This thesis argues that Cornelius Nepos’ depiction of tyrants in De Excellentibus Ducibus Exterarum Gentium primarily reflects the concerns not of his Greek sources but of Triumviral Rome. Since Geiger’s seminal monograph, Cornelius Nepos and Ancient Political Biography, was published in 1985, there has been renewed scholarly interest in Nepos’ so-called Foreign Generals. While Nepos’ depiction of despots in this book of biographies has often been noted, discussion focuses almost exclusively on the figures of the righteous general and the duplicitous tyrant. In this thesis, I contend that not all of Nepos’ tyrants are cruel cardboard cut outs, destined to be vanquished by virtuous generals. Indeed, I explore the complexities which arise when the lines between statesman and sole ruler become blurred, when the general becomes the tyrant. In a series of three case studies, I demonstrate that Nepos uses such leaders to articulate the perils and merits of autocracy at a time when Rome was shifting ever closer to sole rule.
In my first chapter, I compare Life of Miltiades and Life of Timoleon in order to ascertain the circumstances under which Nepos believed a democratic community could flourish under a single leader. I begin by delineating Nepos’ model of admirable sole rule: a kind of elective kingship that furnishes Miltiades and Timoleon with sufficient power to rule alongside, but not over, their respective communities. I then establish that Nepos uses the Triumviral conceptualisation of dominatio and libertas to emphasise that this model will only succeed in the hands of a Timoleon, a leader who would sooner relinquish all authority than see the people’s freedom limited. My second chapter accounts for Nepos’ deviation from traditional tales of tyrannicide in Life of Dion. Through an examination of the parallels between this biography and representations of the assassination of Julius Caesar, I demonstrate that Nepos perceived tyrannicide as a murky, morally ambiguous deed, the ramifications of which far outweigh any possible benefits. In my third chapter, I analyse the manner in which Nepos blends Greek descriptions of Alcibiades with Latin depictions of divisive leaders in Life of Alcibiades, in order to question how the populace should respond to a magistrate they suspect is aiming at tyranny. I argue that Nepos’ decision not to provide a definitive answer reflects his own deep-seated uncertainty about the future of Rome under the Triumvirs.
Through these three case studies, I demonstrate that Nepos has a consistent vision of the successes and shortcomings of sole rule. His vision, though drawn from Greek sources and articulated in his biographies of Greek generals, primarily reflects Roman concerns about the exercise of absolute power. This thesis thus sheds new light on Nepos’ biographical method and provides new insights into the conceptualisation of tyranny under the Triumvirs.