Relative Clauses in Latin

Relative Clauses in Latin

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Relative clauses in Latin refer to clauses introduced by relative pronouns or relative adverbs. The relative clause construction includes a main or independent clause modified by its dependent of subordinate clause. It is the subordinate clause that holds the relative pronoun or relative adverb giving its name to this type of clause.

The subordinate clause usually also contains a finite verb.

Latin uses relative clauses where you might sometimes find a participle or a simple appositive in English.

pontem qui erat ad Genavam
the bridge (which was) at Geneva
Caesar .7.2

Antecedents… or Not

Relative clauses modify the noun or pronoun of the main clause. The noun in the main clause is referred to as the antecedent.

  • This is true even when the antecedent comes after the relative pronoun.
  • This antecedent noun can even appear within the relative clause.
  • Finally, an antecedent that is an in indefinite may not appear at all.
ut quae bello ceperint quibus vendant habeant
that they may have (people) to whom to sell what they take in war
Caesar De Bello Gallico 4.2.1

Markers of the Relative Clause

The relative pronouns are normally:

  • Qui, Quae, Quod or
  • quicumque, quecumque, and quodcumque) or
  • quisquid, quidquid.
quidquid id est, timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentēs
whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they offer gifts.
Vergil .49

These relative pronouns agree in gender, person (if relevant), and number with the antecedent (the noun in the main clause that is modified in the relative clause), but its case is usually determined by the construction of the dependent clause, although occasionally, it comes from its antecedent.

Here are three examples from Bennett's New Latin Grammar. The first two show the relative pronoun taking its case from the construction and the third shows it taking it from either the construction or the antecedent, but its number comes from an unspecified term in the antecedent:

  1. mulier quam vidēbāmus
    the woman whom we saw
  2. bona quibus fruimus
    the blessings which we enjoy
  3. pars quī bēstiīs objectī sunt
    a part (of the men) who were thrown to beasts.

Harkness notes that in poetry sometimes the antecedent can take the case of the relative and even be incorporated into the relative clause, where the relative agrees with the antecedent. An example he gives comes from Vergil:

Urbem, quam statuo, vestra est
The city, which I am building is yours.

The relative adverbs are normally:

  • ubi, unde, quo, or
  • qua.
nihil erat quo famem tolerarent
there was no means by which they could relieve their starvation
Caesar .28.3

Latin uses the adverbs more than in English. Thus instead of the man from whom you heard it, Cicero says the man whence you heard it:

is unde te audisse dicis
Cicero De Oratore. 2.70.28

Relative Clause vs. Indirect Question

Sometimes these two constructions are indistinguishable. Sometimes it makes no difference; other times, it changes the meaning.

Relative Clause: effugere nēmō id potest quod futūrum est
no one can escape what is destined to come to pass
Indirect Question: saepe autem ne ūtile quidem est scīre quid futūrum sit
but often it is not even useful to know what is coming to pass.


Complex Sentences, Grammaticalization, Typology, by Philip Baldi. Published: 2011 by Walter de Gruyter

"The Confusion of the Indirect Question and the Relative Clause in Latin," by A. F. Bräunlich; Classical Philology, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1918), pp. 60-74.

"Straightening out the Latin Sentence," by Katherine E. Carver; , Vol. 37, No. 3 (Dec., 1941), pp. 129-137.

Examples From Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar, Hale and Buck's A Latin Grammar, Bennett's New Latin Grammar, and Harkness' Latin Grammar


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