I'm working through Wheelock's with my sons. In the chapter on participles (Ch. 23, pg. 151 in the 6th revised edition), there is this practice sentence:

Illum oratorem in medio senatu iterum petentem finem bellorum ac scelerum non adiuvistis.

It strikes me that this could have been written with a relative clause:

Illum oratorem qui in medio senatu iterum finem bellorum ac scelerum petit non adiuvistis.

This makes me wonder whether there are any generalizations about when Latin speakers used relative clauses and when they used participles. (For the sake of clarity, let's say Classical Latin, but if there was diachronic development I would be interested in that as well.)

  • 1
    The relative pronoun would actually be qui here, since within the relative clause, it's the subject ("who sought an end").
    – TKR
    Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 1:17
  • Thank you; I fixed it.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 5:50

2 Answers 2


To an extent, it is a matter of personal preference or style. Cicero used participles sparingly and preferred whole sentences, Caesar used them more frequently for his trademark compact style and peppered his writing with ablative absolutes. Both were and are considered paragons of good Latin.

But are there any fixed rules? Yes, there are certain guidelines, but they are somewhat vague and not consistently adhered to even in antiquity, let alone in later periods.

However, according to Johann Philipp Krebs it is considered good classical style to follow these rules:

  • A relative clause should be used when the idea is to identify or specify the thing/person we are talking about.
  • A relative clause should also be used when expressing an inherent, permanent property of the thing or person.
  • A relative clause should be used when the preceding noun is accompanied by a numeral.

So if it's not clear which speaker we are talking about, and we want to identify him by reminding our readers of his petition for peace, we say:

Illum oratorem, qui finem bellorum petivit, non adiuvistis.

Slightly exaggerated English translation: “That speaker who was asking for an end to the wars – you didn't help him.”

But if we want to narrate the story of how someone asked for peace and got no help, we can say:

Illum oratorem petentem finem bellorum non adiuvistis.

Again, a somewhat exaggerated translation: "When that speaker was asking for an end to the wars, you didn't help him." But note, it is my understanding that nobody would object to a relative clause here either.

Likewise, we should say:

Flumen est Arar, quod in Rhodanum influit.

(There's a river called Arar that flows into the Rhodanum; Krebs' example from Caesar for an inherent permanent property.)


Duos oratores, qui finem bellorum petiverunt, non adiuvistis.

(Example for a numeral.)


Either approach does work; however, the tense of petet is future, which is quite unlikely as an equivalent of petentem. You probably meant petit, which is present tense.

The tense of "petentem" is vague and could easily refer to something in the past contemporaneous with the tense of adiuvistis, but just might refer to the present tense of the conversation itself. Rather than petit, the fuller translation would have used the imperfect petebat to indicate something contemporaneous with non adiuvistis or the pluperfect petiverat to indicate something prior to non adiuvistis.

I think using the participle is slightly better in linking the help to the purpose of the orator, since the construction is more compact. Using the relative pronoun is slightly better in merely identifying which orator is being discussed. In general, Latin has a greater love of participles than English.

  • 1
    And Greek an even greater love of participles than Latin.
    – cmw
    Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 5:56

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