North & Hillard Ex. 198 begins: "It was already dawning when the general gave the signal, promising a great reward to the first man who climbed the walls."

The translation: "iam illucescebat cum dux signum dedit, magnum praemium ei pollicitus qui primus moenia ascenderet."

N & H gave a footnote for this section: "In such phrases the superlative must be transferred to the relative clause--"the man who first (qui primus)…" So for "he sent the most faithful slave he had," the Latin idiom is, "he sent the slave whom he had the most faithful." Also "the only man who" = "the man who alone (qui solus).)

Firstly: why must the superlative be included in the relative clause, in "De Bello Gallico" (5.44.1): "erant in ea legione fortissimi viri, centuriones, qui primis ordinibus appropinquarent..", superlative, "fortissimi", is not so included?

Secondly: N & H did not offer the translations to the footnote phrases. Have added the two (easy) ones, the longer one is trickier: "he sent the slave whom he had the most faithful". Tried: "servum misit, qui fidissimus esset eius (omnium servorum)." Here, though,"eius" would link to "qui", in the relative clause; not, to the antecedent (the slave-owner who did the sending).

Then: "servum misit, qui fidissimus esset quos possidebat (omnium servorum)." = "he sent the slave, who was the most faithful, of all the slaves, whom he owned." Here, "possidebat" is indicative because it refers to the antecedent, not the-most-faithful-slave.

The use of two relative, "qui", clauses calls this into question. The simplest things, at first sight, can tie the student up in knots!

Any thoughts, please?

  • 3
    What about Servum misit quem fidissimum haberet? I'd guess that's what N&H mean.
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 17:47
  • @TKR: In Allen & Greenough p.278 section 2(b): "servum misit quem secum habebat" = "he sent the slave whom he had with him". Does the use of the subjunctive or indicative depend on the context--what follows, meaning that both translations are correct?
    – tony
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 12:58

1 Answer 1


Their “superlative” here is just a convenient way of saying “the word primus”. Or, you might well think, an unnecessarily elegant way of saying it. It is not the superlativeness of the word which causes its transfer. It is the fact that this adjective, considered purely as an attribute of the man, is meaningless.

No man can be first. He can only be first in respect to something - in this case (and in many cases), an action. Not “the first man” but “the first man who”. He is not first full stop, he is first to perform the action. To put primus before the qui would be to imply that there is such a thing as firstness, which there isn’t.

Although primus is grammatically an adjective, its vacuity unless an action is specified leads it to be placed syntactically as if it were an adverb.

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