When I heard 'Lives of the Great Commanders' was to be the next translation by the formidable writer, translator, scholar, attorney, and US Marine Quintus Curtius, I was surprised. I have spent quite a long time studying Roman history and classic texts from this era, but I had never once heard of Cornelius Nepos or his writing. I attempted to read a free translation of the volume available online and quickly abandoned the effort. To say it was a challenging read would be putting it mildly.
Still, I ordered this volume in hardcover day it became available. I have learned that anything Quintus Curtius publishes is worth an immediate purchase. This volume greatly exceeded my expectations.
The translation is, of course, top-notch. Gone are the horrific run-on sentences or terrible word choices that so many translators profane their subjects with. Quintus treats these great works with the utmost care. He is not simply exchanging Latin for English. It is clear his goal is to build a bridge between Rome of ~50 BC and the worldwide English speaking audience of 2019. He succeeds.
As Quintus's works have steadily been released, he has continued to refine his publishing craft. In addition to the hundreds of footnotes and dozens of images familiar to anyone who read his translation of 'On Moral Ends', sketched portraits have been introduced in this volume. This takes subjects who are too often just a name in a textbook and transforms them into unique individuals. We need the other major publishing houses to review Quintus's most recent releases and emulate them in all their translations. The only other one that comes close is The Landmark Ancient Histories series.
Nepos did not create the kind of overwhelming biography we so often see today, where every detail of a subject's life is carefully cataloged for posterity. In this work, Nepos created a book designed to help the reader develop character and understand moral truths. This book could easily be used as a kind of 'character devotional' for those interested in developing themselves. In fact, for several centuries 'Lives of the Great Commanders' was used by schoolboys for a similar purpose.
Each chapter deals with a specific figure and is written in clear, concise language. Nepos isn't trying to overwhelm you with his brilliance, he is focused on ensuring you understand what the core motivations were for each of his subjects. We can thank Nepos for inspiring Plutarch to write his famed Parallel Lives series a few hundred years later with similar motivations in mind.
Personally, I was fascinated by the chapter on Atticus. It is the largest chapter, which is surprising when subjects like Alcibiades and Hannibal are included. Atticus is most often known as the man who published Cicero's personal letters, but here he comes alive on his own. I'd never given much consideration to Atticus as a man himself-- my focus was always on the giant Cicero-- but now I wonder what else I could learn about the Old Consul's closest confidant.
Nepos, like so many other great writers of this time period, saw most of his writings lost to time. As Quintus shows us in the introduction, we are lucky to have this text at all. A full biography on Cato the Elder and collected biographies on Kings, poets, jurists, and orators (to name a few) have not been passed down to us.
It is sobering to think of how much we have lost as the gears of ages grind on. What we often forget is that knowledge is not generally lost due to a great foreseeable calamity. We lose works of historical significance because everyone assumes they will always be there. Without those committed to doing a true scholar's work, we will simply forget about classic works. Historically significant writings need to be preserved as much as the Mona Lisa.
Quintus Curtius is dedicated to preserving what we cannot afford to lose. And we are lucky to have such a visionary scholar reviving these classics today.
*Note - I have corresponded with the author on several occasions. He has sent me some of his books (including a paperback copy of Lives of the Great Commanders) as a thank you for supporting his work. This review is of a Hardcover copy of Lives of the Great Commanders, which I purchased, read, and enjoyed before I received the gift copy from the author.