The Ablative Case in Latin

Types of Ablative: Separation| |Agent| |Comparison| |Accordance| |Material| |Origin| |Manner| |Means| |Degree of Difference| |Deponent| |Circumstantial| |Cause| |Locative: Time/Place

The Ablative Case in Latin

The Ablative Case is historically a conflation of three other cases: the true ablative or case of separation ("from"); the associative-instrumental case ("with" and "by"); and the locative case ("in"). The process of conflation has meant that originally distinct meanings have become merged and we do not always know whether a particular usage belongs to one or the other of these categories. The ablative of cause is a good example of how the different origins of the ablative case can reinforce each other. Many instances of the ablative of cause may be analyzed in two ways: e.g., vulnere mortuus est. This could be understood as "he died from a wound" (the original case of separation) or "he died by means of a wound" (the original associative-instrumental case). In fact, one sometimes finds ex vulnere mortuus est which is a clear indication that the Romans felt that "origin" and "cause" were related. Caesare duce: Similarly, this kind of ablative absolute may be analyzed as a temporal ablative (that is, a metaphorical extension of the locative case) or as an associative-instrumental ablative (for instance, in the sense of "with Caesar being the leader"). On the other hand, some uses of the ablative are precise and involve category distinctions that should not be overlooked. EXAMPLES: Caesar militibus urbam oppugnavit = "Caesar attacked the city by means of his soldiers", that is, the soldiers were his tools, the means by which he carried on his assault. Caesar cum militibus urbem oppugnavit = "Caesar attacked the city with his soldiers"; that is, he was accompanied by his soldiers in the attack. A militibus urbs oppugnata est = "The city was attacked by the soldiers"; that is, by the soldiers as volitional agents.

Major Categories of the Ablative

The True Ablative (Ablative of Separation)
All Ablatives after the prepositions ab, de, and ex are originally Ablatives of Separation. Similarly, the Ablative after a verb or separation, freeing, difference, and movement away from is also an Ablative of Separation: e.g.: metu relavatus = "relieved of [separated from] fear." Some idiomatic usages are usefully distinguished:

  1. Agent: ab + Ablative of person. The person as a volitional agent is viewed as the source or origin of the action. Translate: "by"
  2. Comparison: Ablative alone. The person or thing to which another person or thing is compared is viewed as the standard starting from which one compares: Marco Julius altior est = "[Starting from Marcus] Julius is taller than Marcus."
  3. Accordance: usually Ablative with ex. The category is especially useful because it gives you the most useful translation: e senatus consulto hoc feci. = "I did this in accordance with the senate's decree." e re publica Caesar egit. = "Caesar acted in accordance with [the interests of] the republic."
  4. Material: the material out of which something is made is put in the ablative case with or without a preposition. It is not always easy to distinguish an ablative of material (murus ex saxis factus = "a wall made from stones") from an ablative of means (murus saxis factus = "a wall made with stones").
  5. Origin:  verbs of arising, or being born imply a notion of origin; when that origin is stated it is put in the ablative case and the verb's meaning develops into "arising from" or "being born from":  invidia virtute parta gloria, non invidia est = "hatred born from virtue is glory, not hatred"

The Associative-Instrumental Ablative ("with")
The Ablative with or without the preposition cum can indicate a person, thing, or quality associated with the activity of a verb. With the preposition, the meaning is usually apparent from a simple translation of the preposition. The most usefully distinguished types of associative-instrumental ablative are:

  1. Manner. Any noun referring to qualities of action (swiftness, cleverness, praiseworthiness) can be made into an adverb with cum: cum celeritate = "quickly"; cum sapientia = "wisely".

    This usage has a peculiarity in that, when the noun is modified by an adjective, you do not need to use the preposition: magna [cum] laude = "with great praise"; magna celeritate = "very quickly".

    When the quality of the noun attends the completion of the action not its process of being completed, the best idiomatic translation is usually "to...": cum periculo Romam venit = "He came to Rome to his danger."
  2. MeansWhen a thing (or even a person) is used as an instrument or tool by another, it is placed in the ablative case without a preposition and it is translated, "by" or "by means of".

    Degree of Difference: The Ablative of Degree of difference is a development of the ablative of means: the amount of the difference being considered the means by which something is different. Consider: a wall higher by ten feet.

    with Deponents.  A special version of the ablative of means is found with the deponents:  utor, vescor, fungor, fruor, and .... These verbs were originally in the "middle voice" -- that is, the actor accomplished the action on behalf of himself. (Cf. English: "I bathe." That means, "I bathe myself" or "I get myself bathed". As an active verb, it takes an accusative object and means "I bathe someone/thing." The ablative was originally the means by which the activity of the verb was accomplished for the actor: vescor = "I get fed" graminibus = "by means of grasses" or fruor amicitia tua = "I get enjoyment by means of your friendship."
  3. Circumstantial. The ablative with or without cum may indicate the circumstances that accompany an action. This ablative may have been either originally an associative ablative or a locatival ablative. It is thought that this is the origin of the Ablative Absolute.

The Locative Ablative and Ablative of Time
The ablative after prepositions of place or time denotes location in place and time. This is to be distinguished from the accusative after the same preposition which indicates motion into, down under, toward, etc. Place: the preposition is omitted with the names of cities, towns and small islands, with a few idiomatic expressions (like terra marique, loco, regione, parte, etc.), and frequently when a noun is qualified by adjectives denoting some part of the whole: summus, imus, medius, totus, omnis, cunctus, universus. Time: the ablative of time is used to indicate 1) a point in time at which something happens, 2) a period of time during which something happens: this is similar to the accusative case and is found more frequently with negative verbs (it did not happen within this time span) than with positive verbs (it happened during this time span). Although the accusative's sense that something happens during is different from the ablative's meaning that something happens within, still one finds examples in Classical Latin of some confusion between the two: tota nocte continenter ierunt = "they travelled continually through the whole night (Caes. B.G. I. 26). ita se Africo Bello per quinque annos, ita deinde novem annis in Hispania se gessit ... = "For five years in the African way, and then for nine years in Spain he acted that way..."

The Ablative of Respect seems to have had a composite origin or was influenced at least by two different case-functions: the locative function and the instrumental function. An example that is easily assimilated to the locative function is the following: non tota re sed temporibus errasti (Cic. Phil. 2. 23) = "you were wrong not in every regard (in every thing) but in respect of you dates." On the other hand, the instrumental function seems more clearly at work in expressions like: uno oculo captus = "blind in one eye" or Cicero nomine = "Cicero by name."

The Supine in the Ablative is often identified as an Ablative of Respect: mirabile dictu = "marvelous in respect of saying"; facile factu = "easy in respect of doing". This usage is thought to arise from the Ablative of origin and that view is supported by the Supine of Source found in early authors: e.g., cubitu surgere (Cato RR 5.5) = "to arise from sleeping." However, it is clear that by the Classical period these supines had a clear affinity for the locative function of the ablative.

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