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)
- 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)
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’).