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Ablative Absolute

Watch this to learn about the Ablative Absolute (and to improve your chat with pals)

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I love to gossip and chatter with my friends.

Our conversations are full of short digressions, brief asides and wanderings just a little off the target. This way of speaking makes our sentences more natural and lively…more vivid and enjoyable.

In the Ancient world, both the Greeks and the Romans used these tools and produced some of the most outstanding pieces of literature ever written.

The Romans, in particular, inherited and perfected a way of condensing the meaning of a secondary clause in only a few words.

Let’s get to the point and talk about the Ablative Absolute.

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The ablative absolute is made up of two elements: a noun and a participle, both of which are in the ablative case.

The following sentence will give us a clear example: verbis auditis, Caesar Cleopatram salutavit. The second part of our sentence (Caesar Cleopatram salutavit) can be easily translated with “Caesar greeted Cleopatra”. The previous section, however, presents a noun (verbis, meaning “words”) and a past participle (auditis, from the verb audio- ire, meaning “to hear”). This construction (verbis auditis) cannot be the main clause, that would be “Caesar greeted Cleopatra”. So, how are we supposed to translate it?

Literally, verbis auditis means “with the words having been heard”. What does this mean, really? “When Caesar had heard the words”; “after Caesar had heard the words”; “since Caesar had heard the words”. Any of these translations would be correct. You may want to choose the one that better suits the context.

Likewise, the sentence duce interfecto, milites in fugam ruerunt presents another example of ablative absolute: duce (meaning “leader”) interfecto (from the verb interficio-ire, meaning “to kill”). Literally, this ablative absolute means “with the leader having been killed”. Then, we can rephrase it in several different ways: “When the leader had been killed”; “after the leader had been killed”; “since the leader had been killed”.

Both verbis auditis and duce interfecto feature a past passive participle. So, are we to assume that an ablative absolute should always feature a passive participle conjugated in the past?

In most cases it does, but not always.

Let us analyse the following example: amicis comitantibus, Caesar ad Senatum pervenit. The last section of the sentence simply means: “Caesar arrived at the Senate”. But what about amicis comitantibus? The participle here, comitantibus, is not passive, it is active and present. It comes from the verb comitor-ari and means “to accompany”. Yet, amicis comitantibus is still an ablative absolute, since both words are in the ablative case. It literally means “with his friends accompanying him”, but we can then rephrase it in a more idiomatic way, such as “when his friends were accompanying him” or “since his friends were accompanying him”.

Linguistic devices such as the Ablative Absolute allow us to express complicated and extended ideas in a concise and elegant fashion. They allow us to move in space and time without losing focus on the main content.

They allow us the flexibility to talk directly, like you might with your friends.

A solid understanding of the ablative absolute will not only help you write and translate in Latin…it might also make for better chat with your pals.

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