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Ablative absolute

In Latin grammar, the ablative absolute is a noun phrase cast in the ablative case. It indicates the time, condition, or attending circumstances of an action being described in the main sentence.

It takes the place of, and translates, many phrases that would require a subordinate clause in English. The unfamiliarity of this construction makes it sometimes difficult for Latin students to grasp; however, mastery of this construction is needed to write Latin well, and its availability makes Latin prose concise and economical. The closest English equivalent is the nominative absolute (see below).

The ablative absolute is grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence. It typically combines a noun or pronoun with an adjective, which is often a participle. A common translation strategy for this type of ablative absolute is "with the NOUN having been VERBed." The translation can then be finessed into more common English based upon context:

Urbe capta, Aeneas fugit
"The city having been captured, Aeneas fled."
"With the city having been captured, Aeneas fled."
"When the city was captured, Aeneas fled."

Nouns, also, are often found in the ablative absolute construction:

Cn. Pompeio M. Crasso consulibus. . .
"When Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus were consuls. . ."
Ovidio exule Musae planguntur.
"The Muses wept because Ovid was an exile."

as are adjectives:

vivo Caesare. . .
"when Caesar was alive. . ."

The ablative absolute, as shown above, indicates the time when things happened, or the circumstances when they occurred. It also indicates the causes of things, as in:

Ira calefacta, sapientia dormit.
"Wisdom sleeps because anger is kindled."
Domino absente, fenestram penetravit.
"The homeowner being absent, he came in through the window."
"Since the homeowner was away, he came in through the window."

It can be used to add descriptions:

Passis palmis pacem petiverunt.
"Hands outstretched, they sued for peace."
"They sued for peace with hands outstretched."

Sometimes an infinitive or clause occurs in the ablative absolute construction, especially in Livy and later authors:

audito eum fugisse. . .
"Having heard that he had fled. . ."
"when they heard he had fled. . ."

The ablative absolute construction is sometimes imitated in English in a construction called the nominative absolute: "The Americans, their independence secured, formed a government." But the construction is rarer and much less at home in English than it is in Latin.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45