Cornelius Nepos (praenomen unknown) was a Roman chronologist and biographer born ca. 110 (though some have placed his birth closer to 90 or 80) in Mediolanum (mod. Milan), the capital of Cisalpine Gaul. It is unknown when he emigrated to Rome, but like many other aristocrats, he was probably educated there as well as in Greece.
Nepos was present in Rome during the events of the end of the Republic, and enjoyed the company of high profile figures like Cicero and Catullus, the latter of whom dedicated his Libellus to him. His works appear to have been well-received, considering that Atticus, Cicero’s friend and confidant, commissioned him to write a biography of Cato the Elder.
It is unknown when he died, but since fragments state that Augustus was already in power, it had to have been after 27 BCE.
Nepos was a rather prolific author, though only part of his output survives. His chief output was the De Viris Inlustribus (“On Illustrious Men”), which essentially began the genre of biography. Of this work, only the section on Greek generals—along with both Hamilcar and Hannibal of Carthage—survive (De Excellentibus Ducibus Exterarum Gentium, “On the Excellent Generals of Foreign Peoples”).
Most of Nepos’ other works were biographies as well. The biographies of Cato and Atticus are still extant, though the ones on Cicero and Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers, are lost.
In dedicating his work to Nepos, Catullus mentions the Chronica, a work in three books. Depending on how exactly the passage is read, it seems the work is either a short history of the whole world, or, admittedly a minority position, a whole history of Italy.
Nepos’ other minor works include the Exempla, a work in five books on the “history of Roman manners and customs” and a treatise on geography.
With Cicero he was said to have had two books of correspondence, and although other books of Cicero’s correspondence has been preserved, these two have not.
Nepos’ works are generally not trustworthy from a historical viewpoint. Though he makes good use of quality historians (e.g. Thucydides and Polybius), he is often prone to error. Moreover, as part of the genre of vita (ancient biography), Nepos’ aims are not historical per se, but rather moral. The very point of a the genre of biography is to illustrate good moral behavior with examples from great men (and sometimes women). Thus, he fills his biographies with anecdotes that illustrate proper character without proper care to their historicity.
- T. A. Dorey ed. Latin Biography. New York, 1967.
- Joseph Geiger. Cornelius Nepos and Ancient Political Biography. Stuttgart, 1985.
- A. C. Dionisotti. “Nepos and the Generals.” Journal of Roman Studies 78 1988: 35–49.
- Nicholas Horsfall, Cornelius Nepos: A Selection, Including the Lives of Cato and Atticus. Oxford, 1989.
- Molly M. Pryzwansky, “Cornelius Nepos: Key Issues and Critical Approaches.” The Classical Journal 105.2 2009: 97–108.