Corne'lius Neposwas the contemporary and friend of Cicero, Atticus, and Catullus. He was probably a native of Verona, or of some neighbouring village, and died during the reign of Augustus. No other particulars, with regard to his personal history, have been transmitted to us. (Catull. 1.3; comp. Auson. praef. Epigramnm.; Cic. Att. 16.5; Plin. Nat. 5.1, 9.39, 10.23; Plin. Ep. 4.28; Hieron. Chron. Euseb. Olymp. clxxxv.) He is known to have written the following pieces, all of which are now lost.
1.An Epitome of Universal History, it would appear, in three books. For the name and some idea of the contents we are indebted to Ausonius (Epist. xvi.), A. Gellius (17.21.3, 8, 24), and Solinus (1.27, 44.1), while Catullus, when dedicating his poems to Cornelius Nepos, indicates, though obscurely, the object and extent of the production in question, “Jam tum cum ausus es, unus Italorum,
Omne aevum tribus explicare chartis,
Doctis, Jupiter ! et laboriosis.
” (See also Minucius Felix, 100.22.)
2.Of which Charisius (p. 119, ed. Putsch.) quotes the second book, and A. Gellius (7.18.11) the fifth. This was probably a collection of remarkable sayings and doings, of the same description as the compilation subsequently formed by Valerius Maximus.
3.Gellius (11.8) tells an anecdote of Cato, adding “Scriptum est hoc in libro Cornelii Nepotis De Illustribus Viris.” (See also Serv. ad Virg. Aen. 372; Diomedes, p. 40(5, ed. Putsch.; and Charisius, pp. 113, 114, 195, ed. Putsch., who refers to books ii. xv. and xvi.) It is not impossible that it may be the same work as the preceding, quoted under a different title.
4.an error in which is corrected by A. Gellius (15.28).
5.from one of which Lactantius has preserved an extract (Instit. Div. iii 15; comp. Cic. Att. 16.5), but we cannot tell whether they were ever formally collected into a volume. The Epistolae Ciceronis ad Cornelium Nepotem are adverted to under CICERO, p. 743.
Perhaps poems also, at least he is named in the same category with Virgil, Ennius, and Accius by the younger Pliny (Plin. Ep. 5.3).
7.In the life of Dion (100.3). which now bears the name of Cornelius Nepos, there is the following sentence, "Sed de hoc in eo meo libro plura sunt exposita qui De Historicis conscriptus est."
In the year 1471 a quarto volume issued from the press of Jenson at Venice, entitled Aemilii Probi de Vita excellentium, containing biographies of twenty distinguished commanders, nineteen Greeks and one Persian, in the following order, which, it has been subsequently ascertained, obtains in all MSS.:--
- 1. Miltiades.
- 2. Themistocles.
- 3. Aristides.
- 4. Pausanias.
- 5. Cimon.
- 6. Lysander.
- 7. Alcibiades.
- 8. Thrasybulus.
- 9. Conon.
- 10. Dion.
- 11. Iphicrates.
- 12. Chabrias.
- 13. Timotheus.
- 14. Datames.
- 15. Epaminondas.
- 16. Pelopidas.
- 17. Agesilaus.
- 18. Eumenes.
- 19. Phocion.
- 20. Timoleon.
tunc Domino nomen, me sciat esse Probum.
” A second edition, in quarto, of the same book, without date, was printed at Venice by Bernardinus Venetus. In this a biography of Cato is added. The title in one part of the volume is Aemilii Probi Historici excellentium Imperatorum Vitae, in another Aemilii Probi de Virorum Illustrium Vita. A third edition, in quarto, without date and without name of place or printer, but known to belong to Milan, and to be not later than 1496, was published as Aemilius Probus de Viris Illustribus; and here we have not only the biography of Cato, but a life of Atticus also. Numerous impressions appeared during the next half century, varying from the above and from each other in no important particular, except that in the Strasburg one of 1506, the life of Atticus is ascribed to Cornelius Nepos, a point in which it is supported by many MSS. But in 1569 a great sensation was produced among the learned by the edition of the celebrated Dionysius Lambinus (4to. Paris, 1569), who not only revised the text with much care, but strenuously maintained that the whole work was the production of that Cornelius Nepos who flourished towards the close of the Roman republic, and not of an unknown Aemilius Probus, living at the end of the fourth century. The arguments upon which he chiefly insisted were,-- 1. The extreme purity of the Latinity, and the chaste simplicity of the style, which exhibit a striking contrast to the semi-barbarian jargon and meretricious finery of the later empire. Every critical scholar must feel the weight of this observation. 2. The person addressed in the preface or introduction must be Pomponius Atticus, the friend of Cicero. This is fully proved by a passage in the life of Cato (sub fin.) where we read, " Hujus de vita et moribus plura in eo libro persecuti sumus quem separatim de eo fecimus rogatu Pomponii Attici," words which are unquestionably perfectly decisive in so far as the memoir in which they occur is concerned, but this, as we have seen, was not included in the original edition, is wanting in some MSS., and, along with the Atticus, is separated, as it were, from the rest in all. 3. The lofty tone in which the grandeur and power of the Roman people are celebrated, the boldness of the comments on free institutions and tyrants, would have been totally out of place at an epoch of degradation and slavery. Allusions, also, it is affirmed, may be detected to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Upon a careful examination of all the quotations adduced it will be seen that no weight ought to be attached to this portion of the proof. 4. Lambinus was informed, upon what he considered good authority, that one MS. ended in this manner, "Completum est opus Aemilii Probi, Cornelii Nepotis." But even if we admit the accuracy of a statement vouched for so imperfectly, it leads to no result, for the first clause might be intended to assign the 20 biographies, the De Regibus, the Hamilcar and the Hannibal, to Probus; the concluding phrase to mark Nepos as the author of the Cato and the Atticus. The question thus started has given rise to interminable discussions; but the leading hypotheses may be reduced to three. I. Many of the contemporaries of Lambinus, unable or unwilling to abandon the belief in which they had been reared, and clinging to the verses addressed to Theodosius, doggedly maintained that the old opinion was after all true, and that all the lives, except perhaps those of Cato and Atticus, which stood upon somewhat different ground, were the property of Probus, and of no one else. This position is now very generally abandoned. II. Lambinus, as we have seen, pronounced the lives to belong entirely to Cornelius Nepos. Those who support this hypothesis, which has been more widely received than any other, hold, that what we now possess may be regarded, either as a portion of the voluminous collection, De Viris Illustribus, or as an independent work, which, having fallen into oblivion, was brought to light by Aemilius Probus, who fraudulently endeavoured to palm it off as his own; or, perhaps, meant to do nothing more than claim the credit of having discovered and described it; or, that the verses in question, which are absent from several MSS., refer to some totally different production, and have by mere accident found their way into their present position. III. Barthius, steering a middle course, threw out that the biographies, as they now exist, are in reality epitomes of lives actually written by Nepos, and that we ought to look upon Probus as the abbreviator; others, adopting the general idea, think it more likely that the abridgments were executed at an earlier period. Without attempting to enter at large into the merits of these conflicting systems, and of the many minor controversies to which they have given rise, all of which will be found stated in the works noted down at the end of this article, we may remark that the third hypothesis, under one form or other, will, if properly applied, tend to remove many of the difficulties, and explain many of the anomalies by which the subject is embarrassed more effectually than either of the two others. It will enable us to account for the purity of the language, and for the graceful unaffected ease of the clauses, when taken singly, and at the same time to understand the harsh and abrupt transitions which so frequently occur in passing from one sentence or from one paragraph to another. But while we may safely admit that we hold in our hands the abridgment of some writer of the Augustan age, we must bear in mind that the evidence adduced to prove that writer to be Cornelius Nepos is miserably defective, an exception being always made in respect of the life of Atticus, which is expressly assigned to him in at least two of the best MSS.