Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

8.4 ‘By’, ‘with’ and the dative case

A second important use of the dative case is to indicate the means or instrument by which something is done. Euripides provides an example in the shape of the bolt of lightning that induced Semele to give birth to Dionysus:

Semele, brought to labour by lightning-carried flame

Σεμέλη λοχευθεῖσ᾽ ἀστραπηφόρ πυρί

Semelē locheutheis' astrapēphorōi pyri

There is no Greek word for ‘by’ in this passage. Instead, this idea is expressed by placing the word ‘fire’ (πυρί, pyri) in the dative case. The adjective ‘lightning-carried’ which describes the noun fire must also be in the dative case, by a process known as noun-adjective agreement.

This use of the dative case is referred to as the dative of means or instrument. It is used to mark the means or instrument by which a thing is accomplished. It is typically found when 1) the verb is passive (‘she was brought to labour’) and 2) the noun in the dative case is inanimate, i.e. not a living thing.


  • Pyrrhus was struck by a roof-tile – Πύρρος κεραμίδι ἐπλήγη (Pyrrhos keramidi eplēgē)

When an action is carried out by a person, Greek prefers the genitive case in combination with the preposition ὑπό (hypo).

  • Caesar was murdered by Brutus – Καῖσαρ ἐφονεύθη ὑπὸ Βρούτου (Kaisar ephoneuthē hypo Broutou)

If you have studied Latin, you may recall that Latin has an ‘ablative’ case. There is no ablative case in Greek, the same functions being provided by the genitive and dative cases.


Activity 40: the dative case

Which of the following phrases in bold could be represented in Greek by a noun in the dative case?


Themistocles was struck by an arrow.


Calypso gave Odysseus many gifts.


Corinth is by the sea.

The correct answers are a and b.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371