In the museum at the Roman fort of Vindolanda (Northumberland, England) there is a paving flagstone bearing a dog's pawprints. An itinerant, mischievous dog had the temerity to walk over wet, Roman concrete in the early Second Century.

This reminded me of a verse from Longfellow's "Psalm of Life":

"Lives of great men all remind us

We may make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints in the sands of time;

A possible translation could be:

vitae magnorum omnes nos commonent

vitas sublimes faciamus,

discessuri (retro) reliquerimus

vestigia in harenis temporis;

Two problems: sources (Pock. Ox. Lat.) & Wiktionary give "relinquo" = leave (behind); "behind" in brackets, like it's an optional extra. Therefore (L3), is the inclusion of "retro" necessary?

Secondly, L3: present participle "discedentes" (we are) departing or the future "discessuri", followed by future perfect: "about to depart we will have left behind..."?

Some help, please?

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    Nice thought. I like commoneo. I would have translated faciamus as 'Let us make...' ; You could get round this by using licet with the infinitive of facio and disced... ;but that would possibly involve subordinating the first line -Ut vitae...
    – Hugh
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 12:28
  • @Hugh: Thanks. Yes, the hortative subjunctive "let us" = "may we"; I needed "we may". Perhaps the imperfect subjunctive--"faceremus" = "we might". The imperf. subj. always seems vague, weak & wishy-washy; still, when needs must.
    – tony
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 11:55
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    My own reading of the English is that 'may' is equivalent to Latin licet, as Hugh suggested, not to a hortatory or other type of subjunctive. Lines 2-4 are indirect statement after 'remind, so I'd say something like vitae...commonent licere….
    – cnread
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 19:01

1 Answer 1


Relinquere means “leave,” but not just in the sense of “remove oneself from a place,” but also to “leave behind.” E.g. in his Bello Gallico, Caesar writes (1, 12, 2):

Caesar certior factus est tres iam partes copiarum Helvetios id flumen traduxisse, quartam vero partem citra flumen Ararim reliquam esse …

Caesar was informed that the Helvetians had already ferried three parts of their people across the river; that, however, the fourth part was left on this side of the Arar river …

This is what the bracketed addition in the dictionary is trying to express. But this is a metaphorical “behind,” the idea being that we turn our backs on the things or people that we “leave behind.” When we say that we leave footprints behind us in the sand, the “behind” is quite literal, and the verb relinquere does not deliver it.

That does not mean you have to render it in Latin, though. After all, where else are you going to leave footprints? Sometimes, especially in poems, words are just there for the sound or the rhythm. If you are going to render it, I feel post nos would be a more natural choice than retro, which usually describes a direction of a motion.

The English text implies that the relinquere happens at the same time as the discedere, so I would say discedentes is the right form, corresponding directly to the English.

Also, I would prefer reddere to facere, but I suppose this is a matter of taste.

Lastly, I agree with the comments that the English may is not hortative, because it depends on remind. So this ends up becoming:

… commonent ut liceat nobis sublimes nostras vitas reddere et, discedentes, vestigia relinquere …

Edit: As cnread said in his comment, commonere ut typically carries the meaning of suggesting or urging an action, which one would translate as to + infinitive in English, e.g.: commonuerunt ut caveremus = “they reminded us to be careful.” This is not what I intended here; rather, this ut introduces an indirect interrogative clause, literally “they remind us how it is granted to us …” – this in order to avoid a double a.c.i.

Looking this up, I just noticed even my short pocket grammar explicitly mentions this case: monere + a.c.i. = remind; monere + final clause = admonish. In light of this, it is perhaps better to say:

… commonent nobis licere sublimes nostras vitas reddere …

  • 1
    To clarify: you're using the ut in your translation as an interrogative adverb, right? (So a translation back into English would be '...remind how it's permitted to us...'?) This may be worth pointing out in your answer, because I think many people who see (com)*monent* + ut + subjunctive will tend to try to construe it as indirect command (e.g., '...remind that it should be/is to be permitted to us...') instead of indirect question. I heartily approve of your choice of reddere instead of facere; that's a nice touch.
    – cnread
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 22:07
  • 1
    @cnread Ugh, you are right, commonere ut certainly typically introduces a final clause with a meaning of admonishment (commonishment?) – although the liceat would not really make sense in that case. Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 10:09

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