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Latin 112/113: Notes on Reported Speech
(Indirect Discourse, Oratio Obliqua) in Latin



Where English prefers the construction —

Brutus says that Fulvia has left.

(which employs the conjunction that to introduce the reported speech as a subordinate clause), Latin prefers the accusative + infinitive construction —

Brutus says Fulvia to have left.
Brutus dicit Fulviam abivisse / abiisse.

The English version's finite clause (clause with a finite verb) "Fulvia has left" is replaced, in the Latin, by a noun clause ("Fulvia to have left"), with Fulvia (the nominative subject of the finite clause in the English version) appearing in the accusative, while "has left" (the finite verb of the English version) appears in the equivalent tense of the infinitive ("to have left").

You can see why the accusative + infinitive is referred to as a noun clause: like a regular clause, it provides a subject and verb, but it does so in a form that functions as an elaborate compound noun, as you can perhaps see from the following examples —


The Latin construction is more elegant than the English, in that the tense of the infinitive will always be that of the imagined direct statement.

E.g., if you want to report the statement, "Brutus has killed Caesar" in English, you find yourself dealing with the following possibilities:

In Latin, these would be:

The tense of the infinitive never changes, because in each instance the author is reporting the statement "Brutus Caesarem necavit," which has a perfect indicative as its main verb.

In English, the statement "Caesar will go to Rome" becomes:

In Latin, these would be:

All of these use the future infinitive (in the accusative, agreeing with Caesarem) to indicate that the original statement employed a future indicative.

Usually, of course you will be translating from Latin to English. In doing so, you need to think of what the original direct statement would have looked like, and then decide how that would be reported in colloquial English, based on the tense of the main verb of speaking, thinking, etc. (e.g., dicit vs. dixit).


Another way to think of it is to recall that, like participles, infinitives have no absolute tense: they define their tense relative to the tense of the main verb (in this case, dicit vs. dixit vs. dicet):

Thus the sentence:

dixit Caesarem Romam ire.

indicates that, back when the speaker was speaking, Caesar "was (at that very moment) going" to Rome.

The sentence:

dixit Caesarem Romam ivisse / isse.

indicates that, back when the speaker was speaking, Caesar "had (already) gone" to Rome.

The sentence:

dixit Caesarem Romam iturum esse.

indicates that, back when the speaker was speaking, Caesar "was (at some future time) going to go" or "would go" to Rome.

The sentence:

dicit Caesarem Romam ire.

indicates that the speaker, at this very moment, is asserting that Caesar is currently in the process of going to Rome (i.e., at the very time the speaker is offering this statement) — i.e., that Caesar "is (at this very moment) going" to Rome.

The sentence:

dicit Caesarem Romam ivisse / isse.

indicates that the speaker, at this very moment, is asserting that Caesar went to Rome at some earlier time — i.e., that Caesar "has (already) gone" or simply "went" to Rome.

The sentence:

dicit Caesarem Romam iturum esse.

indicates that the speaker, at this very moment, is asserting that Caesar is to be imagined as going to Rome at some future time — i.e., that Caesar "is (at some future time) going to go" or "will go" to Rome.


The system described above lacks a certain flexibility, since (as you can see) the tenses of the infinitive can only indicate whether the speaker, at the time of speaking, asserts that something is happening, is about to happen, or already has happened.

It should be noted, however, that the perfect infinitive presents the same options as does the perfect indicative. The statement:

dicit Ciceronem abiisse.
can be translated either as:
She/he says that Cicero left.   [aoristic]
or as:
She/he says that Cicero has left.   [true perfect]


By the same token, the statement:
dicit Ciceronem abiturum esse.
can be translated either as:
She/he says that Cicero is going/intending to leave.   [progressive]
or as:
She/he says that Cicero will leave.   [aoristic, with the periphrastic future being used to report a simple future indicative]

A particular challenge is presented by statements such as:

"Cicero was leaving."

Latin has no straightforward way to reflect the use of the imperfect indicative in this statement. Authors will either use the perfect infinitive (thus effacing the force of the imperfect in the original statement) or the present infinitive (which, like the imperfect indicative, is built on the progressive stem), perhaps with some form of adverbial construction to indicate that the reference is to an on-going situation in the past. E.g.:

dicit Ciceronem eo tempore abire.


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