Latin Words and Grammar

Dimensions in Latin: The Accusative and Genitive of Measure

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

Latin uses sev­er­al ways to express dimen­sions or mea­sure­ments. I often get stu­dents ask­ing about this, so today, we’ll exam­ine how the accusative and gen­i­tive is used in Latin to express dimen­sions of things, answer­ing the ques­tions ‘how long, wide, deep, thick?’

Dimen­sions in Latin are com­mon­ly expressed in three ways: (1) by the adjec­tives latus, altus, longus, and cras­sus with the accusative of extent of space, (2) the cor­re­spond­ing nouns lat­i­tu­do, alti­tu­do, lon­gi­tu­do, and cras­si­tu­do togeth­er with the gen­i­tive, or (3) sim­ply the gen­i­tive of measure.

All of this will become clear.

Let’s begin by look­ing at how adjec­tives are used with the accusative of extent of space to indi­cate dimensions.

Accusative to express dimensions

Latin can use a hand­ful of adjec­tives to express mea­sure­ments: longus (‘long’), latus (‘wide’), cras­sus (‘thick’), altus (‘high, deep’). Note that altus express­es both depth and height, and the adjec­tive pro­fun­dus (‘deep, vast’) is not used to give mea­sure­ments of depth.

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

With these adjec­tives, the mea­sure­ments of length, height, width, or breadth are placed in the accusative case. Thus in Latin “The ditch is 2 ft wide” can be ren­dered as Fos­sa duos pedes lata est. The width of two feet is thus placed in the accusative: duos pedes.

So the adjec­tives define what type of mea­sure­ment it is (height, width, etc.), which are then qual­i­fied by the exact mea­sure­ment in the accusative case. Let’s look at some exam­ples from Latin literature: 

Latus, ‑a, ‑um (”wide”)

  • Comesse panem tris pedes latum potes, fores pultare nescis. (“You can eat a loaf of bread three feet wide, but you don’t know how to knock on a door.” Plaut. Bacc. 580–1)
  • Archi­tec­tus […] adfir­mat pari­etes quamquam uig­in­ti et duos pedes latos imposi­ta onera sustinere non posse. (“An archi­tect […] has giv­en the opin­ion that the walls can­not sup­port the super­struc­ture in spite of being twen­ty-two feet thick.” Pl. Ep. 10.39)

Altus (”deep, high, tall”) 

  • Raro umquam nix minus quat­tuor pedes alta iacuit (“The snow hard­ly ever lay less than four feet deep” Liv. 21.61.10)
  • For­nacem cal­cari­am pedes latam X fac­i­to, altam pedes xx (“Build the lime-kiln ten feet across, twen­ty feet from top to bot­tom.” Cato, Agr. 38.1)

Longus (”long”)

  • Taleae pedem lon­gae (”Logs a foot long” Caes. B.G 7.73.9)
  • Arabes glad­ios tenuis habentes lon­gos qua­ter­na cubi­ta. (”Arab archers hold­ing nar­row-blad­ed swords that were four cubits in length” Liv. 37.40.2)
  • Eos sur­cu­los fac­i­to sint lon­gi pedes binos (”Have those shoots be two feet long each” Cat. Agri. Cul. 41.4)

Crassus (”thick”)

The adjec­tive cras­sus with the accusative is very rare, occur­ring most­ly in ear­ly Latin. Instead of cras­sus, we lat­er find the cor­re­spond­ing noun cras­si­tu­do (‘thick­ness’) with the gen­i­tive (see below).

  •  Vinum ad isci­a­cos sic fac­i­to: de iunipiro materiem semi­pe­dem cras­sam con­cid­i­to minu­tim (”Cut into small chips a piece of juniper wood a half-foot thick” Cat. Agri Cul­tura 123.1.1.)

Accusative with verbs

The accusative is also used with verbs, e.g. patere (”to extend (over)”) to express dimensions:

  • Pate­bat haec [tur­ris] quo­quover­sus pedes xxx (”This tow­er extend­ed thir­ty feet in all direc­tions” Caes. B.G. 2. 8.2) 
  • medi­um spatium tor­ren­tis ali­bi aliter cauati paulo plusquam mille pas­sus pate­bat (”between the banks, a space of a lit­tle over a mile lay open where the tor­rent had hol­lowed it out in vary­ing degrees from place to place.” Liv. XLIV.35)

The type of dimen­sion can also be pre­cised by a nouns such as lon­gi­tu­do (”length”):

  • ante oppidum plan­i­ties circiter mil­ia pas­su­um iii in lon­gi­tudinem pate­bat (”Before the town a plain extend­ed for a length of about three miles” Caes. B.G. VII.69)

We see that the mea­sure­ments are giv­en using the accusativus men­su­rae or accusative of extent of space regard­less of the type of mea­sure­ment (pes, pas­sus, or cubi­tum). 

How­ev­er, this is not always the case…

Exception to the rule

Although these adjec­tives denot­ing dimen­sions seem to always take the accusative, they also occur with the genitive–though much more rarely:

  • Maiorem vero tur­rem altam cubito­rum cxx, latam cubito­rum xxi­ii (”The largest tow­er is to be 120 cubits high, 23 wide” Vitr. 10, 5)
  • Cohors ab omni cetero pecore sec­re­ta clau­di­tur alta novem pedum mac­e­ria (”A yard remote from any oth­er live­stock is enclosed by a wall nine feet high” Col. 8, 14)

In the first instance, tur­rim altam cubito­rum cxx, we see that altam is con­struct­ed with the gen­i­tive cubito­rum cxx instead of the more com­mon accusative cubi­ta cxx. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the sec­ond instance, we find alta with novem pedum, again in the gen­i­tive, instead of the accusative novem pedes.


Genitive of Measure

Using the adjec­tives latus, cras­sus, altus, longus with the accusative of extent of space (or gen­i­tive) to express dimen­sions is not the only way in Latin. Per­haps the eas­i­est way Latin express­es mea­sure­ments with numer­als is through the Gen­i­tive of mea­sure. The numer­al (when dec­lin­able) and the unit of mea­sure­ment are placed in the genitive:

  • fos­sa tri­um pedum (”a trench of three feet [in depth]”)
  • murus sedec­im pedum (”a wall of six­teen feet [high]”)

Note that we have to infer from the con­text whether height, width, length, or depth is meant.

Nouns with the Genitive

The gen­i­tive is also used in con­junc­tion with the nouns  alti­tu­do (‘height’), cras­si­tu­do (‘thick­ness’), lon­gi­tu­do (‘length’), lat­i­tu­do (‘width’). The mea­sure­ments are placed in the gen­i­tive instead of the accusative, and the nouns are either in the abla­tive or gov­erned by the prepo­si­tion in with the accusative:

  • dux­it fos­sam lat­i­tu­dine pedum C, alti­tu­dine XXX (”he car­ried a trench 100 ft. broad and 30 ft. deep” Plin. Hist. 6.165)
  • fos­sas pedum xxx in lat­i­tudinem com­plures facere insti­tu­it, (”Cae­sar began to dig sev­er­al trench­es thir­ty feet wide” Caes. B.C. 1.61)
  • clavis fer­reis dig­i­ti pol­li­cis cras­si­tu­dine (”with iron nails as thick as a thumb.” Caes. B.G. 3.13.4)

To com­pare the noun with the adjec­tive con­struc­tion, let’s rewrite the above exam­ples using adjec­tives and the accusative of extent of space:

  • Dux­it fos­sam latam pedes c, altam xxx, longam xxx.
  • Fos­sas pedes xxx latas facere insti­tu­it
  • Clavis fer­reis pol­licem crassis

As you see, the nouns are replaced by adjec­tives and the mea­sure­ments are placed in the accusative instead of the genitive. 

Summary and Review

Latin express­es dimen­sions using both the accusative of extent and the gen­i­tive of qual­i­ty (Gen­i­tive of Mea­sure). The accusative is com­mon­ly used with adjec­tives and verbs denot­ing dimen­sions, e.g. longus, latus, patere, while the gen­i­tive is used alone or togeth­er with nouns denot­ing dimen­sions, e.g. lon­gi­tu­do. Let’s review with some sim­ple examples:

  • Fos­sa tres pedes alta est. The ditch is three feet deep.
  • Gla­d­ius tres pedes longus est. The sword is three feet long.
  • Nix duos pedes alta est. The snow is two feet deep.
  • Forum ducen­tos pedes in lat­i­tudinem patet. The forum is two hun­dred feet in width. 
  • Gla­d­ius tri­um pedum est. The sword is three feet (long).
  • Murus vig­in­ti pedum est. The wall is twen­ty feet (high).
  • Liber unius dig­i­ti cras­si­tu­dine est. The book is one fin­ger thick.

Con­grat­u­la­tions! You are now an expert on dimen­sions in Latin! 

What to do now?

  • Please, share this guide with friends and stu­dents, if you’ve found it useful.
  • When read­ing, try to remem­ber what you have learned today. Read­ing and know­ing about these con­struc­tions does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that you will instant­ly under­stand them while read­ing, writ­ing, or speak­ing Latin, but it is a start. 

Terminology for additional reading

If you are inter­est­ed in read­ing even more about this in Latin gram­mars, it is use­ful to know the wide array of terms used by dif­fer­ent gram­mars in dif­fer­ent coun­tries: accusativus dura­tivus (‘accusative of dura­tion’), accusativus spatii (‘accusative of extent of space’) accusativus dis­tan­ti­ae (‘accusative of distance’).

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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