Ambiguity seems very likely in Latin, due to the identicalness of inflected forms, flexibility of word order, homophony, and the like.

In many other languages, ambiguous sentences are often used in literary works for humor (or other purposes). Did Roman poets do it likewise (for whatever purpose)?

  • 1
    Are you asking specifically for humorous purposes, or just in general?
    – Draconis
    Aug 14, 2023 at 19:26
  • @Draconis I updated it for clarity. Aug 14, 2023 at 19:29

1 Answer 1


You can find plenty of academic articles on the topic, if you'd like, though you'll also see many examples yourself just by reading a single poet in toto.

Sometimes the ambiguity is done through the narrative. One ambiguous scene revolves around the meaning of Aeneas entering through the Gate of False Dreams. Vergil never gives an explanation, leading to the reader to interpret for themselves. Those who read a subversive element in Vergil might make it undermine Augustus' claims, since it is in the underworld that Aaeneas see the death of Caesar and the rightful rule of Augustus coming from it.

You also have wordplay, too. I'll quote just one example, from Levin 19691:

Catullus too, as it happens, is capable both of utilizing intentionally ambiguous vocabulary or syntax and of luring the reader into making assumptions which are quickly proved false.

Close scrutiny of the fifth and sixth verses of c. 2, the earlier and more cheerful of the "sparrow" poems,

    cum desiderio meo nitenti
    carum nescio quid lubet iocari,

has led Sheridan Baker to observe that cum could be either a preposition with the ablative desiderio or a [conjunction] introducing a clause governed by the verb lubet; that meo, the modifier of desiderio, could be understood as the counterpart either of a possessive genitive ("my desire for her") or of an objective genitive ("her desire for me"); that even nitenti could be either dative, referring to Lesbia and dependent on the verb lubet or ablative in agreement with desiderio and meo.

Worthy of attention too is Baker's concluding statement:

    By a play on three crucial words at the very center of his poem, I think, he gives its central implication—that he and his lady are longing equally for each other—but covers the implication with the courtly statement of the words which say, though they do not mean, that the longing is exclusively his.

1. Levin, Donald N. 1969. "Propertius, Catullus, and Three Kinds of Ambiguous Expression." TAPA 100: 230.

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    The Catullus example is great! Thank you for information. Aug 14, 2023 at 20:41

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