The Power of Parataxis.

I was a little hard on Erich Auerbach recently, so I thought I’d right the balance by showcasing him at his best. Here he’s discussing a passage from Saint Augustine about a friend of his youth who was dragged to the gladiator shows and became addicted to them, conveniently available online in Latin (scroll down to CAPUT 8: “Non sane relinquens…”) and English; after describing the content (“And such an about-face from one extreme to the very opposite is also characteristically Christian”), he moves to the style, the reminiscences of classical writers like Cicero. He continues:

The rhetorical element makes a more classical impression than in Ammianus or Jerome; yet it is clear—and unmistakably so even at a single glance—that we are not dealing with a classical text. The tone has something urgently impulsive, something human and dramatic, and the form exhibits a predominance of parataxes. Both of these characteristics, either considered individually or in their joint effect, are manifestly unclassical. If, for example, we examine the sentence, nam quodam pugnae casu [“For, upon the fall of one in the fight”], etc., which contains a whole series of hypotactically introduced members, we find that its climax is a movement which is at once dramatic and paratactic: aperuit oculos, et percussus est [“opened his eyes, and was struck”], etc.; and as we try to trace the impression back, we are reminded of certain Biblical passages, which in the mirror of the Vulgate become: Dixitque Deus: fiat lux, et facta est lux; or: ad te clamaverunt, et salvi facti sunt; in te speraverunt, et non sunt confusi (Ps. 22: 6); or Flavit spiritus tuus, et operuit eos mare (Exod. 15: 10); or: aperuit Dominus os asinae, et locuta est (Num. 22: 28). In all of these instances there is, instead of the causal or at least temporal hypotaxis which we should expect in classical Latin (whether with cum or postquam, whether with an ablative absolute or a participial construction) a parataxis with et; and this procedure, far from weakening the interdependence of the two events, brings it out most emphatically; just as in English it is more dramatically effective to say: He opened his eyes and was struck … than: When he opened his eyes, or: Upon opening his eyes, he was struck …

I found that perceptive and convincing, and I’m glad I studied enough Latin in my youth to be able to follow it. (Parataxis, for those unfamiliar with the term, is “a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors […] the use of coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions.”) And if anyone is interested in what those contests were like, a new book, Jerry Toner’s The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games, sounds well worth a look.


  1. “aperuit oculos, et percussus est” It seems to me that one thing that marks this as non-classical is the conjunction et. I think Cicero might have written this but he wouldn’t have conjoined the two clauses with a conjunction.

    incantatem should probably be incantatam.

  2. You’re absolutely right (bene inventum!), but the typo’s in the text I linked to, and I was providing the Latin merely for ease of cntrl-F’ing, so I just cut the quote off before the bad bit. Thanks!

  3. I think Cicero might have written this but he wouldn’t have conjoined the two clauses with a conjunction.

    I think you’re right — parataxis is actually not that uncommon in Ciceronian Latin, but it tends to be asyndetic: e.g. the famous “abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit” (all synonyms for “he’s left”) at the beginning of the Second Catilinarian.

  4. …Me wretched! Let me curr to quercine shades!
    Effund your albid hausts, lactiferous maids!
    Oh, might I vole to some umbrageous clump,—
    Depart,—be off,—excede,—evade,—erump!

    (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Æstivation)

  5. Or here.

  6. Strange, the linked words don’t go anywhere but back to the poem. I assume there were originally notes.

  7. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    I’m fondly reminded of my English teacher, who memorably used to tell 14-year-olds, in these exact words: “English prefers parataxis to hypotaxis.”

  8. When I first started hunting for a dissertation topic, I actually briefly toyed with the idea of a study to be titled “Hypotaxis and Mimesis”, looking at the narrative functions of main clauses versus various kinds of subordinate clauses in Greek. I was gently dissuaded from this, but I still think it could be an interesting thing to do.

  9. I agree, it would be an interesting thing to do.

  10. To follow up on TR’s statement, and emend Auerbach’s definition a bit, parataxis doesn’t necessarily favor coordinating conjunctions; it just eschews subordinating ones altogether. Along with the paratactic/hypotactic dichotomy, it’s useful to keep in mind the asyndetic/polysyndetic one. For example, Veni, vidi, vici is no less paratactic for having no coordinators; it’s just paratactic and asyndetic, just as most of Hemingway’s long sentences are paratactic and polysyndetic. Hypotactic and asyndetic is the rarest combination. But you really need all four terms to accurately give a sense of prose, as far its use of coordinators and subordinators go.

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