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Cornelius Nepos, Life of Hannibal

Cornelius Nepos

2. Reading Nepos

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1When reading Nepos′ Lives, one is immediately struck by their straightforward style. Nepos′ syntax is, for the most part, clear and uncomplicated. His more complex sentences unfold in regular patterns, and he pays studious attention to signaling the circumstances in which action takes place and the connection of one thought to the next. He shows a fondness for antithesis, alliteration (e. g. quotiēnscumque cum eō congressus est, 1.2), and the occasional wordplay or pun. His vocabulary is similar to that found in Cicero and his contemporaries, but is more limited in scope, allowing even novice readers to spare the dictionary.

2The Romans too deemed Nepos suitable for novices, even if Nepos himself did not set out to create a schoolbook. For modern readers, his simple, regular style provides a useful counterpoint to the more artful and varied grammar, vocabulary, and techniques found in more illustrious authors. Like many other Roman academics, encyclopedists, and chroniclers — e. g. Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, and Suetonius — Nepos wrote in what has been called a ″middle style″, a blend of simple and ornate sentences that mixes colloquialisms and archaisms. Having read Nepos, what makes Cicero Ciceronian, Caesar Caesarian, or Tacitus Tacitean will be all the more recognizable. Nepos may suffer in comparison to these masters of Latin prose style, who deploy with more elegance and creativity the linguistic and stylistic capacities that make Latin such a subtle and powerful medium for communication. But then, there are precious few writers of any era or in any language that could withstand such comparison. As we shall see, the motivation for his simple style and the decisions he made about what to include in his Lives can be explained by two additional factors: the aims and process of biographical writing in antiquity and the audience for whom Nepos wrote.

Four Favorite Constructions

  1. Connective Relatives and Demonstratives: Nepos is very careful to signal how a new sentence relates to the preceding thought. His favorite means of doing so is the connective relative, which appears at the start of over a dozen sentences in the Life (AG §308f). For example: Ad quem cum lēgātī vēnissent (2.2); Quem etsī multa stultē cōnārī vidēbat (8.3). Nepos will also use a demonstrative (hic, ille, is) to the same purpose. Often a connective will displace a word or phrase that would otherwise come at the start of a sentence, as when the subordinating conjunction cum is superseded by ad quem (2.2).
  2. Ablative Absolutes: The ablative absolute is a construction favored by most Roman authors, especially those who are recounting events. Nepos is no exception, and ablative absolutes are common in the condensed narrative that dominates the second half of the Life. Nepos will even include two ablative absolutes in a single sentence (e. g. 5.1, 9.3, 10.1). Because of Nepos′ preference for clear connections between sentences, ablative absolutes will often follow a connective: Illī, dēspērātīs rēbus... (8.2); Hās, praesentibus prīncipibus...(9.3); ille, īnscientibus iīs... (9.4); or a noun indicating a change in subject: Poenus, illūsīs Crētēnsibus omnibus... (10.1); Tabellārius, ducis nāve dēclārātā suīs... (11.2); Eumenēs, solūtā epistulā... (11.3).
  3. Featured Prepositions and Conjunctions: Nepos′ condensed style features an abundance of prepositions. For example, the preposition in is the third most common word in the Life. Nepos shows an unusual affinity for apud (15 times) and adversus (6 times), prepositions used more sparingly by most authors. Conversely, Nepos avoids some common prepositions, such as inter and per, each of which appears only once in the Life . Throughout his works, Nepos displays an affinity for the conjunctions nam, which signals that a sentence will justify or explain the preceding statement (AG §324h), and enim, used to introduce an example that explains a generalization found in the previous sentence.
  4. Syncopation of Perfects: Nepos routinely shortens verbs in all tenses of the perfect system. For example, we find superārit for superāverit (1.1, see also 7.4, 7.7, 11.5), comperisset for comperivisset (2.2, see also 2.3, 6.1, 12.5), and cēlāris for cēlāveris (2.6).

Three Key Words

  1. Amīcitia: refers to the asymmetrical relationships between patrons and clients rather than to ″friendship″ in the modern sense (2.4; amīcus: 2.6, 10.2; inimīcissimus: 7.3, 12.2).
  2. Callidus: ″extreme cleverness″, a term Nepos uses to characterize the audacious Hannibal (9.2) and the cautious Fabius Maximus (5.2), whose strategic foresight allowed the Romans to recover from the military catastrophes they suffered at Hannibal′s hands.
  3. Prūdentia: Hannibal′s cardinal virtue, according to Nepos — the ability to perceive a situation in its entirety and act accordingly (1.1, 11.7; imprūdente in 2.6).

Why Write Biography?

  • 1 Nepos, Life of Timotheus 4.5‒6.
  • 2 Nepos, Life of Atticus 11.6

3What motivated Nepos to write biographies? 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.1 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).2

4It 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:

  • 3 Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2.

… it is not always prominent actions that reveal virtue or vice but often an insignificant affair or a turn of phrase or a joke that reveals more about someone′s character than the sieges of cities, grand tactics, and battles in which thousands of men fall.3

  • 4 Nepos, Life of Epamonidas 1.3‒4.

5It 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.4 Of course biography also offers the inherent pleasure of 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.

  • 5 Nepos, Life of Pelopidas 1

6In 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).5 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 Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae are only mentioned in passing. To do any more would violate the spirit of Nepos′ project and his attempt to carve out a distinctive identity for biography in Roman literature.

Nepos and Non‒Roman Cultures

  • 6 Nepos, Life of Miltiades 6.

7To 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 non ‒ Romans alike. Evaluating the morality and virtue of non ‒ Romans, however, presented a challenge for Nepos and his contemporary Roman readers. As he observes in the Preface 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. Yet, despite Nepos′ protestations, the cultural differences raised by Nepos are inevitably trivial. 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. Ultimately, cultural difference is an illusion since, according to Nepos, ″the nature of all states is the same″ (eandem omnium civitatum esse naturam).6

The Biographical Tradition in Greece and Rome

8Nepos 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 that 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.

9The 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.

10Aristotle 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 survive — e. g. Sotion, who wrote thirteen books on the succession of teachers and their pupils in the various philosophical schools. 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.

  • 7 Theopompus, 6 (Usher trans.)
  • 8 Polybius, 10.21.4.

11The 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″.7 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.8

12If Greek literature provided 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.

Nepos′ Audience

  • 9 Nepos, Life of Pelopidas 1.
  • 10 Nepos, Preface 1.

13Nepos′ 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).9 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.10 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 Nepos, Life of Timotheus 4.5‒6.

2 Nepos, Life of Atticus 11.6

3 Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2.

4 Nepos, Life of Epamonidas 1.3‒4.

5 Nepos, Life of Pelopidas 1

6 Nepos, Life of Miltiades 6.

7 Theopompus, 6 (Usher trans.)

8 Polybius, 10.21.4.

9 Nepos, Life of Pelopidas 1.

10 Nepos, Preface 1.

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