Tempus praesens historicum: the historic present.

I did enjoy hearing the spat between Melvin Bragg and John Humphrys on the use of the historic present.


I generally avoid the historic present in my own writing, but I am with Melvyn in this debate, in that I am relaxed about historians’ use of the present tense when writing about the past. There is a general assumption that it is a recent innovation. Some time ago I responded to a Guardian ‘Notes and Queries’ question which wanted to know when and why the BBC had started a policy of using the historic present. (Unfortunately I cannot find the online link to this question.) In my reply I pointed out that the historic present has been used for at least two thousand years.  Roman historians frequently used it. To test this assertion, I opened the works of some Latin authors at random, and found the historic present on the first page I turned to each time.

From “Sallust: Bellum Catalinae” ed. Patrick McGushin, (1980) Bristol Classical Press, p35.

Igitur P. Umbreno cuidam negotium dat, uti legatos Allobrogum requiret eosque, si possit, inpellat ad societatem belli. (Present tense in the main verb, ‘dat’.)

The Penguin translator did not use the historic present. Whereas the Latin could be translated more literally as: ‘He gives to a certain Publius Umbrenus the task to look for the envoys of the Allobroges and if he could to push them into an alliance for war’, the Penguin translator has used a very free translation:

He directed one Publius Umbrenus to seek out the envoys of the Allobroges and induce them, if possible, to take part in the war …


From “Titi Livi: Ab Urbe Condita, Tomus I” eds. Robert Seymour Conway and Charles Flamstead Walters, (1914) Oxford Classical Texts, Liber I: 25,9.

Tum clamore qualis ex insperato faventium solet Romani adiuvant militem suum; et ille defungi proelio festinat. (Present tense in both main verbs) ‘Then the Romans with a shout like that of supporters associated with the unexpected, help their soldier and he hurries to finish the battle.’

Again, the Penguin translation is free and avoids (or avoided?) the present historic.

The Romans’ cheer for their young soldier was like the roar of the crowd at the race when luck turns defeat into victory. Horatius pressed on to make an end.


I am confident that the same random test would work with Tacitus, Caesar and others.

Of course, English speakers are very confused about tenses, as is clear from this item from the Guardian:

Isn’t it strange, John, that in some conditional sentences we use past tenses? “If I had known what would happen, I wouldn’t have mentioned it,” he might find himself saying, using not only the past perfect, but also a word that was originally the past tense of “will”. What a topsy-turvy world.


In this example,  has confused the subjunctive or conditional moods, which we rarely need in English, with the past tense. I wonder if the historic present is used in other, non-European languages. I would not be surprised if it is universal across all cultures. Perhaps complaining about its use is also universal.


Erravi. Moeen nunc armillas non gestat. I was wrong. Moeen is not now wearing his wristbands.

Erravi. Senatus Pilae Clavaeque Anglicus tacuit de armillis a Moeene gestatis, sed ludi iudex ei dixit non oporteat verba politica praeferre. Hodie ICC iudice consentiunt et nunc Moeen armillas non gestat.

I was wrong. The English Cricket Board kept quiet about Moeen’s wristbands, but the game’s umpire told him he should not display political statements. Today the ICC have agreed with the umpire and today Moeen is not wearing the wristbands.


Armillae cum verbis politicis aut pacificentibus. Wristbands with political or with peaceful messages.

Heri contendebatur pilā clavāque inter Indicos et Britannicos. Lusor Britannicus, Moeen Ali nomine, armillas gestabat in quis verba ‘Palestina Liberanda’ et ‘Gaza Curanda’ scripta erant.



Hoc ipso tempore milites Israelii Gazam sic ferociter oppugnant ut multi Gazenses, praecipue eorum liberi, concīdentur. Multi populi orbis terrarum deplorantes de rebus Gazensibus indutias praesentes  poscunt.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cricket/28535184Moeen ali

ICC (sive Pilae Clavaeque Senatus Gentium) lusores vetunt verba politica gestare. Moeen tamen sociique sui asseverant haec verba non esse politica sed facientia pacem. Sententia haec valde est dubia, sed ICC non dissentiunt. Nunc iam Moeen armillas gestat.

moeen bowling

Yesterday there was a cricket match between the Indian and British teams. A British player, Moeen Ali, was wearing armbands on which were written the words ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Save Gaza’. At this very time Israeli soldiers are ferociously attacking Gaza, leading to the slaughter of many Gazans, especially children. All around the world people are appalled at what is happening in Gaza and are calling for a ceasefire.

The ICC (International Cricket Council) bans players from wearing political messages. However, Moeen and his team mates assert that these words are not political, but are peace-making. This opinion is certainly contentious, but the ICC has not disagreed. Moeen is still wearing the armbands.

Aeroplana missile ignifero exscissa: clades ingens, flagitium horrendum.

Die Jovis aeroplana Malaysiana missile ignifero icta de undecim milia metrorum in solum Ukranae delapsa est. fere tres centum viatorum nautarumque occisi sunt, qui decem Britannos continentes cives erant nationum complurium. Aeroplanā in fragmentis dissolutā, cadavera de caelo in arva tectaque casarum deciderunt.

body in field

A body under a plastic sheet.

Populi mundi flagitium horrendum criminantur: quis, poscunt, talem nefarium faciret? Nonnulli res Ukranas culpant. In Ukranā oriente de quo missile contorquetum est Russici seditionem discordiamque concitant. Rebelles nullā disciplinā assuefacti nuper orti sunt, sed arma provecta recentiaque nacti sunt. Multi Putinam ducem Russicum accusant qui arma sicut missilia tradans rebelles hortetur.


Nunc rebelles inordinati investigatores interdicunt ne locum naufragii visitent ad indicia flagitii invenienda. Nunc homines immundi ebriique cadavera rimantur et despoliant. Putina vehementer infititur se missile rebellibus tradiderit aut animos eorum accenderit, sed hodie pauci Russicis credunt. Res ancipites sunt.



A rebel gunman walks over a wing of the plane


On Thursday a Malaysian aeroplane was hit by a missile and fell from eleven thousand metres onto Ukranian soil. Almost three hundred passengers and crew were killed, who were citizens of several nations, including ten Britons. The plane was smashed into pieces and bodies fell from the sky onto fields and the roofs of houses. The people of the world have condemned this terrible crime: who, they want to know, could do such a terrible deed? Many people blame the situation in the Ukraine. The Russians have been stirring up trouble and rebellion in the east of Ukraine, from where the missile was launched. Recently untrained and disorderly rebels have appeared, equipped with advanced and modern weapons. Many accuse Putin the Russian leader for encouraging the rebels and supplying them with weapons like missiles. Now ill-disciplined rebels are preventing investigators from visiting the crash site to look for evidenc of the crime. Now scruffy and drunk men are rifling and robbing the bodies. Putin strenuously denies that he provided the rebels with the missile or has inflamed their passions, but few people today trust the Russians. The situation is grave.


Guido scholam Lancastriensem relinquit. Mr Woolnough leaves LGGS

Abhinc sex annos cursus linguae Latinae in Scholā Puellarum Lancastriense incipitur. Guidonē magistro puellae diligentes studiosaeque in classes post horas scholae discent syntaxem et verba et litteras Latinae.


Interea Guido ipse Universitate Keelense rebus delictorum sive criminologiā studebat donec anno MMXIII laurea doctoris ei adjudicata sit. Abhinc dies quinque Universitas Keelensis Guidonem illuc vocavit ut disciplinam criminologiae tradat. Hic consensit et Kalendas Septembrias incipiet Keeleā docere. Guido dolet scholam discipulasque Lancastriae relinquere. Ei paenitet quod modo dies paucae supersunt in quibus omnes valere iubeat. Guido, magnopere Latina docenda fructus,  caritatem ingentem discipularum magistrorumque scholae habet. Omnibus fideliter “valete” dicit.


Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School


Six years ago the Latin course started at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School. With Mr Woolnough as teacher, hardworking and conscientious girls have learnt about the structure, vocabulary and literature of Latin. At the same time Mr Woolnough has been studying criminology at Keele University, until he was awarded a doctorate in 2013. Five days ago, Keele invited Mr Woolnough to teach criminology. He agreed and will start to teach at Keele on September 1st.


Keele University

Mr Woolnough is sad to leave the school and the pupils, and regrets that only a few days remain to say farewell to everyone. Mr Woolnough, who has gained so much from teaching Latin, holds a strong affection for the students and teachers of the school. He is saying a heartfelt ‘farewell’ to everyone.


Cursus Franciae Eboracia, cavendo conficiatur. Care needed on the Tour de France in Yorkshire

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familiares mei

Eboraciā diē Saturni ducenti birotatores Cursum Franciae, certamen dierum viginti unum, exorsi sunt. Duo miliones hominum vias frequentabant ut competitores viderent. Ego cum meis ad Cursum Skiptone spectabam.

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Skipton, Eboracia

Turbae spectatorium maxime commotae radiis solis et Eboraciae amoenitatē fructae sunt. Spem omnium vicendorum in Harrogatiā a Marci Cavendish habebant. Birotatoribus montes praecipites superandae erant sicut saltus notissimus Butyri Alveorum (Buttertubs). Iter periculosum factum est per centum milia passuum. Cursus cavendo conficiatur, sed Cavendish ipse strenuissime furioseque navans in ultimis metris in lapidos viae rutus sic graviter laesus est ut dubitetur quominus in cursū pergat. Nos Eboracienses de spe deiecti sumus, sed Britanni quoque Christopheri Froome favent. Hodie de Ebore ad Sheffagrum certatum erit.


Jens Voigt Skiptone praecurrebat. tete de la course

In Yorkshire on Saturday two hundred cyclists set off on the Tour de France, a race of twenty one days. Two million people crowded the roads to see the competitors. I watched with my family at Skipton. The crowds of highly excited spectators enjoyed the sunshine and the beauty of Yorkshire. They hoped that Mark Cavendish would triumph over the whole field in Harrogate. The riders had to overcome steep climbs like the famous Buttertubs Pass. The dangerous route passed over 120 miles. The Tour needs to be completed with care, but Cavendish himself sprinting furiously and flat out hit the gravel on the road and was so badly hurt that it is not certain that he will complete the race. We Yorkshire people were disappointed but the Brits are also backing Chris Froome. Today the race will be from York to Sheffield.