Latin Words and Grammar

How to Ask Someone Not to Do Something in Latin

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

Guest post writ­ten by Peter Bar­rios-Lech, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Boston.

Vergil gives an advance-reading of Aeneid 2, 4, and 6

Even before the Aeneid’s “pub­li­ca­tion,” news had got­ten out that Vergil was work­ing on some­thing tru­ly grand. Prop­er­tius had heard a few vers­es, which so moved the Umbri­an poet that he broke the secret in one of his ele­gies.  Now Augus­tus want­ed to hear the epic: not just scraps, but a prop­er book, or three. The Man­tu­an bard oblig­ed – did he have a choice? The VIP audi­ence assem­bled for a pri­vate recita­tion, and Troy burned before their eyes, the Carthagin­ian Queen lust­ed for Aeneas, to her own and Carthage’s doom, and Aeneas descend­ed into the murky depths of Orcus to hear from the shade of his dead father, all of it sum­moned forth by the poet’s voice – which, as Dona­tus insists, was unique­ly enchant­i­ng and seductive.

Vergil arrives now at the tail-end of Anchis­es’ roll call of Roman patri­ots who’ve queued up along the riv­er Lethe. Vergil makes us see the pro­ces­sion through the eyes of Aeneas, who paus­es at the sight of a par­tic­u­lar­ly youth­ful hero, with down­cast face and grim fea­tures. The poet from the Po ven­tril­o­quizes Aeneas’ star­tled reac­tion: “Who’s that?” Anchis­es’ ghost­ly reply (as evoked by Vergil) fol­lows: “he’s our great hope – unfor­tu­nate­ly cut off from life at the bud.”  Now, Anchis­es – or is it Vergil? – turns to the youth­ful shade, sum­moned forth before the spec­ta­tors: “If you ever do evade what fate has in store for you – tu Mar­cel­lus eris.” It’s too much for Octavia, moth­er of Mar­cel­lus. The lat­ter, recent­ly dead at nine­teen, would nev­er ful­ly be Mar­cel­lus. Octavia pass­es out.

Vir­gil read­ing the Aeneid to Augus­tus, Octavia and Livia, by Jean-Bap­tiste Wicar, 1790

It’s not over until Octavian says it is

Why didn’t the Man­tu­an take his audi­ence into account before decid­ing which mate­r­i­al to try on them? (“Ah, there’s Octavia.  Right, end of six is out.”) And why does Augus­tus, in the paint­ing by Ingres, or the one, by Wicar, need to tell the poet to stop recit­ing? Sure­ly Vergil will have already noticed Octavia was no longer con­scious? In any case, let us imag­ine the fol­low­ing. Pri­or to the scene depict­ed in our paint­ings, Vergil saw that Octavia had col­lapsed. Yet, in his desire to get to the end of his mas­ter­piece, the poet choos­es to ignore the uncon­scious sis­ter of the prin­ceps.  (Not so strange.  After all, can you imag­ine Beethoven, con­duct­ing his Emper­or con­cer­to from the piano forte, sud­den­ly stop­ping right before the finale, sim­ply because some­one in the audi­ence had passed out?) So Vergil just keeps on read­ing. The emper­or holds out his hand in a kind of “stop” ges­ture, and then says…what?

  • ne facias!
  • ne feceris!
  • ne fax­is!
  • noli facere!
  • ne fac­i­to!
  • ne fac!

How to stop a bravura performance in its tracks 

If you are puz­zled, you are not alone. Until recent­ly, no one would real­ly have been able to answer this ques­tion, posed in this way.  For­tu­nate­ly, Wolf­gang de Melo, an Oxford pro­fes­sor, in a book pub­lished a decade ago, made some impor­tant dis­cov­er­ies – impor­tant, that is, for any Latin­ist who wants access to how native-speak­ers might have used the language.

Let’s imag­ine you’re in a library and some­one is click­ing a pen. You want to tell them to stop – nice­ly, of course. So you might say, “stop click­ing your pen – please!” This is a pro­hi­bi­tion, what lin­guists would call an “inhib­i­tive.” Now let’s say an hour has passed, and the same pen-click­er has her thumb poised, ready to start again. You don’t want to hear that annoy­ing noise any more, so you say: “don’t do it…please.”  This would be a dif­fer­ent kind of pro­hi­bi­tion, a pre­ven­tive, used when you want to stop some­thing before it happens.

Back to the Ingres paint­ing.  Vergil con­tin­ues to read, despite…certain events. Augus­tus tells him to stop. The son of the divinized Cae­sar wouldn’t have said ne feceris, for this is a “pre­ven­tive” – used to stop some­thing before it even gets start­ed. He might have used noli facere, but, as I have shown else­where, this was polite (at least for the peri­od when Plau­tus and Ter­ence were active), rather like say­ing “please don’t.” I can’t imag­ine that Octa­vian would have used a polite form to a sub­or­di­nate (=pret­ty much every­one). Ne fax­is is out: as de Melo showed, this belongs to a high-reg­is­ter:  that is, ne fax­is is more ele­vat­ed than any of the oth­er pro­hi­bi­tions shown above, rather like Eng­lish “for­fend” or “refrain from” doing some­thing. That won’t fly for some­one who famous­ly cul­ti­vat­ed a “man of the peo­ple” image. Final­ly, there is not one token in Plau­tus and Ter­ence of ne fac­i­to, so I doubt this form had any cur­ren­cy in the spo­ken lan­guage. What options is the first emper­or of Rome left with?

Ne facias and ne fac.  Both are neu­tral:  that is, nei­ther con­veys a rude com­mand, yet nei­ther is espe­cial­ly polite (con­trast noli facere). Nei­ther has the ele­vat­ed tone that ne fax­is has. But the sim­i­lar­i­ties stop there.

Ne fac is pre­cise­ly an inhib­i­tive.  With very few excep­tions (nice­ly doc­u­ment­ed by de Melo), it always means “stop [doing some­thing]” So, ne querere: “stop com­plain­ing”; ne calamo isto strepi­tum fac: “stop mak­ing noise with that damn pen of yours”; and ne recita ultra: “stop the recita­tion.” “So there’s our answer,” you might be think­ing!  Well, there’s a slight prob­lem.  Ne fac was already felt to be “old-fash­ioned” in the peri­od when Cicero was active. And pre­cise­ly because it had a recher­ché ring to it, Latin poets liked to use it.

Vir­gil read­ing The Aeneid before Augus­tus, Livia and Octavia by Jean Auguste Ingres before 1811.

So I say Octa­vian didn’t use this form, either. For, although the future Augus­tus was many things, a Latin poet he was not. Indeed, Octa­vian was report­ed to have said that his tragedy, the Ajax, quite just­ly had fall­en on the…eraser.

That leaves us with ne facias – and our solu­tion, pre­sent­ed as a “mini-dra­ma”:

Octavia faints on hear­ing tu Mar­cel­lus eris.  Vergil, noth­ing detained, con­tin­ues recit­ing.

Augus­tus: heus, Maro: ne recites. (Heus can be used to get an interlocutor’s atten­tion and, at least in com­e­dy, is quite often direct­ed by supe­ri­ors to infe­ri­ors. As for Maro, the prin­ceps could have also used the gen­tili­ci­um, Vergili, accord­ing to Dick­ey.)

Indeed, ne facias can be either inhib­i­tive (that is, it tells some­one to stop doing some­thing) or pre­ven­tive. In Ter­ence, at least, all exam­ples are put in the mouth of low-sta­tus char­ac­ters, with one excep­tion (we’ll get to it, soon).  That dis­tri­b­u­tion argues for the “col­lo­qui­al” sta­tus of ne facias:  in oth­er words, it was doubt­less a fea­ture of the spo­ken (Latin) lan­guage.  In the excep­tion­al instance when a high-sta­tus speak­er uses ne facias, he address­es a low-sta­tus char­ac­ter.  This might be an exam­ple of accom­mo­da­tion, that is, bring­ing your lan­guage in line what that used by the addressee.

How to tell someone (not) to do something – in Latin

So, your (Latin-speak­ing) three-year old is bang­ing a spoon against a saucepan?  Ne strepi­tum istum fac! Or, bet­ter, ne strepi­tum facias!  Or, nice, too, if a bit wordier: mitte facere istum strepi­tum!

Some­one you don’t know in the library click­ing their pen, and want to tell them not to do so – polite­ly?  Noli istum strepi­tum facere, or, per­haps bet­ter, noli, quae­so, istum strepi­tum facere

What if you’ve just paid for a friend’s drink, and the lat­ter is poised to hand over a five-dol­lar bill in rec­om­pense? Ne fecerisnam inter ami­cos non necesse est. (noli facere would also do, for the form can either be inhib­i­tive or preventive).


If you haven’t read Pro­fes­sor Bar­rios-Lech’s arti­cle on how to be polite in Latin, you can find it here.

Peter Barrios-Lech

Peter Barrios-Lech

Peter Barrios-Lech is an Associate Professor of Classics at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts. His research interests touch upon a variety of areas of ancient literature, e.g. Roman and Greek drama, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and reception. Drawing from his research into colloquial Latin, he incorporates spoken Latin regularly into his teaching method. In the summer, he heads up the Latin immersion course Conventiculum Bostoniense.
Written by Peter Barrios-Lech

Written by Peter Barrios-Lech

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