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.


8 thoughts on “Genitive Absolutes

  1. In both cases, Jerome has simply taken the Greek grammatical construction and rendered it 1:1 into Latin. It’s the same sort of thing that’s going on at the beginning of the Apostles Creed “Credo in unum deum.”


    1. Yes, that much is clear. Plater and White provide a catalogue of the Graecisms and Hebraisms in Vulgate Latin. From that perspective, this is just another instance of quite direct rendering of the Greek.

      But it is interesting that the gen. abs. is so much more prevalent in the Vetus Latina (not to mention the Greek). Why does Jerome render it otherwise in some places, and preserve it in others (when, according to P&W (§6) Jerome, for the most part, only revised the Epistles)? Why didn’t he render it with the abl. abs. uniformly throughout? And (and here is something I would like to know more about) does this use of the gen. abs. appear elsewhere in Late and Mediaeval Latin?


      1. Ah, I see. I apologize that I misunderstood the thrust of the question the first time around. I don’t have a good answer for that, but if I had to speculate, I think that it has something to do with the fact that both languages were actual spoken languages at the time and Jerome’s bi-lingualism. The book of Revelation, which seems to have been written by someone bilingual in a Semitic language and Greek, contains a similar pattern of uneven renderings; Mussies book on Koine Greek and Revelation contains a thorough catalog. Translation in the ancient world is one of my research areas, and so I’ll be interested to see if anybody else has any thoughts on it.

        Liked by 1 person

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