While researching Q: What is the Role of "iste" in These Quotes from Cicero?, I came across this line in Cicero's "Epistulae ad Atticum 15.20.3":

Pompeium Carteia receptum scribis; iam igitur contra hunc exercitum. utra ergo castra? media enim tollit Antonius. illa infirma, haec nefaria. properemus igitur. sed iuva me consilio, Brundisione an Puteolis. Brutus quidem subito sed sapienter. πάσχω τι. quando enim illum? sed humana ferenda. tu ipse eum videre non potes. di illi mortuo qui umquam Buthrotum! sed acta missa; videamus quae agenda sint.

This is translated on Perseus (E.S. Shuckburgh, 1908):

You say that Pompeius has been received at Carteia, so we shall presently see an army sent against him. Which camp am I to join then? For Antony makes neutrality impossible. The one is weak, the other criminal. Let us make haste therefore. But help me to make up my mind-Brundisium or Puteoli? Brutus for his part is starting somewhat suddenly, but wisely. I feel it a good deal, for when shall I see him again. But such is life. Even you cannot see him. Heaven confound that dead man for ever meddling with Buthrotum! But let us leave the past. Let us look to what there is to do. !".


The attitude of Cicero, towards Buthrotum (and those who would work against it) is clear from his comments to Dolabella in Cic. ad Att. 15.14.3:

"quod reliquum est, Buthrotiam (neuter accusative?) a et causam et civitatem, quamquam a te constituta est (beneficia autem nostra tueri solemus), tamen velim receptam in fidem tuam a meque etiam atque etiam tibi commendatum auctoritate et auxilio tuo tectam velis esse. satis erit in perpetuum Buthrotis praesidi magnaque cura et sollictudine Attrium et me liberaris, si hoc honoris mei causa suscerperis ut eos semper a te defensos velis. quod ut facias te vehementer etiam atque etiam rogo." =

"For the rest, though the claims and political existence of the Buthrotians have been set on a firm foundation by you (Dolabella), I would wish you--for I always want to make my favours secure--to resolve that, having been taken under your care and frequently recommended by me, they shall continue to enjoy the support of your influence and active assistance. That will be sufficient protection for the Buthrotians forever, and you will have set both Atticus and myself free from great care and anxiety if you undertake in compliment to me to resolve that they shall always enjoy your defence. I warmly and repeatedly entreat you to do so."

Returning to the main point:

"di illi qui mortuo umquam Buthrotum!"

"Literally: These gods who--to/for/by/with/from a dead man--ever--Buthrotum.

Assuming that "Buthrotum" is a neuter accusative, then a sense of "directed towards" may be invoked; though, shouldn't preposition, "ad", be present?

This improvement does not tell me that the gods should, or did, confound the dead man; or, that he, the dead man, ever meddled with Buthrotum.

What's going on, here?


When Cicero wasn't invoking the gods to confound someone, he used more conventional Latin:

Lucio Antonio male sit si quidem Buthrotis molestus est!" (Cic. de Att. 15.15.1) =

"Confound Lucius Antonius (brother of Mark Antony) if he makes himself troublesome to the Buthrotians!"

  • 1
    Interesting question! +1!
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 9, 2022 at 22:34

3 Answers 3


TKR is right about the verbal elision, but more context is needed to understand the passage. From Wiki:

In the next century, it became a part of a province of Macedonia. In 44 BC, Caesar designated Buthrotum as a colony to reward soldiers who had fought for him against Pompey. Local landholder Titus Pomponius Atticus objected to his correspondent Cicero who lobbied against the plan in the Senate. As a result, only small numbers of colonists were settled.

The timeline for this can be extrapolated from Cicero's letters to Plancus (16.16a-b) and Capito (16.16c). Essentially, before his assassination, Caesar relented, but apparently left some matters unresolved. So Cicero writes in order to finally put an end to the idea that Butrint (=Buthrotum) will be made a veterans' colony. Caesar thus "messed with" Buthrotum, and Cicero, to whom Atticus appealed, was stuck trying to ensure the town is left alone.

Finally, there's an even stronger parallel in Ad Familiares than in Ad Atticum 4.7:

Dalmatis di male faciant qui tibi molesti sunt!

In the above, Cicero is cursing the Dalmatians for "messing with" Vatinius, that is, they are proving troublesome for Vatinius' military activities in the area.

The parallel isn't perfect, given that Buthronum is accusative, not dative, but the idea is the same. Caesar, who is dead by this point, once "messed with" Buthronum, and now that the effects still linger, Cicero is cursing his name (not Antonius') out of exasperation.

One other note: there's no automatic sense of motion with the accusative, unless you have a verb of motion. Otherwise, it is naturally read as a direct object, which it clearly is here. That's why there's no ad. No one is going to Butrint; what they're doing is causing problems for it. Unfortunately, we can't read Cicero's mind to know precisely which verb is intended, but there's no reason to assume, just because it's accusative, he was thinking of a verb of motion.

  • Ah, he's talking about Caesar -- thanks, hadn't looked at the context enough.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 17:45
  • 1
    @TKR Right! Caesar is the dead one, Antonius is still alive at this point.
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 17:45
  • @cmw: Thank you. I was wondering how far back I would have to read in order to identify "the dead man.". The "ad"-thing: I meant that "the meddling" was "directed towards" Buthrotum.
    – tony
    Commented Apr 9, 2022 at 7:58

Illi mortuo goes together as dative, "that dead man".

There are two verbs elided in this sentence -- what the gods should do to the dead man, and what the dead man did to Buthrotum. The elisions are unusual (elision of sum is normal in Latin, of other verbs less so), but not without parallel. Here's another of Cicero's letters to Atticus, 4.7:

De Apollonio quod scribis, qui illi di irati, homini Graeco qui conturbat atque idem putat sibi licere quod equitibus Romanis!
As for what you say about Apollonius, the gods confound him! The impudence of a Greek going bankrupt and thinking himself entitled to the same privilege as Roman knights! (tr. Shackleton Bailey)

Here too we have dat. illi, the gods as subject, and no verb. Shackleton Bailey's note mentions your sentence as a comparandum:

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That is, some meaning like male faciant "may they do harm to" is intended.

In qui umquam Buthrotum some other verb is elided describing what the dead man (not Antonius but Caesar, as cmw points out) did to Buthrotum. Stylistically these elisions are perhaps a feature of an informal or vivid style, and the first may also be euphemistic. They would have caused no trouble for Atticus, who must have known the story of Buthrotum and how Cicero felt about it.


The relevant rethorical figure involved in the OP's fragment di illi mortuo qui umquam Buthrotum! is that of ἀποσιώπησις or reticentia, which is defined by the Hispanic rhetorician Quintilian as follows (see also this link for a definition of the term):

Aποσιώπησις, quam idem Cicero reticentiam, Celsus obticentiam, nonnulli interruptionem appellant, et ipsa ostendit aliquid adfectus vel irae (…) vel sollicitudinis et quasi religionis. (Quint. Inst. 9,2,54)

When discussing several examples of what he calls "aposiopèse ou réticence", De Carvalho (1985: 156) translates the one at issue here (di illi mortuo qui umquam Buthrotum!) into French as follows:

que les dieux lui [apportent, infligent un châtiment] [tout] mort [qu'il est], lui qui un jour [a osé toucher] à Buthrote. Literally: '[May] the gods [bring, inflict punishment] to him, dead, [the one] who one day [dared to meddle with] Buthrotum'.

Later on, on page 261, he provides a slightly different translation:

que les dieux [réservant un sort funeste] à cet homme, [même] mort, lui qui un jour [a osé toucher] à Buthrote. Literally: '[May] the gods [reserve a disastrous fate] to this man, [even] dead, [the one] who one day [dared to meddle with] Buthrotum'.

More generally, it is interesting to point out how pervasive/concentrated the verbal ellipsis is in this text. In fact, this very same fragment was used by the Spanish latinist Cabrillana (2007: 42) to show that ellipsis in Latin is not only reduced to the copulative verb esse but can also involve predicative verbs:

Escribes que Pompeyo [ha sido] acogido en Carteya; ya, pues, pronto [llegará / será enviado] un ejército contra éste. ¿Cual de los dos campos [elegir]? Pues Antonio excluye el término medio. Aquél [es] débil; éste [es] abominable. Así que démonos prisa. Pero ayúdame con tu consejo: si [zarpar] desde Brundisio o desde Puteoli. Bruto, por cierto, [va a ir] de inmediato, pero con prudencia. ‘Esto me afecta’: pues, ¿cuándo le [veré] de nuevo? Pero hay que sobrellevar las debilidades humanas. Tú mismo no puedes verlo. ¡Que los dioses [castiguen] al otro, muerto, que ha estado siempre [acechando] (la ciudad de) Butroto!”. Pero lo hecho, hecho está; veamos qué hay que hacer.

What follows is just a literal English translation of the Spanish text above, which can be improved but the relevant point here is just to show the extensive use of verbal ellipsis:

You write that Pompey [has been] received at Carteia; an army [will] then soon [arrive / be sent] against this one. Which of the two camps [should I choose]? For Antonius excludes the middle ground. He [is] weak; this one [is] criminal. So let's hurry. But help me with your advice: whether to [set sail] from Brundisium or from Puteoli. Brutus, by the way, [will go] immediately, but with caution. ‘This affects me’: well, when [will] I [see] him again? But you have to overcome human weaknesses. You cannot see him yourself. May the gods [confound] the other, dead, who [has] always [been threatening] (the city of) Buthrotum!” But what's done is done. Let's see what to do.

Finally, let me make two brief remarks on TKR's and cmw's answers. I think one could suppress the adverb "perhaps" from TKR's point: "Stylistically these elisions are perhaps a feature of an informal or vivid style, and the first may also be euphemistic". These elisions are indeed a feature of the informal style of Cicero's letters, especially when the addressee is his beloved friend Atticus or his brother Quintus (not so when the addressee is a less familiar guy). cmw rightly says "we can't read Cicero's mind to know precisely which verb is intended". What is interesting is that, unlike us, Atticus, his alter ego, was indeed able to read Cicero's mind!

De Carvalho, Paulo (1985). Nom et déclinaison. Recherches morphosyntaxique sur le mode de représentation du nom en latin. Thèse d'État (1983), Bordeaux, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux III.

Cabrillana, Concepción (2007). "La elipsis verbal: ¿un rasgo diferenciador de sum?". In M. E. Torrego, J. M. Baños, C. Cabrillana & J. Méndez Dosuna (eds.). Praedicatiua II: Esquemas de complementación verbal en griego antiguo y en latín, Zaragoza, Universidad de Zaragoza, 39-67.

  • I think this answer would benefit from replacing the Spanish text with the Latin, in the same format supplying the omitted Latin verbs. I don't think the Spanish adds anything to the answer given the English translation, but the absence of the actual language for which the phenomenon is being illustrated is crucial.—Concerning mind-reading, I think this misses the point that the elision was highly idiomatic, especially with religious oaths and taboo swearing. Given enough frequency no definite verb is any longer felt to be omitted; in essence what one gets is a lexicalised minced oath. Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 20:39
  • @Unbrutal_Russian I gave Cabrillana's (2007) Spanish translation because I considered it interesting that she selected the very same fragment (what a coincidence!) to show that the verbal ellipsis is not only reduced to the copulative verb sum but can also involve predicative verbs. Cabrillana & De Carvalho did not provide the elliptical words in Latin and I can imagine why two Latinist linguists like them decided not to do so. Purely speculative interpretations (made in their languages) aside, who knows which particular Latin verb could be made explicit in, e.g., qui umquam Buthrotum?
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 2:13
  • I understand that Cabrillana's choice of fragment is interesting, but the Spanish itself is not interesting to me who's interested in understanding the Latin phenomenon. The Spanish gives the same information as its English translation; what's being commented on is missing. One could give the Latin text with the "missing" verbs given in English.—Again, your question misses the fact that the verb is missing because it was idiomatic for it to be missing. Either everyone knew what the verb was, or it was entirely irrelevant. Compare dī vostram fidem! and Ru. твою мать! 'mātrem tuam'. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 19:10
  • Additionally I've just checked that Quintilian passage and what he's referring to is not grammatical ellipsis, but the explicit refusal to say something with the use of nōn dīcam and nōn audeō dīcere, or an abrupt pause mid-sentence 'Cominius autem—tametsi ignoscite mihi, iudices.'—Furthermore, I think the case in the OP are examples of taboo-related ellipsis like with the curses above; I think it should be separated from what's going on in the rest of Cicero's letter and especially in that passage, which may have different explanations, none of them likely to do with verbal taboos. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 19:18
  • @Unbrutal_Russian As for the OP's fragment di illi mortuo qui umquam Buthrotum! it seems clear the 1st case can be regarded as a more idiomatic ellipsis. In my opinion, the presence of the dative can naturally lead one to posit a sort of ellipsis like male faciant (cf. TKR's answer). As for the verbal ellipsis involved in qui umquam Buthrotum, it seems to me this 2nd case is different since it is not idiomatic nor frequent nor lexicalized, at least compared to the 1st case. So I don't see what is gained by simply saying that both are examples of taboo-related ellipsis.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 22:35

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