The Ablative Absolute

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)

Let us proceed to some specific constructions. I will deal first with structures which, when you have read and comprehended the elements, often still defy explanation, and nothing could be better to start with than the Ablative Absolute. This is the traditional name, in fact 'absolutely' traditional, but its meaning is something more like Bracketed Independent Circumstance. The term Absolute (Latin ab-solutus "set apart from") is in Latin the core of the concept. English "absolute" has acquired entirely new meanings, which don't help us here.

When dealing with Independent sub-clauses like the Ablative Absolute, we might well consider them to be in something like mathematical functions in algebraic brackets. That is, what goes on in the brackets must be taken as a whole, settled up within the brackets, and then entered into the whole of the main stream of the sentence which contains it. This is however made more difficult in the selection of the Ablative case for this structure, because of its various functions, which embrace notions as disparate as:
     "from, in, on, be means of, and with".

But it is this last use "with", which dominates here, and for simplicity's sake I am going to name it anew as the "Bracketed Independent Clause in the Ablative".

In my own mind, I think of the Ablative Absolute as a "Ablative of Concomitant Circumstance (!)" with a Participle, and mentally I always note that it means "with....", which makes terrible English. But since I read Latin and never translate, there is really no problem, and I offer this approach as a good way indeed to think about the terible "AA"..

In simplest terms, this can be a noun and an adjective:

duce mortuo "The leader being dead", which I think you might better approach saying: "with the leader dead". By saying to yourself "with", which is in keeping with the ablative case at least in part, you set up an accompanying statement, which is going to go along with something else, a basic requirement of the Ablative Absolute Rule:

"The subject of an Ablative Absolute clause cannot ever be the subject of the sentence"

That is an iron-clad rule in the grammar books. Why? Because the clause accompanies something else, and cannot be the subject of the main clause which it accompanies. In short it cannot accompany itself.

Now try it with a present active participle:

duce exercitum agente,.... "with the leader leading on the army....."

In polished English we will be thinking of something more like this:

When the leader brought up his army, the enemy decided to cross the river.

In short, we have converted our inconvenient Ablative Independent to a "when" clause. I should note that we have a variety of "when" clauses in Latin, and it would be better to keep straight the essential character of the Ablative Independent construction. The Ablative Absolute is automatically nipped in its grammatical exactness, that is it doesn't provide full information you woudl have if using a regular inflected verb form with personal endings for precision. So it really is encapsulated, it is a separate "aside-thought", which comes only somewhere inside the sentence proper.

So for the Roman it has a special shorthand-like place, it is terse, not overly informative, it often requires a little guessing to tell who Is doing exactly what. Then this whole nipped bud or nascent idea "goes into" or is plugged into the sentence proper. Some more examples:

Traditional: "When these things had been done" does make better English. But we want to stick as closely to the Latin as possible, so follow the odd-sounding "with. ." clause. The nice thing about approaching the Ablative Independent this way is that on the one hand its origins are clear, and on the other hand the same phrase "with...." covers every kind of Abl. Abs. clause , although the English gets a little strained. All these ablatives are simple "Attending Ablatives", which amplify and accompany a particular circumstance.


The Ablative Absolute, as a tight, encapsulated inner-clause, is made up this way:

A noun, or a pronoun, or sometimes a pronoun (even understood and not actually there ) . You can have just audito "with this heard", a stylistically terse turn in Tacitus to be sure, but perfectly clear in meaning.

To this basic structure you add a noun, or an adjective, or a participle. Very common are nouns with present participles, which tell us something about something which is currently going on:
omnibus pueris et puellis convenientibus "with all the girls and boys meeting, coming together "

More common is use of a noun with the PPP or Perfect Passive Participle:
eorum verbis auditis "with the words of those ones heard", i.e. the PPP of Class IV verb audio. This could be also considered to mean "after these things had been heard ".

You can also make up a similar structure with a future active participle: Spartaco morituro "with Spartacus about to die", and remember again that some one else, not Spartacus, is about to do something when we are back in the main clause of the sentence.

Such Independent Clipped Clauses are very common, especially with authors such as Julius Caesar who Is imitating a clipped military style characterized by terseness. You must have the idea of what this kind of structure really means, or you will find yourself analyzing a long sentence with half a dozen unexplained ablatives left over at the end.

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