The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

CORNELIUS NEPOS was born at Hostilia, near the banks of the Po. Of his
parentage we meet with no account; but from his respectable connections
early in life, it is probable that he was of good extraction. Among his
most intimate friends were Cicero and Atticus. Some authors relate that
he composed three books of Chronicles, with a biographical account of all
the most celebrated sovereigns, generals, and writers of antiquity.

The language of Cornelius Nepos is pure, his style perspicuous, and he
holds a middle and agreeable course between diffuseness and brevity. He
has not observed the same rule with respect to the treatment of every
subject; for the account of some of the lives is so short, that we might
suspect them to be mutilated, did they not contain evident marks of their
being completed in miniature. The great extent of his plan induced him,
as he informs us, to adopt this expedient. “Sed plura persequi, tum
magnitudo voluminis prohibet, tum festinatio, ut ea explicem, quae
exorsus sum.” [270]

Of his numerous biographical works, twenty-two lives only remain, which
are all of Greeks, except two Carthaginians, Hamilcar and Hannibal; and
two Romans, M. Porcius Cato and T. Pomponius Atticus. Of his own life,–
of him who had written the lives of so many, no account is transmitted;
but from the multiplicity of his productions, we may conclude that it was
devoted to literature.

TITUS LIVIUS may be ranked among the most celebrated historians the world
has ever produced. He composed a history of Rome from the foundation of
the city, to the conclusion of the German war conducted by Drusus in the
time of the emperor Augustus. This great work consisted, originally, of
one hundred and forty books; of which there now remain only thirty-five,
viz., the first decade, and the whole from book twenty-one to book forty-
five, both inclusive. Of the other hundred and five books, nothing more
has survived the ravages of time and barbarians than their general
contents. In a perspicuous arrangement of his subject, in a full and
circumstantial account of transactions, in the delineation of characters
and other objects of description, to justness and aptitude of sentiment,
and in an air of majesty (162) pervading the whole composition, this
author may be regarded as one of the best models extant of historical
narrative. His style is splendid without meretricious ornament, and
copious without being redundant; a fluency to which Quintilian gives the
expressive appellation of “lactea ubertas.” Amongst the beauties which
we admire in his writings, besides the animated speeches frequently
interspersed, are those concise and peculiarly applicable eulogiums, with
which he characterises every eminent person mentioned, at the close of
their life. Of his industry in collating, and his judgment in deciding
upon the preference due to, dissentient authorities, in matters of
testimony, the work affords numberless proofs. Of the freedom and
impartiality with which he treated even of the recent periods of history,
there cannot be more convincing evidence, than that he was rallied by
Augustus as a favourer of Pompey; and that, under the same emperor, he
not only bestowed upon Cicero the tribute of warm approbation, but dared
to ascribe, in an age when their names were obnoxious, even to Brutus and
Cassius the virtues of consistency and patriotism. If in any thing the
conduct of Livy violates our sentiments of historical dignity, it is the
apparent complacency and reverence with which he every where mentions the
popular belief in omens and prodigies; but this was the general
superstition of the times; and totally to renounce the prejudices of
superstitious education, is the last heroic sacrifice to philosophical
scepticism. In general, however, the credulity of Livy appears to be
rather affected than real; and his account of the exit of Romulus, in the
following passage, may be adduced as an instance in confirmation of this

“His immortalibus editis operibus, quum ad exercitum recensendum
concionem in campo ad Caprae paludem haberet, subita coorta tempestate
cum magno fragore tonitribusque tam denso regem operuit nimbo, ut
conspectum ejus concioni abstulerit; nec deinde in terris Romulus fuit.
Romana pubes, sedato tandem pavore, postquam ex tam turbido die serena,
et tranquilla lux rediit, ubi vacuam sedem regiam vidit; etsi satis
credebat Patribus, qui proximi steterant, sublimem raptum procella; tamen
veluti orbitatis metu icta, maestum aliquamdiu silentium obtinuit.
Deinde a paucis initio facto, Deum, Deo natum, regem parentemque urbis
Romanae, salvere universi Romulum jubent; pacem precibus exposcunt, uti
volens propitius suam semper sospitet progeniem. Fuisse credo tum quoque
aliquos, qui discerptum regem Patrum manibus taciti arguerent; manavit
enim haec quoque, et perobscura, fama. Illam alteram admiratio viri, et
pavor praesens nobilitavit. Consilio etiam unius hominis addita rei
dicitur fides; namque Proculus Julius sollicita civitate desiderio (163)
regis, et infensa Patribus, gravis, ut traditur, quamvis magnae rei
auctor, in concionem prodit. ‘Romulus, inquit, Quirites, parens urbis
hujus, prima hodierna luce coelo repente delapsus, se mihi obvium dedit;
quam profusus horrore venerabundusque astitissem, petens precibus, ut
contra intueri fas esset; Abi, nuncia, inquit, Romanis, Coelestes ita
velle, ut mea Roma caput orbis terrarum sit; proinde rem militarem
colant; sciantque, et ita posteris tradant, nullas opes humanas armis
Romanis resistere posse.’ Haec, inquit, locutus, sublimis abiit. Mirum,
quantum illi viro nuncianti haec fidei fuerit; quamque desiderium Romuli
apud plebem exercitumque, facta fide immortalitatis, lenitum sit.” [271]

Scarcely any incident in ancient history savours more of the (164)
marvellous than the account above delivered respecting the first Roman
king; and amidst all the solemnity with which it is related, we may
perceive that the historian was not the dupe of credulity. There is more
implied than the author thought proper to avow, in the sentence, Fuisse
credo, etc. In whatever light this anecdote be viewed, it is involved in
perplexity. That Romulus affected a despotic power, is not only highly
probable, from his aspiring disposition, but seems to be confirmed by his
recent appointment of the Celeres, as a guard to his person. He might,
therefore, naturally incur the odium of the patricians, whose importance
was diminished, and their institution rendered abortive, by the increase
of his power. But that they should choose the opportunity of a military
review, for the purpose of removing the tyrant by a violent death, seems
not very consistent with the dictates even of common prudence; and it is
the more incredible, as the circumstance which favoured the execution of
the plot is represented to have been entirely a fortuitous occurrence.
The tempest which is said to have happened, is not easily reconcilable
with our knowledge of that phenomenon. Such a cloud, or mist, as could
have enveloped Romulus from the eyes of the assembly, is not a natural
concomitant of a thunder-storm. There is some reason to suspect that
both the noise and cloud, if they actually existed, were artificial; the
former intended to divert the attention of the spectators, and the latter
to conceal the transaction. The word fragor, a noise or crash, appears
to be an unnecessary addition where thunder is expressed, though
sometimes so used by the poets, and may therefore, perhaps, imply such a
noise from some other cause. If Romulus was killed by any pointed or
sharp-edged weapon, his blood might have been discovered on the spot; or,
if by other means, still the body was equally an object for public
observation. If the people suspected the patricians to be guilty of
murder, why did they not endeavour to trace the fact by this evidence?
And if the patricians were really innocent, why did they not urge the
examination? But the body, without doubt, was secreted, to favour the
imposture. The whole narrative is strongly marked with circumstances
calculated to affect credulity with ideas of national importance; and, to
countenance the design, there is evidently a chasm in the Roman history
immediately preceding this transaction and intimately connected with it.

Livy was born at Patavium [272], and has been charged by Asinius Pollio
and others with the provincial dialect of his country. The objections to
his Pativinity, as it is called, relate chiefly to the (165) spelling of
some words; in which, however, there seems to be nothing so peculiar, as
either to occasion any obscurity or merit reprehension.

Livy and Sallust being the only two existing rivals in Roman history, it
may not be improper to draw a short comparison between them, in respect
of their principal qualities, as writers. With regard to language, there
is less apparent affectation in Livy than in Sallust. The narrative of
both is distinguished by an elevation of style: the elevation of Sallust
seems to be often supported by the dignity of assumed virtue; that of
Livy by a majestic air of historical, and sometimes national, importance.
In delineating characters, Sallust infuses more expression, and Livy more
fulness, into the features. In the speeches ascribed to particular
persons, these writers are equally elegant and animated.

So great was the fame of Livy in his own life-time, that people came from
the extremity of Spain and Gaul, for the purpose only of beholding so
celebrated a historian, who was regarded, for his abilities, as a
prodigy. This affords a strong proof, not only of the literary taste
which then prevailed over the most extensive of the Roman provinces, but
of the extraordinary pains with which so great a work must have been
propagated, when the art of printing was unknown. In the fifteenth
century, on the revival of learning in Europe, the name of this great
writer recovered its ancient veneration; and Alphonso of Arragon, with a
superstition characteristic of that age, requested of the people of
Padua, where Livy was born, and is said to have been buried, to be
favoured by them with the hand which had written so admirable a work.—-

The celebrity of VIRGIL has proved the means of ascertaining his birth
with more exactness than is common in the biographical memoirs of ancient
writers. He was born at Andes, a village in the neighbourhood of Mantua,
on the 15th of October, seventy years before the Christian aera. His
parents were of moderate condition; but by their industry acquired some
territorial possessions, which descended to their son. The first seven
years of his life was spent at Cremona, whence he went to Mediolanum, now
Milan, at that time the seat of the liberal arts, denominated, as we
learn from Pliny the younger, Novae Athenae. From this place he
afterwards moved to Naples, where he applied himself with great assiduity
to Greek and Roman literature, particularly to the physical and
mathematical sciences; for which he expressed a strong predilection in
the second book of his Georgics.

Me vero primum dulces ante omnia Musae,
Quarum sacra fero ingenti perculsus amore,
(166) Accipiant; coelique vias et sidera monstrent;
Defectus Solis varios, Lunaeque labores:
Unde tremor terris: qua vi maria alta tumescant
Obicibus ruptis, rursusque in seipsa residant:
Quid tantum Oceano properent se tingere soles
Hiberni: vel quae tardis mora noctibus obstet.
Geor. ii. 1. 591, etc.

But most beloved, ye Muses, at whose fane,
Led by pure zeal, I consecrate my strain,
Me first accept! And to my search unfold,
Heaven and her host in beauteous order rolled,
The eclipse that dims the golden orb of day,
And changeful labour of the lunar ray;
Whence rocks the earth, by what vast force the main
Now bursts its barriers, now subsides again;
Why wintry suns in ocean swiftly fade,
Or what delays night’s slow-descending shade. Sotheby.

When, by a proscription of the Triumvirate, the lands of Cremona and
Mantua were distributed amongst the veteran soldiers, Virgil had the good
fortune to recover his possessions, through the favour of Asinius Pollio,
the deputy of Augustus in those parts; to whom, as well as to the
emperor, he has testified his gratitude in beautiful eclogues.

The first production of Virgil was his Bucolics, consisting of ten
eclogues, written in imitation of the Idyllia or pastoral poems of
Theocritus. It may be questioned whether any language which has its
provincial dialects, but is brought to perfection, can ever be well
adapted, in that state, to the use of pastoral poetry. There is such an
apparent incongruity between the simple ideas of the rural swain and the
polished language of the courtier, that it seems impossible to reconcile
them together by the utmost art of composition. The Doric dialect of
Theocritus, therefore, abstractedly from all consideration of simplicity
of sentiment, must ever give to the Sicilian bard a pre-eminence in this
species of poetry. The greater part of the Bucolics of Virgil may be
regarded as poems of a peculiar nature, into which the author has happily
transfused, in elegant versification, the native manners and ideas,
without any mixture of the rusticity of pastoral life. With respect to
the fourth eclogue, addressed to Pollio, it is avowedly of a nature
superior to that of pastoral subjects:

Sicelides Musae, paullo majora canamus.
Sicilian Muse, be ours a loftier strain.

Virgil engaged in bucolic poetry at the request of Asinius Pollio, whom
he highly esteemed, and for one of whose sons in particular, (167) with
Cornelius Gallus, a poet likewise, he entertained the warmest affection.
He has celebrated them all in these poems, which were begun, we are told,
in the twenty-ninth year of his age, and completed in three years. They
were held in so great esteem amongst the Romans, immediately after their
publication, that it is said they were frequently recited upon the stage
for the entertainment of the audience. Cicero, upon hearing some lines
of them, perceived that they were written in no common strain of poetry,
and desired that the whole eclogue might be recited: which being done, he
exclaimed, “Magnae spes altera Romae.” Another hope of mighty Rome!

Virgil’s next work was the Georgics, the idea of which is taken from the
Erga kai Hmerai, the Works and Days of Hesiod, the poet of Ascra. But
between the productions of the two poets, there is no other similarity
than that of their common subject. The precepts of Hesiod, in respect of
agriculture, are delivered with all the simplicity of an unlettered
cultivator of the fields, intermixed with plain moral reflections,
natural and apposite; while those of Virgil, equally precise and
important, are embellished with all the dignity of sublime versification.
The work is addressed to Mecaenas, at whose request it appears to have
been undertaken. It is divided into four books. The first treats of
ploughing; the second, of planting; the third, of cattle, horses, sheep,
goats, dogs, and of things which are hurtful to cattle; the fourth is
employed on bees, their proper habitations, food, polity, the diseases to
which they are liable, and the remedies of them, with the method of
making honey, and a variety of other considerations connected with the
subject. The Georgics (168) were written at Naples, and employed the
author during a period of seven years. It is said that Virgil had
concluded the Georgics with a laboured eulogium on his poetical friend
Gallus; but the latter incurring about this time the displeasure of
Augustus, he was induced to cancel it, and substitute the charming
episode of Astaeus and Eurydice.

These beautiful poems, considered merely as didactic, have the justest
claim to utility. In what relates to agriculture in particular, the
precepts were judiciously adapted to the climate of Italy, and must have
conveyed much valuable information to those who were desirous of
cultivating that important art, which was held in great honour amongst
the Romans. The same remark may be made, with greater latitude of
application, in respect of the other subjects. But when we examine the
Georgics as poetical compositions, when we attend to the elevated style
in which they are written, the beauty of the similes, the emphatic
sentiments interspersed, the elegance of diction, the animated strain of
the whole, and the harmony of the versification, our admiration is
excited, at beholding subjects, so common in their nature, embellished
with the most magnificent decorations of poetry.

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