I want to find out how Greek expresses the protases of conditions like the following:

What was I to do? If I remained in Athens I would be killed; if I left, I would lose all my property.

This is a type of past-tense condition, but it isn't one of the usual three types discussed in grammars and textbooks. It's not an open condition (the speaker knows now whether he stayed or left); it's not a counterfactual (one of the two options must be true); and it's not a general condition (not a recurring situation). Rather, it's a kind of free indirect speech, in which we are being asked to take the viewpoint of the speaker at that moment in the past.

If the same condition were about the present, it would be easy: If I remain in Athens I will be killed is a straightforward future more vivid. But what happens when it's shifted into the past?

I'm asking specifically about the protasis because I feel pretty sure that the apodosis would be expressed by ἔμελλον + infinitive. There are examples of such usages in Goodwin's Moods and Tenses (p. 99), but unfortunately none involve a condition. Can anyone point to an example of such a condition in a Greek text (or even better, to a grammatical discussion of this type)?

(ETA: added a related question about free indirect speech in Greek and Latin.)

  • Do you know how to phrase such past dilemmas in Latin? That would make an interesting question, too.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 3:51
  • @JoonasIlmavirta, my guess would be imperfect subjunctive, but I don't know for sure.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 3:56
  • Then we agree perfectly. :) I would like to be more sure.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 3:58
  • 1
    @ktm5124, that's part of what I want to find out... We can't necessarily assume it exists -- it's possible that Greek writers would always have put in the implied verb of thinking in such contexts (What was I to do, knowing that if I remained...). This is a type of free indirect speech, and maybe Greek simply didn't have that.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 4:49
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    It's funny, because the archetypal "dilemma" comes to us from Homer: Scylla and Charybdis. I'll have to check to see if the scenario is ever described in this precise way!
    – brianpck
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 14:53

1 Answer 1


Here is a potentially similar example of a past dilemma from Diogenes Laertius (3rd c. AD), Vitae Philosophorum, in which he uses the aorist optative for the protasis. The surrounding clause is in direct speech, so the apodosis is in an aorist infinitive. The OP is probably in a better position to judge whether this fits the case or not.

φησὶ δὲ Δημήτριος ὁ Μάγνης τραπεζίτῃ τινὶ παρακαταθέσθαι τἀργύριον, συνθέμενον, εἰ μὲν οἱ παῖδες ἰδιῶται γένοιντο, αὐτοῖς ἀποδοῦναι: εἰ δὲ φιλόσοφοι, τῷ δήμῳ διανεῖμαι. (VI.88)

Hicks' translation:

Demetrius of Magnesia tells a story that he entrusted a banker with a sum of money on condition that, if his sons proved ordinary men he was to pay it to them, but, if they became philosophers, then to distribute it among the people.

  • Thanks for posting this. It strikes me as different from the type of construction I'm asking about, though -- the conditions here are in subordinate clauses in secondary sequence (with συνθέμενον acting as a verb of speech), so they're simply Future More Vivids made optative by sequence of moods. What I'm wondering is what happens when such conditions are expressed as main clauses, if they ever are.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 21:25

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