The first sentence of the introduction to the Systema Naturæ by Linnaeus is:

Homo mundi intraturus theatrum quæritur Quis sit.

How do you tell what noun goes with mundi? Grammatically, two interpretations come to mind:

A man of the world about to enter a theater is asked who he is.

Man about to enter the theater of the world is asked who he is.

In context, the second interpretation seems clearly superior. Must you rely on sense to determine the "object" of a genitive, or are there grammatical clues?

To put that another way, would you write the Latin any differently if you wanted the first interpretation?

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    I'd say "man of the world" is an idiomatic expression that was most probably not used in classical Latin, but, if it existed the Latin of Linnaei age, then it is possible to read it that way. Or, if it existed in Linnaei Swedish, then it is possible that he committed a Suedism(?).
    – Cerberus
    Mar 3, 2016 at 18:07
  • @Cerberus I don't actually mean to ask about the expression "man of the world". I'm wondering about the general problem of how Latin indicates which noun a genitive modifies.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Mar 4, 2016 at 4:30
  • Right, then I think the answers are probably quite helpful?
    – Cerberus
    Mar 4, 2016 at 5:07
  • @Cerberus Yes, definitely. I'm still absorbing cmw's (and your link about theatrum mundi).
    – Ben Kovitz
    Mar 4, 2016 at 5:23
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    @Hugh kmylvens discovered that indeed the word is indeed sit in this answer here. I'll update it in this question right now.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Aug 29, 2016 at 2:18

2 Answers 2


Grammatically it should be the first—homo and intraturus enclose mundi, and therefore the genitive belongs to them. This is a very common way of showing relationships between dependent words.

However, if it is true that Linnaeus meant the latter, then I'd offer that this isn't the best Latin. The A1B2A2B1 structure doesn't feel like proper Latin.

This sort of distance is possible with gentive hyperbaton, but from the examples that Devine adduces in his Latin Word Order (Oxford, 2006), this one does not seem to fit in. The parallel in English he gives for genitive hyperbaton is:

A critique hit the newstands of the Prime Minister's foreign policy.

Readers easily understand that these are not newstands of foreign policy, but rather that genitive goes with 'critique'. Indeed, in most of his examples, the genitive is separated from what it modifies by a verb ("contionem advocat militum", BC 2.32; "nemo inclamavit patronorum", De Orat. 1.230). He explains (with the example sensibus carebit oculorum):

[In genitive hyperbaton] the cofocus is a single pragmatically uniform syntactic constituent. The syntax is massaged to provide for a simple and direct translation into a pragmatically structured meaning.

This isn't always the case, though. Take these four examples:

tantum civitati Haeduae dignitatis tribuebat (BG 5.7)

neque...pacis umquam apud vos mentionem feci (Livy 21.13.3)

There is still no ambiguity here, and despite the hyperbaton, there isn't alternation between elements that go together. The structure is more chiastic here. I'd wager we only see the odd alternation in poetry, or if we see it at all in prose, it's very rare.

So, all in all, the first translation is the more natural way of saying things, the second is the odd one.

If you wanted to force the odd one, simply put mundi after theatrum. If you wanted to make the first less ambiguous, Joonas' suggestions of an adjective instead of a genitive (which is excellent Latin) or a relative clause are both correct.

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    I don't know, it wasn't ambiguous to me when I first read it. Although it is still not impossible that Linnaeus committed a modernism, the theatrum mundi is a famous concept. Mundi didn't fit homo semantically, so I just connected it with theatrum, which made sense semantically. It is true that this is not the standard word order, but I didn't experience it as extremely unusual either. The expression "a man of the world" is used in Dutch, English, and French, but I wouldn't have assumed it to be proper Latin.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 4, 2016 at 3:18
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    Sure, the grammar is ambiguous. But it's Latin!
    – Cerberus
    Mar 4, 2016 at 17:42

The second translation is indeed superior. This is mostly based on context: theatrum mundi makes more sense than homo mundi. Judging by word order alone suggests that mundi modifies homo, so word order is not enough to convey the difference between your two interpretations. Grammar allows both interpretations, and grammar alone is not enough to decide which one is correct.

To make mundus clearly refer to homo, it would be safest to use an adjective instead: homo mundanus. This may change the nuance a bit but the reference to homo becomes clear from gender.

Alternatively, you could introduce a relative clause. The difference between "homo mundi, qui theatrum intrat, quaeritur" and "homo, qui theatrum mundi intrat, quaeritur" is clear.

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