Casus Belli and Casus Foederis: Translating Nominative-Genitive Latin Phrases into English

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Latin has had two important influences on the English language that keep the language of the Romans alive today. Although English is a Germanic language, French added thousands of words into English’s lexicon after the sucessful invasion of the Normans in 1066, throughout the medieval and renaissance periods. In addition, as the official language of science, politics, and theology during these periods, numerous unaltered Latin phrases found their way into English as England and France became major economic, political, and military powers throughout Western Europe.

These unaltered Latin phrases are typically simple in construction and follow regular patterns according to proper Latin grammar. The most common of these constructions is one where the nominative and genitive cases are paired to express some sentiment, condition, or procedure.

The area of study most impacted by the nominative-genitive construction is the legal profession. The number of Latin legal terms is staggering given that no indigenous people have spoken Latin for centuries. The result is the Latin language affecting a profession whose modern practitioners neither speak the language nor understand its grammar and lexicon. Over the years, literal translations have given way to the conventional and the metaphoric. Here, two related nominative-genitive constructions are identified, examined, and translated using a literal approach to proper Latin grammar.

Translating Casus Belli from Latin to English

Casus Belli was the subject of a Seinfeld episode that briefly brought this phrase into vogue during the 1990s. This phrase is an excellent example of a nominative-genitive pairing. Casus is a noun in the nominative case that in Classical Latin means “downfall,” “event,” or “opportunity.” This wide range of literal translations means that the translator must choose an English word carefully to represent this Latin noun.

Belli is the genitive form of the neuter word bellum that may be translated as “war.” This is not to be confused with the Latin adjective “bellus” meaning beautiful with which it shares many of the same forms. The genitive case is the case of possession that, among other things, expresses ownership. On its own, belli may be translated as “of war.”

As a complete phrase, casus belli may be appropriately translated as “event of war” or even “war’s event.” However, the former rather than the latter is more familiar to English speakers. Often, this phrase is translated as “cause of war” presumably because of the similarity of the Latin word “casus” and the English word “cause.” However, the metaphoric purpose of the phrase gives a clue as to its intended meaning.

Casus belli is used to refer to the offenses one nation perpetrates against another thereby justifying a declaration of war. Although one could consider these offenses the “cause” of war, they really refer to the events (offenses) themselves and not to any inductive judgment that war is now justified. English’s “cause” is derived from the similar Latin word “causus” which does indeed mean “cause.” As such, were one to refer to the cause of war, one could more appropriately use the phrase “causus belli,” literally, “the cause of war.”

Translating Casus Foederis from Latin to English

Like the example above, Casus Foederis is another nominative-genitive Latin pairing that is coincidentally related to casus belli. Again, casus is a noun in the nominative case meaning “event.” Foederis is the genitive form of the third-declension noun “foedus” which means “treaty,” “agreement,” or “compact.” On its own, it may be translated as “of [the] treaty.”

Casus Foederis is a phrase that is used to express the obligations expressed in an alliance. Suppose nation A were to declare war on nation B and nation C has an alliance with nation A. Nation C may have casus foederis obligations to protect nation A because of the nature of the alliance. As a nominative-genitive pairing, casus foederis may be appropriately translated as “the event of [the] treaty.” Although similar to casus belli, this phrase represents the third-party obligations of defending an allied nation against those casus belli that have led to war.

Confusions in Translating

Often the case that English words look like Latin words, although their literal translation is different, leads to confusion by those uninitiated in the Latin language. One excellent example encountered early in Latin study is the Latin verb “servare.” Although this word looks like English’s “serve” and it is indeed where English gets the word “serve,” servare actually means save. A stronger version of this word conservare meaning “preserve” provides a better understanding of how “save” became to mean “serve.”

Although only superficially similar to English’s “cause,” English speakers have assimilated the word “casus” to mean cause in the phrases casus belli and casus foederis. Still, exercises such as these provide the Latin student an opportunity to explore such inconsistencies and observe the assimilation of one language into another. This process is most interesting given that English is not a derivative of Latin but still a language heavily influenced by the conquests of an empire long fallen.