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Watch this to unpack the Gerundive (and to know how cheeky boys get told off)

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My memory of being a little boy in Italy is of being surrounded by bossy adults telling me what to do, how to do it, and what not to do.

I was a strong willed boy and I never appreciated the aggressive tones: “Go there!”; “Do this!” “Listen to me!”

The verbs used in such cases carry a name which is quite eloquent: they are called “imperatives”.

Unlike modern languages, however, classical Latin makes relatively little use of these verbs. On the contrary, it employs a verbal form which paraphrases the imperative into a more subtle expression.

Let’s soften the conversation and talk about the Gerundive.

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The Latin sentence necesse est tibi vincere translates to “it is necessary for you to win”. Such construction, however, is rather infrequent in Latin. To convey the same message, classical authors such as Cicero would most likely say: tibi vincendum est. What does this sentence mean? “it is” (est) “to be won” (vincendum) “by you” (tibi). “It is to be won by you”? What is this supposed to mean? Well, it just means: “you must win”.

The word vincendum comes from the verb vinco-ere which means to win. However, its -ndum ending makes it passive. Therefore, if vincendum means “it is to be won”, then laudandum means “it is to be praised” and mittendum ”it is to be sent”.

How should we then translate epistula mihi scribenda est ? “The letter is to be written by me” or, more idiomatically, “I must write the letter”. In this example, the gerundive scribenda agrees with the noun it refers to, epistula, in gender (feminine), case (nominative) and number (singular).

What about the following example: Caesar milites ad proditorem occidendum misit ? The first part of the sentence (Caesar misit milites) poses little trouble, it simply means “Caesar sent the soldiers”. We also see that the gerundive occidendum (meaning “to be killed”) follows proditorem which means “traitor” and is preceded by the preposition ad which means “to” or “towards”.

Let’s attempt a very literal translation: “Caesar sent soldiers to the traitor to be killed”. But what does this mean exactly? It simply means: “Caesar sent soldiers to kill the traitor”. One might well argue that the gerundive, occidendum, is no longer translated as a passive verb. Fair point. But, does this change the meaning of the sentence? It does not.

So, here is the golden rule: the ad+ gerundive construction translates the purpose clause. Therefore, ad epistulam mittendam means “to send the letter”; ad libros legendos means “to read the books” and ad bellum incipiendum means “to begin the war”

In terms of equality and human rights, we can safely assume that the Romans were not… well-versed, shall we say.

We must admit, however, that when it comes to linguistic sophistication and elaborateness well… they were second to none!

The Gerundive provides us with a more politically correct version of the imperative: the urgency of the message is still clearly conveyed, yet the language is much less aggressive. Furthermore, it makes the sentence flow more fluently and adds to the elegance of the language.

This softening of tone might also have been something the younger version of me might have appreciated all those years ago in Italy.

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