There is a Christmas carol called "Personent hodie" written in Latin in Finland in the 16th century. In the third verse the three mages are described:

Magi tres venerunt,
munera offerunt,
parvulum inquirunt,
stellulam sequendo…

How should I interpret the tenses here? There is one perfect form (venerunt) and two present ones (offerunt, inquirunt). I see two options:

  1. They are all set in the past and the present tenses are to be understood as historical present or some kind of poetic licence when the actual perfect would have too many syllables.

  2. The perfect tense describes a present state of affairs: the mages are now here.

For more context, the lyrics are given at the end of the linked Wikipedia article. I tend to favor option 2, as all other verbs in the carol are in the present tense. Somehow using a single perfect form like this strikes me as odd; a simple veniunt would have worked almost the same. Is this kind of use of the perfect tense amid a wholly present tense narration common (in the era or otherwise)? Or am I misinterpreting something?

1 Answer 1


Given the final line stellulam sequendo, it's unlikely that they would all indicate different tenses. In proper Latin at least, you'd expect a cum construction or an ablative absolute, not this.

The historical present is common throughout Latin writings, prose and poetry alike, and although it is often used in vivid narration, that's not always the case. See below though for how easily past and historiacl present can mingle:

Vna atque eadem nox erat qua praetor amoris turpissimi flamma, classis populi Romani praedonum incendio conflagrabat. adfertur nocte intempesta gravis huiusce1 mali nuntius Syracusas; curritur ad praetorium, quo istum ex illo praeclaro convivio reduxerant paulo ante mulieres cum cantu atque symphonia. Cleomenes, quamquam nox erat, tamen in publico esse non audet; includit se domi; neque aderat uxor, quae consolari hominem in malis posset.

  • 2
    Medieval Latin actually uses the gerund like a present participle quite often (see A&G 507). It isn't classical, but it's definitely "proper" to the time.
    – brianpck
    Dec 31, 2020 at 15:32
  • 1
    @brianpck I might have been unclear in my answer, but we are actually in agreement. Even with sequentes, you'd still expect the temporal aspect of the participle to go with all the verbs, not just the first. It would strike my ears as incredibly poor writing to make sequendo/sequentes to act as a type of temporal cum or ablative absolute with only venerunt.
    – cmw
    Dec 31, 2020 at 18:39

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