In Ancient Greek grammar, the genitive absolute (Latin: genitivus absolutus) is a grammatical construction consisting of a participle and often a noun both in the genitive case, which is very similar to the ablative absolute in Latin. A genitive absolute construction serves as a dependent clause, usually at the beginning of a sentence, in which the genitive noun is the subject of the dependent clause and the participle takes on the role of predicate.
The term absolute comes from the Latin absolutus, literally meaning "made loose". That comes from the general truth that the genitive absolute usually does not refer to anything in the independent clause; however, there are many exceptions, notably in the New Testament and in Koine.
Conjunctions in different tenses
All four participle tenses are used in forming a genitive absolute. The different tenses indicate different relations in time between the independent and the dependent clause. Present participles are used when the action in the dependent clause happens simultaneously with that of the independent clause, and are therefore translated as such. Such a translated genitive absolute begins with, for example, while or as, or a phrase with with or without can be used.
Aorist participles are used when the dependent clause takes place before the independent clause. Consequently instead of while and as, after and when are the conjunctions usually used in translations, or an English perfect participle ("having...") is used rather than a present one. Future participles, which are less common than their present and aorist counterparts, give information about what will or might be.
A perfect participle describes the circumstances obtaining at the time of the main verb as a result of an earlier event.
Apart from translations with these conjunctions, others are also frequently used while translating a genitive absolute, such as because, however, or although.
Absolute constructions in other languages
Absolute constructions occur with other grammatical cases in Indo-European languages, such as accusative absolute, ablative absolute in Latin, dative absolute in Gothic and Old Church Slavonic, and locative absolute in Vedic Sanskrit. Compare also nominative absolute in English. An actual genitive absolute exists in German, such as klopfenden Herzens "(with) his/her heart beating", although its use is much less prominent compared to Greek (or to Latin's ablative or English's nominative in such constructions).
Below are two examples of the genitive absolute, in different tenses.
|(1)||τῶν ἀνδρῶν πολεμούντων, αἱ γυναῖκες μόναι οἴκοι εἰσίν
tôn andrôn polemoúntōn, hai gunaîkes mónai oíkoi eisín
While the men are waging war, the women are at home by themselves.
This first example shows how a genitive absolute with a present participle is used with simultaneous actions. The independent clause is "αἱ γυναῖκες μόναι οίκοι εἰσίν" ("...the women are at home by themselves"). The dependent clause and genitive absolute in this example is "τῶν ἀνδρῶν πολεμούντων" ("While the men are waging war"). It explains to the reader why the women are home alone and yet is additional and not required information. Note the usage of the conjunction while, indicating the two facts occurring at the same time.
When translating into English, failure to render the Greek participle into a finite clause often yields a stilted or even ungrammatical result: "The men waging war, the women are at home..." is hardly acceptable.
|(2)||τοῦ δεσπότου κελεύσαντος, οἱ δοῦλοι εἰργάζοντο
toû despótou keleúsantos, hoi doûloi eirgázonto
After their master had ordered it, the slaves began to work.
This example shows a genitive absolute with an aorist participle. The independent clause in this sentence, "οἱ δοῦλοι εἰργάζοντο", explains what happens ("...the slaves began to work."). The genitive absolute, being "τοῦ δεσπότου κελεύσαντος", provides the reader with additional information ("After the/their master had ordered (it)..."). Here, note the conjunction after, which indicates the two facts do not happen simultaneously, as they do with the present genitive absolute.
In this case, a more direct rendition, with 'having' as an overt indicator of temporal sequence, is possible if somewhat stilted: "The master having ordered it, the slaves began to work."
The perfect participle describes a situation which was already in existence at the time of the action of the main verb, for example:
|(3)||ἤδη δ’ ἐψηφισμένων Θετταλῶν, ... ἧκεν
ḗdē d’ epsēphisménōn Thettalôn, ... hêken
Since the Thessalians had already voted ... he came back
The future is less often used in a genitive absolute. It is generally found after the particle ὡς (hōs) "in view of the fact that" or "on the grounds that", for example:
|(4)||ὡς πάντων καλῶς γενησομένων
hōs pántōn kalôs genēsoménōn
on the grounds that everything would turn out well
- Fuller, Lois K. (2006). "The "Genitive Absolute" in New Testament/Hellenistic Greek: A Proposal for Clearer Understanding" (PDF). Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism. 3: 142–167. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-02-21. Retrieved 2006-12-09.
- Benjamin W. Fortson IV (2004). Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. p. 149. ISBN 1-4051-0315-9.
- Aeschines, 3.161
- Smyth. A Greek grammar for colleges. § 2086.
- Plutarch, Nic. 10.6
- Katanik, blog entry explaining the genitive absolute in Ancient Greek in few easy terms.