I have this sentence (written by Ulpianus in Digest 9.2.5) :

Sed et si quemcumque alium ferro se petentem quis occiderit

But if someone (quis) killed anyone else (quemcumque alium) when assaulting with a sword (ferro).

However, I don't understand the word se here. It's not reflective as one person kills another.

Can anyone explain the se?

Gratias vobis ago.


The se refers to the subject of the main verb occiderit.

In general, se can refer to the subject of the verb whose object it is, or a verb dominating that verb. When reading a subordinate clause or anything similar, bear in mind that suus or se can refer to subjects further away. Grammar does allow you to read it so that someone pursued himself with a sword, but that reading makes far less sense than the alternative. (For some reason that reminds me of a dog chasing its own tail, but fortunately they do so unarmed.)

Here is a simplification that should make the structure clearer in case someone has trouble parsing the whole thing:

Aliquis virum se ferro petentem occidit.
Someone slayed a man pursuing him with a sword.

Here se refers to aliquis, not virum.

  • is 'ferro se petentem' a subordinate? I.e. the sentense "Si quemcumque alium quis occiderit" is correct : if someone (quis) killed someone else (quemcumque alium) and about that someone else, the author added : "ferro petentem" (asaulting with a sword) "se" (him). Is that understanding correct? – thiebo Jun 29 '19 at 17:59
  • @thiebo I'd say it's not really a subordinate clause but "anything similar". The point is that the dominating verb is occiderit, so se together with another verb can refer to either subject. Your way of parsing the structure is indeed correct. Leaving the se out at first and only finding a place for it in the bigger picture afterwards is a good way to approach this. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 29 '19 at 18:18

In the Q, adding "him": "...when assaulting him "se" ("him" being the first person, referred to by "quis", which explains why the reflexive pronoun is used, in an indirect statement).

An alternative translation: "But even if anyone kills another, who is attacking him, with a sword...".

If the attacker brandished his sword at a third party; then, a demonstrative pronoun would be used: "...ferro eum petentem quis occiderit…".

A further example: The Romans said that they (i.e. they themselves) would come = Romani dixerunt se venturos esse.

If, however, the Romans said that they (i.e. some other people) would come:

Romani dixerunt eos venturos esse.

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