I was wondering to what extent the syntactic distribution of so-called “datives of agent” and that of “ablatives of agent” is different. For example, besides appearing in verbal contexts (e.g., Proelium ab equitibus commissum est), ablatives of agent can also be found in non-verbal constructions like the following ones (the first example is an Ablative Absolute construction and the second one is a dominant participle construction):

a. Commisso ab equitibus proelio, ... (Caes. Civ. 1.41).
b. post civitatem a Lucio Bruto liberatam (Cic. Phil. 5,17)

My question is whether “datives of agent” can also be found in these non-verbal contexts. My intuition is that they can’t: i.e., in an example like His rebus deliberatis mihi,… the dative mihi cannot be understood as an "agent" but only as a beneficiary. In contrast, in a verbal context like Mihi hoc est deliberatum, the dative pronoun can indeed be understood as the one who has carried out the deliberation. Hence its traditional label of "dative of agent".

Something similar, I think, happens when dealing with non-verbal passive contexts that include a gerundive (NB: the following examples are not Ablative Absolute constructions but exemplify the same restriction above). Again my intuition, which could of course be wrong, is that only by-phrases with Ablative case are possible in these (non-verbal) contexts:

a. De mercenariis testibus a suis civitatibus notandis… (Cic. Ad Fam. 3, 11, 3)

b. De provinciis ab iis qui obtinerent retinendis… (Cic. Ad Fam. 12, 22).

Interestingly, contrary to what one could infer from reading Latin grammars where it is asserted that the dative is the agent in periphrastic passives with gerundives, a dative is not to be found in those non-verbal passive contexts containing a gerundive (e.g., cf. the well-formedness of the (b) example above with the ill-formedness of *De provinciis iis-dat qui obtinerent retinendis). Notice that these two examples are interesting since they involve a gerundive in a clearly passive context and the alleged "dative of agent" is impossible!

As is well-known, the "agent" in gerundive passives is often said to be expressed by a dative (e.g., Carthago delenda est nobis). Some exceptions to this rule are typically “explained (away)” in Latin grammars by saying that the ablative of agent is possible to differentiate complements (e.g., Quibus est a vobis consulendum (Cic. Man. 6)) or to maintain a syntactic parallelism (e.g., Nec, si a populo praeteritus est quem non oportuit, a iudicibus condemnandus est qui praeteritus non est (Cic. Plan. 3, 8)). However, as evidenced by the two previous examples from Cicero's letters, it seems that this traditional description is not accurate/complete enough. One could perhaps object that an alleged example like *De provinciis iis qui obtinerent retinendis is to be avoided for ambiguity/processing reasons: the dative iis could be interpreted as associated to the ablative provinciis, causing a "perceptual muddle". However, I think this simplistic functionalist explanation, which is, by the way, the one provided by Philip Baldi (1983: 21-22) in his work "Speech perception and grammatical rules in Latin" (in H. Pinkster (ed.) (1983). Latin linguistics and linguistic theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins), is wrong and does not account for the structural prohibition I'm dealing with here: my intuition is that an example like De provincia iis qui obtinerent retinenda, where there is no such ambiguity, would also be ill-formed due to structural/syntactic reasons: i.e., so-called "datives of agent" cannot appear in non-verbal contexts.

So the relevant conclusion seems to be that, as far as their syntactic distribution is concerned, unlike ablatives of agent, so-called “datives of agent” always (?) require the syntactic presence of verbal forms: (i) typically, the verb esse in constructions related to so-called "resultative passive", possession and passive periphrastic: e.g., Mihi hoc deliberatum est (cf. Habeo hoc deliberatum) and Mihi currendum est (cf. less classical Habeo currendum) and (ii) less typically, other verbs: e.g., neque cernitur ulli (Verg. Aen 1, 440).

Is this conclusion correct?

EDIT (Jan. 8th, 2022)

One could think that the following examples do show that a "dative of agent" can appear in a non-verbal context. However, please note that these contexts can be claimed to involve an elliptical verbal form: cf. [esse] below. So I do not consider them as good counterexamples to the claim put forward above.

Consilii nostri, ne si eos quidem qui id secuti sunt non paeniteret, nobis paenitendum [esse] putarem (Cic. Fam. 9.5.2).

Quod tanti Tib. Gracchum fecisset, ut, quidquid ille vellet, sibi faciendum [esse] putaret. (Cic. Amic. 37).

See Pinkster (2015: 305, OLS, vol. 1) for similar examples: Caesar maturandum [esse] sibi existimavit (Caes. BG. 1.37.4) // Cum omnes censerent primo quoque tempore consulibus eundum [esse] ad bellum (Liv. 27.38.6).

  • What exactly is meant by "verbal context"/ "non-verbal context"? The spoken vs. the wrtten word?? In "his rebus deliberatis mihi..." = "with these matters having been considered by me...", how is "me" a "beneficiary"--a benficiary of what? He (me) is the agent who chose, or was obliged, to do the considering.
    – tony
    Jan 10, 2022 at 13:17
  • @tony Here "verbal context" means a context where there is an inflected verb or an infinitive. Participles are taken as "non-verbal context" (I'm aware that this terminology can be a bit misleading). As for the AA his rebus deliberatis mihi..., the relevant point is that mihi cannot be interpreted as the person who carried out the action of deliberare. If any, it can be interpreted as a beneficiary (e.g. 'for me'). In contrast, note that in a "verbal context" like Mihi hoc est deliberatum, the dative can be understood as the one who has carried out the deliberation.
    – Mitomino
    Jan 10, 2022 at 15:09
  • Thank you. In "de provinciis ab iis qui obtinerent retinendis" = "concerning the provinces being (which ought-to-be) retained by those who held them", "iis" is an ablative selected by "ab". By removing "ab", is "iis" metamorphosed into a dative ("the dative 'iis' could be interpreted as associated to the ablative, 'provinciis'?) being then the party upon whom the obligation of retaining the provinces falls. Is Baldi a proponent of this--a dative ("iis")-of-agent with a participle? What is wrong with a "simplistic functionalist explanation" if it works?
    – tony
    Jan 11, 2022 at 13:12
  • In the AA-construction, with a participle, dative & ablative plurals can generate ambiguity. Wouldn't the context select the correct case, with the reader? Alternatively, clever writing e.g. "de provinciis ab iis...", removes the need for a dative-of-agent--is this the thrust of the debate?
    – tony
    Jan 11, 2022 at 13:19
  • @tony Examples like De provinciis ab iis qui obtinerent retinendis are interesting because they can contain an ablative of agent but not a dative of agent. So the relevant question is why the ablative of agent cannot be replaced by a dative of agent in this context. Baldi's account doesn't work since the relevant ambiguity problem shown in *De provinciis iis qui obtinerent retinendis is not found in *De provincia iis qui obtinerent retinenda. The ill-formedness of both examples is then to be attributed to syntactic factors: i.e. "datives of agent" cannot appear in non-verbal contexts.
    – Mitomino
    Jan 11, 2022 at 16:52

2 Answers 2


Is this an example?

Cicero: sibi enim bene gestae, mihi conservatae rei publicae dat testimonium.

Perhaps it can be argued that sibi and mihi are datives of reference, but "agent" seems most natural to me. "He testifies that he performed good deeds, but that I preserved the republic." Unless a dative of reference is usual with testimonium, which I don't know.

  • 1
    This is indeed a VERY interesting example! Cf. books.google.es/…
    – Mitomino
    Nov 17, 2019 at 20:55
  • 2
    Note that different variants of this dominant participle construction can be found in other works of Cicero. E.g., cf. ceteris enim semper bene gesta, mihi uni conservata re publica gratulationem decrevistis. (Cic. Cat. 4.20). It is true that, at first sight, in your example the agent interpretation of the datives wrt to the participles is possible, but I think that the reading whereby they depend on the collocation dare testimonium is not excluded.
    – Mitomino
    Nov 17, 2019 at 20:57
  • 1
    @Mitomino: In the ex., above, where does "decrevistis" fit in: "you have decreased/ diminished/ dwindled"--the only accusative here is "gratulationem"; "you have diminished the congratulations"?
    – tony
    Dec 3, 2019 at 12:07
  • 1
    @tony: decrevistis is a form of decernere 'to decide', i.e., to decide something, i.e., gratulationem (acc.) for someone (dat.).
    – Mitomino
    Dec 3, 2019 at 19:51

To the extent that the (typical) "dative of agent" has a syntactic distribution that is similar/identical to the so-called "dative of possession" (aka "dative with sum"), the prediction is that this kind of "dative of agent" should not be found in non-verbal contexts (e.g. in ablative absolute constructions or, more generally, in dominant participle constructions).

The descriptive term “dative of agent” can be misleading since it is often applied to an heterogeneous set of datives: beside the typical ones (Carthago nobis delenda est; Hoc nobis deliberatum est; cf. Habemus hoc deliberatum), it should be pointed out that there are some "datives of agent" that are licensed in non-verbal contexts but they are typically found in poetry: see the examples below from Horace and Ovid. This usage has been said to be traced back to Greek (for this proposal, see Brenous, J. (1895). Étude sur les hellénismes dans la syntaxe latine. (Edizione Anastatica, L’Erma di Bretschneider, Roma 1965.) Paris: Klincksieck); see also Tillmann, H. (1881). De dativo verbis passivis linguae Latinae subiecto qui vocatur Graecus. Acta Seminarii Philologici Erlangensis, 2, 71–140. For a brief summary of this tricky issue, see Calboli, G. (2009). Latin syntax and Greek. In P. Baldi & P. Cuzzolin (Eds.), New Perspectives on Historical Latin Syntax. Volume 1 Syntax of the Sentence (pp. 65-194). Berlin/New York: De Gruyter Mouton.

Prima dicte mihi, summa dicende Camena … Maecenas (Hor. epist. 1,1) ‘Proclaimed by me in my first poetry, to be proclaimed in my last, Maecenas, …’

adde preces castas inmixtaque vota timori, // nunc quoque te salvo persoluenda mihi. (Ov. epist. 6, 73-74) ‘Add chaste prayers and vows mixed with fear, which now I must fulfill, since you are safe.’

This kind of "dative of agent" (probably influenced by Greek; see above) is found not only in non-verbal contexts but also in verbal contexts like the following one:

carmina ... quae scribuntur aquae potoribus (Hor. epist. 1,19,3)
‘The poems which are written by water drinkers.’

Perhaps I'm wrong but I'd say that these datives of agent that can be found in poetry are not (expected) to be encountered in prose authors like Cicero or Caesar.

However, Kingshorsey provides the following very interesting example from Cicero, which could be taken as problematic given what I've just said above. Probably, many of you would also interpret/analyze sibi and mihi as "datives of agent".

(Pompeius) Sibi enim bene gestae, mihi conservatae rei publicae dat testimonium. (Cic. Att. 2, 1, 6) ‘He testifies that the state has been governed well by him, but saved by me.’ (Pinkster 1990: p. 79; ex. [27])

As can be inferred from Pinkster's translation above (found in his Latin syntax and semantics (1990)), this author analyzed the datives sibi and mihi as datives of agent that depend on the dominant participles gestae and conservatae, respectively. This analysis goes against my intuition above that datives of agent, unlike ablatives of agent, are not expected to be found in dominant participle constructions in Cicero's Latin prose.

Did Pinkster analyze these two datives correctly? I don't think so. There is an alternative interpretation/analysis, namely, to consider them as dependent on the collocation dare testimonium ‘to bear testimony’. In this sense, it is worth noting that Shackleton Bailey’s (1965: 199; [Letters to Atticus, CUP]) translation ‘acknowledging himself as a good servant of the state but me as its saviour’ is more compatible with this second analysis, which, in my opinion, is the correct one. The examples below, which also contain a very similar construction, can be taken as evidence for this alternative analysis: the datives, which are marked in bold, are not to be regarded as datives of agent (i.e. these do not depend on the perfect participles) but rather as datives that depend on the complex verbal predicates (testimonium dedit ‘(the senate) borne its testimony’, gratulationem decrevistis ‘(you, the senators) decided a thanksgiving’, and patefecit ‘(the senate) opened.’ I've added/selected some English translations in order to make this alternative analysis clear.

An in senatu facillime de me detrahi posse credidit? qui ordo clarissimis civibus bene gestae rei publicae testimonium multis, mihi uni conservatae dedit (Cic. Phil. 2, 2, 5) ‘Is it in the Senate he believed he could most easily depreciate me, an order that has borne its testimony to illustrious citizens —for their administration of the State to many, to me alone for its preservation?’ (Walter C.A. Ker, Loeb, 1926)

Ceteris enim semper bene gesta, mihi uni conservata re publica gratulationem decrevistis. (Cic. Catil. 4, 20) ‘For you have passed votes of congratulation to others for having governed the republic successfully, but to me alone for having saved it.' (C. D. Yonge, 1856, Perseus site).

Mihi togato senatus non ut multis bene gesta, sed ut nemini conservata re publica, singulari genere supplicationis deorum immortalium templa patefecit. (Cic. Pis. 6.6) ‘Though I was only clad in the garb of peace, the senate, by an unprecedented sort of supplication, opened the temples of the gods in my honour; not because I had successfully governed the republic, that being a compliment which had been paid to many, but because I had saved it, that being an honour which has never been conferred on any one.’ (C. D. Yonge, 1891, Perseus site).

To conclude, one could say: "ok, Mitomino. Perhaps you're right. But after all in Kingshorsey's/Pinkster's example above it's Pompeius who gessit the state and it's Cicero who conservavit it, right?". Yes, that's correct but what is important to realize here is that, grammatically speaking, these two datives have not been construed as "datives of agent" (in spite of the fact that, conceptually speaking, Pompeius and Cicero can be said to be the agents of the actions encoded in gestae and conservatae, respectively). In this sense, the example provided by Kingshorsey/Pinkster can be said to be very appropriate to exemplify Langacker's definition of meaning: "Meaning is a function of both conceptual content and semantic construal". To put it in his terms, it is clear that Pompeius and Cicero are the agents in the conceptual scenes evoked by gestae and conservatae respectively, but they have not been semantically construed as agents here but rather as recipients of the complex predicate testimoniun dare.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

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