BMCR 2006.10.02

Cornelius Nepos. Berühmte Männer. De viris illustribus. Lateinisch-deutsch. Sammlung Tusculum

, , Berühmte Männer : lateinisch-deutsch = De viris illustribus. Sammlung Tusculum. Düsseldorf: Artemis und Winkler, 2006. 560 Seiten ; 18 cm.. ISBN 3760817343 €48.00.

The simplicity of Nepos’ Latin, which is both often dense and highly idiomatic, is often unjustly exaggerated. Nepos offers an enriching experience to the student of Latin. He also, however, leaves more pitfalls for the translator than one might expect. Although it is most welcome that Nepos’ latest translator, Michaela Pfeiffer [Pf.], has now brought him into the well-known German series Sammlung Tusculum, the translation under review is regrettably a disappointment.

Sammlung Tusculum is the German equivalent to the Loeb Classical Library. Each volume offers a Latin text with facing German translation followed by an Anhang consisting of an introduction to the author, endnotes to the translation, bibliography, and an index of names. I will discuss them in order.

The source of Pf.’s Latin text is nowhere revealed. To judge by the passages I compared, the text is not completely consistent with any of the editions listed in the bibliography (417).1 If Pf. has taken it upon herself to produce a new edition, she says nothing to alert the reader to the fact. Pf. does not include the fragments of Nepos’ lost works.

The translation is both pedantically accurate and frustratingly loose. Almost every enim appears as “nämlich,” every vero as “wirklich” or “tatsächlich,” every autem as “aber.” Such words, which give flavor and emphasis to the Latin, make for a tedious, feeble German. Elsewhere the translator avoids such literalness. One striking example is the avoidance of “machen” at Han. 2.1, Nam ut omittam Philippum, quem absens hostem reddidit Romanis : “Denn ohne auf Philippos einzugehen, den er aus der Ferne zum Feind der Römer erklärte…” The expression “zum Feind machen” would be an exact translation and is used by both Reclam and Wirth. “Zum Feind erklären” means something else. In other passages, Pf. approximates the required sense but becomes needlessly verbose. For example, Pf. renders Milt. 7.1, nonnullas [insulas] vi expugnavit, as, “…einige musste er mit Gewalt davon [sc. sich wieder zu unterwerfen] überzeugen.” Why not simply, “…einige erstürmte er.”?

Other, better opportunities for variety are missed. Latinless German readers might be misled into concluding that the leitmotif of Nepos’ Lives is “Ansehen,” a word abused throughout the translation to render auctoritas, dignitas, existimatio, gloria, and laus, and pressed into service for floreret (Cim. 3.1), honoratus (Chab. 3.4), religio (Ages. 4.7, as “das Ansehen eines Heiligtums”), opinio (Eum. 13.2), and even carissimus (Att. 2.3). One might take for example Milt. 8.4, magna auctoritas apud omnis civitatis, nobile nomen, laus rei militaris maxima : “Er stand in grossem Ansehen bei allen Völkern, hatte einen berühmten Namen und genoss aufgrund seiner mililtärischen Fähigkeiten höchstes Ansehen.”

Several Latin phrases are overlooked in the translation,2 the most serious omission that of an entire sentence, Them. 3.4 ( quo factum est…constituerent). In contrast, at Chab. 4.3, comminus is translated twice in consecutive sentences.3

The translation contains a very high number of mistakes. Certain mistranslations seem due to haste, for instance the confusion at Milt. 1.4, hoc oraculi responso Miltiades…Chersonesum profectus cum accessisset Lemnum et incolas eius insulae sub potestatem redigere vellet Atheniensium, idque Lemnii sua sponte facerent postulasset : “Auf diese Antwort des Orakels hin machte sich Miltiades…zur Halbinsel Chersones auf. Als er dort angekommen war, die Bewohner dieser Insel unter die Macht der Athener zwingen wollte und die Bewohner von Lemnos sogar dazu aufforderte…” Pf. calls the Chersonese a peninsula in one sentence and an island in the next, because she has transferred there what happened en route on Lemnos. “Dort” would mislead a reader into believing Miltiades had already arrived at the Chersonese.

Other mistranslations are the result of grammatical errors. Subject and object are confused at Milt. 4.1, Darius…hortantibus amicis, ut Graeciam redigeret in suam potestatem. Pf. writes, “…forderte er [sc. Dareios] seine Freunde auf, Griechenland unter ihre Befehlsgewalt zu bringen.” The translation should read, “…forderten ihn seine Freunde auf,” and “seine Befehlsgewalt.” Them. 1.3, celeriter quae opus erant reperiebat, facile eadem oratione explicabat, is translated, “Er fand schnell heraus, was die Sachlage erforderte, und konnte dieses noch in derselben Rede umsetzen.” But eadem is neuter accusative plural and refers to quae, not feminine ablative singular in agreement with oratione. Read, “…und konnte es durch seine Reden verdeutlichen,” vel sim. Pf. elsewhere loses sight of a pronoun’s antecedent: in Them. 10.2, si suis uti consiliis vellet, illum Graeciam bello oppressurum, “…dass er Griechenland im Krieg überwältigen werde, wenn dieser seine Pläne umsetzen wolle,” “er” must mean Themistocles, distinguished from “dieser” for Artaxerxes. illum, however, refers to Artaxerxes. Such errors are particularly common.4 At least three times Pf. mistranslates terms for friends and family members.5

A few examples of other mistranslations:

Scythissa in Dat. 1.1, matre Scythissa natus, is a nationality, not a name. (Pf.: “Seine Mutter hiess Skythissa.”)

Pel. 5.3, non dubitavit, simulac conspexit hostem, confligere : “…zweifelte er nicht daran, den Feind niederwerfen zu können, sobald er ihn erblickt habe.” dubitare here means “to hesitate,” which is usual with an infinitive (“zögern,” translated correctly at Ages. 4.1). “Niederwerfen” is an inaccurate translation of confligere (probably owing to analogy with profligare); confligere here means “to do battle.” The sentence describes what took place, not what Pelopidas believed he would do.

Timol. 3.3, arcem Syracusis, quam munierat Dionysius ad urbem obsidendam, a fundamentis disiecit : “Er liess die Burg, die Dionysius (der Ältere) in Syrakus für einen Belagerungsfall der Stadt angelegt hatte, bis auf die Grundmauern niederreissen.” Nepos makes clear with ad urbem obsidendam that Dionysius had perversely built his citadel “to besiege the city,” that is, to exercise control over the citizens from within, not to defend them from threats without.

Att. 1.3, …clarius…exsplendescebat, quam generosi condiscipuli animo aequo ferre possent : “…[er] ragte deutlich aus der Menge heraus, sodass er auf seine aufgeschlossenen Mitschüler nicht ohne Wirkung bleiben konnte.” The sense is that young Atticus excelled more than his aristocratic schoolfellows could tolerate. Pf. has misunderstood both generosi and animo aequo ferre.

What did Atticus die of? According to Pf., constipation (“Verstopfung”)! But tenesmos (Att. 21.2) is better described as “Darmreizung” (Wirth), “Dysenterie” (Reclam), or “a griping of the bowel” (Horsfall).6

Despite the number of mistranslations, typos are few.7 Text and translation seem to have been carefully vetted, but not compared.

The Einführung (369-92) is largely devoted to Nepos’ opinion of Augustus and the presumptive aims of his Lives. Pf. finds in Nepos a critic of Octavian the triumvir, perhaps too of Augustus the princeps. In a page-length section entitled “Literarische Zeitgenossen,” Pf. claims Nepos was an outstanding literary critic.8 Nothing is said of Nepos’ literary influences, past or contemporary, of Nepos’ Latin style, or of his audience.

Pf. sees Nepos’ Lives of the Foreign Generals as a work promoting “die Vermittlung multikultureller Kompetenz” (377). Because Nepos asks his readers to understand peoples whose customs differ from their own, Pf. concludes that Nepos must here be sympathizing with, even actively promoting, the political program of Augustus (378). In light of this inconsistency, Pf. canvasses the battered theory that the author of the Lives of the Foreign Generals is not in fact Nepos, but rather the freedman of Augustus, C. Julius Hyginus (378-80).

In her account of the “Die politische Zielsetzung der Feldherrn-Porträts,” Pf. makes much of the fact that Nepos uses the word imago at Epam. 1.3, cum…exprimere imaginem consuetudinis atque vitae velimus Epaminondae. Pf. sees in this word reference to the Roman imagines maiorum and explains, “Der Bezug zu den imagines der Vorfahren legt die Annahme nahe, dass der Autor die von ihm porträtierten Persönlichkeiten als ‘Ahnen’ der Römer betrachtet haben will” (384). Nepos in fact uses the word imago in his justification for including the most un-Roman aspects of Epaminondas’ life, and reference to the imagines maiorum is not needed to reach the conclusion that Nepos hoped to write exemplary biography which would be of service to his countrymen living in the aftermath of the civil wars (385ff.). The lengthy, decorative quotation of Nietzsche on the use of history with which Pf. concludes the Einführung (392) seems out of place: Nepos is no Nietzsche.

The 206 endnotes to the translation give basic information but almost no references whether to other ancient authors or to scholarly literature. I could not discover the author’s method of choosing what to comment on. For instance, a series of consular dates at Han. 7.1, 7.6, 8.1 are passed over in silence, but not at Han. 13.1. A note on Timol. 5.4, in gymnasio, translated as “auf einem öffentlichen Platz,” would have been welcome.

The Namenverzeichnis (421-560) is not only an index but a glossary of persons, places, and things. For well-known persons it gives the reader a helpful summary of the basic facts of their lives; for the less well-known, it often only summarizes what Nepos says. There are no references to other authors or literature, but dates are frequently given.

A final note on spelling conventions. In the translation it is Pf.’s usual practice to give Greek names in Greek transliteration, e.g. Agesilaos (though Lysander, i.e. Λύσανδρος, has been overlooked). In the index entries, however, almost all names are spelled according to Nepos’ Latin forms. So the Latinless reader must know to look up “Kyklades” under “C.” Will he realize “Ziegenfluss” can be found under Aegos flumen ?9 Why an entry is included for Abrotonum, who is named neither in the Latin nor in the translation and would consequently never be missed, escapes me.

German students of Nepos are recommended to purchase the bilingual Reclam edition by P. Krafft & F. Olef-Krafft, which is more reliable and readable, better annotated, and five times more affordable (EUR 9.60).


1. P. Krafft & F. Olef-Krafft (trans.), Cornelius Nepos. De viris illustribus / Biographien berühmtern Männer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1993); H. Malcovati, Cornelii Nepotis quae exstant, 3rd ed. (Turin: Paravia, 1944); P.K. Marshall, Cornelii Nepotis vitae cum fragmentis (Leipzig: Teubner, 1977); G. Wirth, Cornelius Nepos. Lateinisch-Deutsch (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1994). For example, Pf. alone reads Hagnonide at Phoc. 3.4 for Agnone which appears in the other editions. Hagnonides, not Hagnon, is in fact historically correct, but I have my doubts that Pf. is the author of this emendation: translation and glossary give “Hagnon” and “Agnon” respectively. Pf. differs from all four other editors also at, e.g., Lys. 3.5 ( sed scripta) and Thras. 4.1 ( honoris corona).

2. Milt. 4.5, cum viderent de eorum virtute non desperari; Paus. 3.2, more Persarum; Han. 3.3, quacumque iter fecit; Cato 2.3, in edictum; and Att. 16.2, quamquam.

3. “Jener aber kämpfte Mann gegen Mann weiter…. Er starb im Kampf Mann gegen Mann.”

4. Other examples: At Dion 4.2, sic enim existimari volebat [sc. Dionysius ], id se non odio hominis, sed suae salutis fecisse causa, we read, “Er wollte nämlich, dass man meinte, er habe dies nicht aus Hass, sondern deshalb getan, weil er um dessen Wohlergehen bemüht sei.” In the Latin, Dionysius is concerned only about his own ( suae) safety. In Eum. 8.1, Hic…cum Antigono conflixit…eumque male acceptum in Mediam hiematum coëgit redire, “Eumenes geriet…mit Antigonos aneinander…und nach diesem üblen Empfang war er gezwungen, nach Medien zurückzukehren, um dort zu überwintern,” it appears that Eumenes was forced to return to winter in Media; it should be Antigonus. At Han. 10.2, dissidebat ab eo…Eumenes. Pf. writes, “…Eumenes…lebte mit Prusias in Feindschaft,” but the antecedent of eo is Hannibal, not Prusias. The Latin indicates only that Eumenes rejected Hannibal’s plan to make war against the Romans.

5. In Paus. 2.3, seque tecum affinitate coniungi cupit, is rendered, “Er will mit dir freundschaftlich verbunden sein.” Affinitas means a connection by marriage (and Pausanias directly asks for hand of the Persian king’s daughter). In Alc. 10.5, familiaris sui is given as “seinem Sklaven,” but the reference is to Alcibiades’ friend, not slave, and Nepos explains he was quidam ex Arcadia hospes in the next line. In Att. 9.3, Antony’s familiares are described as his “Familie.” Wirth and Reclam both have “Anhänger.” “Freunde” is probably closer.

6. N. Horsfall, Cornelius Nepos. A selection, including the lives of Cato and Atticus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989). Horsfall notes (108) that the definition of tenesmos given in the OED s.v. squares with the accounts of Pliny and Celsus. He fails to realize it probably also derives from them. “Tenesmus” is defined almost identically in the OLD.

7. Milt. 7.6: Delete the comma after hanc pecuniam. Them. 5.1: Delete the period in “abge.halten.” Cim. 3.3: Move the comma after contendere to after Lacedaemonem. Chab. 4.3: Correct “den Schwimmenden” to “die Schwimmenden.” Dat. 4.5: Correct armas to arma. Epam. 3.5: Correct “seine” to “seiner.” Epam. 10.1. Change the period after infamem into a comma. Eum. 2.2: Correct “Hephaistios” to “Hephaistion” (so rightly in the index). Han. 8.2: Correct “seinem” to “seinen.” Att. 6.4: Correct “könne” to “können.” Att. 17.3: Correct “praktischen” to “praktische.” Att. 20.5: Correct tanto to tanta. Page 417: Correct both “Kraft” and “Kraft” to “Krafft.”

8. Pf. deduces this from the Nepos’ praise of Ennius (Cato 1.4), Catullus’ dedication to Nepos ( Carm. 1, the sincerity of which is not certain), and Nepos’ praise of L. Julius Calidus as the greatest living Latin poet since the deaths of Lucretius and Catullus (Att. 12.4). Leaving aside the other points, I do not see how Nepos’ comment on Calidus should be “selbstverständlich,” or how praise of a man whose works have perished entirely testifies to “ein hohes Mass an Urteilsfähigkeit” (375). I would conclude the opposite.

9. “Ziegenfluss” at Alc. 8.1 & Con. 1.2; once as “Aegospotamoi” at Lys. 1.4.