The Biographical Tradition in Greece and Rome

Nepos may well have been the first author to produce a collection of biographies on different professionals. This innovative project, however, drew on a rich tradition of Greek and Roman authors who had praised famous men—and the rare woman. Today, biography is generally expected to provide a full and detailed account of a person's life, from birth to death (or at least up to the present). In antiquity, the genre of biography was slow to coalesce and encompassed a range of approaches, styles, and traditions, many of which left traces on Nepos' varied collection. Of course, the deeds of a person's life, his upbringing, and motivations are intrinsic components of any historical account t moves beyond a simple recitation of events to describe people in action. Nevertheless, it is biography's focus on the experiences of a single, extraordinary individual rather than a collective or cooperative event that differentiates biography from other forms of historical writing. 

The origins of biography as a distinct genre can be found in Classical Greece. Biographical elements feature prominently in the writings of Plato and Xenophon, in particular those that deal with the trial and death of their mentor, Socrates. Several of Xenophon's other works reveal a keen interest in commemorating the exemplary characters of extraordinary individuals. In his biographical novel, The Education of Cyrus, Xenophon creates an idealized portrait of a Persian king by documenting Cyrus' ancestry, upbringing, and the events of his youth. Xenophon also composed a biographical eulogy for his friend, the Spartan king Agesilaus, in which he recounts Agesilaus' life in chronological order before concluding with an extensive catalogue of the king's manifold virtues. 

Aristotle never wrote biography, but his work on ethics—or those principles that guide a person's behavior—inspired a host of authors to explore the qualities that are distinctive to an individual's character. Some of these authors catalogued the types of characters that appeared in literature; others sought insights about the characters of great philosophers and poets. During the period of scholarly experimentation in the fourth and third centuries BC, many Greek authors composed works that were essentially biographical in nature, often with the aim of exposing the truth about a figure's character. Only fragments of works by these Hellenistic authors—e.g. Sotion, who wrote thirteen books on the succession of teachers and their pupils in the various philosophical schools—survive. In what remains, however, we can discern the essential features that would come to define the genre of biography: utilization of multiple sources in determining the truth about a person's character, which was revealed by assessing their behavior and lifestyle often through the evidence of minor anecdotes rather than the great achievements that would be the focus of a proper historical account. 

The Hellenistic period also witnessed a sustained interest in three quite different men: Alexander the Great, Homer, and Aesop, the writer of fables. While scholars focused their attention on the lives of generals, philosophers, and poets, many anecdotes about the members of this larger-than-life trio evolved through a symbiotic relationship between folk tradition and scholarship, in which a democratic, oral or sub-literary tradition of storytelling provided material that scholars would elaborate and correct. Meanwhile, biographical writing about "great men," which had long been a subordinate component of the writing of history, began to take on a more central role in the historiographical projects of many authors. The fourth-century historian Theopompus was praised for examining "even the hidden reasons for actions and the motives of their agents, and the feelings in their hearts."1  The historian Polybius, who composed a lost work on the general and statesman Philopoemen, would even claim that elucidating the upbringing and character of important figures was more vital to his goals as a historian than traditional subjects, such as the founding of cities.2  

If Greek literature provided Nepos with a variety of models for describing the lives of famous men, Roman aristocratic families had long fostered the commemoration of their worthy ancestors. Of particular importance for the development of Roman biography were the laudationes funebres, the "graveside eulogies" that extolled the achievements of the deceased and the glories of his prestigious ancestors. Rome's relentless climate of political competition also promoted a vibrant tradition of autobiographical writing by ambitious Romans, who sought to spread word of their successes—and excuse their failures. Among the over six hundred works composed by Varro (116–27 BC) were two autobiographies and a biographical work on poets. Nepos may have been inspired to juxtapose illustrious Greeks and Romans in different professions by Varro's Imagines, a compilation of seven hundred portraits of philosophers, poets, kings, dancers, and other famous men. Each portrait seems to have been accompanied by a short epigram and commentary in prose. Nepos' biographies doubtlessly owe a great deal to these earlier efforts by Greek and Roman authors. The existence of models and influences, however, should not diminish the achievement of the Lives, which refashioned Greek and Roman history and culture through the lens of biography, while elevating Roman achievements to the same level of prestige enjoyed by the luminaries of Greece.

Why Write Biography?

What motivated Nepos to undertake this innovative project? Unlike historians, who sought to commemorate the great achievements of previous generations and to provide examples of past successes and failures to help generals and statesmen navigate analogous situations in the present, ancient biographers focused on providing a moral education for their readers. By reading about the amazing exploits and remarkable virtues of great men, Roman readers would be inspired to conduct themselves with honor and to strive towards similar greatness. Character would be trained through the study of character. Biography, therefore, had an intrinsic value for all readers, no matter how humble, as they could observe examples of noble or iniquitous action and model their behavior accordingly, even if the circumstances of their lives were more limited than those experienced by the most preeminent figures in a given profession. As Nepos observes in his Life of Timotheus, the greatness of a military triumph is self-evident, but such achievements cannot be fully appreciated unless their causes are explored.3 Nepos, however, did not seek causes in the grand patterns of history or culture as a historian might. Instead Nepos believed that "a man's character fashions his fate" (sui cuique mores fingunt fortunam hominibus).4  

It was for the same reason that the Greek biographer Plutarch (ca. 40–120 CE), Nepos' successor in composing parallel lives of Greek and Roman statesmen, justifies his decision to write biography rather than history: 

…in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.5 

It is this, the "full picture of a man's character and life" (imaginem consuetudinis atque vitae), that has the potential to transform impressive achievements into educational examples.6  Of course biography also offers the inherent pleasure in reading about the great adventures and rare achievements of great men, often undertaken in exotic locations. It is no surprise that today biography remains among the most popular and best-selling genres of non-fiction.

Cornelius Nepos: Vitae imperatorum, sive De vita illustrium virorum. Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 8 Mar. 1471. Opening page of main text

Nepos and Non-Roman Cultures

To seek out the best lessons of noble conduct, Nepos decided that he would not restrict his study to notable Romans; instead, he would present the noble characters of Romans and foreigners alike. Evaluating the morality and virtue of foreigners, however, presented a challenge for Nepos and his contemporary Roman readers. As he observes in the Prologue to his biographies of foreign commanders, customs differ between nations, since they arise from different "national traditions" (maiorum instituta). Consequently, Nepos warns that his readers should not be shocked to see illustrious foreigners engaging in behavior that would seem scandalous or reprehensible if undertaken by a Roman. Despite Nepos' protestations, the cultural differences raised by Nepos are inevitably trivial. Indeed, cultural difference is an illusion: "the nature of all states is the same" (eandem omnium civitatum esse naturam).7  A Greek might dance or play the flute or marry his half-sister, but all good men—Greek, Roman, or even Carthaginian—display intelligence, courage, and loyalty, and so reveal themselves as suitable models for the behavior of even the most upright Roman reader. 

Nepos' Audience

In his concise biographies, Nepos focuses our attention on those episodes in which his subjects exhibit their exemplary qualities. The biographies of commanders, however, posed a special challenge for the biographer. Hannibal's chief virtue, in the estimation of Nepos, was his prudentia, or military brilliance. But lengthy descriptions of battlefield tactics, detailed accounts of troop maneuvers, and the quotation of rousing pre-battle speeches were appropriate topics for history, not biography. Indeed, Nepos expressed anxiety that biography was ever at risk of morphing into history. Speaking of the general Pelopidas, he says, "I fear that if I were to detail his exploits, I will no longer seem to be recounting his life, but writing history" (ne non vitam eius enarrare, sed historiam videar scribere, 1). Nepos, therefore, elaborates well-chosen anecdotes to illustrate Hannibal's virtue. Thus we read about his cunning ruse to conceal his wealth from rapacious Cretans; how he deployed tactical oxen to elude a pursuing army (they had flaming bundles of sticks affixed between their horns); and the weaponized jars of snakes he used to defeat a superior naval force, while his stunning victories at TrebiaTrasimene, and Cannae are only mentioned in passing. To do any more would risk violating the spirit of Nepos' project and his attempt to carve out a distinctive identity for biography in Roman literature.

Nepos' simple style can be attributed to the audience for whom he wrote. He claims that he was not writing for other historians, but instead for the "general public" (vulgus).8 Because such readers did not know Greek, they had little or no access to the history of the world that Rome had conquered or to biographies about the non-Romans who had shaped it. Nepos admits that some critics will find his biographies "trivial" (leve) and "unworthy" (non satis dignum) of the great men that they seek to immortalize.9  But Nepos' simple style would permit any literate Roman to learn about the characters of these great men. His project, therefore, sought to harness historical figures for the moral education of a non-elite audience. Lest we underestimate his original audience, we should note that Nepos is rarely heavy-handed when holding up one of his subjects to praise or blame. Avoiding explicit moralizing comments, Nepos instead deploys anecdotes to suggest proper behavior. Since his work targeted non-elite readers through simple, concise language, it should come as no surprise that editors in late antiquity found his biographies worthy of reproduction and dissemination. And so six centuries after their composition, Nepos still found an eager new audience for his biographies, one that would ensure that at least some of his writings would survive to be read in turn by you, over two millennia after Nepos first conceived of his project.

1. Theopompus, 6 (Usher trans).

2. Polybius, 10.21.4.

3. Nepos, Life of Timotheus 4.5-6.

4. Nepos, Life of Atticus 11.6.

5. Plutarch, Introduction to the Lives of Alexander and Caesar (Perrin trans.).

6. Nepos, Life of Epamonidas 1.3-4.

7. Nepos, Life of Miltiades 6.

8. Nepos, Life of Pelopidas 1.

9. Nepos, Preface 1.