I was wondering about the correct/preferred syntactic analysis of recitatis litteris in the following complex sentence from Cicero:

Tum Cethegus, qui paulo ante aliquid tamen de gladiis ac sicis, quae apud ipsum erant deprehensa, respondisset dixissetque se semper bonorum ferramentorum studiosum fuisse, recitatis litteris debilitatus atque abiectus conscientia repente conticuit. (Cic. Catil. 3, 10)

Two syntactic analyses seem to be possible: cf. (1) with (2) infra. Here I'd go for (2) but not without some hesitation. Hence my question. Which analysis/parsing & interpretation do you think is the preferred one here? Note that the temporal (1) vs. causal (2) interpretations of recitatis litteris turn out to be motivated by the following different syntactic analyses/parsings:

(1) recitatis litteris is a typical Ablative Absolute construction ([recitatis litteris] [[debilitatus atque abiectus conscientia] repente conticuit]). This is the analysis underlying Pinkster's (2021) translations in his Oxford Latin Syntax (vol. II): 'after his letter was read out' (pages 28 and 30) and 'when his letter was read out' (pages 387, 388, 394, and 396). It is worth pointing out that the latter translation is precisely the one found in Loeb (transl. by C. MacDonald), on page 111: 'Now, when his letter was read out, he stood paralyzed and smitten by his guilty conscience and suddenly fell silent' [italics mine].


(2) recitatis litteris is a dominant participle construction in the ablative case, which is not to be analyzed here as "absolute" (cf. option (1) supra) but rather as "dependent" on the participle debilitatus (i.e. 'weakened by the reading of his letter'): [[[recitatis litteris debilitatus] atque [abiectus conscientiā]] repente conticuit]. In this second analysis recitatis litteris would be a causal ablative (depending on debilitatus), which would also have a syntactic and stylistic function similar to that of conscientiā (depending on abiectus). See this post for a similar example of this dominant participle construction in the ablative case (on this occasion, depending on an adjective): victa serpente superbus.

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    According to Perseus, this reference is Catil. 3.5.
    – tony
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 9:34
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    @tony You'll see some people quoting it as "Cat(il). 3.5.10" but I prefer doing it following the standard guidelines provided by the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae: thesaurus.badw.de/en/tll-digital/index/a.html . Cf. also: thelatinlibrary.com/cicero/cat3.shtml and latin.packhum.org/search?q=conscientia%7Erepente%7Econticuit , where the line 15 is added to facilitate the search in PHI Latin Texts.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 16:17
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    @tony I've just taken a look at the translation by C.D.Yonge in the Perseus site: 'Cethegus...being stricken down and dejected at the reading of his letters, convicted by his own conscience, became suddenly silent'. Note that his translation is more in tune with my option 2) above. However, it is based on the addition of the participle convictus (please see note 6 on the Latin text). In addition to the two analyses above, the analysis (the third one!) involved in C.D. Yonge's translation would be [recitatis litteris debilitatus atque abiectus] [conscientia convictus] repente conticuit.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 18:14
  • Since both are possible, would a Roman have necessarily felt the difference here? Or might they also have teased out which was meant? If listening to this speech, would they have re-analyzed an ablative absolute upon hearing debilitatus, which follows it?
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 25 at 11:06
  • In A&G the first example of AA is Caesar, acceptīs litterīs, nūntium mittit -- which already makes clear that AA is is perhaps ablative indeed, but absolute not so much (per my definition) - in particular it is many times more than "temporal" but it provides the relevant context which is very close to casual. (i.e, whithout this AA happening it is clear the next action would also not happen). In other words, even if theoretically /syntactically AA is temporal is to be understood as casual.
    – d_e
    Commented Mar 25 at 13:31

1 Answer 1


Roberts and Wolfe in their edition of Cicero (1917) render it as "on the reading of the letters" and make the following grammatical reference to it:

The Gerundive is the future passive participle when it contains the leading idea in its phrase (see 147 below). The Gerund is a verbal noun. The Gerund and Gerundive are found only in the gen., dat., acc., and abl.

Grammatical Note 147. The Perfect Passive Participle sometimes contains the leading idea of the phrase in which it stands and is translated by a verbal noun. Example:

Quod ceterae (supplicationes) bene gesta, haec una conservata re publica constituta est, that other thanksgivings were decreed on account of the successful management of public affairs, this one only for the preservation of the state. Cat. 3. 15.

Anthon and Boyd (1842) render it as "When the letter had been read" essentially treating it the same way.

Gunnison and Harley (1912) render it as "By the reading of the letters" and characterize it as an ablative absolute.

So, the consensus seems to be that it is the leading idea of the phrase and not dependent on debilitatus.

  • Thanks, Tyler, for the answer! I was wondering how the translation "By the reading of the letters" could be made coherent here with the Ablative Absolute (AA) analysis of the 1) option above. Note that, as it stands, the imprecise definition of AA provided by Gunnison & Harley (1912: page 322) could also be said to hold for the 2) option above. It's a pity that these authors did not provide a full translation of the sentence above to make their analysis clear (cf. the Loeb translation above, where it is indisputable that the translator opted for the 1st option above, i.e. the AA reading).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 4 at 18:28
  • Here is their definition of AA on page 322: "An ablative absolute is a phrase consisting of a noun or pronoun in the ablative, and a participle, an adjective, or another noun in agreement with it. An ablative absolute may express time, cause, condition, concession, manner, means, situation". In my opinion, this definition is too vague, because, as it stands, it can be said to hold for both options above, 1) and 2).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 4 at 18:41
  • @Mitomino, G&H defintion of AA is basically what I was saying in my comments above. Indeed many times AA can be rendered in English by "given", "on account of" and "following" (e.g. A&G first example of AA I quoted above). AA is perhaps actually used more vaguely than one could expect or hope. How would you define AA?
    – d_e
    Commented Apr 4 at 19:00
  • @d_e You're absolutely right when saying "AA is perhaps actually used more vaguely than one could expect or hope". Even Pinkster (1990: 117-118) provided an imprecise definition of AA ("I assume that the ablative absolute construction is in reality nothing else than a Dominant participle construction functioning as a satellite <i.e. adjunct: Mitomino> with regard to the remainder of the predication"). I say "imprecise" since, as it stands, his definition of AA also holds for the 2) option above.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 4 at 19:14
  • @d_e As for your final question in your last comment, I'm VERY happy to see that you share my concern about what a proper/accurate definition of AA could be: please note that there is a previous question on this issue: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/21221/… As you can see, I advanced what I think is a relevant "hint" for a proper (but still informal) definition of AA: i.e. the {alleged/fake/apparent} examples of AA are LOW adjuncts that are not as "peripheric"/"syntactically HIGH" as the typical AAs.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 4 at 19:33

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