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On the syntax of 'Cogitate quantis laboribus fundatum imperium (...) una nox paene delerit' (Cic. Cat. 4, 19)

Latin Language Asked by Mitomino on November 7, 2020

Picking up the thread of analyzing beautiful structures involving participles in Cicero’s works (e.g. see this link), I’d like to raise a question about the syntax of the following complex sentence. To put it in the words of Wightman and Knapp (1934: 206): "here is a sentence to diagram!".

Cogitate, quantis laboribus fundatum imperium, quanta virtute stabilitam libertatem, quanta deorum benignitate auctas exaggeratasque fortunas una nox paene delerit (Cic. Cat. 4, 19).

Transl. by C.D. Yonge (1856): ‘Think with what great labour this our dominion was founded, by what virtue this our liberty was established, by what kind favour of the gods our fortunes were aggrandized and ennobled, and how nearly one night destroyed them all’.

In this link from Perseus the following interesting note by Greenough & Kittredge can also be found: "quantis . . . delerit: this clause will be best turned into English by translating the participles fundatum, etc., as verbs, and delerit as a relative clause, ‘with how great toil this empire was established, which one night’, etc. In Latin the question is contained in the interrogative modifiers of imperium and not in the main clause". Similarly, in this link the commentator says on page 81: "A short form of expression combining two really distinct indirect questions, (1) cogitate quantis laboribus imperium fundatum sit and (2) cogitate ut una nox paene (imperium) delerit‘. In English, ‘Think by what toil was the empire established, which one night nearly destroyed’."

These English translations can be said to be very good but it is important to realize that they involve a syntax that is different from what we really find in Latin: i.e., in the Latin complex sentence above the exclamative (cf. "interrogative" in Greenough & Kittredge’s note above) constituents (quantis laboribus, quanta virtute, and quanta deorum benignitate) modify participles (fundatum, stabilitam, and auctas exaggeratasque), which in turn depend on the nominal heads of the direct objects (imperium, libertatem, and fortunas) of the subordinate verb dele(ve)rit. For some reason strange to me the exclamative nature of the adjunct participle construction (e.g. quantis laboribus fundatum) appears to "percolate up" to the subordinate clause of the verb dele(ve)rit. Could anyone shed light on what is going on here? I was wondering whether the existence of these examples can be related to the claim that Latin is a "discourse-configurational language" (NB: "discourse-configurational languages" are those ones where either or both of the discourse-semantic functions "topic" and "focus" are linked to particular structural positions. For relevant discussion of the important claim that Latin is a "discourse-configurational language", see the following references: Devine, Andrew M. & Laurence D. Stephens (2006). Latin Word Order. Structured Meaning and Information. New York: Oxford University Press // Devine, Andrew M. & Laurence D. Stephens (2019). Pragmatics for Latin. From Syntax to Information Structure. New York: Oxford University Press).

That could explain why it is nearly impossible to provide a good direct translation of the Latin example above into English and other ‘plainly configurational’ languages I know of (e.g., cf. the relative-clause strategy put foward by Greenough & Kittredge in their note above with the coordination strategy used by Yonge in his English translation above: ‘and how nearly one night destroyed them all’).

2 Answers

Summary: the reason why this sentence seems unusual after translation is only because of the limits of English syntax, not because anything odd in the Latin.

A short form of expression combining two really distinct indirect questions

I do not understand why the commentator read the sentence that way. It is theoretically possible to read the first interrogative clause as subordinate to cogitate directly:

cogitate quantis laboribus fundatum imperium [sit]

Elliptic sit is not unreasonable in isolation, and fundatum imperium could be nominative. However, this is not possible with the other interrogative clauses, because it says quanta virtute stabilitam libertatem, not *quanta virtute stabilita libertas [sit]. The accusative makes that sit impossible, so libertatem and fortunas must be objects to something; and delerit is the only candidate:

Cogitate...quanta virtute stabilitam libertatem...una nox delerit

This makes perfect sense in Latin, but it cannot be translated literally, because this type of layered nesting is incompatible with English syntax ("think the-freedom-stabilised-by-how-much-virtue one night destroyed": this is ugly). The same applies to the third interrogative clause.

So, if we follow this commentator, we have three interrogative clauses with some ellipsis, supplied as follows:

cogitate quantis laboribus fundatum imperium [sit]
[cogitate] quanta virtute stabilitam libertatem [una nox paene delerit]
[cogitate] quanta deorum benignitate auctas exaggeratasque fortunas una nox paene delerit

But I think the lectio brevis makes much more sense—and is to be preferred stylistically—, i.e. a normal tricolon (three parallel constructions):

cogitate quantis laboribus fundatum imperium [una nox paene delerit]
[cogitate] quanta virtute stabilitam libertatem [una nox paene delerit]
[cogitate] quanta deorum benignitate auctas exaggeratasque fortunas una nox paene delerit

So I think this is the only reasonable reading of the sentence. It must be translated somewhat liberally, though; so I understand why those translations 'flattened' the syntax, turning it into four parallel interrogative clauses instead, adding the word how to introduce the final clause:

think with what great labour this our dominion was founded,
[think] by what virtue this our liberty was established,
[think] by what kind favour of the gods our fortunes were aggrandized and ennobled,
and [think] how nearly one night destroyed them all

The translation using which to introduce the fourth clause after flattening would seem an equally good option.


In conclusion, there is nothing odd about the Latin; it is just English which is incapable of rendering the same construction.


[Edit:] Let me illustrate the problem in English.

Think how much power one night destroyed.

This is possible. The interrogative phrase how much must come at the beginning of the interrogative clause: this is a strict requirement of English in the present context.

Think how strong an empire one night destroyed.

This is still possible, because how strong is at the beginning of the interrogative clause, and the adjectival phrase how strong can come before its head, the noun an empire. The latter is possible, because a plain adjective like strong can come before its noun.

Think how well established an empire one night destroyed.

The participial phrase how well established can again go before its head noun, so still no problem.

*Think by how much toil established an empire one night destroyed.

Suddenly, we lose grammaticality. The iron law of interrogative and relative pronouns requires that by how much should come at the beginning; however, the participial phrase is now such that it cannot be before the noun any more: *by how much toil established an empire is not proper English. The reason is probably that it becomes somewhat ambiguous or somewhat garden-path like: you could naïvely read established as a simple past now, a finite verb; or as a praeposited participial phrase modifying the verb ("by how much toil established did one night do something"); by the end, you'd know this was not right, and you'd arrive at the right reading: but that is too much work, it requires too much of the reader.

?An empire by so much toil established one night destroyed.

This is somewhat awkward, but perhaps still grammatical: with a moderate amount of puzzling or rereading, this sentence is readable. What I did was move the participial phrase to the right of its head noun. But I removed how. If we want to add how back in, we get this:

*Think an empire by how much toil established one night destroyed.

This is an alternative attempt at constructing the sentence: instead of moving the phrase by how toil established to an unnatural position to the left of its head, we keep it at the right. But now the problem is that by how much, the interrogative phrase, is no longer at the beginning of the interrogative clause. This is unacceptable in English, probably also because of a garden-path like issue: at a glance, you'd begin reading the sentence thinking an empire was some sort of object to think, which is wrong. That is why the interrogative phrase really must go at the beginning of an interrogative clause.

So we have two rules here which conflict:

  • an interrogative phrase must come at the beginning of its interrogative clause

  • a participial phrase of great complexity must come after its head noun

Correct answer by Cerberus on November 7, 2020

There is little to add to the wonderful answer by @Cerberus, but I though it might be useful to add another possible way of translating this sentence into English by rendering the occurrences of quantus as being akin to rhetorical questions by "such":

Ponder, how one night nearly destroyed this empire founded by such efforts, our liberty established by such virtues, our fortunes aggrandized and ennobled by such kind favour of the gods.

or to preserve the logical order, by rendering the sentence in the passive voice:

Ponder, how this empire founded by such efforts, our liberty established by such virtues, our fortunes aggrandized and ennobled by such kind favour of the gods were nearly destroyed in one night.

Answered by gmvh on November 7, 2020

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