North & Hillard, Ex. 189; Q5:"The citizens were almost dead of starvation, when relief arrived."

Answer: "cives fame paene mortui sunt cum auxilium advenit."

Firstly, I put mortui erant - the-citizens-had-nearly-died: (two actions, in the past, the one following the other). Is this still correct? Latin seems reluctant to deploy pluperfects; when, English-speakers, instinctively & naturally wish to do so.

Secondly, when "cum"= "when" it should only take the indicative (advenit) when the tense is present or future; otherwise, it takes imperf. subj., or pluperf. subj. The tense is past (when relief arrived) so is the use of "advenit" a mistake?


What you have here is an example of a so-called 'inverted cum clause,' where what we might more logically consider the main action is expressed in the form of a cum clause, and what we might consider the circumstances surrounding that action are expressed as the main clause. So the sentence could be expressed more logically as 'When the citizens were almost dead of starvation, relief arrived' or 'Relief arrived when the citizens were almost dead of starvation.'

In an inverted cum clause, the indicative is always used.

Cum inversum is discussed in Allen & Greenough, New Latin grammar, section 546.a, for example.


It's always difficult to recommend a 'best' translation in a case like this, when there is no real context. However, I see that North & Hillard in this chapter are introducing the use of cum, about which a degree of care is needed.

You are right that Latin 'seems' reluctant to deploy pluperfects, but that's because it very often shows an approach to a sequence of actions that is different, more rigid than English (this partly explains the tendency for Latin to use fewer words than English).

In this case, as you might recognize, N&H might equally well have written 'When the citizens had almost died of starvation, relief arrived.' Then, I think, you might more naturally accept cum cives fame paene mortui essent, auxilium advenit. That's the translation which I would choose.

This is a very familiar construction in Latin when a sequence of events is being described. Caesar, for example, seems to have been very fond of expressions such as eo cum venisset . . ., 'when he had got there', and Romae cum ventum esset . . ., 'at Rome when the journey was over', or (which means the same thing) 'when they had got to Rome'. I don't know the answer supplied in the key to N&H, but it won't necessarily be the only, nor indeed the best translation.

I will leave it there so as not to confuse you, but you might like to consider what you would write if the sentence to translate had been 'relief arrived when the citizens had almost died of hunger.'

  • thank you for the answer & the teaser. Does reversing the sentence by putting "relief arrived" at the beginning, actually change anything? Your tranalation incorporating: "....mortui essent.....advenit" would still stand? If not; then, the perf./ pluperf. conflict: auxilium advenerat; or conditional--advenisset--but that is for impossible conditions? compelling a rewrite to; "if help had not arrived, the citizens would have died of...." Please advise.
    – tony
    Jun 1 '18 at 10:16
  • see above please--
    – tony
    Jun 1 '18 at 10:34
  • @:tony It wasn't meant to tease, but to encourage thought. As I said, there's no real context against which to set your rendering. In another setting, you might write something quite different, like cum tandem advenisset auxilium cives non perierunt, which delivers the same information in a different way. There is seldom a single, correct way to write a sentence of any complexity in Latin, nor to translate Latin to English : it's only necessary to read various translations of the same classical work to appreciate this.
    – Tom Cotton
    Jun 1 '18 at 13:45
  • Hi again. "Teaser" was a semi-jocular thing that I used to use with students when I gave them the most difficult Qs that could find or invent (chemistry). My eccentric (mad) sense of humour.
    – tony
    Jun 1 '18 at 15:57

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