From time time I encounter a pair of nouns; one noun is in a genitive case, apparently modifies the other, but where I expect them to behave differently. examples:

memoriae tradere litterarum vetustatem [Cic.] ("old of writings")

I expected (I would prefer adj+nouns instead of noun+noun, but in case of noun+noun I would expect):

memoriae tradere litteras vetustatis ("writings of old")


... in malis naufragia fortunae ... [Cic.] ("shipwreck of fortune" instead the expected "fortune of shipwreck")


... naufragium fortunarum videres [Cic.]

It looks like genitive of quality, but I would still expect the other direction; and also according to A&G this usage of genitive is "only when the quality is modified by an adjective.", which does not seem to be the case here. So it seems I can't understand this usage of genitive in those cases.

1 Answer 1


I would literally render litterarum vetustatem as 'the old of the writings,' why is it in the genitive? Because Cicero put it in the genitive, as you can see in the translation below, the translation can be smoothed over for more idiomatic English.

If memoranda have the same force and authority, and are arranged with the same care as accounts, where is the need of making an account-book? of making out careful lists? of keeping a regular order? of making a permanent record of old writings?

With naufragia fortunae, it could be the Genitive of Indefinite Value, but truly, it's just the "shipwreck of fortune" plain and simple no matter what.

Here is the Loeb translation of the whole sentence: Can I therefore, if I have granted him that bodily pains are counted evils, that shipwreck of fortune is counted evil, be angry with him when he says that not all good men are happy, since the things which he reckons as evil can come upon all good men?

I feel the following statement from Ohio State's Classics Department's page on Latin grammar may be of use to you here:

"I have not listed all the kinds of genitive identified by grammarians. There comes a point when such exercises in categorization become self-serving and even an obstacle to understanding."

In short, it doesn't matter too much, the important thing is that you read the Latin. Cicero's (or any Latin writer's) work, does not lose value if you skim a two word phrase and keep going. It's in the genitive because it's in the genitive, it could be on purpose, it could be a mistake.

I have spent 20 minutes on a clause before to determine if they verb was 2nd Plural Future Perfect Active Indicative, or 2nd Plural Perfect Active Subjunctive, when, in fact, they both translate nearly the same, and it had no practical effect on anything. I understand that drive to know the grammar of something with certainty, but my advice is to keep moving forward.

So if you want to translate it as "old writings" or "fortune of shipwreck," do it! Do what you have to so that you can get to the next sentence.

  • Thanks for your answer. For the issue of raising about moving forward, let me disagree here. I think one should skip a pure-grammatical issue, if it does make sense to him I once had a question about the grammar of "sapientiae tuae non est numerus" - which dative/genitive is that. In that example I can indeed agree with you. But sometimes it is simply not the case: when you can't make sense of expression (even when you see it's meaning!) - many times it can lead to better understating, not to mention to a better expression of the language if you are writing or speaking.
    – d_e
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 6:02
  • Several weeks ago, I had a question - essentially like this one - that by which I discovered the "accusative of time". Now, the question, can someone could get along without knowing what is the accusative of time (and when he is expecting other case every time)? the naive answer would be yes!. But, at least from my own experience, it is not going to work in the long run. I once had the habit of reading without considering the gender of words; i.e I would parse the mistaken "magnus est urbs" easily. why care about genders at all, one can ask. Because it finally breaks.
    – d_e
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 6:09
  • It breaks when the sentences become more convoluted and complex. in those sentence if one has no idea that urbs is feminine, it will cause him issues in parsing the sentence. At least from my own experience.
    – d_e
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 6:12
  • Now, back to the point of the question, maybe I have problem in English as well. We can find indeed this structure in that language like "had a hell of a day". So yes, maybe that's more of a question [I wounder if "more of a question" is yet another example] to another forum of linguistics. But I just could not be sure it works that way in Latin as well, or rather it is a kind of unique grammatical structure with specific meaning like the "accusative of time"
    – d_e
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 6:43
  • 1
    @d_e You make a wonderfully valid point, what I highly recommend doing is looking up on any number of websites, the functions of the various cases. The genitive is the one case that is almost universally translated the same way - of Without knowing your skill level, I can't assess what you may or may not know about cases. In teaching, I've met plenty of learners who hyper focus on types of cases. Which doesn't seem to be what you're doing. But a final word of caution, not everyone agrees on the terms. Some argue that the ablative of x is just the ablative of y, etc.
    – Colin
    Commented Sep 15, 2020 at 9:00

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