@Mitomino points out in this comment that my understanding of what modifies what in the sentence shown below from De Bello Gallico (VI.4.3) is mistaken. I'll diagram my understanding below. Can you show me my error?

Obsidibus imperatis centum hos Haeduis custodiendos tradit.

Also, there is a theoretical question at stake here: Does this sentence have an ablative absolute that connects grammatically to the rest of the sentence?

Here's my current understanding:

Sentence diagram of "Obsidibus imperatis centum hos Haeduis custodiendos tradit."

Notation: When A and B are connected directly by a line, and B is higher than A, then A modifies or supplies a parameter for B (such as an object for a verb or preposition). An arrow connecting two words A⟶B means that A's grammatical form agrees with B. For an example, see this answer. The notation doesn't distinguish between predication and restriction.

Translating literally, I get a pretty natural English sentence with an absolute construction:

One hundred hostages having been levied, Caesar hands them over to the Haedui to be watched over.

Background (as I understand it—this could be wrong): The Senones had recently revolted, or at least failed to obey Caesar's command, but they had to give up their plot when the Romans showed up. They then sent legates to the Haedui, long-time allies of the Romans, to plead with Caesar for leniency on their behalf. Caesar happily granted it because, as explained in the previous sentence, he wanted to fight wars, not conduct inquisitions. The sentence at hand informs us for the first time that Caesar had taken hostages from the Senones, and also that he returned them—but to the Haedui. I gather from the verb imperatis that Caesar had not taken the hostages directly by force; he must have ordered that the Senones yield them and they complied—all of which I've tried to suggest by rendering imperatis as "levied".

So, as I understand it, obsidibus imperatis centum is grammatically disconnected from the rest of the sentence, as is normal for an absolute construction. Hos refers to obsidibus but only in the same way that a pronoun can refer to an antecedent noun in another sentence; it does not agree with obsidibus grammatically. "Them" in the English sentence works the same way.

Not shown in the diagram is that centum could modify hos: "Hostages having been levied, Caesar hands over these hundred…" I don't think this affects the analysis above, mutatis mutandis. I take this to be the sort of ambiguity that flies around all over the place in language and no one notices because either interpretation results in the same meaning.


It appears that there was some semantic misalignment regarding "grammatically disconnected". I just meant relations of modifiers to what they modify and objects to words that take objects—the kinds of relations shown in the diagram. I meant to exclude the relation of pronoun to antecedent or two nouns designating the same thing.

As I understand the concept of absolute construction (at least in Latin and English), it is defined as a phrase that, when diagrammed in a sentence as above, has no lines connecting it with any words in the main clause—"grammatically independent of the main clause" as it's more commonly put. Is that right, or is there some basis to doubt it?

Cerberus has pointed out that there is a stylistic "rule", i.e. a guideline regarding elegance, not to refer in the main clause to any nouns in the ablative absolute. Did the stylistic rule cause semantic confusion? (I understand a definition not to be a "rule" but simply a way of distinguishing a topic of interest.)

The answers have given me plenty to think about regarding how predication happens in this sentence and in Latin generally. I'll try posting more about that in other questions.

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    The hostages appear in the AA (obsidibus); and, again, as accusative direct-object (hos) in the main clause. This appears to violate the rule that a noun cannot be put into an AA if it goes on to be the subject or object of the main clause.
    – tony
    Dec 4, 2020 at 10:34
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    @tony I don't think there's a rule that an ablative absolute can't contain a noun that's referred to in the main clause. Would you like to post this as a separate question?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 4, 2020 at 15:40
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    My elementary text (Oulton) insists on this rule; a more advanced work (Allen & Greenough) p.419: "A substantive in the AA very seldom denotes a person or thing elsewhere mentioned in the same clause." Were A & G politicians? What does "very seldom" mean--the rule is open to interpretation; the rule can be "manipulated" at will; or, just ignored when it suits? Is Caeser's use a case of theory versus practice; ideality vs. practicality?
    – tony
    Dec 5, 2020 at 9:50
  • The expansion you edited out looks like great material for a number of follow-up questions. I look forward to seeing how this line of inquiry evolves!
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Dec 5, 2020 at 16:23
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Glad to hear it! After I posted it, I thought there's no way I can ask anyone to read through so much stuff, that wades through so much of the complexity of parsing. I'll see how soon I can chop it up into smaller pieces.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 5, 2020 at 17:19

3 Answers 3


Absolute means "syntactically unconnected to the rest of the sentence except as an adverbial adjunct to the praedicate". The real issue here is, I believe, not whether the ablative is absolute (it is); but the sentence violates a stylistic rule that we have learned:

The head of an ablative absolute may not refer to the same entity as does another constituent in the sentence, especially not if the constituent is pronominal, or it would be unnecessary and verbose.

I must say I was surprised to see Caesar's violating this rule. Cf. the two sentences below:

  • Obsidibus imperatis centum hos Haeduis custodiendos tradit. (original)
  • Obsides imperatos centum Haeduis custodiendos tradit. (conforming to the rule; participle not absolute)

The reason behind this 'rule' is that the ablative absolute is redundant in the original version, because we can easily connect the head noun (obsides) with the main praedicate (tradit), as a direct object (second version). Redundancy, and a kind of unnecessary repetition of a reference, is what I believe motivates the rule.

I said I was surprised, because I believe you will see the second version in most classical writers wherever possible, not the first one. Perhaps Caesar is an exception?

Here is an analogy in English:

  • The count having been defeated, he surrendered his sword to the enemy. (absolute construction with double reference)
  • Having been defeated, the count surrendered his sword to the enemy. (conforming to rule; participle not absolute)

I have to say I would prefer the second version; I only use absolute constructions when there is no other option, and he seems redundant.

  • When dealing with the syntax of AA, a debatable issue is whether the head of the AA is the nominal subject (cf. your rule) or the predicate. Unsurprisingly, the same issue arises when dealing with the syntax of dominant participle constructions (aka ab urbe condita constructions; AUC for short). For example, see Section 2.2 of this article (onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-968X.12061 ) for some arguments that the head of AUC is not the nominal subject but the predicate. NB: for Pinkster (1995: 132) AAs are dominant part. constructions in adjunct position.
    – Mitomino
    Dec 5, 2020 at 0:53
  • _Obsides imperatos_—thanks, that's just the stimulus I needed to clarify my understanding of how predication is working in this sentence. My understanding is probably wrong; I'll add it to the question.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 5, 2020 at 1:57

Does this sentence have an ablative absolute that connects grammatically to the rest of the sentence?

As Joonas has already pointed out, this question can be answered/interpreted in different ways. He is fully right when saying that the relevant answer depends on how you understand the informal notion of "grammatical connection" (?). Of course, hos (accusative) does not grammatically agree with obsidibus (ablative) but at the same time it is obvious that there is a coreference between them. How should grammar encode this kind of coreference? Well, it depends on what your favorite architecture of grammar is. Perhaps I'm wrong but I infer that you're not interested in these theoretical issues here but rather in the question: is this example problematic for the definition of Ablative Absolute (AA)? Well, tell me which is your favorite definition of AA (see Cerberus's post) and I'll give you my answer. Here are some additional examples from Caesar that could be said to be problematic for some typical definition(s) of AA. In fact, I ordered the next examples according to how problematic they can be according to some typical definitions/descriptions of AA.

Coactis equitum milibus VIII ... haec... recensebantur (Caes. BG. VII, 76, 3).

Obsidibus imperatis centum hos Haeduis custodiendos tradit (Caes. BG. VI, 4, 4).

Convocatis suis clientibus facile (elliptical: eos) incendit (Caes. BG. VII, 4, 1).

His rebus...Caesari nuntiatis ... in Galliam profectus est (Caes. BG. VII, 6, 1).

The most problematic examples have been said to be the ones that involve a coincidence of subjects (subject of AA and subject of main clause). Here a participium coniunctum would be expected: i.e. coacta equitum milia recensebantur. Unsurprisingly, this type of AA is the most infrequent one (even in Caesar's works). The next problematic type is the one that involves that the subject of AA corresponds to a (null or not) direct object pronoun in the main clause (see Cerberus's answer for the expected participium coniunctum variant). And so forth.

Next, let me tentatively address the tricky question raised by tony in his comment on Ben's answer to a previous post: namely, WHY is the violation of the (typical) AA rule allowed in the example at issue here? I.e., why did Caesar prefer to use the unexpected AA construction rather than the expected participium coniunctum (cf. Cerberus's answer)? It could well be the case that these apparently problematic examples turn out to be acceptable when they help to preserve the well-known strongly topicalized/unfocused nature of AA, which is not so marked in the alternative construction with a coniunctum participle (cf. the left-dislocation structures in Romance languages, which typically involve an explicit resumptive pronoun or an implicit one (so-called pro in formal syntax)). So it could be the case that the explanation must be sought in the realm of so-called information structure. Note that this explanation could account for the abovementioned fact that examples like Coactis equitum milibus VIII ... haec... recensebantur are the most infrequent ones. Why? Because of the well-known unmarked topic nature of subjects.

This said, let me add that I agree with Joonas when saying: "The hardest part to grasp diagrammatically is — to me — the roles of tradere and custodire". I find his intuition very interesting. According to him: "the "verb" is custodiendum tradere with the object hos and the gerundive conforms to the form of the object". I can imagine that some/many of you will wonder what he means by saying that custodiendum (sic) tradere is a "verb". Well, for me Joonas's intuition makes sense if we analyze custodiendos tradere as a complex predicate. I'm afraid that I did not express my first thoughts on this kind of complex constructions very successfully in this related question. Let me tell you that I'm still trying to understand if it makes sense to draw a grammatical/syntactic distinction between Ben's example above, where custodiendos is optional, and the following example from Nepos, where the gerundive is compulsory (let me tell you that the difficult issue here is, of course, not how to understand/paraphrase/translate these examples but how to analyze them). I could be wrong, of course, but my intuition is that the next example involves a sort of so-called "dominant part. construction", whereas Ben's example above does not. For more discussion on this distinction, please see this link.

Epaminondam pecunia corrumpendum suscepit (Nep. 15,4,1) ‘He undertook the bribing of Epaminondas with money’.

As you can see, there is a non-trivial syntactic parallelism between AA, AUC, and gerundive constructions of the dominant type. We're using different descriptive labels for these constructions but it is important to realize that they share a basic syntactic analysis/pattern.

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    It was very interesting to read your comments on my answer. As is amply clear, my area of technical expertise is not linguistics, so your take on my intuition is quite illuminating — at least to me.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Dec 4, 2020 at 20:36
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    I certainly am interested in theoretical questions! (I'm a Ph.D student; I have to be.) Thanks for all the wonderful examples. My favorite definition of absolute construction: a phrase that, in a sentence diagrammed as shown above, has no lines connecting it to the main clause. I've never read that anywhere but I think it's equivalent to what I've read everywhere—"grammatically independent", etc. I just checked out the four Caesarean sentences, and I don't see a problem. Do you?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 4, 2020 at 22:04
  • I'll reply about hos custodiendos when I have a little more time. I think that's of more theoretical interest, more than I dared hope we could examine here.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 4, 2020 at 22:05
  • "...my intuition is that the next example involves a sort of so-called "dominant construction", whereas Ben's example above does not." — I agree. // About whether or not they are part of a praedicate, I would say the gerundives in both versions (both Ben's example and your dominant example from Nepos) are used as praedicative expressions, which are something in between adjectives (morpho-syntactically) and adverbials (semantically). So, yes, you might very well see them as part of a praedicate. Object complements are generally pr. exps.
    – Cerberus
    Dec 4, 2020 at 23:47
  • @Cerberus Yes, in both versions the gerundive is a predicative expression. The issue here is whether corrumpendum in the ex. above is the predicate of a dominant pr. construction (if so, this verbal adjective can be argued to be the head; see my comment above on Nikitina & Haug (2015)). In contrast, in Ben's example it seems that the head is hos, the gerundive custodiendos being then a modifier (and not the predicate of a dominant pr. construction).
    – Mitomino
    Dec 5, 2020 at 1:11

Does this sentence have an ablative absolute that connects grammatically to the rest of the sentence?

I think it depends on what you mean by connecting grammatically. It is clear that hos means obsides, so the same physical actor plays a role in the AA and the governing structure. I agree with your evaluation, but I recognize that there is room for understanding matters differently:

So, as I understand it, obsidibus imperatis centum is grammatically disconnected from the rest of the sentence, as is normal for an absolute construction. Hos refers to obsidibus but only in the same way that a pronoun can refer to an antecedent noun in another sentence; it does not agree with obsidibus grammatically. "Them" in the English sentence works the same way.

The hardest part to grasp diagrammatically is — to me — the roles of tradere and custodire. I would not say that custodiendos merely modifies hos, but that the "verb" is custodiendum tradere with the object hos and the gerundive conforms to the form of the object. I would also say that it is not that important to be able to always define what depends on what; dependencies need not be that straightforward in all cases. Perhaps like so:

clause structure

The number centum is indeed ambiguous, and could in principle refer to any plural in the sentence: obsidibus, imperatis, hos, Haeduis. Were all the hundred hostages levied, or were a hundred of the hostages levied, or were there a hundred of them, or were there a hundred Haedui? The differences in meaning between the first three are small. My slight preference is to have it modify imperatis unless there is indication that these were all the obsides.

  • As I pointed out in my answer, your intuitive analysis is very interesting. Perhaps I'm wrong in interpreting your diagram but do you see any syntactic difference between the gerundive construction in Caesar's example in the title and the one in Nepos's example in my answer? I see one, but I'm not sure (for more discussion, please see latin.stackexchange.com/questions/9370/… ).If my comment (& linked question) is not clear enough, please let me know. Thanks! –
    – Mitomino
    Dec 5, 2020 at 5:59
  • @Joonas llmavirta: For me "hos custodiendos" is to be treated as a single unit: the accusative plural direct object of verb, "tradit"--this simplifies things.
    – tony
    Dec 5, 2020 at 9:57
  • @tony I think that oversimplifies things. It works grammatically but I don't think it captures the meaning that well semantically. But these are only different points of view and don't change the meaning or what is grammatically possible.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Dec 5, 2020 at 11:10
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    Thanks for your clarification. My intuition was that examples like that of Nepos above or this one from Cicero (Virtus constat ex hominibus tuendis (Cic. Off. 1.157)) are different from Caesar's example in the title. In the former, it seems clear that the internal argument is a proposition (that's why the gerundive is compulsory), whereas in Caesar's example the gerundive seems optional since the direct object can be an individual (hos). Tradit in Caesar's example does not appear to select a propositional/"sentential" complement but it's true that this reading is not excluded either.
    – Mitomino
    Dec 5, 2020 at 19:35
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    I am linking this page to the continuing discussion in CHAT: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/56352051#56352051
    – tony
    Dec 10, 2020 at 9:27

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