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"Severus marched on Rome, ousted Julianus, and was proclaimed emperor. He then built himself a strong army that would protect both him and his empire.

As I found from my web search is that "would" could mean ( anyone can correct me here) "used to" thus the sentence could mean that the army used to protect the emperor. ( some armies just used to protect their dictators) The word also could mean "was willing" thus the army was willing to protect the emperor.

Which meaning is correct and how could we know ?

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He then built himself a strong army that would protect both him and his empire.

This indicates an expectation of possible occurrences at some future time.

He then built himself a strong army that was willing to protect both him and his empire.

willing indicates conscious intent to do something, but of course there could be some situation beyond their control stopping them.
But additional context would be needed to make such a usage valid:

He then built himself a strong army that was willing to protect both him and his empire, as long as he treated the commoners fairly.

  • Your explanation of the first sentence is not quite right. It's not an expectation of possible future occurrences. From our perspective in the present, we know that the army did protect him. What the sentence is saying is that from the perspective of the past, the army protecting him is something that will happen in the future, not something that might happen. – Andy Schweig Apr 12 '16 at 15:26
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Here "would" means that the action happened in the past but after the point in time in the past being referred to. The sentence is saying that the army he built protected him after he built it.

Here's the relevant sense from the definition of "would" from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged:

6 a — used in auxiliary function to express futurity from a point of view in the past
<kept on looking for … the money that would solve his problems — E. L. Acken>
<the lowness of his funds would presently compel his return — John Buchan>
<proposed a council … whereby peace would be preserved — F. L. Schuman>

  • Thank you for your quick answer but how did you know it is the "future in the past" not anything else ? For example not " was willing to protect him" ? Here is my difficulty. Thanks – Gamal Thomas Apr 12 '16 at 2:18
  • That's a good question. As a native speaker, I've seen that construction many times, so to me the meaning of "would" that I gave is the only one that makes sense there. It's a pretty common construction used in relating historical events. I don't know if there's a rule that could help you figure this out. Maybe someone else knows. – Andy Schweig Apr 12 '16 at 3:49
  • Thanks again Andy .. It was very helpful . And yes it would be more helpfull if somepne put a formula or rule for this construction. Waiting for help :) – Gamal Thomas Apr 12 '16 at 18:12

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