Notes and essays by Bret Mulligan
Life of Nepos: 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."1
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."2 Nepos perceived the same troubling loss of discipline among Rome's veterans, whom he feared would "ruin everything by their intemperance and excessive licentiousness, both those that they support and those that they fight."3 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.
1. Nepos, Life of Atticus 6.1
2. Nepos, Eumenes 8.2–3.
3. Nepos, Eumenes 8.2–3.