I'm new to Latin. I've been learning for about a month. I'm wondering if anyone can explain why "poenas dare" is often translated as "to pay the penalties" instead of "to give the penalties". I feel like "pay" is passive whereas "give" is active. Is it possible the word "do" can really carry both those ideas in the same form?

For example, in the phrase:

"Sine philosophiā saepe errāmus et poenās damus"

it is translated:

"Without philosophy, we often go astray and pay the penalty."

Why isn't it instead:

"Without philosophy, we often go astray and give the penalty."?

  • First of all, there is nothing passive about paying. Secondly, giving a penalty and paying a penalty describe very different situations.
    – Alex B.
    Sep 22, 2018 at 2:44
  • Hey @AlexB. Maybe passive isn't the right word. But it looks like you get my point. In the first example I gave, "pay" is affecting "we", in the second example "give" would not affect "we", but it would affect whoever the penalty is being given to. The same word (damus from do) can technically be translated into two distinctly differently meanings in English. Why? Which one is more correct? How can we be sure? These are some of the questions I have.
    – Phillip
    Sep 22, 2018 at 3:14
  • 1
    An ancient Roman would perhaps ask why we English-speakers talk about 'paying a penalty' rather than 'giving penalties.' Different languages differ in idiom. When you learn a language, you have to think in terms of equivalence of concept and can't expect word-for-word equivalence. It's abundantly clear from sources where the phrase poenas dare is used that its closest equivalent idiom in English is 'pay the penalty.'
    – cnread
    Sep 22, 2018 at 7:26

2 Answers 2


First of all, in English we do not really say "to give the penalties". We could say "to impose a penalty", or the like.

Latin poena, like its etymon ποινή, is primarily "recompense, ransom, fine" etc. It is something that the guilty party "gives" to the injured party.


The meaning of the idiom might become clearer if we look at the original meaning of poena: "the payment made as an attonement" by a criminal. In your example, "Sine philosophiā saepe errāmus et poenās damus", the meaning would be "we give a payment" for our lack of philosophy, or "we pay the price".

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