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Cornelius Nepos: Lives of Eminent Commanders (1886).  Preface to the online edition

Life of Cornelius Nepos

Nepos lived in the first century BC.  Pliny the Elder twice refers to him as dying in the principate of Augustus (Natural History, ix.137; x.60), and he seems to have lived from around 99BC to around 24BC.  We know from his own words that he outlived Atticus, who died in 32 BC, and that he lived to an advanced age.

The praenomen of Cornelius Nepos is unknown.  Pliny the Elder speaks of him as Padi accola (NH. iii.127), and we know that he was born in that part of Cisalpine Gaul which took its name from the Insubres (Pliny the Younger, Letters. iv.28.1; cf. Cicero, Letters ad fam. xv.16.1).  It has been inferred from this that he most likely was born in ancient Ticinum, today known as Pavia.

He lived in Rome, but we learn from Pliny the Younger that he was not of senatorial rank (Lett. v.3.6).  He exchanged letters with Cicero (Macrobius, Saturnalia ii.1.14; Suetonius Julius 55; etc).  Catullus dedicated a book of poems to him (Catullus 1).  In his correspondence, Fronto suggests that, like Atticus, Nepos was a publisher as well as a writer (i. p.169, Loeb).


Nepos wrote a considerable amount, but little has come down to us.  The following items are known to us from references in other writers.

Our text is an extract of De viris illustribus.  We have the entire book De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium -- on foreign generals -- plus two lives from De Historicis Latinis.  There are also some fragments.

In the past, De excellentibus ducibus was attributed to Aemilius Probus, a grammarian of the period of Theodosius II (AD 408-450), since an epigram of his appears in some of the manuscripts, after the life of Hannibal, and followed in A and P by an explicit "Aemilii Probi de excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium liber explicit."  However, various passages indicate the author lived at the end of the Republic and start of the Principate (e.g. xviii.8.2; xvii.4.2; viii.2.4), and the resemblances in language and style to the other two lives, which come down to us under the name of Cornelius Nepos, are so substantial as to leave no doubt that they share the same author.  Probus seems to have been the author of a collection of selected lives from Nepos.

The work was published before Atticus died, ca. 35 or 34 BC.  A second edition appeared before 27 BC with additional material in the life of Atticus.  The date is given by the fact that Augustus is everywhere referred to as Caesar, not under the title of Augustus conferred in 27BC.

According to his own statement (xvi.1.1) Nepos wrote biography, not history.  The lives were addressed to the general public (praef.1-7; xv.1.1).  There are obvious links of genre to the parallel lives of Plutarch.  


After late antiquity, knowledge of Nepos disappeared.   However a single manuscript of Nepos seems to have survived the middle ages:

Two direct copies of it were made:

Further manuscripts:

A large number of late copies exist, of which these are a few, listed in the Loeb.

The Utrecht edition of 1542 also has independent value.

All the existing codices have the same lacuna at vi.2.3, and a number of obvious errors in common, and so are all descended from a single manuscript.  This is assumed to be a minuscule, not earlier than the eleventh century.  


This translation of Nepos by the Rev. John Selby Watson, MA was found in the same volume as Eutropius and Justin, and has been added to the collection for completeness.  However the Bohn text did not include a translation of the fragments.  I have obtained the Latin text in the Loeb edition, and created a public domain English translation.



E.S.FORSTER, Lucius Annaeus Florus: Epitome of Roman History, and John C. ROLFE, The Book of Cornelius Nepos on the Great Generals of Foreign Nations, Loeb edition, Harvard University Press (1929).  I have used his introduction extensively for these notes, but have also verified Pliny the Younger and Suetonius.

L.D.REYNOLDS (Ed.), Texts and Transmissions: A survey of the Latin Classics. Oxford University Press (1983).  The Nepos article is by P.K.MARSHALL.

P.K.MARSHALL, The manuscript tradition of Cornelius Nepos, BICS suppl. 37.  London (1977) (Not seen).

P.K.MARSHALL, Cornelii Nepotis Vitae cum Fragmentis, Leipzig (1977). (Not seen).

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2003.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
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