In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cornelius Nepos

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Text and History of Textual Transmission
  • Translations
  • Commentaries
  • The Origins of Political Biography
  • Biographical Method
  • Sources
  • Historical and Intellectual Context
  • Relationship to Catullus
  • Latin Style
  • Influence

Classics Cornelius Nepos
Rex Stem
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0116


Cornelius Nepos (b. c. 110–d. c. 25 BCE) is the first biographer in Latin whose works survive and the first biographer from antiquity whose surviving works include a series of lives of political men. He is not known to have been involved in politics, and he seems to have lived a quiet, scholarly life. He was friends with some of the distinguished literary minds of his time: Catullus dedicated a collection of poems to him, two books of his correspondence with Cicero were later collected, and Atticus shared his interest in chronological and antiquarian research. Most of his attested corpus is lost: the Chronica in three books, an Exempla in at least five books, and a very large biographical collection titled On Famous Men, which probably contained over three hundred brief lives in at least sixteen paired books comparing Romans and non-Romans in different areas of achievement. All that survives of On Famous Men (and, in fact, of Nepos’s entire corpus) are two individual lives (Cato [the Elder], Atticus) from the book On Roman Historians and the complete book On Foreign Generals, which contains the lives of twenty-two subjects (averaging less than four pages each). His style is plain and his tone moralizing, but he brings the Greek past to bear on his Roman present in a direct and highly accessible way. No ancient author cites the surviving portion of Nepos’s corpus, yet his influence can be perceived on later biographers such as Suetonius and Plutarch as well as on other scholarly Latin writers such as Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius.

General Overviews

Albrecht 1997 and Sonnabend 2002 offer general introductions to Nepos within larger surveys of Roman literature and ancient biography, respectively. Jenkinson 1973 and Horsfall 1982 are representative of earlier generations of scholarship, who were generally critical of Nepos’s value, accuracy, and style. Titchener 2003 and Pryzwansky 2009 assert the developing view that Nepos should be included in the larger reassessment of biography as a form of historical writing with its own distinct purposes. Krafft and Olef-Krafft 1993 and Hägg 2012 provide judicious surveys of current thinking about Nepos and his achievement.

  • Albrecht, Michael von. 1997. A history of Roman literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius. 2 vols. Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava, Supplementum 165. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    See Vol. 1, pp. 476–488, for a balanced introduction to Nepos’s corpus and the scholarly issues around it within the larger context of Roman literary history.

  • Hägg, Tomas. 2012. The art of biography in Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139061322

    See pp. 188–197 for a discerning assessment of Nepos’s achievement, centered on a reading of the Life of Atticus.

  • Horsfall, Nicholas. 1982. Cornelius Nepos. In The Cambridge history of classical literature. Vol. 2, Latin literature. Edited by Edward J. Kenney and Wendell V. Clausen, 290–292. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521210430

    A stinging negative judgment of Nepos’s value, often cited as a touchstone in subsequent scholarship.

  • Jenkinson, Edna M. 1973. Genus scripturae leve: Cornelius Nepos and the early history of biography at Rome. In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur im Spiegel der neuren Forschung. Edited by Hildegard Temporini, 703–719. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    A representative expression of the low opinion of Nepos’s work that was standard in scholarship of the middle decades of the 20th century (also lists earlier bibliography).

  • Krafft, Peter, and Felicitas Olef-Krafft, eds. and trans. 1993. Cornelius Nepos: De viris illustribus/Biographien berühmter Männer. Universal-Bibliothek 995. Stuttgart: Reclam.

    The afterword to this Latin/German edition (pp. 417–453) offers a sound overview of Nepos’s achievement and includes discussion of major scholarly issues.

  • Pryzwansky, Molly M. 2009. Cornelius Nepos: Key issues and critical approaches. Classical Journal 105.2: 97–108.

    Documents major scholarly trends regarding Nepos within those regarding ancient biography generally, especially how biography is increasingly recognized as a genre to be studied on its own terms.

  • Sonnabend, Holger. 2002. Geschichte der antiken Biographie: Von Isokrates bis zur Historia Augusta. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

    See pp. 107–113 for a survey of the primary information about the life and corpus of Nepos within the tradition of ancient biographical writing.

  • Titchener, Frances. 2003. Cornelius Nepos and the biographical tradition. Greece & Rome, 2d ser., 50.1: 85–99.

    DOI: 10.1093/gr/50.1.85

    Valuable reassessment of Nepos’s purpose, method, and style in the light of current scholarly thinking about ancient biography.

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