Particular Uses of Cases

The list of idiomatic uses of cases without prepositions given in this chapter might have been extended much further. (In Hermann Menge’s Lehrbuch der lateinischen Syntax und Semantik, the standard authority for German students of Latin, the ablative alone is analysed under thirty-six different headings. This number would have been greater, were Menge’s examples not drawn very largely from just two prose writers, Cicero and Caesar.) Only the most important usages are discussed here. Many of the others can easily be understood from their context.

It may at first seem confusing that case-endings should be used to convey so many different senses, but a little experience quickly leads us to expect particular senses for particular cases when we encounter them in particular settings; e.g. verbs meaning “value” or “buy” are regularly accompanied by a noun in the genitive or ablative respectively. A Roman would presumably have had much the same initial difficulty with the many and various uses to which prepositions are put in Romance languages, which have largely dispensed with inflection.

Consider, for example, the different senses of de in the following simple Spanish sentence, a translation of “A thousand men could steal a thousand pigs from the piggeries of Blandings Castle at two o’clock in the afternoon” (P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Chapter 13):

The partitive genitive is also known, rather more accurately, as the genitive of the whole.

These examples may help clarify the distinction between the subjective and objective genitive:

plenus, -a, -um can be constructed with an objective genitive (plena aquae est urna) or with an ablative of means (plena aqua est urna). (Quintilian suggests that this use of the ablative is a relatively recent development [Education of the Orator 9.3.1].) The genitive and ablative of description are also largely interchangeable, the main difference being that the genitive was not used in the classical period with reference to physical characteristics. Such doublet-idioms are fairly rare in Latin, in which the choice of case is usually very rigid and distinct. (Sanskrit, on the other hand, is remarkable in the freedom which it allows in interchange between cases.) Latin restricts the various cases to rather more sharply defined uses than does either Greek or Sanskrit.

Other words used in this idiom signifying worthlessness are naucus, -i masc. (or naucum, -i neut.) 2, “a thing of little value” and pilus, -i masc. 2, “a hair”; hence floccinaucinihilipilification, which was the longest word in the first edition of the OED, and which, rather curiously, does not use the letter e, though that is the commonest letter both in English and in Latin. nihil is a compound of the negative prefix ne- and hilum, -i neut. 2 “a small quantity”. The origin of hilum is unknown. Varro speculates that it may refer to the pithy core of the stem of the asphodel plant (Fragments of Roman Grammar 362, 429). Elsewhere, however, he equates hilum with filum “thread” (On the Latin Language 5.113). Isidore (Origines 19.29.5) repeats this association, adding that fila may be so called because they are made ex pilis animalium “from the hair [pilus, -i masc. 2] of animals”. It may therefore be that nihili facere is a technologically more sophisticated alternative to both flocci facere and pili facere.

The dative of reference is also known as the dative of advantage or disadvantage.

The predicate dative is so-called because it is used as a predicate, defining the subject in much the same way as do the adjective pinguis and the noun animal in the sentences porcus est pinguis “The pig is fat” and porcus est animal “A pig is an animal”. It is sometimes known as the dative of purpose. (Some grammars, perhaps over-subtly, distinguish two separate idioms.) Since the predicate dative is almost always accompanied by a dative of reference, the idiom is also known as the double dative construction. Although more than two hundred nouns are used occasionally as predicate datives, only those used most frequently are listed in this chapter.

A noun which is commonly used as a predicate dative is rarely used as a predicate in the nominative, even though the meaning would be much the same; Vergil, who uses exitio as a predicate dative three times elsewhere, has idem (see Chapter 17) amor exitium pecori pecorisque magistro “The same love is a destruction to the flock and to the master of the flock” at Eclogues 3.101. (He may have wished to avoid internal rhyme [see the Fetutinae to Chapter 20] with exitio ... magistro.)

The legal principle cui bono? is applied as a way of establishing who had most to gain from a crime. The phrase is frequently supposed to mean “for what good?”, cui being construed as an interrogative adjective (see Chapter 18) qualifying bono. In fact, the predicate dative is rarely qualified by adjectives other than magnus and parvus, and cui is an interrogative pronoun (see Chapter 18) in the dative (of respect): “To whom (is it for) an advantage?” This famous principle was attributed by Cicero to Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla (“Dark Eyes”), a leading jurist of the 2nd century BC.

When a Roman knight was accused of swearing a false oath by the divinity of Augustus, Tiberius ruled that his father had not been deified in order for that honor to be used to destroy citizens. In any case, the gods could look after themselves: deorum iniuriae deis curae (Tacitus, Annals 1.73, literally “Wrongs done to gods [objective genitive] are [for] a concern [predicate dative] to the gods [dative of reference]”).

Distinguish the accusative of exclamation o porcum pigrum! “What a lazy pig!” from the vocative address o porce piger! “You lazy pig!” The nominative is sometimes used instead of the accusative in exclamations: o porcus piger!

The accusative of respect is also known as the Greek accusative, because it was first used frequently by the poets of the Augustan period in imitation of Greek.