My fully illustrated and annotated translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders was published on September 20, 2019. It is available in paperback, hardcover, audiobook, and Kindle editions.
This is an original translation, like all of my translations. For me this book was a labor of love. For many centuries, Nepos’s collection of biographical sketches was considered an ideal text for instruction on character and morals. Yet it vanished from schools and colleges in the early twentieth century, to the extent that he is almost unknown today outside of specialist circles.
I decided to undertake this new, original translation in the hope of providing the general reader, students, and instructors with a useful, engaging, and entertaining resource that is an ideal way to learn about some famous personalities of the classical world. Nepos has been neglected for almost a hundred years; apparently he has not been translated since the 1920s. It is time to restore him to his proper place.
This is the first fully annotated translation of Nepos to appear, and it is also the first fully illustrated translation of this ageless classic. It contains the following special features that are specifically designed for the general reader or student:
1. Over forty illustrations, including original portrait art and historical illustrations.
2. Over four hundred and forty descriptive footnotes that explain every name, location, and literary point of interest in the text.
3. An original, modern English translation that is faithful to the original Latin text.
4. A detailed foreword, descriptive introduction, map, and index for ease of reference.
The Roman writer Cornelius Nepos (c. 110 B.C.–c. 25 B.C.) was one of the first biographers in the Western tradition. His Lives of the Great Commanders presents memorable and entertaining sketches of some of the most famous military and political leaders of antiquity. Written with a strong moral purpose, his book was taught and studied in schools for many centuries. Through him we learn what character traits made his subjects great, and what shortcomings produced their downfalls.
Nepos’s instructional biographies have never been more needed or relevant today. His themes–character, moral development, political freedom, and the consequences of corruption–are timeless and universal in their interest. A self-contained unit, this new translation is ideal both for those with no prior background in the subject matter, and also for the serious student.
The illustrations consist of two types: (1) original portrait art, commissioned especially for this translation, by artist Caleb Jordan Schulz; and (2) historical illustrations from the 16th through the 19th centuries that add to the reader’s enjoyment by showing the timelessness of the material. I also composed a Latin title page and frontispiece for the book, something that has not been seen in publishing in many generations. A sample of some of the illustrations are presented below, in “slideshow” format:
The following pages are from the book’s Foreword:
The following excerpt is from the book’s Introduction:
Lives of the Great Commanders contains the lives of eighteen Greek military leaders, two Carthaginians, a Persian, and a Thracian, along with short summaries of the lives of several foreign kings. The historical period covered by the Lives begins about 550 B.C. with the birth of Miltiades, and ends around 182 B.C. with the death of Hannibal. With the addition of the lives of Cato and Atticus, the work in its present form stretches into the Roman republic’s final years. Nepos refers to a few of his sources by name, such as Thucydides, Xenophon, Theopompus, Dinon, Timaeus, Polybius, Sosilus, Silenus, and Sulpicius Blitho; some of these names we know, and some we do not. He likely consulted many other authors whose names and works have been obliterated by time.
As Nepos makes clear in his sketch of Atticus’s life, his book was published several years before Atticus’s death in 32 B.C. He published a revised edition a few years later, incorporating additional details into the text. By the accident of a copyist in late antiquity, Nepos’s Lives was for centuries mistakenly attributed to one Aemilius Probus, who lived during the reign of the emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379—395). The first printed edition, appearing in Venice in 1471, perpetuated this error; later editions would follow suit.
The Renaissance’s spirit of inquiry generated an enthusiasm for critical textual analysis; and in 1569, the scholar Dionysius Lambinus demonstrated that the Lives could not have been written during the era of the later Roman empire. Its language, syntax, and overall tone marked it as the product of a much earlier period. While we may not know many details about Nepos’s life, it turns out that we can infer a great deal about his value system from his writing. We sense he is a man of exemplary character, but without any of the obnoxious severity we find in the elder Cato.
We detect no arrogance or vanity in his pages, and he makes no pretension of being a great stylist. He counted Cicero, the poet Catullus (who dedicated a collection of poems to him), and Atticus as his intimate friends. He must have been a man of conspicuous integrity, for no one who was not a solid figure would have lasted long around such luminaries. Nepos may not have been a politician, but he was very close to the best politician of his day (Cicero), and he believed profoundly in both the importance of good character and the injurious consequences of bad character. His summary of Atticus’s life paints an unforgettable portrait of the man and his era; so faithful is Nepos to his friend’s memory, and so glowing is his depiction, that we feel as if we knew Atticus ourselves. His life of Epaminondas remains one of the key ancient sources of information we have on this brilliant Greek commander, as Plutarch’s biography of him has been lost….
Nepos clearly read deeply not only in Roman history, but also in the histories of Persia, Greece, and Carthage; his errors when he deals with foreign cultures stem not from animosity, but from undue faith in questionable sources. He is a man of common sense, and finds it difficult to place much confidence in the artifices of honey-tongued rhetoricians and crafty philosophers. He complains in a letter to Cicero:
I am so far from believing that philosophy can instruct us how to live, and acts as the agent of a happy life, that I think no one needs to learn how to live more than most of these people involved in teaching it. From what I see, a large part of those people in the schools who advocate most cleverly in favor of self-control and abstinence are the same ones living in thrall of all the appetites.
These are the words of a man who has lived through turbulent and dislocating times, and who understands the fearful price exacted by hubris and moral corruption. Nepos is not a “scientific” historian, even by the standards of his day; it is not his purpose to weigh causes, effects, and historical events. He never aspires to be a Thucydides or a Polybius; not only does his biography of Hannibal fail to include an analysis of the battle of Cannae, it barely even mentions the engagement. He sometimes gets dates and places wrong, and probably did not tour Greece or Asia Minor to conduct first-hand researches. On the other hand, he was writing about events that took place hundreds of years before his own time, and likely felt that his investigations were adequate for his objectives, which were moral and ethical, rather than technical and scientific. And yet, in the final result, none of these shortcomings really matter.
We do not read Nepos for analyses of historical causes and effects. What matters to him are character and moral rectitude: he seeks to know what made his subjects great, and what flaws led them to decline or ruin. His sketches are not “biographies” in the modern sense, where the writer aims to give a complete summary of a life from birth to death. Nepos is instead giving his readers his impressions and interpretations of the lives of his subjects; he wants to highlight the character traits of each man that he believed were decisive. Like Cicero and Sallust, he came of age during a time of debilitating political corruption and institutional decline; he was disturbed by what he saw around him, and was fired by a desire to educate his countrymen on the importance of character and virtue, so that they might make themselves fit for the stern responsibilities of life and work.
One we understand this, and accept Nepos on his own terms, we can acquire a greater appreciation for what he accomplished. He remains the first biographer in Western literature, and in some way was a literary visionary. He was the first Roman to write about the lives and deeds of foreign notables. We must remember that he had no predecessor, no prior Roman exemplar, on which he could model himself, and was forced to do the best he could with the tools that were available. The essential goodness of the man is beyond question, and emerges on nearly every page. His biographical sketches, which are neither too long nor too short, somehow persist in the mind long after we have closed his book; and the effect of reading them, one after the other, is to feel the steady, certain pulse of an engine of inspiration.
Antiquity held him in high regard; Suetonius, Pliny, Aulus Gellius, and Ammianus Marcellinus all cited him with confidence. Without doubt he was a significant influence on Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives was inspired at least in part by Nepos’s work. It is time for our era to acknowledge his achievement, and solicit his insights. This translation is intended to introduce Nepos to a modern audience that may never have heard of him. It is extensively annotated, as the Lives references many historical names and events that benefit from additional amplification. It is also a fully illustrated translation. The illustrations in this book are of two types: (1) Caleb Jordan Schulz’s portraits, commissioned especially for this volume, of Dion, Epaminondas, Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal, Lysander, Pausanias, Themistocles, Timoleon, Alcibiades, and Aristides; and (2) various historical illustrations from the 16th to the 19th centuries that add to the reader’s perspective and enjoyment by showing the timelessness of Nepos’s material.
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