Reading the Digest (6th century, copy of 9th century), I find this sentence:

Sed si plures servum percusserint, utrum omnes quasi occiderint teneantur videamus.

One author who established the text (Mommsen in 1890 approx) transcribed it as an affirmation, then meaning:

But if several people hit the slave, then we consider that each of them is to be held liable for killing him.

One other author (Hulot, 1804) transcribed:

Sed si plures servum percusserint, utrum omnes quasi occiderint teneantur videamus?

Making it a questions meaning:

But if several people hit the slave, should we consider that each must be held liable for killing him?

I see no reason why a question mark was added and I understand the sentence as an affirmation, not as a question.

Any thoughts on this?


I read the second half of the passage like so:

utrum omnes quasi occiderint teneantur videamus
videamus, utrum omnes teneantur quasi [servum] occiderint
"let us see, whether everyone should be held as if they killed the slave"
"we will consider whether everyone is liable for killing him"

This is somewhere between the two translations you quote.

The word utrum strongly suggests that there is an indirect question. The way I parsed it, the main structure is:

videamus, utrum omnes teneantur
"let us see whether everyone is held"

Then this teneantur is further explained with quasi and occiderint. You could say that occiderint is subordinate to teneantur which is subordinate to videamus.

The rules of consecutio temporum for subordinate conjunctives are followed: The present videamus is not subordinate, but more of an optative "let us see". The verb tenere is subordinate to a present thing (videamus) and is contemporary to it, so present conjunctive is just the right thing. The verb occidere is then subordinate to it (or videamus; it doesn't matter which way you see it) but prior, so perfect conjunctive is correct.

The first quoted translation appears to be mistaken. It says that we consider everyone to be liable, whereas the original says that we consider whether everyone is liable. It turns an indirect question to a statement — an unknown matter to a known one. The original text does not comment whether they are all liable, just that it should be looked into.

The second quoted translation cuts a corner short. It replaces "let us see whether they are liable" with "are they liable?", and this simplification makes sense to me. I would consider this reasonable streamlining, but it depends on the surrounding context.

  • llmavirta: Penultimate para: "It turns an indirect Q to a statement--an unknown to a known. The...., just that it should be looked into." If it is "known" it does not need to "be looked into". Concluding: is it a Q; or, a statement; or, could it be argued both ways?
    – tony
    Jul 4 '19 at 16:06
  • @tony It is an indirect question. There is a question: "Are they all liable?" There is a statement about the question: "We should look into this question." This is how indirect questions work, by making a statement about a question. It is a statement about a question, not a question in itself. Syntactically, it is a statement, not a question. As mentioned in the last paragraph, the semantic difference is very small in this case.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 4 '19 at 16:34
  • llmavirta: Agreed, thanks.
    – tony
    Jul 4 '19 at 17:07
  • 2
    Great answer: I did a quick search for the text that follows, and it looks at different possibilities (e.g. whether or not we can determinate the final blow that actually killed the slave), which agrees with the interpretation that this is the beginning, not the conclusion, of an answer.
    – brianpck
    Jul 5 '19 at 15:02

Wait for someone expert to give you an expert answer, but as someone whose Latin dates from the last millennium I’d say that both utrum and the subjunctive would push me towards an interrogative interpretation. There certainly ought to be a sense of “whether” in there somewhere. Not necessarily going as far as Hulot and putting an explicit question mark.

On the basis of the isolated sentence you quoted, my inclination would be that we should not be considering that each of them killed the slave (Mommsen). Rather, we should be considering whether all of them killed him.

In the end it all depends on the general style of the work you are quoting from. Legal texts, like liturgical ones, are usually highly repetitive in terms of structure and syntax, so that a wider context is the key to understanding. For instance, I don’t know if this is one of a series of bullet points or a heading that introduces a passage.

If you could bear to make the effort, editing your question to give a wider context could be a help to the real experts on here.


When in doubt translate literally: "....whether (utrum; would normally expect "necne" = "whether-or-not") we may consider (videamus) as if (quasi) all (omnes) are to be included (teneantur: alt: are-to-be-held [responsible])--they definitely killed (him)."

This strikes me as an indirect question; if so, that explains why it is not completed with a question-mark. Therefore, it could be argued that it is both a question and a statement.

In the Law, such an action (more than one person) may be considered a conspiracy. This takes any crime to a much higher level of seriousness. Would that colour the translation; am not qualified to comment?

  • I don't think the perfect subjunctive has anything to do with whether something definitely happened: it's just the tense you use in a primary sequence for a completed action.
    – brianpck
    Jul 5 '19 at 14:57
  • @brianpck: Checked with text: it's in consecutive clauses that perf.subj. is used to stress the fact that the result did actually happen (or, if negative, did not happen). In indirect Qs, the intro is by an interrogative and the verb is in the subj. (using the same tense as in English; here, the perfect). Changed it.
    – tony
    Jul 5 '19 at 16:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.