In all cases of ablativus absolutus that I know, there is a main word and an attribute and both are in ablative. For example, me absente is "while I am away" and Caesare duce is "when Caesar is in charge". Is it possible to replace the attribute with a prepositional phrase or something else that does not contain an bare ablative (without preposition). I sometimes find myself tempted to use expressions like this:

Caesare Romae id fecimus. — We did it while Caesar was in Rome.
Pane in mensa edere coepimus. — We started to eat when the bread was in the table.
Ambulamus manu in manu. — We are walking hand in hand.

(There is also a separate question about the last one.) I suspect these are wrong and I have resisted the temptation hitherto, but I would like confirmation. Does the absolute ablative always require two parts, both of them in ablative? Are there examples like the ones I suggested? I know I can fix most such sentences by adding a participle (e.g. Caesare Romae versante or pane in mensa posito), but my question is whether such a participle is necessary.

3 Answers 3


Although we do not have native competence of Latin, my impression is that alleged Ablative Absolute constructions like "Caesare Romae" or "Caesare in Hispania" are NOT possible. Or at least, after many years reading Latin texts, I've been unable to find them. Again what is not found in the corpora (Latin is a textual language) does not necessarily mean that these constructions are impossible but MY "impression" is that they were not possible.

Interestingly (or I should say "In contrast"), these constructions are for example possible in a Romance language like Spanish provided that a preposition like CON 'with' is added: "Con César en Roma, estas cosas no pasarían" (lit. 'With Caesar in Rome, these things would not happen').

Finally, I think that constructions like "hand in hand" are different and probably should not be regarded as "Ablative Absolute" constructions.


It is quite a usual thing in Latin to use the ablative case to indicate the circumstances under which the main clause's action (sc. that of the main verb) happens. In such a case, the rule is that the noun (or pronoun) may not appear in the main sentence.

You seem to be confounding the ablative absolute with this, the so-called ablative of attendant circumstances. Your examples, however, are quite legitimate usage.

[expanded] The ablative has multiple uses, and grammarians of the past couple of centuries tended to invent their own names for them, which still today can cause confusion. For the most part, however, these usages came to have settled names (of origin, of comparison, of quality, of separation, of manner and so on).

The ablative absolute is set apart from the rest : it is not the ablative OF anything, but defines something connected with what happens in the rest of the sentence, to which it is an adjunct, and not an integral part of the action. It contains a noun/pronoun excluded from the main clause, and an epithet, which is most often a participle (of any tense) — for example Cicero venturo, Cicero is on his way — but may be otherwise. Hirtio Pansaque consulibus is an ablative absolute, constructed with a qualifying noun in the ablative, typically used to denominate a year in question, merely setting the background to what follows. Your example of Caesare Romae, similarly, uses a locative to say where Caesar is, rather than what he is up to, and may indeed have nothing to do directly with the main clause.

[It may be useful to add that there are conventions which recommend something other than the ablative absolute with a participle in certain circumstances, mainly on grounds of style. Thus, it is usual to write Caesare duce rather than Caesare ducente, while a dependent clause introduced by a conjunction to the main clause may be used instead of the ablative absolute: cum obsides interfecti essent for obsidibus interfectis.]

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    I'm sorry but I disagree with you when saying that these examples (e.g., "Caesare Romae") are "quite legitimate usage". What do you mean by that? In my opinion, "Caesare Romae" or "Caesare in Hispania" cannot be interpreted in the sense intended by Joonas, both forming a syntactic constituent. Notice that the intended reading of "Caesare Romae, id fecimus" would be "With Caesar in Rome, we did it". So Joonas is right (don't say he is "confounding" the terms!) since that would be an Ablative Absolute. In any case, as he says, could you give non-invented examples of that alleged use?
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 4:50
  • @Mitomino What 'alleged use' do you have in mind? Perhaps you misunderstand my particular use of the word confound? The difference is in defining 'attendant circumstances', and I'd agree that the point is a narrow one, but surely you agree that the abl. absolute defines a circumstance connected with the action of the main sentence? I offer this as an example of 'attendant circumstances' : nil desperandum Teucro duce et auspice Teucro (Hor. Odes 1, 7, 27), which is also an abl. absolute.
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 18:19
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    Joonas' question was very clear: can the predicate of an Ablative Absolute construction be categorically realized as a prepositional phrase (e.g., Caesare in Hispania) or as a locative-marked nominal (e.g., Caesare Romae)? We know that the predicate of an Ablative Absolute construction can be a participle (Caesare mortuo), a noun (Caesare duce) or an adjective (Caesare vivo). Why NOT a prepositional phrase (Caesare in Hispania)? E.g., "Caesare in Hispania, id fecerunt". The attested example you've just given is a typical one (cf. "Caesare duce") but it is not the one Joonas was asking for.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 1:53

It's an old Q, and completely answered by @TomCotton from the point of teaching/learning the Lating language, but I think it deserves a look from another angle, a purely linguistic rather than a philological/didactic standpoint, because the most important syntactic feature has not been mentioned (common to all IE languages that have retained both the case and the preposition):

  • It's always incorrect to analyze syntax of a nominal case (that of a noun, adjective or a noun phrase) as such when it forms a prepositional phrase, because its case is governed by that preposition.

mensa in your in mensa example is in the Abl. not because the case is syntactically meaningful, i.e. chosen among other cases to convey a specific meaning. It's in the Abl. because the preposition in requires it to be. The unit of syntactic analysis in this case is the entire prepositional phrase (you'd often see the acronym PP in parse trees). And you cannot meaningfully ascribe it a property of having a case at all. The preposition makes the case irrelevant (even if it's one of a very few prepositions, chiefly of location/direction that may govern two cases, such as in, supra, sub, etc.). The prepositional phrases with the Abl. nearly totally absorbed the Loc. and Ins. cases in Latin. It hardly useful to think of these as having anything to do with the Abl. proper, originally the case of separation, and by extension source, cause etc.

Cf. Romae, which is in the Loc. case (the Abl. would be Romā), retained in the Classical language only for place names in certain contexts, and a couple of frozen words, like domi and humi. This shows that the PP, e.g., in Hispania, has essentially a locative force, despite the noun taking the Abl. form, otherwise expressed by a prepositionless Romae.

As for the "ablative of attendant circumstances," the syntactic analysis gets mushy. First, this is originally a function of the Instrumental case, absorbed in Latin and other Italic languages by the Abl. Second, the AA, being an adverbial modifier, may and is often to express "attendant circumstances," just like a subordinate clause coordinated by cum, originally a conjunction (quum). Third, the AA itself has probably developed from this usage by dropping the conjunction turned a preposition.

Modern teaching of Latin (in the sense of learning the language) follows the extensive and inexact classification of the use of the Abl. and other cases, harks back to the ancient grammarians, and is at odd with the modern semiosyntactic analyses. Linguistically, when studying the language (as opposed to learning to read/write/speak it), it is more fruitful to look at its diachronic development w.r.t., speaking of the question, its case and preposition systems, which are most often in a conflict with each other. In modern Romance languages, with Romanian being probably a single exception, prepositions won over cases entirely.

The AA is a later development, and it can often be replaced with subordinate clauses with cum (originally Instr.) or dum (originally Loc.)

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