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The Historical Infinitive – From Sallust to Saint Ambrose

Gregory DiPippo
One of the oddest features of Latin is known as the “historical infinitive”, a grammatical construction by which the infinitive is used in a narration in place of the imperfect. This can be found in writers of all genres, from the early playwrights to the historians of the 4th century AD, although some prefer it much more than others; Terence, for example, uses it six times more often that Plautus. It is most frequent in the works of the historians Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus, but is not used at all by Suetonius; it has no analogy in other Indo-European languages. Allen and Greenough’s note that it “is not strictly historical, but rather descriptive, and is never used to state a mere historical fact,” which is to say, it is employed when the author wants to give a more vivid feel to his account.
 
This passage from Sallust’s Jugurthine Wars (51) illustrates the use of the historical infinitive perfectly.
 
“…pars cedere, alii insequi; neque signa neque ordines observare; ubi quemque periculum ceperat, ibi resistere ac propulsare; arma, tela, equi, viri, hostes atque cives permixti; nihil consilio neque imperio agi; fors omnia regere.
… one part give way, others press on; they hold neither the standards nor the ranks; where danger overtook a man, there would he stand and fight; arms, weapons, horses, men, foe and fellow-citizen mingled in confusion; nothing was done by counsel or command; chance ruled all.”
 
More than 400 years later, we see St Ambrose use the historical infinitive in his treatise On Virgins (1.2.7-8), when describing the martyrdom of St Agnes, whose feast day is today.
 
“Haec inter cruentas carnificum impavida manus, haec stridentium gravibus immobilis tractibus catenarum, nunc furentis mucroni militis totum offerre corpus, mori adhuc nescia, sed parata, vel si ad aras invita raperetur, tendere Christo inter ignes manus, atque in ipsis sacrilegis focis trophaeum Domini signare victoris: nunc ferratis colla manusque ambas inserere nexibus. … Flere omnes, ipsa sine fletu. Mirari plerique, quod tam facile vitae suae prodiga, quam nondum hauserat, jam quasi perfuncta donaret. Stupere universi, quod jam divinitatis testis exsisteret, quae adhuc arbitra sui per aetatem esse non posset.
 
She had no fear when grasped by the bloody hands of the executioners; she was unmoved when they dragged her with the heavy, grating chains. Now she offered her whole body to the angry soldier’s sword, ready to die, though she knew not how, if she were dragged unwilling to the altars. She stretched forth her hands to Christ amid the flames, and in the very fires of idolatry, made the sign of the victorious Lord. Now she submitted her neck and hands to the iron shackles… All wept, but she did not. Most were astonished to see how easily she gave up her life, which she had not yet begun to live, and gave it up as if it were already lived. All were amazed that she was already a witness for the Deity, who for her youth could not yet be mistress of herself.” (Agnes was martyred at about 14, well below the age of legal majority.)
Veterum Sapientia Institute can help you learn the Latin of all periods, from Plautus to the most recent Papal encyclicals.
 
The picture below shows the statue of St Agnes on the Pyre, by Ercole Ferrata, 1660-64, in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built at the site of her martyrdom in the Piazza Navona in Rome.

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