According to Festus (can be found in L&S under cenaculum):

cenacula dicuntur, ad quae scalis ascenditur

While the overall meaning of the statement is quite clear (namely that the upper room that were accessible by stairs are called cenacula), I fail to understand ascenditur, as I can't see to whom it might relate: if it were to relate to an unmentioned person/thing that climbs the stairs, I find it hard to reconcile with the passive voice (as if the stairs are an active agent) - and even if that is the case - wouldn't the plural would be better fit? (to portray a general picture). Other nouns here are plural so they also should not relate to ascenditur.


Here, ascendere is used instransitively (Festus isn't talking about climbing the room itself but climbing up to the room). Moreover, it seems that the Romans didn't typically think of stairs as things that were themselves climbed but as the means of climbing up to something else (at least when they used the verb ascendere).

Therefore, if you want to turn the verb passive (for example, to deemphasize or entirely omit mention of the specific agent of the action [that is, the climber]), this can't be done by using a regular 'personal' passive, where quae (= cenacula) or scalae is the subject. (Note, however, that this can be done in English, where we could say 'the room that is climbed up to' or 'the room that stairs are climbed to.')

Instead, to get a passive idea in Latin by using the verb ascendere, you have to use an 'impersonal' passive.

From Gildersleeve & Lodge, Latin grammar, §208:

208. IMPERSONAL VERBS.—Impersonal Verbs are verbs in which the agent is regularly implied in the action, the subject in the predicate, so that the person is not expressed.


2. The passive of intransitive verbs is often used impersonally... The subject is contained in the verb itself.

Literally, then, the passage from Festus means 'to which the act of climbing is performed by way of stairs' or '...to which there is climbing by way of stairs'; or, a bit more loosely, 'to which one climbs by way of stairs'/'that one climbs up to by way of stairs.'

In English, we can translate this more loosely still as '...that is climbed up to,' as if the subject were the relative pronoun quae and the verb were ascenduntur, or '...that stairs are climbed to,' as if the subject were scalae and the verb were again ascenduntur.

  • Your observation is very interesting: "the Romans didn't typically think of stairs as things that were themselves climbed but as the means of climbing up to something else". This is related to the so-called "satellite-framed" nature of Latin, where the preverb expresses directionality, and the verbal root encodes the manner. The meanings of the prefixes were quite transparent and the Ground (i.e., the Place) is expressed (i) via a PP or (ii) via a NP. The adjunct scalis is specifiying the manner component and, as you point out, unlike in English, it cannot be construed as a direct object. – Mitomino Jul 19 '20 at 19:55
  • Gildersleeve & Lodge's descriptive claim that "Impersonal Verbs are verbs in which the agent is regularly implied in the action (...) The passive of intransitive verbs is often used impersonally" can be appropriate when accounting for why only some intransitive verbs (so-called "unergatives") enter into the impersonal passive construction. For more discussion, see Section 1 in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impersonal_passive_voice – Mitomino Jul 20 '20 at 2:33
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    @cnread: Why can't "ad quae scalis ascenditur" = "to which it-is-climbed by stairs"? This could have been written as gerundive-of-obligation impersonal construction: "ad quae scalis ascendendum est" = "to which it-ought-to-be-climbed by stairs" = "....it must be climbed by stairs", where "scalis" is dative plural. – tony Jul 20 '20 at 11:46
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    @tony, Sure, I suppose another translation could be 'to which it-is-climbed by stairs' – it's not my cup of tea, but why not? I don't see that the gerundive construction is the same at all: there's no obligation to climb the stairs in the original version. Also, note that, even if a gerundive were used, scalis would still be ablative, because the stairs aren't doing the climbing, and they have no obligation to do so. The dative with gerundive shows who has the obligation, not the means by which the obligation is discharged. – cnread Jul 20 '20 at 16:37
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    @WillCrawford natural translations like yours above (although lacking some information from the original text) are typically better than those clumsy ones that try to fit all the original information. Translation is often a matter of selection... – Mitomino Jul 20 '20 at 19:53

This is an impersonal passive, and for that purpose Latin uses the third person singular although there is no logical subject. You should read ascenditur as "someone climbs" or "one climbs" or "people climb" or some such thing; perhaps the English "one" comes closest in general. There is no subject because this is a subject-free construction.

(I cannot help mentioning how the passive works in Finnish. We only have an impersonal passive, nothing personal. Thus the passive voice can be seen as a "seventh person" in addition to the usual six. Latin can do the same but there is no separate form; the form is shared with the third person singular personal passive.)

  • As you point out, the impersonal passive construction can be seen as "a subject-free construction". However, some linguists who believe in (syntactic) empty categories, would say that it is better to regard it as "a null subject construction", i.e., there is a syntactic subject but it is phonologically null (for some references, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Null-subject_language). – Mitomino Jul 19 '20 at 20:20
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    @Mitomino In a null-subject sentence (like "Arma virumque cano.") the subject could easily be supplied, but in this case no subject (like "someone," "people") would fit in. If no subject would fit (without changing the verb's voice), it cannot really be said to be "phonologically null" (i.e., "silent"). – Sebastian Koppehel Jul 20 '20 at 6:36
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    @Mitomino You seem to have so much to comment on the answers that maybe you should post your own. Multiple points of view are welcome, and yours is unfortunately buried in the comments. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 20 '20 at 10:03
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    @Mitomino But such pronouns in impersonal constructions do not exist in Latin. Is it not silly to claim the existence of a part of syntax which unfortunately is always invisible? It is an unfalsifiable claim! (And what goes on in German is a whole other can of worms. In educated speech you can still say “mich hungert” [I am hungry, but with an impersonal verb].) – Sebastian Koppehel Jul 20 '20 at 18:13
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    To add to the collection of impersonal verb constructions, Polish does it with the reflexive rather than the passive chodziło się, “it would go itself”. It seems that this construction is a universal need and each language has to find a different way to accommodate it in a grammar not designed for it. – Martin Kochanski Jul 21 '20 at 5:12

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