Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.26

Bret Mulligan, Cornelius Nepos, Life of Hannibal: Latin Text, Notes, Maps, Illustrations and Vocabulary. Dickinson College commentaries.   Cambridge:  Open Book Publishers, 2015.  Pp. xii, 156.  ISBN 9781783741328.  £17.95 (pb)​.  ISBN 9781783741359.  (epub).  

Reviewed by Rex Stem, University of California, Davis (

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This title is a textbook for intermediate Latin students. It came to BMCR as a printed title from Open Book Publishers, but it was originally written and designed to be used on the web through Dickinson College Commentaries. Since the printed book reproduces the pages on the web, this review treats both formats.

Mulligan explains in his preface that Nepos’ common vocabulary and straightforward style, as well as overall historical interest, make his Hannibal a good choice for the intermediate Latin student (and I agree). The commentary, accordingly, offers lucid comments about Nepos’ syntax and fills in the historical background, while the design of the online format renders the study of Nepos’ vocabulary easy and effective. Largely absent, however, is an assessment of the structuring and content of Nepos’ biography. Instead, Mulligan devotes half of his introduction to providing an overview of the Punic Wars, and reading Nepos’ Hannibal as a history of the Punic Wars makes for an awkward fit. In sum, this commentary is a strong resource for learning Latin but a weak one for assessing the figure of Hannibal within the biography of Nepos.

The book opens with a substantial introduction (40 pages in print), plus a helpful bibliography and chronology. Then the Latin text of Nepos’ Prologus to his book On Foreign Generals and the Latin text of Nepos’ Life of Hannibal, extensive notes, and a complete vocabulary. In the printed version, these components follow one another. But on the web, they are integrated into a visually appealing and user-friendly design. Each of the 13 chapters of the Hannibal has its own page, with the Latin text in the left column and the notes on the right. A tab in the right column allows one to reveal (in place of the notes) the vocabulary for the chapter, while a third tab reveals other media (such as an audio file of the chapter—read by Christopher Francese, principal architect of the Dickinson College Commentaries—and additional images and maps).

The online version possesses other advantages as well. The subsections of the introduction are in a more logical order. Grammatical topics in the notes are keyed to sections in Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar, and the online version presents these as live links to an online Allen and Greenough within Dickinson College Commentaries. Place names in the notes are linked to additional maps, and historical topics are also occasionally linked to sites with further information. The vocabulary online is much more accessible, broken down by chapter and section (it is simply alphabetized in toto in the printed version), and also broken down into Core Vocabulary (the 1000 most common words in Latin) and Non-Core Vocabulary. Customizable vocabulary lists are also possible. Links to clean, printable texts (with or without macrons) are also found online.

I have never taught from an online commentary, but I am persuaded that this text would be an effective way to do so. The different types of information that the student needs are easily accessible, the format is pleasing and intuitive, and the level of the notes is appropriate and rigorous. The printed version is successful in itself, but the appeal of the online version is manifest. My pedagogical habits would have to change somewhat if I were to teach from an online commentary (would we all have screens in front of us? would we also still want to have printed texts to annotate?), but this is precisely the sort of online teaching resource that encourages experimentation with new formats and methods. As a pedagogical platform for teaching Latin with digital materials, this text is visionary in its design.

The commentary provides generous guidance on grammatical and historical matters. The links to Allen and Greenough promote accuracy, specificity, and efficiency. There are several good notes about word order, especially on how Nepos links one sentence to the next. Another strength is the structural breakdown of longer, more complex sentences (e.g., 2.2, 2.6, 7.2) into manageable and explicable structures. Student-friendly tips such as the difference between fugo and fugio are also apt (6.1). The notes are a little heavier at the beginning, rightfully, and usually do not explain a construction when it occurs for a second time.

There were a few places where I felt more help would be beneficial. Prol. 5: the infinitive citari as subject. Hann. 8.1: si... possent as an indirect question. 8.3: the indicative mood of instituerat. 10.5: the function of the infinitive defendere. 11.3: the characteristic quality of the subjunctive pertinerent. 12.3: ipsi comprehenderent as an indirect command. Some notes seemed unnecessary. Hann. 5.3: why speak of the issue of “correct usage” between iterum consulem and bis consulem when the point of the anecdote in the note is that Cicero himself was not sure what to say in a similar circumstance? 6.3: why take the time to correct “within a few days” to “the day after”? A few mistakes should be corrected. Prol. 4: Nepos’ alleged confusion about whether Cimon married his sister or half-sister is easily dismissed by consulting Nepos, Cimon 1.2. Hann. 3.3: saltus appears at 4.3, not 3.4. Hann. 13.1: the dating by Polybius and Blitho is inverted. Also, the choice to follow the Loeb text of Nepos is disappointing, since the Teubner is a better and more recent edition.

Those are minor quibbles. My two larger concerns are the prioritizing of the history of the Punic Wars over Nepos’ biographic focus and the way that the introduction undermines the legitimacy of Nepos as an author.

Mulligan notes that Nepos crafts “the most favorable portrait of Hannibal offered by any ancient author” (under the “Hannibal” subheading in the Introduction, p. 39 in print), yet offers no explanation for why that might be. The introduction details the complete story of all three Punic Wars, yet not even the Second Punic War is the focus of Nepos’ biography (see, e.g., 5.4). Nepos’ Hannibal, rather, is a tale of its subject’s strategic cleverness (prudentia, 1.1) and his commitment, via his boyhood oath to his father, never to be a friend to the Romans (2.3-6). The latter half of the biography describes how Hannibal continued to honor that oath even after he was exiled from Carthage, and Nepos’ perspective, remarkably, takes his side (e.g., 8.3). Mulligan reaches a different conclusion: “[Hannibal’s] fugitive latter days … bear the mark of a man obsessed with fighting a war that he had lost years before” (“Evaluating Hannibal,” p. 41). Hence the commentary largely ignores, while the introduction actually counters, the interpretive thrust of Nepos’ biography. This seems a missed opportunity. What does it mean—for Nepos as author, for biography as a genre, for the historical tradition about Hannibal—that a Latin text would present Rome’s greatest enemy as a sympathetic figure? Engaging students on such interpretive questions would add a significant dimension to the experience of teaching and reading Nepos’ Hannibal.

My second concern follows from the first, and might explain Mulligan’s reluctance to engage with Nepos’ authorial shaping of his biography. The orthodoxy about Nepos has long been that he is a second-rate author, full of errors, but suitable as a school text if his errors are corrected. Mulligan’s introduction at times transcends that orthodoxy (as much of the recent scholarship cited in his bibliography seeks to do), yet at other times awkwardly retains it. In the discussion of Catullus’ poem to Nepos, for example, Mulligan notes several specific features of shared conceptual vocabulary between Catullus and Nepos (unus Italorum, ausus es, doctis, explicare), but then claims that Catullus’ description of Nepos’ books as laboriosis is ambiguous (were they “a chore to read”?), even as the remainder of the paragraph explains, with two examples, that Catullus admires literary labor (“Catullus,” pp. 11-12). The argument for ambiguity is not supported and appears contrary to the evidence discussed, yet the possibility that Nepos is “a chore to read” is still advanced. To what end? If reading Nepos is a chore, why teach him?

Similarly, even as one whole section of the introduction capably explains Nepos’ biographical method and his place in the tradition of ancient biography (“Reading Nepos,” pp. 13-20), Mulligan nevertheless cannot let go of the received opinion that Nepos is a poor historian full of errors. Thus he comes to ask: “What can explain the gap between his ancient reputation as a sophisticated author and the repetitive style—and not infrequent errors, omissions, and other blunders—that modern readers have detected in his work?” (“Reputation in Antiquity,” p. 7). His answer is astonishing: “It seems almost certain that Nepos’ work was subjected to extensive editing and manipulation during [late antiquity]. Some of the longer Lives may have been condensed; the Life of Aristides and a few others may even have been forged at this time” (“Works of Nepos,” p. 5). This is pure speculation, of a reckless sort. It seems wiser to question the validity of modern expectations of Nepos before resorting, without evidence, to assumptions of forgery and deliberate editorial reduction. Are we to understand that parts of the Hannibal have been extensively altered (or even forged) by this anonymous and utterly unattested editor? Perhaps Mulligan’s concern that the text he annotates is not Nepos’ own explains why he does not seek to interpret it for the perspective it adopts.

Readers of this commentary are thus not very likely to appreciate Nepos as a biographer or the sympathetic portrait of Hannibal that he depicts, and they may also wonder why the introduction and commentary are more interested in events that Nepos does not describe than the stories he does tell. The mechanics of this commentary, on the other hand, are impressive, thorough, and helpful. The student who studies the notes will receive expert guidance on how Latin sentences fit together, and the student who does so online will have immediate access to excellent grammatical aids and extensive vocabulary training.

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