Chapter 20

Gerunds and Gerundives, the Supine

The origins of the gerund and gerundive are not entirely clear. Their similarity in form may even be to some extent coincidental, since they perhaps evolved separately. The terms are derived from gero, gerere, gessi, gestum 3, presumably in the sense “to do”. The enigmatic Virgilius Maro Grammaticus suggests that “gerund(ive)s are so called because they are forced to bear [gerere] a burden for which they are not designed by nature”. This explanation is either a joke, the point of which is now lost, or a wild guess; it is in any case quite useless. The present participle in the Romance languages developed not only, as one might assume, from the equivalent Latin form, but also from the ablative of the gerund.

The gerund occurs only in the oblique cases, i.e. not in the nominative (or vocative). (The casus obliqui “the slanting cases” are the cases which decline from the nominative, sometimes termed the casus rectus “the upright case”.) The infinitive supplies the function of the gerund in the nominative case, and also in the accusative except when a preposition is used. It is conventional to refer to gerunds in the accusative case, rather than the genitive; e.g. amandum is the gerund of amo 1.

It is difficult to give a wholly adequate translation for the gerundive without a wider context, since most constructions with the gerundive are not closely matched in English. “Being -ed” is not entirely satisfactory, since it suggests that the gerundive is a present participle passive. The gerundive is sometimes classified as a future participle passive; that usage, however, is largely confined to late antiquity, and the notion of futurity is misleading for most applications of the form. When the gerundive is used to express obligation, “to be -ed” would be a better translation.

Whereas it is not surprising that the gerund of deponent verbs is active in sense, like that of all other verbs, it may seem to run somewhat counter to the nature of deponent verbs that their gerundive is passive in sense, like that of all other verbs; e.g. porcus meus omnibus mirandus est “My pig is to be admired by everyone” = “Everyone should admire my pig”, in cavernam lupus porcis non sequendus est “The wolf is not to be followed into the cave by the pigs” = “The pigs should not follow the wolf into the cave”.

Since gerundives are passive in sense, the intransitive ire has only the impersonal neuter eundum; see Chapter 28. For the irregular form of the gerund(ive) of ire, compare the present participle, iens, euntis.

The gerundive developed later than the gerund, was never frequent, as far as we can tell, in colloquial Latin, and lost popularity in the post-classical period; even so, it has been calculated that Cicero, by far the most influential prose stylist, has 2048 gerundives to 1020 gerunds.

Greek has verb forms equivalent to the Latin gerund and gerundive, but they are much less frequently used, in part because the addition of the appropriate case of the neuter singular of the fully declinable definite article allows the infinitive to function much as a gerund does in Latin. Cicero playfully invents a hybrid form of the gerund: φιλοσοφητέον (philosopheteon) … et istos consulatus non flocci facteon “We must be philosophical, and not care at all for those consulships” (Letters to Atticus 1.16.13).

Describing a German uprising, Tacitus wrote soluto iam castelli obsidio et ad sua tutanda degressis rebellibus ‘When the rebels had given up besieging the fort and had gone off to ensure the safety of their own possessions’ (Annals 4.73). At Geography 2.11.12, in his account of Germany, Ptolemy corrupts ad sua tutanda to the name of a non-existent place, Σιατουτάνδα (Siatoutanda).

In HIC IACET CORPVS PVERI NOMINANDI Here lies the body of a child whose name is to be added (L’Année Epigraphique [1931] no. 112), the stonemason has carelessly copied on to a tombstone the general rubric for such memorials, instead of adding the dead child’s actual name. It is perhaps unduly charitable to suppose that thought he was commemorating a child called Nominandus.

Cicero was murdered on December 7 43 BC in the proscriptions of the Second Triumvirate, his name having been added to the proscription lists by Mark Antony, whom he had attacked vehemently in his Philippic orations. He will, however, have regretted the witty gerundives which he directed against Octavian. In a letter dated May 24 43 BC, Decius Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar, reports to Cicero that Octavian held nothing against him except his remark that “the young fellow [i.e. the 19 year old Octavian] should be praised, honored and extolled” laudandum adulescentem, ornandum, tollendum (a play on two senses of tollo, tollere, sustuli, sublatum 3, “to raise up [to glory]” and “remove” [= “do away with”] (Letters to his Friends 11.20). Octavian was only 19 at the time of Caesar’s assassination, and he was so sensitive about his youth that the Senate decreed that he should not be addressed as puer, lest the dignity (maiestas) of his great authority be diminished (Servius’ commentary on Vergil Eclogues 1.42).

Ecclesiastes 3.1ff. offers the largest concentration of gerunds, a simple but beautiful passage:

1 omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo:

2 tempus nascendi et tempus moriendi; tempus plantandi et tempus evellendi quod plantatum est;

3 tempus occidendi et tempus sanandi; tempus destruendi et tempus aedificandi;

4 tempus flendi et tempus ridendi; tempus plangendi et tempus saltandi;

5 tempus spargendi lapides et tempus colligendi; tempus amplexandi et tempus longe fieri a complexibus;

6 tempus acquirendi et tempus perdendi; tempus custodiendi et tempus abiciendi;

7 tempus scindendi et tempus consuendi; tempus tacendi et tempus loquendi.

Caesar’s Commentaries on his exploits in Gaul are written with a craftily studied simplicity. For all their simplicity, however, they cannot be read till one has a thorough understanding of the gerundive; note, for example:

Caesari omnia uno tempore erant agenda: vexillum proponendum, quod erat insigne, cum ad arma concurri oporteret; signum tuba dandum; ab opere revocandi milites; qui paulo longius aggeris petendi causa processerant arcessendi; acies instruenda; milites cohortandi; signum dandum (Bellum Gallicum 2.20).

Although there would appear to be a general preference for the gerundive construction, such heavy phrasing as in hortum exii hórum duórum flórum meórum pulchrórum carpendórum causa is not usual. “When they make too frequent use of the same cases or tenses or rhythms or feet, I always advise my students to vary the way they express their ideas, so that they can avoid monotony” (Quintilian, Education of the Orator 9.1.11). In his Gallic Wars, Caesar, a very careful writer, seems to follow a gerundive with a gerund precisely in order to avoid such an unattractive repetitive genitive gerundive construction: Germanis neque consilii habendi neque arma capiendi (rather than armorum capiendorum) spatium datum est “The Germans were not given a chance either to devise a plan or to take up their weapons” (4.14). Ennius, Trag. frg. 311 quicquam quisquam +quemquam+ quemque quisque conueniat neget is criticized at Rhetor ad Herennium 4.18 and repeatedly by the grammarians, as is Annals frg. 498 flentes, plorantes, lacrumantes, commiserantes, and Cicero, Carm. frg. 8 Courtney o fortunatam natam me consule Romam! was notorious not only for its arrogance but also for its assonance (cf. esp. Quintilian, Education of the Orator 9.4.41, 11.1.24, Juvenal 10.122ff., Diomedes, Grammatica 1.465f.); at Marriage of Philology and Mercury 5.518, Martianus Capella cites fortissimorum, proximorum fidelissimorumque sociorum from an unknown source as an unfortunate combination.

Despite such strictures, however, apparently clumsy repetitions are found throughout Latin poetry; cf. e.g. Ennius, Annals 260 haud quaquam quemquam semper fortuna secuta est, Plautus, Pseudolus 134 quorum numquam quicquam quoiquam uenit in mentem, Catullus 73.1 Desine de quoquam quicquam bene uelle mereri, 99.15f. quam quoniam poenam misero proponis amori,/numquam iam posthac basia surripiam, Lucretius 2.1148 (and 11 further instances) nequiquam quoniam, Ovid, Amores 2.2.52 nec quemquam, quamvis audiat illa, iuvat, Metamorphoses 1.185 nam quamquam ferus hostis erat.

Latin and Greek are distinctly in the minority among IndoEuropean literatures in making so little use of rhyme in poetry. It is not accidental that Vergil’s internally rhyming line limus ut hic durescit, et haec ut cera liquescit “As this mud hardens, and as this wax melts” (Eclogues 8.80) occurs in a magic charm, since rhyme is typical of incantations; e.g. the prayer terra pestem teneto, salus hic maneto “May the earth keep the disease, may health remain here”, recorded by Varro. It would be facetious and false to assume that the languages’ heavy use of inflection made rhyming too easy to provide poets with a challenge to their artistry. When Latin did turn to rhyme in Christian liturgy, it had an undeniable power, as in the Dies irae, ascribed to Thomas of Celano, a friend of St. Francis of Assisi:

“Day of anger, that day will dissolve the world in ashes, with David and the Sibyl as witnesses. What great trembling there is going to be, when the judge comes to examine everything minutely! The trumpet, spreading its wonderful sound through the tombs in every region, will drive everyone in front of the throne. Death and nature will be amazed, when all creation is resurrected to answer the one judging them etc.”

John Coleridge, A Critical Latin Grammar London (1772), p. 152: “Supines are so called from supina, careless, idle, because they seldom come into Use, being supplied by the other Parts of the Verb”. I have not found a better explanation.

The accusative of the supine was originally an accusative of “motion towards”, like Romam “to Rome”, domum “homewards”, rus “to the countryside” (see Chapter 15).

The ablative of the supine was a linguistic fossil by the classical period, confined largely to a few set phrases. (Although it is conventional to describe the second case of the supine as an ablative, there is some justification for considering it a dative.) natu is frequently omitted with maior, maximus, minor, minimus.