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When providing answers to some apparently basic questions (e.g., cf. Tom Cotton's and mine in Mihi legendum/legenda est? & Why use nominative in Coniugatio periphrastica passiva? , respectively), a new question (in fact, an old one) came to my mind after reading Tom's answer.

Here is the relevant example:

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus (Horace, Odes, Book 1, Poem XXXVII).

It is clear that pulsanda is (a predicative) gerundive (sc. est), but what about bibendum? Is it a gerundive ("Now one must drink", "Now there is a need for drinking/to drink", "Now there must be drinking" or "Now it is necessary to drink", i.a.) or is it a gerund ("Now it is time to drink", "Now there is time for drinking"", i.a.).

If bibendum is a gerund, as Tom and other scholars have claimed, which form does this verbal noun take? Nominative? What about its alleged modal meaning? If bibendum is (a predicative) gerundive in an impersonal construction (which is, for example, Woodcock's (1959: 159) claim in his A New Latin Syntax; see my answer above), what about its alleged passive meaning?

Interestingly, Woodcock, who claims that it is a gerundive, gives examples from Early Latin where the relevant form takes a direct object, which could be taken as more compatible with the gerund analysis (e.g., Pl. Trin. 869 agitandum est vigilias ; cf. the more usual/Classical construction: Agitandae sunt vigiliae). Notice however that Woodcock does give a translation that is in agreement with the modal meaning of a gerundive: "One must keep watch".

Could you please give your favorite translation of Nunc est bibendum? Most of the abovementioned ones are quite horrible (especially, the ones related to the gerundive interpretation, which is, by the way, the analysis I've always assumed as valid, perhaps erroneously).

  • Many thanks, Joonas! Indeed, that topic (Did the gerundive develop out of the gerund or did the process go the other way around?) has generated a lot of discussion in the specialized literature. As far as I know, no clear conclusion has been reached yet. One work I found interesting is that by Miller (2000) (see below), who claims, among other things, that “The oldest documents in Italic and Latin support the hypothesis that the gerundive is older than the gerund + ACC object”. ingentaconnect.com/content/jbp/dia/2000/00000017/00000002/… – Mitomino May 19 at 21:23
  • Oh! That'd make an interesting answer to the linked question. Pointing out that the matter is controversial and briefly describing one or two suggested theories would be nice; I don't expect a conclusive answer to all questions. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 19 at 23:11
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I strongly incline to the view that bibendum is a gerundive, not only because it is paired with an unambiguous gerundive, but also because the context demands some kind of obligation, a notion not communicated by gerunds. I understand the gerund to have the same modal force as the infinitive (which explains its absence in the nominative), so I don't think a gerund could communicate the meaning "time for X" unless in the genitive: Nunc est [tempus] bibendi.

If the passivity of the gerundive seems awkward in these cases, I don't think it's any more awkward than other Latin impersonal passives: persuasum est, pugnatum est, etc. In these cases, the passive morphology is employed not as a true passive but as a promotion of the occurrence of the act (forget the technical term). I understand the impersonal gerundive as this same kind of event promotion, but with the added modal force of obligation/necessity.

My translation would be something like: "Drinking needs to happen right now."

  • I agree with you except in the following: "I don't think it's any more awkward than other Latin impersonal passives: persuasum est, pugnatum est, etc". It seems that Moriendum est nobis is perfect compared to Mortuum est beate, which is ill-formed. So something different happens here. NB: pugnare is an unergative intransitive verb (so it can form impersonal passives like Pugnatum est. In contrast, mori is an unaccusative verb (so it cannot form impersonal passives like Mortuum est beate 'One died happily'). E.g., see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impersonal_passive_voice – Mitomino May 19 at 18:59
  • @Mitomino That's a good point, and I hope digging into that yields some insight. My point was that, since Latin elsewhere uses passive morphology not to communicate passivity but to promote event, I have no problem with the gerundive, a passive form, being employed analogously. – Kingshorsey May 19 at 19:14
  • In fact, I raised the {moriendum/*mortuum} est contrast in another post (latin.stackexchange.com/questions/9379/… ). Basically, one cannot make a passive construction out of an unaccusative verb like mori, whose subject is a patient; in contrast, one can make a passive out of an unergative verb like pugnare, whose subject is an agent. Now the question is: Moriendum est is an impersonal construction but is it a passive construction? I don't think so. – Mitomino May 19 at 19:26
  • @Mitomino. I agree. The basic issue seems to me to be that the two sets of forms commonly called "active" and "passive" are not sufficient to differentiate all the various combinations of agent, patient, event, etc. So, the passive morphology gets pressed into a number of functions not covered by a simple active-passive polarity. That's why it doesn't bother me to claim that the passive morphology of the gerundive is pressed into other uses. By contrast, I find it very difficult to believe that the gerund suddenly acquires modal force it nowhere else evinces. – Kingshorsey May 19 at 19:38
  • Yes, it is true that the proponents that bibendum is a gerund in this example must face two problems: (1) its use as nominative when this usage does not otherwise appear, and (2) there seems to be no other instance where the gerund has the modal notions of necessity or obligation. But at the same time it is true that examples like Plautus's above are problematic if agitandum is a gerundive form, as Woodcock claims. In my view, his appealing to the claim that vigilias is a sort of "accusative of relation" is not a good explanation. – Mitomino May 19 at 19:52
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This is a synchronic answer, pertaining only to classical Latin, as I believe the use of gerunds and gerundives was subject to some change praeclassically; what is more, they may have once been the same thing, or one may have been born from the other. So it would not make sense for me, especially without enough information, to distinguish between them in archaeic Latin or earlier. Looking at agitandum est vigilias, one might call that a mixed Ur-form of sorts.

Summary of my position: this construction is generally considered by classicists to be a nominative gerundive.


The main reason is its modality: there is no way to translate nunc est bibendum without a flavour of obligation or similar; gerunds by themselves never have a sense of obligation. This suggests that it cannot be a gerund. As a check, I went through all the instances of bibendum in the HP corpus where it is used in the relevant construction: in each case, a modal translation seems to be required. Example:

uitandi acres cibi, lacte uinoque pingui utendum, bibendumque liberalius quam edendum est
"one must drink more liberally than one must eat" (not: "one drinks more liberally")
— Celsus, De Medicina 6.6.15b

Your translation "?now it is time to drink" does not seem possible to me: how can a translation "time to" be found within the gerund? One would rather translate it as "*this is drinking" or "*drinking is thus".

In addition, an -ndum word is never used as the subject of a verb with a non-modal translation: to express "drinking is this", I believe classical authors always used the infinitive, bibere hoc est. (The same applies to direct objects, which are never gerunds but always infinitives, i.e. incipio bibendumincipio bibere.) Example:

radicem decoctam bibere spasticis, eversis, convulsis, suspiriosis salutare est
"drinking root extract is salutary" (notice the agreement of salutare with the neuter infinitive)
— Plinius the Elder, Naturalis Historia 21.132

In other words: whenever you come across an -ndum form as the subject of a verb, I believe you will find that you need a modal translation of sorts. In yet other words: the only time writers used the construction in question is precisely when they wanted to express this modality; when they didn't, they used the infinitive.

As to passivity, it is not uncommon to use the passive in impersonal constructions, with a neuter participle where applicable: Romam itur "one goes to Rome" (or, more liberally, "we/they/etc. go to Rome"). Cognitum est "it was thought". This is the same type of construction, for we have 1.) a passive, 2.) a neuter nominative, and 3.) no agent except as a dativus auctoris (cf. [uncommon] cognitum est nobis "we thought"). It might even be a feature of Indo-European, cf. Dutch er werd gegaan "[there was gone]" => "one went", and English "it was decided that...".

Its similarity to (other) gerundive constructions also points in the gerundive direction:

bibendum est "[there is to be drunk]" (= "one must drink")
bibendum est vinum "wine is to be drunk" (= "one must drink wine")
bibendum vinum dedi "I gave wine to be drunk" (= "I gave wine that must be drunk / to drink")

All of these are common, and they share the same praedicate frames except where complements are absent. Any substantive noun agreeing with the -ndum word takes the same thematic role as would the object in an active sentence: the role is theme here, vinum bibit → vinum bibendum est. This is itself a clear sign of passivity (cf. passive participles). Any dative takes the same thematic role as would the subject in an active sentence: the role is agent here, nos vinum bibimus → nobis vinum bibendum est). The dativus auctoris is another sign of passivity. When you apply the construction to some other verb, you will notice the same telling transformation of praedicate frames. This is not at all similar to (other) gerund constructions, which have very different transformations of the praedicate frame.

As to its case, the nominative would seem our only option, since the verb sum takes only nominative complements. Further, when you keep the same praedicate frame but add a subject, such as vinum or pocula, the -nd- form changes along with it, always to agree with the subject, in the nominative: pocula bibenda sunt.

It is probably best considered a dominant construction (à la Caesar occisus senatoribus placet); for the real message here is not "there is wine, which must be drunk", but "the drinking of wine must be done". This is just as in other gerundive constructions. It also explains perceived similarities to the gerund: mordebatur in floribus carpendis ("she was bitten during the picking of flowers", not "during the flowers to be picked") means the same thing as in flores carpendo because the gerundive, an adjective, is used dominantly there, i.e. as if it were a substantive noun—and a substantive "plucking" is a gerund. Dominancy is a bit more difficult to sense in the impersonal construction; but, if we did assume this construction to be dominant as well, that would make the construction seem more 'logical'.

As to translations, one often supplies a logical agent from context: "Now let us drink!". An imperative is also possible: "Now drink!". Add "all ye" for fun?

  • Many thanks, Cerberus, for your detailed answer. I agree with you in all you've said except in two points: (i) Is the impersonal construction Bibendum est passive? (if it was passive, I think the following contrast would be unexpected: cf. the well-formedness of Moriendum est nobis with the ill-formedness of Mortuum est beate (see my comments below Kingshorsey's answer); (ii) I agree with you that Mordebatur in floribus carpendis is a very good example of a "dominant participle" but I'm unable to see how this notion aplies to the predicative impersonal Nunc est bibendum. – Mitomino May 20 at 16:55
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I don't wish to pose as an expert in this sort of grammatical analysis, and perhaps should remain silent here. However, I like to regard the opening three words nunc est bibendum as a kind of stand-alone introduction, a way of declaring the fact of celebration: 'Now there is drinking', leading to a description of the festivities and their cause. Thus it seems to me that the verbal noun —the gerund — is appropriately used by the poet. It is, if you like, the Ockham's Razor solution, avoiding anything needlessly elaborate. (I wonder, incidentally, why we don't see iam rather than nunc — but that's another question.)

The earliest translation that I know, and the first that I ever read, is the beautifully lyrical version of Philip Francis, made in the 18th century. It may be my bad luck, but I have come across no other that improves on this expression of Horace's sentiment. It is still my favourite:

Now let the Bowl with Wine be crown'd/Now lighter dance the merry Round,/And let the sacred Couch be flor'd/With the rich Dainties of a priestly Board …

  • Many thanks, Tom, for your answer, and, especially, for sharing your favourite translation with us. As a Romance speaker (I'm Catalan), probably I'm unable to fully appreciate all the details of this poetic translation as I would like to, but thanks for this beautifully lyrical version. – Mitomino May 20 at 16:41
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If "bibendum" is a gerundive, it seems to be accepted as such, then "bibendum est" is neuter, impersonal (no noun): "it-ought-to-be-drunk"; "it", presumably, any liquid that appeals to the speaker, and his pals; giving: "it (e.g. the wine)-ought-to-be-drunk". So "the-(drink)-it-ought-to-be-drunk"; literally correct; though it includes a near-subject, "drink"--the noun; thus violating the rules (which clearly were not rigidly enforced in Classical Latin) on the impersonal (Priscianus & Sanctius).

Of course, this is not good English. Blosius: "si moriendum erit, moriar amicis fidelis." So "If I must die, let me die loyal to my friends."

The neuter, impersonal, gerundive construction: "(si) moriendum erit" giving: "(If) I must die"; "(if) it-will-have-to-be-death" (literal); "(If) ONE-WILL-HAVE-TO-DIE"; which is more acceptable English; the English impersonal pronoun, "one" (is there a Spanish equivalent) links to the Latin impersonal gerundive; here, moriendum.

Returning to our favourite expression: "nunc est Bibendum"; giving: "NOW ONE MUST DRINK"; which must be the best, most apposite translation of this, from the myriad of offers over two millenia!

Analysis: it is impersonal ("one") with no trace, or need of a subject; it carries the sense-of-obligation given by a gerundive ("must"); it conveys the-spirit-of-the-age ("drink"--the verb), as Horace was anticipating wild celebrations, in Rome, after the fall of Cleopatra (& Antonius).

The only element missing is the passive nature of the gerundive; but, English translators seem to render such passive constructions, in an active sense; otherwise it would require a return to "it-ought-to-be...".

At first sight, didn't rate this translation. In the North of England the impersonal pronoun "one" is rarely used, except by the most highly-educated; people would look askance in a "who-do-you-think-you-are" way (Spanish equivalent?). But it all appears to fit (almost). So, does yourself now have satisfaction?

  • If I've understood your answer correctly, what you're saying is that Bibendum est is ambiguous between two interpretations: (a) an impersonal construction (the one relevant here) and (b) a personal construction where the elliptical subject is neuter (e.g., some liquid). This second reading is not appropriate for the present context but, yes, it could be appropriate in another one. A gerundive form would be involved in both cases. – Mitomino May 23 at 14:58
  • @Mitomino: In the neuter, impersonal, gerundive, bibendum, "it-is-to-be-drunk": so, "it" means nothing (impersonal); or, it is an oblique reference to the alcoholic delights, on offer; or, it is a nebulous allusion to the circumstances. Horace, in 30BC., after the fall of Cleopatra (& Antony) was contemplating great celebrations. Now, it(?) is to be drunk--let's party! – tony May 27 at 14:36
  • @Mitomino: Continuing: the quote from Blosius, in a previous answer: "si moriendum erit…" giving "If it-will-have-to-be-death..."; does "it" mean nothing; or, does it refer, however tenuously, to the circumstances? – tony May 27 at 14:43
  • @Mitomino: A contributory factor, to the confusion, may arise from "vinum" being neuter. In the personal: "vinum bibendum est" = "the wine: it-ought-to-be-drunk"; and, the impersonal, the gerundive is the same word, by definition. – tony May 27 at 14:52
  • When dealing with impersonal constructions like "Moriendum est", "Pugnatum est", "Bibendum est", "Curritur", one often assumes that there is no meaningful subject there. However, it is perhaps interesting to point out that Priscianus and some grammarians from the Renaissance period (e.g., Sanctius, called "El Brocense") did claim that these constructions are not impersonal but have an elliptical meaningful subject. For example, "Curritur" was interpreted by them as "Cursus curritur ". As far as I know, this analysis is not pursued any longer by contemporary linguists. – Mitomino May 27 at 16:53

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