In Ovid's Tristia, 1.2.23–4:

...Nihil est, nisi pontus et aer,
Nubibus hic tumidus, fluctibus ille minax...

As far as I can tell, this means

...There is nothing, unless the sea and air
This one swollen with clouds and that one threatening with waves...

I think "this one" means "the air" and "that one" means "the sea", based on context. Is that right? Is translating "hic" and "ille" like this typical and correct? If so, is there a better way to translate it?


3 Answers 3


Of course, as with so much in Latin, there's more than one answer, none of them incorrect.

The first answer is yes, using hic and ille like this to mean "the latter" and "the former" is common and correct. Here's Cicero in De Amicitia:

Scitum est enim illud Catonis, ut multa: 'melius de quibusdam acerbos inimicos mereri quam eos amicos qui dulces videantur; illos verum saepe dicere, hos numquam.'

That saying of Cato's was wise, as many were: there are certain people who owe more to bitter enemies than to friends who seem sweet; the former always speak the truth, the latter never.

The answer gets more complicated, however, because sometimes, when confusion is impossible, it's the other way around, as in these two passages from Ovid's Daphne and Chloe:

ut canis in vacuo leporem cum Gallicus arvo
vidit, et hic praedam pedibus petit, ille salutem.

As when a French dog in an empty field sees a hare, and with his feet the former seeks his prey, the latter his safety.


sic deus et virgo est hic spe celer, illa timore.

Thus the god and the maid were swift, the former with hope, the latter with fear.

So I suppose that in the end the answer is "yes, and."

  • The Ovid quotes are from the Apollo and Daphne story in Metamorphoses 1 (I think you might have gotten it confused with Longus' Daphnis and Chloe).
    – TKR
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 20:14

When hic and ille are used like this, they refer to the distance of words: hic refers to the closest noun, ille the one that came first.

In your example, you have first pontus and then aer. Hic therefore refers to the one closer to the pronoun, and since aer is closer to hic than pontus, it must refer to that. Likewise, since pontus is further away than aer, it goes with ille.

While in English we would typically talk about them in the order we heard or read them, in Latin it's visual. The first thing mentioned is the furthest removed from our attention, so the closest thing (hic, i.e. this thing right here) is the one listed last.

Re: "the former...the latter..." Does it accurately convey the meaning of the sentence? First, you would have to switch the normal order. Second, though, using "the latter...the former" in English actually emphasizes the abnormality of the former, while in Latin there is no such connotation.

  • I just asked a new question and this looks like a good answer to it. I wonder if my question should be closed as a duplicate or if this answer should be adapted there. (I prefer the latter, but I'm partial.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 7:05

I'd like to offer an addition, which was originally posted as a comment but requested to be turned into an answer by OP.

As explained in the other two answers, iste, ille and hic are used to refer back to the items of a previous enumeration. In that sense, "the former ... the latter" is a perfectly acceptable translation. However, in your example this sounds a bit formal:

There is nothing, but the sea and air. The latter swollen with clouds and the former threatening with waves...

In addition, as C. M. Weimer remarks:

[...] using "the latter...the former" in English actually emphasizes the abnormality of the former, while in Latin there is no such connotation.

In this case, it is clear which of "swollen with clouds" and "theathening with waves" refers to "sea" and which one refers to "air", so you could simply go with the more general "one / the other":

There is nothing, but the sea and air. One swollen with clouds, the other threatening with waves...

This preserves the neutrality of the Latin formulation and sounds much more natural to me, at the expense of a less literal translation (which may or may not be what you are after).

You could even go for an even more free interpretation, with something like

There is nothing but the sea, threatening with waves, and air, swollen with clouds.

Although this is probably easiest to understand and arguably the most natural way to state it in English, it loses the chiasmus from the original text.

  • 1
    Just to offer another possibility, I myself would go with "the one swollen with clouds, the other..." This preserves a little more of the parallel between hic and ille than simply "one"/"the other." But as this is a question about use and meaning, not translation, I'm just leaving this as a comment. Thanks for a thorough answer, and welcome! Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 15:38

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