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Prepositions with the genitive: agent


καὶ γὰρ αὐτὸ ὑπὸ ἔρωτος τὸ ὕδωρ καίεται.

‘For even water is set ablaze by the fire of love.’ (Philostr. Letters 11)

The preposition ὑπό with the genitive signals an agent.

Lexical usage

The construction involving ὑπό with the genitive can also indicate an instrument, if this instrument is conceived of as an agent.
Sometimes classical authors use other prepositions, depending on the meaning of the verb:

  • ἐκ (Herodotus) or παρά (Attic) with ‘sending’ or ‘giving’;
  • πρός (Herodotus) with 'thinking' or 'believing' (where Attic uses παρά with the dative).

Some writers have a very distinctive use of prepositions:

  • Homer also has ἐκ or πρός with verbs of 'achieving' or 'reaching',
  • Thucydides often uses ἀπό:
    • with verbs such as λέγω to present two agents as being in opposition to each other;
    • with verbs such as πράσσω to mark an indirect agent;
  • Demosthenes often uses παρά;
  • In Attic tragedy the monosyllabic prepositions ἐκ and πρός often occur under metric pressure;
  • Bible translations such as the Septuagint sometimes use ἀπό to translate the Hebrew מִן min pr מֵא ('by', but also 'away from').

Historical background

From Homer until the 5th-6th century A.D. ὑπό with the genitive is the standard marker for the agent. After this period ὑπό is replaced by παρά in non-literary registers. From the twelfth century A.D. ἀπό gradually replaces παρά, to become the standard preposition in modern Greek.

Example Sentences: 

ὧδε οὖν τὸ πεδίον φύσει καὶ ὑπὸ βασιλέων πολλῶν ἐν πολλῷ χρόνῳ διεπεπόνητο

So after a long time the plain was conquered by nature and by many kings. [provisional translation]

ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ ὅτι οἱ ἀδικοῦντες τοὺς εὐεργέτας ὑπὸ θεοῦ κολάζονται

The fable shows that whoever treats his benefactors unjustly will be punished by the deity. ֍

μηδεὶς πειραζόμενος λεγέτω ὅτι “ἀπὸ θεοῦ πειράζομαι”· ὁ γὰρ θεὸς ἀπείραστός ἐστιν κακῶν, πειράζει δὲ αὐτὸς οὐδένα

Nobody should say, when he is tested: 'I am being tested by God.' For God is not tested by evil, nor does he test anyone.

Πυθαγόρας ἔλεγε δύο ταῦτα ἐκ τῶν θεῶν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις δεδόσθαι κάλλιστα, τό τε ἀληθεύειν καὶ τὸ εὐεργετεῖν.

Pythagoras said that people had been given two extremely good things by the gods: speaking the truth and doing good deeds. ֍

εἰ μηκέτ’ ἀνατέλλοι σελήνη μηδαμοῦ,

οὐκ ἂν ἀποδοίην τοὺς τόκους – ὁτιὴ τί δή;

– Στρεψιάδης ὁτιὴ κατὰ μῆνα τἀγύριον δανείζεται

κεῖται δʼ ἄσιτος, [...] ἐπεὶ πρὸς ἀνδρὸς ᾔσθετʼ ἠδικημένη.

She lies down and does not eat, now that she has felt that her husband has done her an injustice.