Like Atticus, Varro, and the other Roman polymaths who lived during the late republic, Nepos was a prolific author who wrote in many genres. In addition to his collection of biographies, he composed poetry and wrote works on history, geography, and rhetoric. Nepos is credited with several literary "firsts." One of these arose by chance: he is the first biographer from Classical antiquity—Greek or Latin—from whom a complete biography survives. Although he did not invent the genre, Nepos did introduce political biography of Greek statesmen to a Roman audience. Nepos appears to have been the first author to attempt a systematic collection of biographies across a range of professions. Nepos' account of the life of his friend Atticus may have been the first biography written about a living contemporary and is the only surviving Latin biography about an eques—a member of Rome's commercial class. Nepos was also the first Roman to attempt to synchronize Italian history with the mature tradition of Greek historiography—an audacious feat that elicited generous praise from the discriminating poet Catullus. Accustomed as we are today to a standardized, international chronological system, it is difficult to appreciate Nepos' achievement in this area, which required him to synthesize events recorded in numerous conflicting and discontinuous calendrical systems maintained by individual cities around the Mediterranean. 

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

The Lives of Famous Men

Nepos' most ambitious project was The Lives of Famous Men (De Viris Illustribus), most of which is now lost. This collection of biographies likely included sixteen books divided into eight thematic pairs. The first book of each pair contained biographies of non-Romans, for the most part Greeks, who were preeminent in a particular profession. The next book of each pair presented the lives of exceptional Romans in the same field. Nepos certainly produced volumes containing the biographies of commanders and historians. We can be reasonably confident that Nepos also composed biographies of philosophers, poets, and orators, among other professionals. All told, the Lives once contained hundreds of biographies—a work of scholarship that was spectacular and sweeping, if not without its faults.

The Lives of Foreign Commanders

Only one book of Nepos' Lives has survived: his biographies of foreign commanders. Nepos dedicated this book to his close friend Atticus, who could well have encouraged Nepos to undertake this grand comparative project. We know that Nepos wrote his Life of Cato at Atticus' insistence and for many years Atticus tried to induce Cicero to write history. Nepos published the first edition of the Lives, which included the biographies of nineteen Greek commanders arranged in rough chronological order, a few years before Atticus passed away in 32 BC. The lives of three non-Greek commanders—those of Hannibal, his father Hamilcar, and the Persian general Datames—may have been added in a second edition published sometime before 27 BC.   

In its current form, The Lives of Foreign Commanders displays several unusual features that suggest that Nepos may not have published this book of Lives in the exact form that we now possess. Taken together, these twenty-two biographies would represent one of the longest books to survive from antiquity. In addition to the atypical length of the book, we must account for the clipped nature of Nepos' style and the not infrequent errors and often vexing omissions that pepper the biographies—failings that are utterly at odds with Nepos' reputation in antiquity. These features could suggest that the Lives were altered, perhaps extensively, after Nepos' death. 

When might such alterations have occurred? As the Classical world transitioned into the Middle Ages, many works, especially those of considerable length like Nepos' collected Lives, were shortened, epitomized, or otherwise simplified. It seems almost certain that Nepos' work was subjected to extensive editing and manipulation during this period. Indeed, it was a misunderstanding related to this process that resulted in the Lives being misattributed during the Middle Ages to a late antique copyist (and minor poet) by the name Aemilius Probus. It was only in the sixteenth century that Nepos reclaimed his status as the genuine author of the Lives.

The challenges posed by a redacted text like the Lives serve as a powerful reminder of the complex journey undertaken by almost every text that survives from antiquity. Apart from those few works that survive in ancient inscriptions or on papyri, most works of Classical antiquity are products of a perilous, often haphazard transmission from antiquity to modernity. Although written by Nepos, the Lives passed through the innumerable hands of copyists, editors, redactors, and scholars until they reached the form that we read today. At one point in the twelfth century, Nepos survived in only a single manuscript—that was how close Nepos came to oblivion. While we can and should ponder what has been lost and altered in the process, we can also marvel at the millennial undertaking that preserved (often just barely) the works of antiquity for readers in the modern age.

Other Works 

In addition to The Lives of Foreign Commanders, only two complete works survive from Nepos' voluminous writings: an innovative biography of his friend and contemporary Atticus (his longest biography) and a very concise summary of his biography of Cato the Elder, which was written at Atticus' request. Excerpts of a letter from Cornelia, the mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, were transmitted with Nepos' works. It is unclear if Nepos himself quoted them in a now lost work or if they were simply appended to Nepos' works at some point by a later scribe.

In addition to the Lives, Nepos composed several other works, now lost:

  • The Chronica ("Chronicle"), a chronology in three books. The first work of Roman historiography not concerned exclusively with Roman or Italian history, it sought to synchronize the histories of Rome, Greece, and the Near East from the dawn of humanity down to Nepos' time. Catullus' knowledge of the work indicates that it must have been published before the poet's death (ca. 54 BC), and probably some years earlier. Despite Catullus' praise, the Chronica was soon eclipsed by Atticus' more succinct Liber annalis (published in 47 BC; also lost).
  • The Exempla ("Models"), a compendium of moralizing historical anecdotes in at least five books, published after 43 BC.1  Designed to serve as a reference guide for orators and authors, it was perhaps the first work of its kind and was much imitated. Of Nepos' works it was the most frequently cited in antiquity.
  • A treatise on geography, perhaps focused on the periphery of Europe and those areas settled by the Celts.2 
  • A mysterious treatise on literary terminology, which included a discussion about literati, scholars who interpreted the works of poets.3 
  • Extensive biographies of Cato the Elder and Cicero in two books. A redacted version of the biography of Cato survives; Gellius mentions the biography of Cicero.4 
  • Correspondence with Cicero, and we might assume other notable contemporaries.
  • Love poems, perhaps in the neoteric style favored by Catullus and his friends. Pliny the Younger mentions Nepos' poetry and his sterling character in a defense of his own decision to compose light poetry.5 

Reputation in Antiquity and Beyond

Nepos was well-respected as a historian and biographer throughout antiquity, and a hundred years after his death Pliny the Younger would rank Nepos as one of the most distinguished men from his hometown (wherever it was).6  The geographer Pomponius Mela cites Nepos as an authority for his assertion that the entire world was surrounded by ocean.7  Pliny the Elder believed he was a reliable source on geography from North Africa to Asia Minor to the Caspian Sea and preferred him to many other sources, although he also cautioned that Nepos was prone to believing fantastic stories.8  Pliny the Younger placed Nepos in the illustrious company of Ennius, the tragedian Accius, and Vergil as great authors who hailed from humble backgrounds.9  In late antiquity, Jerome would describe Nepos as "a famous writer of history" and "the most notable biographer."10 

Nepos long retained his reputation as an authoritative scholar. In the fifth or sixth century AD, an anonymous author began circulating a forged "true history" of the Trojan War. This forgery, The History of the Fall of Troy, purported to be an eyewitness account of the war by Dares, a minor Trojan priest mentioned in passing by Homer. Before the start of the History, the forger affixed a letter by "Nepos" to his friend, the historian Sallust. In this forged letter, "Nepos" claims to have rediscovered Dares' work while conducting research in Athens. He immediately made "an exact translation into Latin, neither adding nor omitting anything, nor giving any personal touch" and forwarded his "word for word" translation to Sallust. The use of Nepos' name to legitimize this forgery speaks to the authority that he continued to have as a scholar and researcher even in the waning decades of Classical antiquity. 

Although the Romans admired Nepos for his wit, knowledge, and aesthetic judgment, many modern scholars have found fault with his Lives. What can explain the gap between his ancient reputation as a sophisticated author and the repetitive style—and not infrequent errors, omissions, and other blunders—that modern readers have detected in his work?  First, we should remember that Nepos' Lives were not works of original scholarship. Rather, they drew almost exclusively from previous sources for their information regarding historical figures. He did not aim to discover an accurate portrayal of historical truth, nor was he attempting to produce definitive and exhaustive biographies of his subjects. Nepos aimed instead to provide biographical sketches that revealed higher truths and eternal virtues. This is not to dismiss those errors that are present; but these should be assessed in light of Nepos' goals and interests in undertaking his biographical project. Second, we should recognize that Nepos has been ill-served by the section of the Lives that happened to survive. Of all his biographies, the exploits of foreign generals stood the furthest from his own training and personal experiences. Had the lost books detailing the more familiar lives of the Roman generals or those on Roman poets or orators survived, we might well have a different opinion of Nepos' accuracy and judgment. 

1. Charisius, I 146K; Gellius, Attic Nights 6.18.11.

2. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3.4, 3.132, 4.77.

3. Suetonius, De grammaticis 4.

4. Aulus Gellius, 15.28.2.

5. Pliny the Younger, Letters 5.3.6.

6. Pliny the Younger, Letters 4.28.

7. Pomponius Mela, 3.44.

8. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.4.

9. Pliny the Younger, Letters 5.3.6.

10. Jerome, Chron. 1977.