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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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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


Themistocles was struck by an arrow.


Calypso gave Odysseus many gifts.


Corinth is by the sea.

The correct answers are a and b.