Cornelius Nepos Analysis

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Cornelius Nepos (kawr-NEEL-yuhs NEE-puhs) was a native of Cisalpine Gaul and dedicated his whole life to literature. There is no record of his holding public office. His book, De viris illustribus (c. 34 b.c.e., before 27 b.c.e.; On Famous Men, 1853), which survives in part, contains biographical sketches rather than critical history. Originally, it consisted of at least sixteen books: eight pairs, of which one book was on Roman characters and the other on non-Roman characters. The pairs of books included such categories as generals, historians, and kings. The works were designed to praise the subjects and elucidate morals. Of these lives, only twenty-four remain, including the lives of historians Titus Pomponius Atticus and Cato the Censor. There were two editions, one published before the death of Atticus in 34 b.c.e., the second published before 27 b.c.e. His lost works include the three-volume Chronica, a universal history, which is referred to in Catullus’s dedicatory poem, and Exempla, a collection of anecdotes gathered from his historical and scientific research.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Nepos is the earliest extant Roman biographer. His work was not based on serious research and is marked by omissions and inaccuracies and hasty and careless composition. His simple vocabulary and sentence structure made On Famous Men a favorite school book.

Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Hadas, M. A History of Latin Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.

Hornblower, S., and A. Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Nepos, Cornelius. Cornelius Nepos. Translated by John Carew Rolfe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.