Cornelius Nepos' Place in the Literary
Movements of the First Century B.C.1
W. Marshall Johnston, Jr.
Department of Latin
Bryn Mawr College
I. Introductory Remarks and Biography
Mention Cornelius Nepos to a classicist and often the best you'll get is a
disinterested sigh. Nepos is usually considered a simplistic writer suitable only for lower
level prose reading courses. In a good university library catalogue, the text editions of
Nepos, especially readers with a few Lives from the Outstanding Generals of Foreign
Peoples, outnumber the scholarly treatments at least ten to one. In this paper I will attempt
to analyze a side of Nepos not usually considered even by Latinists, but which has been
fundamental to my work and, I believe, accords closely with the theme of this Symposium.
I will begin by assessing some of the relevant ancient passages to establish what we know
about Nepos' own biography, and then I will introduce material from his own works and
those of others to place him in the literary context of his day.
First some background for those who might not be familiar with Cornelius Nepos.
He was a first century B.C. writer, probably from the equestrian order - that is, the non-political ruling class. He was considered by some to be the creator of political biography
and by many to be an innovator in other areas (e.g. the biography of a living man, a
synchronized universal history in Latin). He had some influence upon the biographical
writings of both Suetonius and Plutarch; Pliny and Aulus Gellius also used his works. We
possess one book of biographies, which appears to have been part of a sixteen-book set
called de Viris Illustribus, that is, On Famous Men. The work compared Romans and
foreigners, mainly Greeks, in different occupations. This extant book is about non-Roman
generals (the aforementioned Outstanding Generals of Foreign Peoples) - no other work of
Nepos survives completely intact. We do possess two Lives from a book in the same set
that dealt with Roman historians. We know he also wrote several books of Exempla, that
is, illustrative tales, and a three-book universal history called the Chronica.
I mentioned that Nepos lived in the first century B.C. - this is true, but the exact
date of his birth is widely debated. The primary testimonia (that is, ancient allusions to
Nepos' life) we must consult to sort out this problem come from St. Jerome. Jerome tells
us in his own Chronica (1977; 241 F) that the floruit (peak period) of Nepos' life was
around 40 B.C. Jerome tells us in another work that Nepos was present to hear the famed
orator M. Tullius Cicero's arguments pro Cornelio (Cicero's defense of a purportedly
Refert enim Cornelius Nepos se praesente iisdem paene verbis, quibus edita est,
eam pro Cornelio, seditioso tribuno, defensionem peroratam.
Cornelius Nepos says that he was present and Cicero delivered the defense of the
seditious tribune Cornelius in almost the same words in which it was published.
(Jerome, Contra Iohann. Ierosol. 12)
Thus, these two testimonia tell us Nepos was at least a young man in 65 B.C. (when the
Cornelius trial took place), and in some sense in his prime in 40. I think we would not be
far wrong to place his birth in the late 90s or early 80s. Other attempts rely on too little
evidence (N. Horsfall, for instance, places his birth all the way back to 110). This dating is
significant, since we see that he was very close in age to Catullus, who was almost
certainly born in the mid-80s - more on him immediately. Several fragments inform us
that Nepos died in the principate of Augustus, so after 27 B.C.
We have firm evidence for the place of Nepos' birth. The best testimonium comes
from a poem of the fourth-century poet Ausonius. In the introduction to his book of poetry
(which he dedicated to his son, Depanius), he calls Nepos the countryman of the poet C.
Inveni, trepidae silete nugae,
nec doctum minus et magis benignum,
quam quem Gallia praebuit Catullo.
I have come upon one, be silent fearful trifles, not less learned and more kind than
the one whom Gaul presented to Catullus.
(Ausonius, Eclogues 1.7-9)
We know that Catullus was from Cisalpine Gaul. We have enough evidence to make an
even more exact assessment of Nepos' birthplace. A letter of Pliny (4.28) calls him a
fellow townsman of Vibius Severus and Titus Catius. Cicero calls Catius an Insubrian. The
capital of the Insubrians was Mediolanum (modern Milan). It seems very likely, then, that
Nepos was born in the Cisalpine town of Mediolanum, which was large enough to have
produced these several important Roman figures.
Nepos was a Cisalpine by birth, but he probably spent most of his adult life in
Rome. One fragment (contained in Pliny 33.146) suggests that he knew the fashions after
the return of Sulla (the late 80s, when he was probably in his teens at the oldest). We have
seen that he was present in the mid-sixties for the trial of Cornelius. He seems to have also
been present for the aedileship of L. Cornelius Spinther in 63. He knew of and took
interest in the activities of a rather ostentatious man called Mamurra in the early fifties. We
know that he was in Rome in the thirties, for he shows acquaintanceship with T.
Pomponius Atticus (the Roman editor, financier and friend of Cicero) during that period.
Thus, it is reasonable to assume that Nepos spent most of his adult life in Rome.
Having set out these general biographical facts, I will next turn to a brief review of
what we know about his associations among the Romans of his day. Catullus' own
dedication shows that the poet had contact with Nepos, and Nepos in turn mentions
Catullus (favorably) in his Life of Atticus. Nepos in addition relates a story told to him by
Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer, husband of Clodia (thought to be Catullus' poetic love
Lesbia). This association suggests that Catullus and Nepos moved in the same social
group. Nepos' correspondence with Cicero published in (at least) two books makes him in
the top four most frequent correspondents of Cicero (of whom we know). We possess
hints of a spirited exchange and mutual criticism between them. In his Life of Atticus
Nepos mentions that he attended parties at Atticus' house, and certainly the depth of the
account suggest they were close: Nepos knows details of Atticus' education and personal
interactions. Nepos also says Atticus encouraged him to expand the Cato (one of the two
surviving works from the Roman Historians). The Outstanding Generals of Foreign
Peoples is dedicated to Atticus.
II. Nepos and Neotericism
These facts provide a background to the main focus of this talk: Nepos and first-
century B.C. literature. Nepos is mainly viewed as an innovator (e.g. by J. Geiger) or as a
conservative (e.g. by J.P. Elder). Surely these two views are not of necessity opposites
(and indeed the opposing view is supported in each case), but nonetheless they show the
difficulty scholars have had in understanding him. Only T.P. Wiseman has attempted to
treat Nepos directly in terms of the literature of his day (other than the obligatory comments
from other writers about the development of biography), and I do not feel he has gone far
enough. He delineates some ways in which Catullus and Nepos have similar literary goals,
but I believe there is more to uncover. I think we must acknowledge that Cornelius Nepos
was in his day a significant literary figure acting in at least one movement that was
relatively new to Rome, but nonetheless centuries old. We will now turn to Nepos,
Catullus, and Neotericism.
While the de Viris Illustribus is the only one of Nepos' works of which a large
quantity survives, it was the Chronica which Catullus mentioned in the dedication to his
book of poetry (note especially lines 3-7):
Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas
iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis.
Quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque; quod, (o) patrona virgo,
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.
To whom am I to present my pretty new book, freshly smoothed off with dry
pumice stone? To you, Cornelius: for you used to think that my trifles were worth
something, long ago, when you took courage, you alone of the Italians, to set forth
the whole history of the world in three volumes, learned volumes, by Jupiter, and
laboriously wrought. So take and keep for your own this little book, such as it is,
and whatever it is worth; and may it, o virgin my patroness, live and last for more
than one century. [Translation by F.W.Cornish]
This is the dedicatory poem in one of the first and greatest Neoteric treatises.2 What do we
mean by saying that Catullus' work is Neoteric? The word is derived from scant Classical
evidence. When it is used by Cicero, it is with a derisive connotation. We use it to mean
certain Roman poets who took their lead from the poetry of the Alexandria of a few
centuries earlier. They especially followed the Alexandrian poet Callimachus, who reacted
against the traditional epic style of his day in the direction of learned, digressive tales.
What do we know about the relationship of Catullus and Nepos from this poem?
Catullus offers his book of poetry to Nepos, who was his contemporary and countryman.
Nepos we find, has praised his work before (in Nepos' Atticus we find such praise - he
views Catullus and Lucretius [author of the de Rerum Natura] as the great poets of the last
fifty years). This dedication is often taken as pure sarcasm, with Catullus poking fun at a
pedant who undertook a non-Callimachean "epic" project (Nepos' compendious Chronica).
In fact, I'm certain that there is an element of irony -- Callimachus has clearly told us in his
prologue to the Aitia (his greatest work) that it is Zeus who thunders; Callimachus is more
subtle. Catullus calls upon that deity, as Iuppiter, in his "awe" at Nepos' work. However, I
believe the irony is embedded in an erudite conversation between Neoterics.
There are obvious ways Catullus marks Nepos' work as Neoteric. He describes it
as doctus and laboriosus. The adjective doctus is linguistically related to doctrina, the
ability to write in a learned fashion, which was one of the greatest Neoteric ideals.3 One's
work should always reflect a deep knowledge, and it should call upon out-of-the-way
stories. This doctrina, in Catullus as in Nepos, combines the historical, mythological and
legendary - Nepos tells us (in the Life of Cato 4) that Cato did not have doctrina in his
history. However, in the Chronica, for example, Nepos showed his doctrina by starting
with the reign of Saturn; in the de Viris Illustribus he includes Trojan War material in the
background of one of his biographies. Another aspect of Nepos' doctrina may be that he
too looked to a Greek model for his work.4
While labeling the work laboriosus may be Catullus' way of taking a jab at the
difficulty of Nepos' work, there is also the unmistakable connotation that Nepos has
produced this work with much effort. We know from fragments that his work included
digressions on etymology, geography and ethnography, as well as intricate synchronization
of events. Working long hours by lamplight in the process of refining one's work - as in
the first lines of this poem - was an important process to Neoterics. They valued work of
the file, labor limae, very highly. I believe, with T.P. Wiseman, that to Catullus there is not
much distance between history and poetry in these regards.5
There are also verbal pointers to Nepos' own work within Catullus' dedication.
Nepos twice in the extant de Viris Illustribus refers to history writing with the verb
explicare (once in the prologue to the Outstanding Generals of Foreign Peoples), and this is
the word that Catullus uses of Nepos' method of composition. It picks up on the idea of
"disentangling," "unfolding," or "spreading out." The de Viris Illustribus was published
much later than Catullus' poetry, but I believe Nepos' mode of literary self-expression in it
must be similar to his style in the other works, at least one of which Catullus saw. Indeed,
Catullus may have seen preliminary Lives in the fifties, and alluded to their style in his
The most important verbal reflection in the dedication is Catullus' characterization
of Nepos as unus Italorum ("the only one of the Italians"). It emphasizes his unique status,
as does the ausus es... ("you dared..."). This phrase, evocative of an unus ille vir concept
found in Cicero (that is, the one man who can save the state; found also in Ennius), is a
reflection of Nepos' regular use of such phrases to qualify his heroes. Surely a reader of
Nepos could not have missed this allusion!
Miltiades, for instance, is described in the de Viris Illustribus as unus omnium ("the
only one of all") to have his particular collection of virtues (1). He also was unus in trying
to turn a camp against the Persians (4). Likewise Themistocles (twice: 4, 5), Aristides (1)
and Cimon (3) each stand out as unus in their own way in the Greek state. The only one of
the first five figures in the de Viris Illustribus not to be described in this way is Pausanias,
who is not Athenian and does not receive the praise the Athenians do. Nepos uses both the
unus and explicare terminology prominently as we can see, and this is only one book of
one of his works.
There is a major aspect of Nepos' Neotericism that I believe has been overlooked: it
is his use of out-of-the-way stories and figures. "Avoid the well-worn road" is the
Callimachean imperative. Nepos tends to shun the master narrative. Not only does he treat
lesser-known historians (Philistus, for example) and generals (Iphicrates over Perikles) in
his Lives, but he often selects unusual stories in the Lives of the more famous individuals. He will ignore well-known narratives, such as Hannibal's campaigns in Italy, to relate in detail a complex trick. This kind of unusual retelling was very popular with Neoterics, who
followed in the footsteps of Callimachus' Hecale, in which he told the story of Theseus and
the Bull of Marathon mostly through a chance meeting on a journey.
There is another way we should associate Nepos with the Neoterics - while he is
often treated by scholars as a stodgy old man, we know that he wrote light verse with his
friends. Pliny, defending himself against more serious contemporaries (Epistle 5.3.6), puts
Nepos' name among other significant individuals in this genre, including the most famous
Roman poet, Vergil. Nepos emerges through this association as much more of an insider,
joking at dinner parties, than has previously been noted.
Catullus' dedication is a good way to get at a major tenet of Neoterics: one should
know a lot, but wear learning lightly. Catullus' claims his works are nugae, similar to
Nepos' trifles at the dinner party. I believe that this ethic - not taking one's own work too
seriously - was probably a major motivating factor for Nepos. Specifically, his work is
not "over the heads" of the general public. His de Viris Illustribus is written, he says, for
people to understand the Greeks better and to appreciate their culture by comparison to
Roman figures and institutions. He does not write an inaccessible treatise for a few. This
objective is in accord with the concept of wearing learning lightly. Nepos knows a great
deal, as we can see from the fragments of his Exempla and Chronica, but a major objective
of his is to make some of that knowledge accessible to a Greekless audience.
Nepos' correspondence with Cicero, to my mind, bolsters this view. In one
fragment (preserved in Lactantius Div. Inst. 3.15.10), Nepos goes on a tirade about how
philosophers are the last ones to live up to the philosophy they preach:
Tantum abest, ut ego magistram esse putem vitae philosophiam beataeque vitae
perfectricem, ut nullis magis existimem opus esse magistros vivendi quam
plerisque, qui in ea disputanda versantur. Video enim magnam partem eorum, qui
in schola se pudore et continentia praecipiant argutissime, eosdem in omnium
libidinum cupiditatibus vivere
It is so far from me to think the philosophy is the mistress of life and the perfector
of a blessed existence that I think no one has more need of masters of living than
those who are involved in disputing these things. For I see that a great part of those
who teach most cunningly in the school on modesty and continence, those same
ones live with desires for all pleasures.
Augustine also has a story from Nepos of how philosophers can be the most hypocritical
(op. imperf. contra Iulianum 4.43). Again, this is the common touch. Also we see Nepos
judging eminent savants harshly. This judgment is similar to Neoterics' rejection of the
traditional epic. Nepos calls on Romans to reappraise traditional values, and gives the
ammunition to do it.
I mentioned that Nepos is perceived as conservative by some scholars. This
perception mainly derives from the fragments of his works dealing with sumptuary matters,
in which he often seems judgmental. I believe his attitude toward luxuries is part of the
populism seen in the last two examples. If we may judge from the fragments, he
consistently rails against the indulgent wealthy, but is concerned in documenting these
sybaritic trends. For example, his attack on Mamurra is preserved in Pliny NH 36.48:
Primum Romae parietes crusta mamoris operuisse totos domus suae in Caelio
monte Cornelius Nepos tradit Mamurram, Formiis natum, equitem Romanam,
praefectum fabrum C. Caesaris in Gallia, ne quid indignati desit, tali auctore inventare.
The first man in Rome to cover with marble veneer whole walls of his house,
which was on the Caelian hill, was according to Cornelius Nepos Mamurra, a
Roman knight and native of Formiae, who was Julius Caesar's chief engineer in
Gaul. That such a man should have sponsored the invention is enough to make it
He has left pages of fragments about wine and fruit, fish and fowl. The principle foci of his
anger are his contemporaries L. Cornelius Spinther and C. Mamurra. He appears to
consider the opulence of these men as reprehensible as it is irresistible, and these views are
woven into the fabric of his Neoteric doctrine.
If we try to place Nepos in only one of the literary movements of the first century
B.C., we will fail to acquire the whole picture. The are other aspects of literature in the first
century we must consider to understand Nepos. He esteemed Atticus and was a part, in
some ways, of the same movement as his friend. Atticus, we know, published a Liber
Annalis (a year-by-year history). In fact, Cicero said it was critical for his own work. This
comprehensive list of events in Roman history must have been akin to the Chronica,
though Nepos apparently had a Greek model (Apollodorus) for the full work. The success
of this sort of work by Nepos must have been why Atticus encouraged him in his histories.
These histories, as well as Nepos' Exempla, were also part of another trend in
Rome. Nepos and Atticus shared antiquarian interests. They were interested in the histories
of families and social institutions. Nepos pursued the family lines of the great Greek
generals and the origin of archaic Roman laws. In addition, he tried to explain foreign
customs such as the Persian proskunesis, that is, doing obeisance before royalty (in the
Conon 3) The greatest antiquarian of the day was M. Terentius Varro, who wrote the
Hebdomades or de Imaginibus as an accumulation of such stories, which even compared
Greeks and Romans. There was a tendency to separate the methods of history from
antiquarianism in the late Republic, but I believe both were in the arsenal of Nepos.
In placing Nepos in the literature of his day, I should note that posterity
emphatically affirmed his importance. Jerome included him in a short list of great writers in
the de Viris Illustribus genre (in the introduction to his own work in the same genre and of
the same name [Jerome's work concerned Christian writers]). Likewise, Nepos was one of
two authors whose works were given to a prominent family, the Probi, in the fourth
century A.D. by Ausonius. These later generations understood that Nepos was a major
literary figure. We have seen here that, in the absence of so many of his works, Nepos'
significance becomes clearer to us in the context of the Neoteric and Antiquarian
movements of his day.
1. The idea for this paper arose during the course of my dissertation research on Cornelius Nepos' de Viris
Illustribus under the direction of Dr. T. Corey Brennan. He bears no responsibility for errors or inaccuracies.
2. There are major textual disputes about lines 2 and 9, but the first does not effect the argument here, and
the second barely touches on it.
3. We see the use of this adjective in Neoteric phrases such as docta puella and doctus poeta.
4. Apollodorus is thought to be his model for the Chronica, the Greek peri Endoxon Andron genre seems to
lie behind the de Viris Illustribus.
5. There is a further similarity between the works of the two men: Catullus tells us that Nepos' Chronica
was written in three books; based on number of lines and styles of the poems, it seems very likely that
Catullus' poetry was also intended to be read in three volumes.
Works cited in this paper:
Elder, J.P. "Catullus I, His Poetic Creed, And Nepos." HSCP 71 (1967), 143-149.
Geiger, J. Cornelius Nepos and Ancient Political Biography. Stuttgart 1985.
Horsfall, N. Cornelius Nepos. Oxford 1989.
Wiseman, T.P. Clio's Cosmetics. Leicester 1979.
Return to Symposium Home Page