In the much-maligned; ruinously expensive; long over-schedule but marvellously entertaining film, "Cleopatra" (1963), Richard-Burton's "Mark Antony (MA)" chides Roddy-MacDowall's sly, risk-averse "Octavian" thus:

"You know, Octavian, it's possible that when you die, you will die without ever having been alive."

The first problem with attempting to translate this into Latin is the passive, "without ever having been alive", using intransitive, "vivo", with its aversion to the passive. My first attempt (with help from Joonas in CHAT) in indirect speech with perfect infinitives to cover the passive:

MA dixit Octavium ubi moriturum esse, moriatur, numquam vixisse/ vivum fuisse.

MA told Octavian that when he dies, he may die, never having lived/ been alive.

The, "it's possible that" part being covered by the present subjunctive, "moriatur" = "you may die"--the indefinite article.

Joonas objected to the repetition of the concept of "death": "morieris" & "moriatur"; in Latin there would be no need to use it twice because Latin has different syntactical structures available.

Of course, the Latin might have to be translated back into the original English. Would that be possible with only one concept of "death"?

Excising: in direct speech with perfect infinitives:

"Octavi, die tua ubi morieris, te numquam vixisse/ vivum fuisse." =

"Octivian, on your day when you die, you will never have lived/ been alive."

At this point Joonas counselled against the perfect infinitives because they need to be subordinate to something; suggesting future-perfect, "vixeris".

The future, future-perfect linkage looked like a conditional sentence:

"Octavi, nunc si tu morieris, tu numquam vixeris." =

"Octavian, if you die now, you will never have lived."

This translation was something of a trial, even with the help.

What should it be?

  • 3
    Just a quick note: "to be alive" isn't a passive at all. It's really just the verb "to be" with the adjective "alive" (although originally "alive" was prepositional phrase in Old English).
    – cmw
    Feb 15, 2023 at 14:45
  • 2
    My first thought is an ablative absoute like morieris nulla vita acta, but there are probably better solutions.
    – TKR
    Feb 15, 2023 at 18:59

1 Answer 1


This is one of the great examples of why we cannot translate literally from English to Latin and vice versa.

It's easy to get hung up on conditionals and cum-clauses, but I think you have much better options. Personally, I'd go for some indication of the end of his life, rather than repeating the verb "to die."

in supremo die [vitae], "on the last day [of your life]"

Cf. Cic. Pro Murena 75: cum supremo eius die.

Similarly, "never having lived" makes far more sense in English than trying to use a participle in Latin. Fortunately, Latin has the very nice vivus. I don't see why he wouldn't have just described him so:

Tu ipse numquam vivus morieris, "you yourself, never alive, will die"

Putting just that together and without considering indirect speech, the basic sentence then reads:

Tu eo die supremo ipse numquam vivus morieris.

I'm very tempted to keep this basic sentence fully intact. This would involve turning "it's possible" to fortasse ("perhaps") and "you know" to scito id ("know this"). That's not the normal way, though, and indirect speech really is the best way to go.

In that case, though, it's a simple matter of turning the subject into an accusative and the verb into a future infinitive. I did move the te next to ipsum, though, for clarity.

Scito hoc, Octaviane, eo die supremo te ipsum fortasse numquam vivum moriturum (obiturum, periturum, etc) [esse].

  • 5
    Not sure, but in ultimo die for “on the last day” does not look right to me. (There are some Neo-Latin (Catholic) hits on Google Books, but I suspect them to be barbarisms.) By the way, the Romans often used the “last day” as a euphemism for dying anyway, e.g. with obire (apparently a favourite phrase of Nepos), so you could say: Scito … te diem supremum … obiturum. Feb 15, 2023 at 21:34
  • 2
    @SebastianKoppehel Yes! Supremus dies is much better. I've emended it, thanks! That redundant phrasing in Nepos is so strange. He's really the only one who likes it. I think the more euphemistic language of Lucan (which is hilarious) might be a better way to go.
    – cmw
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:42
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    @cmw: Thank you. Excellent answer: so that was it? On Wiki, "Octavius" is the Roman name, "Octavian"; vocative, "Octavi". Do you agree?
    – tony
    Feb 16, 2023 at 8:55
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    @tony When Gaius Octavius was adopted by Caesar, his name changed to Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus. Thus Octavius and Octavianus are both his name, just at different times of life. The vocative of Octavius is Octavi, of Octavianus is Octaviane.
    – cmw
    Feb 16, 2023 at 14:03
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    supremo die is "better" (e.g. the one used by Cicero) but ultimo die is also attested: cf. Etiamsi adtenderemus, tamen nos vita praecurreret; nunc vero cunctantes quasi aliena transcurrit et ultimo die finitur, omni perit (Sen. Epist. 45, 13).
    – Mitomino
    Feb 16, 2023 at 16:45

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