In the film, "Go Tell the Spartans" (1978), U.S. Major Asa Barker asks young Corporal Courcey why he has volunteered to spend the last six-months of his military service, fighting in Viet Nam. After some hesitation the Corporal mumbles: "Well, Sir...I wanted to see what a war was like.".

In Latin?

This is direct speech which includes an indirect question, requiring an interrogative and a verb in the subjunctive (in the same tense as the English). The nearest-fit verb to the English, "like", as in "resembling something" would appear to be the intransitive, "similis sum" (Oxford).

"Cupiebam scire quid bellum similis esset."
"I wanted to know what a war was resembling / was (like)."

If Corporal Courcey had chosen to complete his service in more sedate circumstances, he may well have always wondered what a war would have been like. This is more difficult, requiring, in the indirect question, a periphrastic pluperfect subjunctive:

"Se saepe rogabat quid bellum similis futurus fuisset."
"He often asked himself what a war would have been resembling / would have been (like)."

Are these translations correct?


3 Answers 3


You're making this complicated. Let's start with:

Quale est bellum?
What is war like?

In English you structure it differently, but Latin has the convenient interrogative and relative pronoun qualis ≈ "like what, of what kind".

You can use similis, but that makes it all much more convoluted. You need to use genitive or dative with that. You could do:

Cui(us) [rei] simile est bellum?
To what [thing] is war similar?

This changes the tone of the question — in addition to being a calque of the English. This is asking to name a thing that war is similar to, not to describe war. You can answer quale by an adjective like atrox or a comparison simile morbi, but you can only answer cuius rei simile with the latter. I assume you want to ask "what is war like" and not "what is war similar to".

Due to the structuring of the direct question and the choice of case to go with simile, I would say that your translations are incorrect.

You should really be using quale here. Only after we have this direct question in place should we embark on a journey towards the more convoluted sentences. This is an important general strategy: When you have trouble expressing something, simplify and strip your sentence until you are left with the simplest thing you cannot express. Find the easiest question you cannot answer, and do not touch the original question before you can answer the simplified one.

The improved direct question is simpler than your (implicit) suggestion, and therefore the indirect versions are simplified as well:

Cupiebam scire quale bellum esset.
I wanted to know what war is like.

  • 1
    Exactly what I was going to say.
    – cmw
    Aug 11, 2021 at 12:41
  • 3
    I believe authors sometimes ask “qualis [gen.] natura est?” in a very similar way. E.g., Caesar sent scouts to determine “qualis esset natura montis” - what the mountain was like Aug 11, 2021 at 13:40
  • 1
    @Kingshorsey Do you happen to know of a neuter example of that? Masculine and feminine fail to differentiate between nominative and genitive but neuter doesn't. Asking qualis naturae est ("of what nature is it") makes sense as a qualitative genitive, but qualis [gen!] est sounds unlikely to me. The qualitative nature of the word is already in the word itself (even etymologically!) so I think only the nominative is used. But as always, classical attestations trump my intuition and I'd be happy to be proven wrong.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Aug 11, 2021 at 13:44
  • 1
    Qualis is modifying natura. Cicero: roges me qualem naturam deorum esse dicam. You may ask me what sort of nature I say is [the nature] of the gods —> You may ask me what I say the gods are like. Aug 11, 2021 at 15:11
  • 2
    @Kingshorsey Oh, I see. I interpreted that qualis would be in the genitive. A genitive to express whose nature is under discussion is indeed normal: Qualis est natura alicuius rei?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Aug 11, 2021 at 16:00

Just an addendum to what Joonas said:

Use qualis if you're trying to understand the substance of something. The question "what is war like?" is how war is, it's texture, what feelings it evokes, how it works, etc. "Like" in this usage is an idiom, and is different from the "like" in similes. Essentially you're looking for the qualities (and yes we get "quality" from qualis).

On the other hand, similis is used for comparisons. You would use that when you want to know what war is similar to. War is like hell (though Hawkeye knows better). In that example, you would use similis:

Bellum Tartaro simile sed peius.


I would translate:

Bᴀ. Cur voluntarius in Vietnamiam militatum venisti?
Cᴏ. Ut naturam bellorum cognoscam.

Why the plural? Because I think otherwise it will always be a likely reading that he is talking about the current war.

  • I can see this in a dialogue of Cicero or Terence (cf. Heaut 503), but probably not Plautus. Given the movie's theme, too bad none of the old Roman tragedies survived intact.
    – cmw
    Aug 11, 2021 at 22:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.