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

1 Answer 1


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

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