It is not clear to me why in the translation of

Phaeselus ille quem videtis, hospites,
ait fuisse navium celerrimus,
neque ullius natantis impetum trabis
nequisse praeterire, sive palmulis
opus foret volare sive linteo.

One could not translate celerrimus as a a noun, i.e. Phaeselus, whom you guests all saw, said that the quickest of the ships...

If I do this the rest of the sentence works out grammatically:

Phaeselus, whom you guests all saw, said that the quickest of the ships
neither of any (value) swimming by the trunk, nor was it passing using the paddles through the linen as it would have wanted to.

Is there some rule against this?


2 Answers 2


You are correct that celerrimus can and should be translated as a noun. Allen & Greenough has a section dedicated to Adjectives used substantively.

You don't make it explicit in your question, but it is possible that the real source of confusion is that celerrimus has two expected characteristics:

  1. It is nominative, although the surrounding structure is accusative + infinnitive.
  2. It is masculine, although navis is feminine.

The "expected" construction would read:

Phasellus...ait [se] fuisse navium celerrimam.

The vessel said that she was the fastest of ships.

It's worth noting that this expected accusative occurs in the next phrase!

[Phasellus ait] ... ullius natantis impetum trabis nequisse praeterire.

[The vessel said] that the advance of any other floating plank could not pass it by.

The first possible explanation, that this is a transcription error, is given in the other answer. I am not familiar with the manuscript tradition, so I cannot speculate on how likely this is.

Another explanation is that this is an imitation of a Greek construction: attraction in case (and, in this case, gender as well).

This is what Merrill has to say about this passage, along with two examples from Horace:

celerrimus: an instance of so-called attraction in case, more common in Greek than in Latin, but not so rare in the Augustan age (especially in Ovid) and later; cf. Hor. Ep. 1.7.22 “vir bonus et sapiens dignis ait esse paratus.” The adjective here is also attracted from the gender of navium into that of phasellus; cf. Hor. S. 1.9.4 “dulcissime rerum.”

Regarding your translation attempt, you seem to have most of the vocabulary (though you skip impetum and opus and mistake volare [fly] for velle [want]), but I have a general piece of advice: Try to step back and view the sentence as a whole before translating individual components.

Catullus is writing poetry and likes to mix words together for pleasing effect, but this means that a "word by word" translation without an eye to the overarching idea is inevitably going to fail. The "litmus test" at the end of a translation should first be: does this make any sense? (As far as I know, Romans didn't compose post-modernist poetry :)

Here are three things that I would try to notice in this passage:

  1. ullius natantis impetum trabis: every word except impetum is in the genitive, so we know that we should put them together and it is likely that they modify impetum.
  2. sive palmulis...sive linteo: sive is used in parallel constructions: in this case, it is followed by an ablative. This means it is likely that these two ablatives are serving the same purpose, i.e. means: "either by oars or by linen (=sail)."
  3. opus foret: This is an idiomatic construction. You can find in a dictionary that opus est + infinitive means "it is necessary to X."

Good luck with the rest of Catullus!

  • Thanks so much for this wonderful answer! Thank you for the grammar references. I think taking celerrimus outside of the indirect statement, translating it as a noun, and then putting it in apposition with cellerimus would make the beginning sound like The phaeselus, the vessel you guests(vocative) all see, the quickest of the ships, said that... ?
    – user062295
    Jan 31, 2017 at 13:26
  • @user062295 That unfortunately wouldn't work because it doesn't make sense of fuisse: you have to translate the fuisse and the nequisse clauses as two things that the phasellus said.
    – brianpck
    Jan 31, 2017 at 13:34
  • @brianpck Being a reference back to phaselus, I don't think it could be celerrimam, even if navis is feminine. To make this clearer, in straight prose it might have been _phaselus navium celerrimus _.
    – Tom Cotton
    Jan 31, 2017 at 15:03
  • Does the following translation read literally?: Phaeselus, the ship you guests all saw said that 1) she was the fastest of all the ships and neither the attack of any of the timber nor (of anything else) had been able to pass(her), and (the attack) would have to fly by means of palm leaves and a cloth( in order to overtake her).
    – user062295
    Jan 31, 2017 at 16:34
  • @user062295 That's pretty much all right, except that the tense is actually the present,
    – Tom Cotton
    Jan 31, 2017 at 16:59

It appears as if celerrimus is adjectival, in apposition to phaselus, but it's often argued that this is a mistake of transcription : that it should in fact have been celerrimum, as the accusative to follow the infinitive fuisse. After neque, a further acc. + inf. follows fuisse in impetum . . . nequisse praeterire.

Phaselus was a kind of long bean-pod, and here it is used to represent the shape of the hull of Catullus's boat ; trabs is a beam of timber and a metaphor for any kind of rival that might try its speed against it.

That yacht which you see, passers-by, claims to have been the fastest of ships, and that the onrush of any timber afloat could not overtake, whether it had to fly along by oars or by canvas.

  • Since we all love pedantry here: I think trabs for ship is better described as metonymy rather than metaphor.
    – brianpck
    Jan 31, 2017 at 12:29
  • Pleased to accommodate you.
    – Tom Cotton
    Jan 31, 2017 at 12:33

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