I'm reading Ovid's Metamorphoses, and there's this sentence:

Delius hunc nuper, victa serpente superbus,
viderat adducto flectentem cornua nervo
“quid” que “tibi, lascive puer, cum fortibus armis?”
dixerat: ...

emphasis mine

The phrase looks to me like an ablative absolute -- noun and participle, both in the ablative, set off from the rest of the sentence -- but the teacher translated it as "arrogant thanks to the victory over the serpent", which doesn't sound like one. Is this just a colloquial translation, or is it not an ablative absolute?

3 Answers 3


It's possible, but unlikely. First, the closeness of the words suggests a connection between them, and the commas mean the editors agreed.

More importantly, though, superbus governs an ablative. See e.g. Vergil's Aeneid 5.268, where the ones who received a gift were "opibus superbi", or later in 5.478 where Entellus is "tauro superbus", or in prose with Cicero "superbiorem te pecunia facit".

When used as such, it actually typically has the meaning of "exultant or glorying (in)" (as noted in the Oxford Latin Dictionary under § 1.d). So the above examples would be translated not as "proud" but rather:

opibus superbi = glorying in their [new] riches

tauro superbus = glorying in his [new] bull

superbiorem te pecunia facit = makes you exultant in your wealth

The OLD furnishes a couple other examples, like Cic. Agr. 2.95, "Campani semper superbi bonitate agrorum" (the Campanians always glorying in the goodness of their fields / the Campanians are extremely proud of their good fields).

So here, the proper translation is "glorying in the defeat of the snake".


It seems most natural to me to translate that as a causal ablative. The Delian is arrogant due to the victory over the serpent. Compare this for example with dono laetus, "happy due to the gift", and notice that serpens victa does not only mean "the defeated serpent" but also "victory over the serpent".

Absolute ablative is also possible, but then victa serpente modifies the whole clause, not just superbus. It would be more like "After the serpent was slain, he arrogantly…" which also makes sense.

There is a choice to make in the translation, and possibly there are more options than these two. I would go with ablativus causae, as that is the simplest and most obvious interpretation. Your teacher's translation also does this; if it was an absolute ablative, I would translate with a different tone than "arrogant thanks to the victory over the serpent".

The absolute ablative is often best translated as a separate (temporal or causal) clause, not an attribute. The causal ablative is an attribute.

  • llmavirta: Please see comment to Mitomino, below. To use "serpens victa" = "the serpent, having been defeated" or "victa sepente" = "with the serpent having been defeated" makes only a fine point of difference. Both work for me; but, am happy to be educated.
    – tony
    Nov 1, 2019 at 11:32
  • You say "serpens victa does not only mean "the defeated serpent" but also "victory over the serpent". Yeah, that's what makes this construction very interesting (and in fact very difficult to analyze...). An interesting question is why Romance languages lost this construction. By the way, do you have AUC constructions in Finnish?
    – Mitomino
    Feb 25, 2020 at 20:00
  • 1
    @Mitomino Indeed, this kind of semantic flexibility seems common in Latin and I find it quite interesting. Finnish doesn't have it; we would use expressions corresponding structurally to "from the founding of Rome" but our numerous participles and infinitives also allow constructions that no other language I know can do. (I mean things like "peseydyttyämme" = "after we have washed ourselves".)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 25, 2020 at 20:30

Victa serpente is not to be interpreted/analyzed here as an "Ablative Absolute" but rather as a dominant participle construction (see below for a definition) depending on an adjective superbus, which takes a complement in ablative case (NB: so-called "Ablative Absolutes" act as adverbial subordinate clauses, whereby they do not depend on adjectives but are adjuncts to sentences).

So-called "dominant participle" constructions are often referred to as Ab Urbe Condita (AUC) constructions, where the participle can often be translated into English/Romance via a nominalization: e.g., ab urbe condita 'since the foundation of the city/Rome'; de Milone per vim expulso queri 'to complain about Milo's violent expulsion', absoluto Scaevola gaudere 'to be delighted by Scaevola’s acquittal', victa serpente superbus 'glorying in the defeat of the snake'; etc. NB: importantly, as you can see, dominant participle constructions can depend on a preposition, on a verb, or on an adjective (as in the present question: superbus).

"Dominant participle" constructions (aka. AUC constructions) are defined by Panhuis (2006: 172) as follows: "syntactically speaking, an attributive participle modifies its head noun. But as far as content is concerned, the participle may express the leading idea and thus be the dominant element in the phrase" (Dirk Panhuis (2006). Latin Grammar. Section 363: "Dominant participle").

Basically, the idea of "dominant" participle comes from the fact that the participle in an AUC cannot be omitted but it is compulsory. Otherwise, the construction is ruled out or its meaning is changed. Notice that the meaning of ab urbe condita (on the AUC reading) is quite different from that of ab urbe: semantically speaking, the complement of the preposition is an entity in the latter, but a state of affairs or a situation in the former.

  • The participle in an AA is compulsory, isn't it? "Recently, with the serpent having been conquered, he (Delius) was seen gloating..."; how about this?
    – tony
    Nov 1, 2019 at 11:24
  • @tony You can have an AA without a participle, like Caesare duce. But do bear in mind that it is a matter of taste how things are categorized, so one's AA is not always another's AA.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Nov 1, 2019 at 11:38
  • @JoonasIlmavirta. (Unfortunately,) you're right when saying "it is a matter of taste how things are categorized, so one's AA is not always another's AA". I understand by "categorized" you mean "termed/named". As usual, "terminological" problems are not the true problems. Conceptual problems, the ones "behind the label/name", are the really worrying ones.
    – Mitomino
    Feb 25, 2020 at 20:29
  • 1
    @Mitomino By categorization I referred to both naming and dividing into groups. But both are an artificial layer of description on top of the actual phenomenon, so they often not that important.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 25, 2020 at 20:33
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I think we agree: conceptual problems, the ones "behind" the terminological label & descriptive taxonomy, are the really worrying ones. In any case, my point here is that if one (erroneously) says that victa serpente superbus contains an AA, it is like saying that ab urbe condita contains an AA as well. This said, it is worth pointing out there is a parallelism between AAs and AUCs: both involve a subordinated subject-predicate relation that, to put it in the above words by Fund Monica's Lawsuit, is "set off from" the main subject-predicate relation.
    – Mitomino
    Feb 25, 2020 at 20:52

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