In his answer to Q: What is the difference in meaning/usage between "nasciturus" and "nascendus"?, Mitomino provided some interesting examples of the use of the gerundive. One of these:

semel haec (alta) mihi vivenda sint an saepe nascendum?” (Sen. Ep. 65.20) =
“Whether these (heights) ought to be lived by me just once, or must one be born again and again?”

Although Seneca is ostensibly writing to a friend, Lucilius, the quote is part of a soliloquy; Seneca is talking to himself. It ends in a question mark indicating a direct question. The usual sources – Latin Library, Perseus – also give this with a question mark.


A double or alternative question of “whether-or-not” type is usually indirect:

rogavit utrum [optional] laetus esset an tristis.” =
“He asked whether he was happy or sad.”

Indirect Q.: interrogative with subjunctive, requires no question mark (utrum = “whether” is optional).


If this is a direct Q., then the present (-cum-future) subjunctive sint can only be the part of sum required for a gerundive of obligation: vivenda sint; the dative, mihi, is indicating Seneca, the person upon whom the obligation falls.


Allen & Greenough p. 443:

The subjunctive was used in sentences of interrogative form, at first when the speaker wished information in regard to the will or desire of the person addressed. But such questions when addressed by the speaker to himself, as if asking for his own advice, became a deliberative or not infrequently, merely exclamatory (p. 573).

Woodcock p. 172:

[…] if a jussive subjunctive (a command) is used interrogatively, an inquiry is made as to someone’s will [...] e.g. “maneat” = “Let him stay”; “ubi maneat?” = “Where is he to stay?”
This type of (direct) question, with the verb in the subjunctive, was the start of a wide range of uses in which the subjunctive is called “Deliberative” […] Only in the […] case (first person speaking, spontaneously) is the subjunctive truly “deliberative”.


Soliloquising, indicating hesitation, doubt or helplessness (Plaut. Curc. 589):

quid ego faciam? maneam an abeam?” =
“What shall I do? Shall I stay or go?”

EDIT: 30/1/2021:

Woodcock did not contrast the deliberative-subjunctive, direct-question with the indirect equivalent: "quid ego faciam?" (direct);

"quid ego faciam nescio." = "I don't know what I shall do." (indirect).

(A & G) p.575(b): The Deliberative Subjunctive remains unchanged in an indirect question, except sometimes in tense:

"quo me vertam nescio." (Clu. 4) (indirect) = "I do not know which way to turn.";

"quo me vertam?" (direct) = "Which way shall I turn?".


Seneca was soliloquising: the rest of the epistle is written in a similar vein:

ego nesciam unde descenderim?” =
“Must I be ignorant of the heights whence I have descended?”

“ego ista non quaerem?” =
“Am I not to ask these questions?”

That Seneca is talking to himself, not Lucilius, is exemplified by the repetition of ego – unusual in Latin speech in which ego is understood in the first-person verb conjugation.

Further sources

Interesting is an article from Ohio State University, “Subjunctive Questions”, which compares and contrasts the approaches of (A & G) and Woodcock to the deliberative subjunctive. That (A & G) appear to be saying that, for the subject addressing himself, deliberative and exclamatory Qs. must always include a subjunctive; whereas Woodcock p. 172: “In Qs. that are truly deliberative, the indicative is almost as common as the subjunctive.”

Ohio State explains:

[…] deliberation is not a syntactical category; it is a function of context and rhetoric, not grammar. The fact that these eminent grammarians disagree […] indicates that it [deliberation] is a phantom elephant and these grammarians have merely found different parts of it.


Is the (“semel haec […]”) quote from Seneca a direct or indirect question?

  • 3
    I edited your question to make it easier to read. Thank you for an interesting question and for providing ample sources for us to consider. For your next question, especially for longer questions, may I kindly ask that you set aside some time editing before posting, to make it easier for the community to read, understand and reply?
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 20:01
  • 3
    @Canned Man: Thank you.
    – tony
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 22:21

1 Answer 1


I think the context makes it clear that this is an indirect question. The previous sentence is ego nesciam unde descenderim?, where nesciam (like the quaeram in the previous sentences) is a deliberative subjunctive ('Am I not to know...?'), and descenderim is the subjunctive in an indirect question. The sentence that you quoted, plus the two that follow it, continue the line of (indirect) questioning started by ego nesciam. The omission of nesciam for the 2nd through 4th questions shows that the 4 questions are related, build on each other, or otherwise form a logical train of thought; shows heightened emotion/interest on the part of the speaker; or shows a combination of the two.

ego nesciam unde descenderim? semel haec mihi vivenda [videnda in Reynolds 1965 edition] sint, an saepe nascendum? quo hinc iturus sim? quae sedes expectet animam solutam legibus servitutis humanae?

Am I not to know where I'm descended from? (Am I not to know) whether I must experience [see] these things just the one time or whether I must be born repeatedly? (Am I not to know) where I will go from here? (Am I not to know) what resting place awaits my life spirit after it has been set loose from the laws of human servitude?

  • 2
    Thank you. Why do these indirect questions end in a question mark? This is what caused my confusion. In "semel haec mihi vivenda sint, an saepe nascendum?" does "sint" have a dual role: (i) the subjunctive required for the indirect question; (ii) the part of "sum" required for the gerundive-of-obligation?
    – tony
    Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 9:39
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    @tony, Now I see. The entire sentence that contains an indirect question can itself be a direct question. Here, the main clause that introduces the indirect questions (ego nesciam) happens to have been ellipsed after the first occurrence and must be understood from context. However, Seneca is still asking a series of 'Am I not to know...?' questions. And yes, I suppose sint has a sort of dual role, as you say.
    – cnread
    Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 10:31
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    @tony Notice that the same thing can't be both direct and indirect. As cnread wrote, the entire sentence containing the indirect question can be a direct question. For example, the sentence "Do you know where John is?" is a direct question but the subordinate clause "where John is" is an indirect question, not a direct one. Compare the Seneca quote to: "Do you know where John is? Or where he's been? Or why he's gone?" The direct part of the question is implicit in the following indirect questions.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 13:49

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