Boost.Python and Handling Python Exceptions

The Error has Already Been Set

When calling Python code from C++, one issue you will almost certainly
have to deal with is handling exceptions thrown from the Python
code. Python exceptions are not exceptions in the C++-language
sense. That is, an exception thrown in Python code does not start
stack unwinding in C++ or trigger catch blocks. Rather, a Python
exception is generally indicated by an error return value from a C-API
function call, and information about the exception can be retrieved by
yet more calls to the Python C-API.

Clearly, handling Python exceptions from C++ code requires diligence
and consistent checking of error codes, and, really, who wants to deal
with that? (A: C programmers, apparently.) A more natural system is
one in which Python exceptions are somehow converted to C++ exceptions
at the Python-C++ boundary, and where exception propagation continues
out of Python into C++.

Boost.Python makes it much easier deal with Python exceptions in a
consistent and uniform manner with the
boost::python::error_already_set exception. This C++ exception is
thrown whenever a Boost.Python operation results in a Python exception
being thrown. Consider the following code:

using namespace boost::python;
object obj = ...;
try {
  double length =
} catch (const error_already_set& e) {
  // . . . some python exception occurred . . .

In this example, the code inside the try block can fail in several
ways that will result in Python exceptions:

  • obj may have no attribute named some_attr, resulting in an
  • The attribute some_attr may not be callable, resulting in a
  • The return value of some_attr may not be convertible to a double,
    resulting in a TypeError

Each of these failures will result in the Boost.Python system throwing
boost::python::error_already_set. In general, Boost.Python reports
all errors at the Python-to-C++ layer using error_already_set. This
means that it’s much harder to ignore/not notice Python exceptions in
C++. Some people might not like this as much as others, but,
considering the ubiquity of exceptions in Python, it means that using
Python code from C++ requires less mental translation.

Translating to Concrete Exception Types

When using Boost.Python, the error_already_set exception means both
that it’s easier to catch Python exceptions in C++ and that you’re
more likely to do so (since they can’t easily be ignored.) Obviously,
though, this is of limited usefulness if you can’t determine the real
nature of the error. error_already_set is just a signal indicating
that something happened, and it doesn’t tell you what happened
(i.e. the type of the exception.)

In order to figure out the original Python exception, you’ll need to
use the Python C-API. There are three functions that are particularly
useful in this situation:

A simple recipe for translating Python exceptions into C++ works like

  • Catch error_already_set, indicating that a Python exception has
    been thrown
  • Use PyErr_Fetch to get the error indicators, Python objects
    describing the Python exception
  • Use PyErr_GivenExceptionMatches to determine the type of the
    Python exception
  • If the Python exception is not of a type that you want to
    translate, you can keep the exception active with PyErr_Restore
    and allow some other part of your code to handle it.

This is a very straightforward algorithm, and can form the basis for
more complex translation systems. However, it is not without its

Specifically, you need to be cognizant of the reference-counting
associated with the PyObjects retrived with PyErr_Fetch. Each of these
references is owned by the caller after the call. That is, their
ref-counts have been pre-incremented for the caller, and it’s the
caller’s responsibility to decrement the counts when done with
them. This seems like a clear case where boost::python::object should
be used, right?

Not so fast. If you immediately wrap the results of PyErr_Fetch with
objects, you’ll run into trouble if you try to use PyErr_Restore,
which takes ownership of the PyObjects you pass it. That is,
PyErr_Restore assumes that you have pre-incremented the ref-counts
on the objects you pass in. See the problem? A boost::python::object
will try to decrement its ref-count when it destructs, but
PyErr_Restore wants the ref-count left alone. The following code
shows the problem:

catch (const error_already_set&) {
  PyObject *e, *v, *t;

  // get the error indicators
  PyErr_Fetch(&e, &v, &t);

  // wrap them in objects to
  // ensure ref-count decrementing
  object e_obj(handle<>(e));
  object v_obj(handle<>(v));
  object t_obj(handle<>(t));

  // do some work
  . . .

  // We've determined that we don't
  // want to handle the exception, so
  // we reset it for later processing
  PyErr_Restore(e, v, t);

// BOOM!

The problem is that when the objects (e_obj, v_obj, and t_obj)
go out of scope, they decrement their ref-counts, taking them to
zero. However, PyErr_Restore thinks that it owns the refs and
does the same thing, meaning that they get dec-ref’d too many
times, resulting in big problems in the Python garbage collector.

But What About borrowed?

A possible solution to the ref-counting problem above is to use
borrowed references when constructing the objects. A borrowed
reference actually increments the reference count on construction, meaning
that PyErr_Restore would
have clean shared ownership of the the objects
when it was called.

However, this has the downside that you will have too many (i.e. 2) references to the
objects if/when the Python exception is converted into a C++ exception (or otherwise handled),
i.e. when PyErr_Restore is not called.

A Complete Solution

Clearly, then, ownership of the references (that is, responsibility
for dec-ref’ing the objects) should only be taken if PyErr_Restore is
not going to be called. In general, this is the case when you’ve
determined the type of the Python exception and decided to convert it
into a C++ exception. This is where you’ll need to use

The following code is a full example of catching error_already_set,
checking its type, converting it into a C++ exception in some cases
(in this case, only if it’s an AttributeError), and passing it on

// Remember AttributeError for later comparison
object attributeError =

. . .

catch (const error_already_set&) {
  PyObject *e, *v, *t;
  PyErr_Fetch(&e, &v, &t);

  // A NULL e means that there is not available Python
  // exception
  if (!e) return;

  // See if the exception was an AttributeError. If so,
  // throw a C++ version of that exception
  if (PyErr_GivenExceptionMatches(attributeError.ptr(), e))
    // We construct objects now since we plan to keep
    // ownership of the references.
    object e_obj(handle<>(allow_null(e));
    object v_obj(handle<>(allow_null(v));
    object t_obj(handle<>(allow_null(t));

    throw AttributeException(e_obj, v_obj, t_obj);

  // We didn't do anything with the Python exception,
  // and we never took ownership of the refs, so it's
  // safe to simply pass them back to PyErr_Restore
  PyErr_Restore(e, v, t);

  // Rethrow the exception (or whatever...this
  // is just an example.)

It is simple to extend the example above to handle more types of
exceptions, and it’s almost as simple to extend it into a general,
dynamic system for translating Python exceptions.

A Fun Note: import May Stomp on Error Indicators

If you start working with PyErr_Fetch, exception translation, and so
forth, you may find that you’re dynamically importing Python modules
while handling Python exceptions. If so, you could run into an
obscure, undocumented (as far as I know) issue: importing a Python
module can clear the Python error indicators. Consider the following

catch (const error_already_set&) {
  // At this point, let's say that a Python IndexError
  // has been thrown

  // We import Python's IndexError for comparison.
  // IMPORTANT: The import() call may clear the error
  // indicators!!!
  object indexError =

  PyObject *e, *v, *t;
  PyErr_Fetch(&e, &v, &t);

  if (!e)
    // Because the error indicators were cleared, we end up
    // here. This is not what we wanted because...

  // ...we wanted to logic to take us here.
  if (PyErr_GivenExceptionMatches(indexError.ptr(), e))
    throw IndexError();

What this means is that you need to be careful about importing modules
when that may be interfering/interacting with exception handling. The
proper thing to do is to store the error indicators with
PyErr_Fetch, import your modules, and then reset the error
indicators with PyErr_Reset. Then, you can continue with exception
translation (possibly calling PyErr_Fetch again.)


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  1. #1 by Ethon on 2012/02/22 - 03:47

    Thanks, very helpfull.
    I really hope Boost.Python supports exceptions soon itself.

    • #2 by abingham on 2012/02/22 - 09:59

      Definitely, it seems like a bit of a gap in the library.

      If you’re interested in some ready-made support for exception translation, you could look at my ackward project:

      The class “ackward::core::ExceptionTranslator” implements essentially what I described in this post, and there’s a macro to simplify translation of many built-in python exceptions.

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