Latin Words and Grammar

A Guide to Distance in Latin: The Accusative of Extent of Space (and Ablative)

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Over the years, many stu­dents have asked about the so-called accusative of extent and of space and how Latin express­es dis­tance. In this guide, I will answer these ques­tions, explain­ing how Latin uses the accusative and abla­tive for these pur­pos­es.  After read­ing this, you’ll know how to inter­pret and describe dis­tance in Latin.

In Latin, the dis­tance cov­ered by an act of motion, or the dis­tance at which some­thing is locat­ed or takes place, is com­mon­ly expressed by the accusative and, some­times, by the abla­tive case. The prepo­si­tion ab with the abla­tive is reg­u­lar­ly used when the point from which a per­son or object is sep­a­rat­ed is not men­tioned explicitly.

Although all this might seem like a lot, we’ll take it step-by-step, using many exam­ples from Latin lit­er­a­ture to make sure every­thing is clear. 

First, we’ll exam­ine how Latin uses the accusative case to express dis­tance tra­versed (‘How far?’) by an act of motion as well as dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing things (‘How far away? At what dis­tance?’). Next, we’ll touch upon some con­di­tions when the abla­tive is used instead of the accusative. I will treat the use of the abla­tive to express the degree of dif­fer­ence in dis­tance in anoth­er article.

1. A Note on Roman Measurements

Before we begin, it is use­ful to know some com­mon Roman units of mea­sure­ments, which we will see in the exam­ples used in this guide.

White marble statue of Roman foot from the Museo Nationale Romano in Rome.
  • A Roman pes (‘foot’) is 29.6 cm or 0.97 ft
  • A Roman cubi­tum (‘cubit’) is 44.4 cm or 1.456 ft 
  • And a Roman pas­sus  (‘pace’) is 1.48 m or 4.85 ft

When mea­sur­ing longer dis­tances, a com­mon mea­sure­ment used by authors such as Cae­sar is mille pas­sus: 

  • Mille pas­sus (‘a thou­sand paces’) is 1.48 km or 4856 ft (0.919 mi)

Mille is neuter, so the nom­i­na­tive and the accusative are the same: mille (sin­gu­lar) and mil­ia (plur­al). Note that if we count two thou­sand or more paces, mille is placed in the plur­al, mil­ia, while pas­sus remains in the plur­al but is placed in the gen­i­tive case:

  • Mille pas­sus (‘a thou­sand paces’ = ca. 1 mile)
  • Duo mil­ia pas­su­um (‘two thou­sand (of) paces’ = ca. 2 miles)
  • Cen­tum mil­ia pas­su­um (‘one hun­dred thou­sand (of) paces’ = ca. 100 miles.

Let’s get back to how dis­tances are expressed in Latin.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: Dimen­sions in Latin: The Accusative and Gen­i­tive of Measure

2.  How Far? Distance Traversed

The bare accusative, i.e., with­out prepo­si­tion, is used with verbs of motion (or implied motion) to describe the tra­versed dis­tance, mov­ing from point A to point B. It answers the ques­tion ‘How far?’. In the lit­er­a­ture, we find the com­mon units of mea­sure­ments such as pas­sus (exx. 1–3), but also oth­er words indi­cat­ing dis­tance (exx. 4–5). 

  1. Nemo potest trid­uo septin­gen­ta mil­ia pas­su­um ambu­lare (‘No one can walk sev­en hun­dred miles in three days.’ Cic. Att. 13.20.6)
  2. fla­grantis in tan­tum ut (Aet­na) cen­te­na mil­ia pas­su­um hare­nas flam­marum globo eructet. (‘being so hot that it (Aet­na) belch­es out sands in a ball of flame over a space of 100 miles at a time.’ Plin. Hist. 2.234)
  3.  ipse noc­tu pro­gres­sus mil­ia pas­su­umcirciter xii hostium copias con­spica­tus est. (‘He him­self advanc­ing about twelve miles in the night, caught sight of the enemy’s forces.’ Caes. BG 5.9.2)
  4. Tridui viam pro­gres­si rur­sus reverterunt. (‘They pro­ceed­ed for a three days’ jour­ney, and then returned’ Cae­sar BG 4.4)
  5. Si ex istoc loco dig­i­tum trans­vor­sum aut unguem latum excesseris… (‘If you leave your place by just a finger’s or a nail’s breadth…’ Pl. Aul. 1.1.18)

In all these exam­ples peo­ple or objects are tra­vers­ing a dis­tance and this dis­tance is expressed by the accusative case (mil­ia pas­su­um, viam, dig­i­tum).


Note. From around the time of Livy (ca. 59 BC–17 AD) and onwards, we also find the con­struc­tion with the prepo­si­tion per with the accusative with verbs of motion: 

  1.  Nec non et Tity­on, Ter­rae omni­par­en­tis alum­num, / cernere erat, per tota novem cui iugera cor­pus. (‘Like­wise, one might see Tity­on, nursling of Earth, the moth­er of all; his body is stretched over nine full acres.’ Verg. Aen. 6.595–657)

One might, in these instances, per­haps, also under­stand some empha­sis expressed by the prepo­si­tion per.

Footsteps on a beach towards the sea and the setting sun to illustrate distance.

Pop Quiz: How Do You Translate The Following?

(You’ll find the answers below.)

  1. Marc walked ten miles yesterday.
  2. The wolf chased the boy for five miles.
  3. The bear jumped 5 feet.
  4. The tree has grown one foot.

Answers:

  1. Mar­cus decem mil­ia pas­sum heri ambulavit.
  2. Lupus puerum quinque mil­ia pas­su­um inse­cu­tus est.
  3. Ursus quinque pedes saliit.
  4. Arbor pedem crevit.

How’d it go? Good? Pulchre!

Now we know how Latin express­es move­ment across space, but what about the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing things?

Let’s con­tin­ue.

3. How Far Away? At What Distance?

In Latin, adverbs and nouns can describe the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing point A from point B, answer­ing the ques­tions ‘How far away? At what dis­tance?’. The exact mea­sure­ment of the dis­tance is reg­u­lar­ly placed in the accusative case and occurs per­haps most com­mon­ly with the verbs distare (‘to be sep­a­rate, dis­tant’) and abesse (‘to be away from, sep­a­rate from’) (exx. 1–3), but with oth­ers as well (exx. 4).

  1. edix­itque ut urbe abes­set mil­ia pas­su­um ducen­ta (‘and he issued an edict that he keep two hun­dred miles away from the city’ Cic. Sest. 29)
  2. Tur­res toto opere cir­cum­ded­it, quae pedes LXXX inter se distar­ent. (‘and all round the works he set tur­rets at inter­vals of eighty feet.’ Caes. B.G. 7.72)
  3. Cum tamen abessent aliquot dierum viam […] (‘although they were sev­er­al days’ jour­ney dis­tant’ Cic. Planc. 98)
  4. Mil­ia pas­sum tria ab hostium cas­tris cas­tra ponit (‘He made camp three miles from the camp of the ene­my’ Caes. B.G. 1.22.5)
  5. Quam longe est hinc in saltum vestrum Gal­li­canum? – DCC mil­ia pas­su­um. (‘How far is it from here to your pas­tures in Gaul? –Sev­en hun­dred miles.’ Cic. Quinct. 79)

As you can see, the units of mea­sure­ments are placed in the accusative case. In the third exam­ple, the mea­sure­ment of sep­a­ra­tion is not the length of the road but rather the tem­po­ral length of the jour­ney aliquot dierum viam (‘a few day’s jour­ney’). In such con­texts, the noun viam or iter is some­times omit­ted leav­ing only the gen­i­tive qual­i­fy­ing it, as in the fol­low­ing example:

  1. hanc epis­tu­lam dic­tavi sedens in rae­da cum in cas­tra profi­cis­cer­er, a quibus aber­am bidui (‘I am dic­tat­ing (epis­to­lary tense) this let­ter as I sit in my car­riage on my way to join the army, which is two days’ jour­ney away.’ Cic. Att. 5.17)

Here we have to read it as if it said aber­am bidui viam/iter. 

In all these exam­ples we see that the accusative (mil­ia pas­su­um, pedes, viam) is used to express the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing peo­ple or objects.

Pop Quiz: How Do You Translate The Following? 

(Answers Below)

  1. The tem­ple is two miles from the mountain.
  2. He built a house twen­ty miles from the city.
  3. The girl is stand­ing two feet from the lion.

Answers:

  1. Tem­plum duo mil­ia pas­su­um a monte abest.
  2. Aedes vig­in­ti mil­ia pas­su­um ab urbe aedificavit.
  3. Puel­la duo pedes a leone stat.

4. The Apparent Exceptions

So far so good, fair­ly straight­for­ward, but this is Latin and few things are straight­for­ward as you know. The accusative is indeed the typ­i­cal way to des­ig­nate dis­tances, but it is not the only one, unfor­tu­nate­ly. Like so often in lan­guages, there are variations.

Let’s have a look at them.

Exception 1: Ablative

First, above we saw that the accusative is used to express the dis­tance between places. How­ev­er, we also find the abla­tive in con­texts where the accusative usu­al­ly occurs:

  1. Eodem die cas­tra pro­movit et milibus pas­su­um sex a Cae­saris cas­tris sub monte consed­it. (‘On the same day he advanced and pitched his camp under a hill-side six miles from Caesar’s.’ Caes. B.G. 1.48.1)

Let’s com­pare this sen­tence to one of the exam­ples quot­ed above:

  • Mil­ia pas­sum tria ab hostium cas­tris cas­tra ponit (‘He made camp three miles from the camp of the ene­my’ Caes. B.G. 1.22.5)

We see that both sen­tences are very sim­i­lar but that the first has the abla­tive milibus pas­su­um sex, where­as the sec­ond has the accusative mil­ia pas­sum tria. Now, the abla­tive case is gen­er­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with rest or loca­tion and in the first exam­ple, one could say that the empha­sis is on the loca­tion rather than the space sep­a­rat­ing the two points. The first exam­ple can thus be read as answer­ing the ques­tion “where?” rather than “how far?”

This, how­ev­er, is not all. Read on.

Exception 2: Unknown Starting Point

There is anoth­er appar­ent excep­tion where the abla­tive is used instead of the accusative. Above, we learned that the accusative is used to indi­cate the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing objects. How­ev­er, if the place from which the dis­tance is mea­sured is not men­tioned in the sen­tence (but often infer­able), then ab + abla­tive is com­mon­ly used instead.

  1. Posi­tis cas­tris a milibuspas­su­um xv, aux­il­ia Ger­mano­rum exspectare con­sti­tu­unt.  (‘They pitched their camp at a dis­tance of fif­teen miles, and deter­mined to await their Ger­man aux­il­iaries.’ Caes. B.G. 6.7)
  2. Col­lo­catis insidi­is biper­ti­to in sil­vis oppor­tuno atque occul­to loco a milibuspas­su­umcirciter duobus, Romano­rum adven­tum exspecta­bant. (‘They post­ed a dou­ble ambush in the woods, in a con­ve­nient and covert spot about two miles away and there they wait­ed for the arrival of the Romans.’ Caes. B.G. 3.2)
  3. Postquam incep­tum non suc­cede­bat, cas­tra propius hostem movit rex et a quinque milibus pas­su­um com­mu­ni­it. (‘After the attempt failed of suc­cess, the king moved his camp near­er the ene­my and for­ti­fied it at five miles’ dis­tance.’ Liv. 42.58)

In these exam­ples, it does not say from what point the var­i­ous num­bers of miles are mea­sured: there is no ab urbe or a flu­mine to des­ig­nate the point from which the mea­sure­ment is done. In these cas­es, ab + abla­tive is the norm, though not with­out exception:

  1. unis cas­tris fac­tis III mil­ia pas­su­um longe con­sid­unt. (‘they estab­lished them­selves in a sin­gle camp three miles away’ Bell. Afr. 24.2.1)
  2. Tridui viam aber­at (‘He was at a dis­tance of three days’ march,’ Liv. 25.8.12)

If we were to make up an exam­ple and add a point from which the mea­sure­ment was tak­en, we would no longer use ab with the abla­tive but mere­ly the accusative.

Exception 3: Intervallum & Spatium

Our third and final appar­ent excep­tion to the ten­den­cy to use the accusative in rela­tion to dis­tances con­cerns the words inter­val­lum and spatium. These words are com­mon­ly placed in the abla­tive when des­ig­nat­ing distance:

  1. Cas­traque Cleopa­trae non lon­go spa­tio ab eius cas­tris dis­ta­bant. (‘Cleopatra’s camp was not far from his.’ Caes. B.C. 3.103)
  2. Rex cum omnibus copi­is inse­que­batur et vi mil­i­um pas­su­um inter­val­lo ab Sabur­ra conseder­at. (‘the king was pur­su­ing with all his forces and had made camp at a dis­tance of six miles from Sabur­ra.’ Caes. B.C. 2.38)

Using what we have learned above, we can rewrite the sec­ond exam­ple (2) using the bare accusative. All we have to do is take the dis­tance vi mil­i­um(gen­i­tive) and place it in the accusative vi mil­ia and we get:

  • Rex … vi mil­ia pas­su­um ab Sabur­ra conseder­at. (‘the king had made camp six miles from Saburra’)
Old pirate treasure map over an island.

5. Summary & Review 

To sum up, Latin nor­mal­ly uses the accusative case to express the dis­tance cov­ered by an act of motion or the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing places. In the lat­ter case, instead of the accusative, the abla­tive with ab is used if the point from which mea­sure­ment is tak­en is not men­tioned. The words spatium and inter­val­lum are also com­mon­ly used in the abla­tive to express distance.

Let’s recap with some short sen­tences to see how the accusative express­es the length of a move­ment (1) and the dis­tance sep­a­rat­ing things (2). In (3), the start­ing point of the mea­sur­ing is not men­tioned, so we use ab with the abla­tive. And final­ly, in (4), we use the noun inter­val­lum in the abla­tive with the genitive.

  1. Tul­lia duo mil­ia pas­su­um cot­ti­die ambu­lat. (‘Tul­lia walked two miles yesterday.’) 
  2. Domus mea a tem­p­lo tria mil­ia pas­su­um abest. (‘My house is three miles from the temple.’)
  3. Ami­ca ab decem ped­ibus me exspec­tat. (My friend is wait­ing for me ten feet away.’) 
  4. Arbores inter­val­lo duo­rum pedum ab aed­ibus dis­tant. (‘The trees are at a dis­tance of two feet from the house.’)

Remem­ber that what we’ve treat­ed today are ten­den­cies, not rules. As often with Latin, we can see what authors do most of the time and learn to inter­pret that cor­rect­ly and, per­haps, imi­tate it.

Now you know how Latin express­es dis­tance. It may be a lot to take in, but take it one thing at a time. Read through this guide again, look at the exam­ples a cou­ple of times, and try to write your own sen­tences describ­ing distances. 

Next time we’ll talk about dimen­sions and size in Latin!

Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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