ever, made first-hand use of those authorities. The material which he needed for his Greek subjects was available in the biographical literature of that country, such as the works of Antigonus of Carystus, Hermippus and Satyrus. In the biographies of Romans, which are lost except for the Cato and the Atticus, he may have depended to a greater extent on historical sources, although he had predecessors in Varro and Santra.   

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