Genitive Absolutes

A familiar construction in Latin is the ablative absolute, which “define[s] the time or circumstance of an action” (A&G §419).  Caesar, whose actions are very often defined by timing and circumstances, makes quite liberal use of this construction, e.g.

Caesar, acceptis litteris, nuntium missit” (de Bello Gallico 5.46)
(The letter having been received, Caesar sends a messenger).

quibus rebus cognitis, Caesar apud milites contionatur” (de  Bello Civili 1.7)
(These things having come to light, Caesar makes a speech to the soldiers).

For similar such constructions, Anglo-Saxon uses the dative case, and Greek the genitive (both languages lacking the ablative).

But surprisingly, the genitive absolute also apparently makes a cameo in the Latin Vulgate:

spem autem habentes, rescentis fidei vestrae, in vobis magnificari secundu regulam nostram in abundantiam” (II. Cor. 10.15)
(but having hope, with your faith increasing, that it be magnified abundantly in you according to our rule).

qui ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis, testimonium reddente illis conscientia ipsorum, et inter se invicem cogitationum accusantium aut etiam defendentium (Rom. 2.15)
(their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts between themselves accusing, or also defending one another).

Plater and White note that such constructions are much more common in the Old Latin Bible than they are in Jerome’s Vulgate (§44).  But why is this construction, alien to (Classical) Latin, there in the first place?  Why is it non uniformly rendered with the ablative absolute throughout?


Further still: does the genitive absolute appear elsewhere (perhaps even as a consequence of Jerome’s use) in Late and Mediaeval Latin?  I hope to come up with some instances.  Please let me know if you find any.

Further Reading/Sources

Gildersleeve’s. Latin Grammar.
Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar.
Plater and White’s A Grammar of the Vulgate
Caesar’s de Bello Civili, De Bello Gallico.
Jerome’s Vulgate.


‘Terrible’ Places


Latin translation presents us with tempting cognates, but often enough these have changed so much in their transition into modern English that it would be unreasonable to employ them in a straightforward way.  Terribilis is just such a false friend.  We now most often use the term Terrible to mean Very bad or repulsive (“What a terrible thing to say!”), or even just Very (“I’m terribly sorry”).  This is a far-cry from its meaning in Latin, is clear from a glance at the translation in the image above.

Quam terribilis est locus iste”

It’s hard to suppress a smile at the thought of translating this transcription (plucked from the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles Borromeo, Rome) as “What a terrible place this is”(!)  Of course that would be completely wrong. The Latin here retains the earlier meaning of “Inspiring fear (terror) or awe”.  So it would be best to translate this as “What an awe-inspiring place this is!”

A brief digression: this inscription is in fact a reference to Jacob’s exclamation after his famous dream of the ladder (Genesis 28.11-17), which the Vulgate renders as follows:

Quam terribilis, inquit, est locus iste!  Non est hic aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli.”

(How awe-inspiring this place is!  This is none other than the house of God and the doors of Heaven.)

Readers more accustomed to the pitfalls of Latin translation will perhaps think this post is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.  But if the present case is illustrative, it’s only because it is so obviously wrong to translate Terribilis as “Terrible”.  Frequently, false friends don’t bare their falsity on their sleeves.  Take the following line from Livy (9.23.10):

Stativa nostra munimento satis tuta sunt sed inopia eadem infesta.”

We might be tempted to translate this as follows: “Our camps are safe enough when it comes to walls, but they are infested with poverty.”  But Infestus here (and very often) means not “Infested” but “Exposed to, at risk of” (or, in some other cases, “Hostile”).  The camps are not overwhelmed (‘infested’) with poverty, but merely at exposed to scarcity or want.

Let this be a cautionary tale.


A colleague of mine points out that Terrible still occasionally means “Frightful” or “Awe-inspiring”.  And this is sometimes true.  Just look at how A.T. Murray translates Iliad III.336-7:

κρατι δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἰφθίμῳ κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκεν

ἵππουριν: δεινον δε λόφος καθύπερθεν ἔνευεν”

(And on his mighty head he set a well-made helmet with a horse-hair crest; and terribly did the plume nod from above.) 

Very well.  But Murray’s translation dates back to 1924; and I would be surprised if Murray didn’t have the Latin in mind when he wrote this. Still, if I tell you my helmet is terrible, will you expect me to get a new one, or will you expect drivers to cower as I merge?

Archaic Genitive

This is a minor note about a grammatical anomaly.

Reading Leonard Palmer’s classic book The Latin Language (1954, reprinted in 1988), I came across a point about a fossilised form of Early Latin.  It turns out that the -as ending of Pater familias (“Father of the family/household”) is actually an archaic genitive (p.97).

Probably this explains why Familia either does not decline in this set phrase (for instance, it has an attested genitive form of Patris familias, and of Patrem familias as accusative), or, when it does, it declines as any other first declension feminine noun (i.e. as -ae, etc.); and why it does not decline the way Latin nouns ending in -as in the nominative singular tend to  do (that is, as third declension nouns; in this case, as *Patris familiaris in the genitive).

Pater familiae is also attested.  It appears for example in Caesar’s De Bello Civili:

Quibus rebus accidit, ut pauci milites patresque familiae, qui aut gratia aut misericordia valerent aut naves adnare possent, recepti in Siciliam incolumes pervenirent.

(From these things, it came about that a few soldiers and patres familiae, who survived thanks to their influence or mercy granted to them, or who were able to swim out to the ships, were received unharmed and came into Sicily; DBC II.44)

There are a few other places where this archaic -as genitive survives, though in much older fragments.  For example, in Livius Andronicus’ (ca.284-205 B.C.) Latin translation of the Odyssey, we find this description of the muses:

Nam diva Monetas filia docuit…

(For the divine daughter of Moneta has taught…)

It would be interesting to see whether this anomalous form results in confusion in later Latin.  I wouldn’t be so surprised to find a medieval author declining it as, e.g., *Patris familiaris in the genitive (*Patrem familiarem in the accusative, etc.).  I will keep my eye out.


Work Cited

Palmer, Leonard. The Latin Language. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.