BMCR 2022.11.39

Cornelius Nepos: the commanders of the fifth century BCE. Introduction, text, and commentary

, Cornelius Nepos: the commanders of the fifth century BCE. Introduction, text, and commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 343. ISBN 9780198836131 $190.00.

Ginelli’s Nepos fills a gap in classical philology, and it does so masterfully. This is a title that will be of profit and enjoyment for those interested in Roman republican prose, fifth-century Greek history, and ancient biography. The author is to be commended for the skillful work that is in evidence throughout, and the press for undertaking a major project on an author who has rarely received his due. This is a marvelously rendered, well proofread, very much needed resource that joins the ranks of standard commentaries on Latin prose authors.

Cornelius Nepos languished for some time as a figure who had been relegated to the elementary Latin curriculum on account of the relative ease of his syntax and vocabulary, only to be graduated to the status of being more or less ignored altogether. Some happy exceptions to this studied neglect mark the scholarly tradition, including not least work by two Virgilians who did not disdain to pay attention to the modest extant remains of this minimized if not maligned writer. Nicholas Horsfall devoted an admirable volume of translation and commentary to a portion of the Nepotian corpus for the “Clarendon Ancient History Series.”[1] Grace Starry West authored a Bryn Mawr Commentary on Nepos’ Dion that pays particular attention to the interesting peculiarities of the author’s Latin, even within the constraints of an intermediate level reader.[2]

But for the most part, Nepos has suffered a sort of benign oblivion, rarely read and little lauded. The original Loeb Classical Library edition paired him with Florus, a marriage of convenience whose divorce may have been more a product of the desire to sell two volumes than of any concern about highlighting either the republican biographer or the imperial epitomist. Graduate reading lists have tended to eschew him altogether, and one wonders if more students today know of Nepos from Catullus 1, than from even a glance at his surviving pages: the lost Chronica may be mentioned more often than the extant biographies in some students’ classical educations.

And yet there is much of interest in Nepos, not least the chance to see how personages of perennial popularity were being presented, praised, and sometimes impugned in an important age of late republican history. Now Ginelli has given Nepos the treatment he has long awaited, with a splendid volume devoted to the eight lives of fifth-century Greek commanders that survive from Nepos’ larger collection of lives of foreign leaders, the Liber de Excellentibus Ducibus Exterarum Gentium. Ginelli thus offers a commentary on the biographies of the Athenians Miltiades, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, Alcibiades, and Thrasybulus, and the Spartans Pausanias and Lysander. There are two main strengths to Ginelli’s book: first, the extensive introduction that tackles such challenges as the arrangement and scope of Nepos’ De Viris Illustribus and its manuscript tradition, and second the impressive linguistic and historical commentary on the selection of lives. In short, Ginelli has not so much rehabilitated Nepos, as he has invested him with the critical apparatus needed for students of late republican literature and history to begin to reappreciate this de facto lost author. And he has done this not so much by comparing the achievement of Nepos to the works of Cicero and Sallust (his usual competitors for attention), as by treating Nepos on his own terms, as an author who succeeded admirably at what he set out to do—even if we cannot be precisely sure of every aspect of said enterprise.

In short, Ginelli offers a positive appraisal of Nepos, who is judged as having attained his goal of providing moralizing biographies of stylistic charm and pellucid appeal to an audience of perhaps less sophisticated literary tastes, one more or less ignorant of Greek literature. The problem of Nepos’ audience is a thorny one (not least on account of the ancient author’s own remarks in the surviving preface to his work), and Ginelli explores the various theories and speculations that have been raised (e.g., was Nepos’ work intended to be a school text; was there actually a “lowly public” readership possessed of more leisure than Greek?). Ginelli also gives an overview not only of the survival of what remains of Nepos’ writings, but also the curious case of the misidentification of the author that plagued Nepos studies for centuries. A hallmark of the present book is its attention to scholarly history: Ginelli situates problems in a long tradition, with particular attention to Renaissance humanism and to nineteenth-century philological studies. There is also a laudable absence of polemic, dogmatism, and surrender to preconceived notions, given the impossibility of certainty. Ginelli raises the points made by others who have wrestled with questions of audience with judiciousness, leaving it to the reader to decide what seems the more plausible theories in the absence of new evidence.

Interesting parallels of language between Nepos and both Caesar’s commentaries and technical literature are explored in the commentary, alongside inevitable comparisons of Nepos’ lexicon and grammar with Cicero’s. Users of this volume will be treated to a rigorous examination of the shades of meaning of vocabulary, of nuances of syntax and morphology, and of periodic rhythm and composition. Many of the individual notes are gems of exposition on idiomatic phrases, various hues of meaning for richly connotative vocabulary items, and other lexical and rhetorical puzzles. Throughout, there is a thorough grounding in the relevant bibliography, with an admirable range of citations from older dissertations and more obscure treatments of problems of language and style.

One particular concern in which Ginelli’s talents are put to good use is the question of Nepos’ handling of complex historical narratives. Nepos is revealed as a competent distiller of Thucydidean narrative in particular, a biographer adept at compressing dense accounts into concise accounts, the succinct nature of which belies the writer’s careful engagement with and analysis of his sources.

The Latin text of this edition reflects Ginelli’s close study of predecessors, as well as his own work (some of which has been published already in journal articles). There is no apparatus, but a convenient table neatly records where he disagrees with Malcovati’s Turin edition and Marshall’s Teubner.[3] Explanations of choices of reading are found in the commentary, which manages to balance textual, syntactical, historical, and stylistic concerns without becoming overwhelming. In the history of classical scholarship, Nepos has benefited from textual studies most of all, to which the present study adds an important voice.

Not to be missed are the additional useful aids in the rear of the volume: a map of relevant locales in the Greek world, and a table of parallel passages from Plutarch and others on Alcibiades’ many noteworthy talents and exploits. There are indices of names, places, and “relevant topics.” An index locorum would have been impracticable given the extensive citations of parallel and comparative passages. There are no translations included, in a departure from a relatively recent trend to provide them for all commentary lemmata. This is a volume for those who know Latin and Greek.

Indeed while the aforementioned balancing act of diverse interests is in evidence throughout the pages of this edition, the principal emphasis is on Nepos’ Latin. This is where Ginelli most dexterously distills the work done by his predecessors, presenting a novel synthesis of earlier work mixed with his own discoveries and insights, all within the format of a continuous commentary, a genre that imposes a sense of order even while encouraging judicious comprehensiveness. Ginelli’s task is made both harder and easier by the absence of earlier such works on this scale, but working through the lives with his notes is an education in seeing how much work remains to be done in the close reading of texts, and in the ever old, ever new discipline of serious philological inquiry.

Ginelli promises in his preface that he plans to tackle the remaining extant lives from Nepos’ collection. We can only hope that the promise will be fulfilled. The quality and erudition reflected in the present selection inspire confidence that Ginelli’s complete Nepos will do justice to an author whose merits far outweigh his defects, an author who deserves to be read more widely both by ancient and military historians, and by those interested in the development of the Latin language in a crucial century of its flowering.



[1] Cornelius Nepos, a Selection, Including the Lives of Cato and Atticus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. However, his earlier labeling of this friend of Cicero as an “intellectual pygmy” in his “Prose and Mime” entry for the Cambridge History of Classical Literature (p. 288) has remained a spot that has proven exceedingly difficult to launder.

[2] Nepos: Life of Dion. Bryn Mawr Commentaries, 1985.

[3] E. Malcovati, Cornelii Nepotis quae exstant, Torino: G.B. Paravia, 19643; P.K. Marshall, Cornelii Nepotis vitae cum fragmentis. Leipzig: Teubner, 19852.