Monday, 17 January 2011


"Nunc est bibendum", of which "Now it is time to drink" is but one of the many possible translations, is one of the most famous quotations from Latin literature. It comes from the first line of carmen XXXVII of Horace's Odes, Book I, a poem written to celebrate the news of the death of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, in 30 B.C. Sabidius' purpose in this article is to analyse the grammatical significance of this short clause and, in particular to discuss whether 'bibendum' is a gerund or gerundive. 

In the sixth section of his article entitled "Gerunds and Gerundives", published on his blog on 6th March 2010, Sabidius highlighted the controversy that exists about whether it is gerunds or gerundives that are employed in contexts such as this one, where the verb involved is intransitive. It should be noted that the term "intransitive" here covers 1) verbs that can have no object at all, e.g. "curro", I run; 2) transitive verbs being used without an object, e.g. "bibo", I drink, in "Nunc est bibendum"; and 3) verbs that can govern a dative but not an accusative, e.g. "pareo", I obey. The former view that the impersonal construction to denote necessity, obligation or propriety, when applied to intransitive verbs, employs the gerund rather than the gerundive is difficult to maintain, because it involves using the nominative (and accusative in the case of indirect statement) when this usage does not otherwise appear, and also because there is no other instance where the gerund has the notions of necessity, obligation or propriety. On the other hand, the currently prevailing view that this construction involves the gerundive requires the acceptance that a passive verbal adjective, which is what a gerundive is, is possible in the case of intransitive verbs, which by their very nature cannot really have a passive voice, and also of seeing how such a passive adjective can be applicable to expressions such as  "Nunc est bibendum", where the existence or relevance of the passive voice is scarcely detectable. In order to investigate further the implications of this dilemma, the various possible translations of this clause and other similar ones are now considered.

Firstly, however, it may be instructive to look at the next part of this opening stanza to Ode XXXVII, the beginning of which reads: "Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus (sc. est)", which can be translated as "Now it is time to drink, now we should dance freely". From its ending there is no doubt that "pulsanda" is a gerundive, being used as a predicative adjective in the passive voice, and the literal meaning of this second clause is "The earth is meet-to-be-struck with a free foot". In this context "libero" means "unrestrained", or perhaps "free from the threat of slavery to Cleopatra". This clause is a good example of the use of the gerundive in the case of a transitive verb to denote necessity, etc. If, as many authorities have done, we see "bibendum" in "Nunc est bibendum" as a gerund it can be translated, without any need for a passive expression, simply as "drinking", and "Nunc est bibendum" as "Now there is drinking" or rather, if one uses the verb "sum" in a positive or emphatic sense, "Now it is time to drink", "Now there is time for drinking", or "Now there is drinking to be done". In practice, one of these variants is how this particular sentence is usually translated. However, none of these translations involves an expression of necessity or obligation, and indeed it is difficult to do this at all until a pronoun is added, in this case in the dative case. "Nunc est bibendum nobis" would then mean, "Now it is time for us to drink" or "There is drinking for us to do", with "nobis" as a dative of the agent or dative of interest. In both of these translations, however, the notion of necessity or obligation is marginal, but, if "bibendum" is a gerund, these translations are about as far as one can go to import such a meaning. 

If, on the other hand, one takes the view that "bibendum" is a gerundive being used as an example of the impersonal passive construction, then "bibendum" means "meet-to-be-drunk", or "needing to be drunk", and it is relatively straightforward to import the concept of necessity etc. into the clause "Nunc est bibendum". "Now there is a need to drink" is one possible translation, but there are many other ways in which these three Latin words can be translated into English, while highlighting the idea of necessity, etc. Possible variants include the following: "Now it is necessary to drink", "Now there is a need for drinking/ to drink", "Now there must be drinking", and "Now one must drink". It is worth noting here that the use of the impersonal pronoun "one",  in contexts where a specific personal pronoun is lacking, is a good way of translating such expressions.

At this point, however, it should be recognised that an unidentified personal pronoun should really be understood as the agent behind this exhortatory statement. So, "Nunc est bibendum nobis" would mean: "It is necessary for us to drink" or, more freely, "We must drink" or "We should drink." and, in practice, this is how such clauses, i.e. those involving expressions of necessity etc, in the case of intransitive verbs, are commonly rendered by translators. The difficulty that remains, however, is how it is possible to do justice to the passive nature of gerundives in instances such as "Nunc est bibendum". So, just as the use of a gerund makes it difficult to import the concept of necessity etc., the use of the gerundive makes it difficult to ignore the need for a literal translation to involve the passive voice. Therefore, "Nunc est bibendum" should really be, "Now it is necessary for it (i.e. drink) to be drunk". This is possible, albeit somewhat clumsy.

But, before we can accept that 'bibendum' really is a gerundive, we need to consider whether such an approach, which is designed to bring out the passive nature of gerundives, also works with regard to other intransitive verbs? Let us look at the two verbs used as examples above, i.e. "curro" and "pareo". If justice is to be done to the passive nature of these apparent gerundives, "Currendum est tibi " should therefore be translated as "It is necessary for the race to be run by you", or "There is running to be done by you"; and  "Mihi a te parendum est" as "It is necessary for obedience to be shown by you to me". These literal translations may seem rather contrived or periphrastic, and when actual translations are made it is common to use expressions in the active voice, i.e. "It is necessary for you to run" and "It is necessary for you to obey me." Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the passive basis of these phrases if the argument that words such as "bibendum" are gerundives is to be successfully maintained.

The literal translations of clauses using this construction can undoubtedly be very cumbersome, but the same is also the case with the impersonal passive construction, upon which it is based. An example of this is: "Caesari persuasum est", i.e. Caesar was persuaded, where the literal translation, "It was persuaded to Caesar", can scarcely be admitted as acceptable. "Persuasion is brought to Caesar" is a little better but still clumsy. Third person singular passive forms of intransitive verbs are used exceptionally in the case of the impersonal passive construction, and, if we decide that it is gerundives, not gerunds, that are being used in expressions such as "Nunc est bibendum", then we must regard a gerundive as an additional exceptional passive form in the case of intransitive verbs. This is, frankly, not very easy to accept, particularly since the gerundive of intransitive verbs does not appear in other contexts, and for the reasons given in the opening paragraph of this monograph, it is difficult to be entirely comfortable with either argument. Nevertheless, it is perhaps easier to accept that it is indeed the gerundive being used in this context, since gerunds do not otherwise appear in the nominative or have the force of necessity, etc.

The gerundive, if this is what it is, with the appropriate forms of the verb "sum" in the Second or Passive Periphrastic Conjugation is the most common way in classical Latin to express necessity, obligation or propriety, and the use of the impersonal passive construction with intransitive verbs in this context is particularly common, despite our difficulties of effecting a literal translation of it. Indeed, there are eleven instances of the gerundive being used impersonally to express necessity etc. in Book I of Caesar's "De Bello Gallico", and only four instances of it being used with transitive verbs as a predicative adjective for the same purpose. The use of the gerundive in these two similar but slightly different constructions is an example of the remarkable conciseness of which Latin is capable, but the uncertainty as to whether it is the gerund or gerundive being used when the verbs are intransitive emphasises how such conciseness can sometimes involve an uncertainty of grammatical interpretation.        


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