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Latin poetry

Latin poetry

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Latin poetry was a major part of Latin literature during the height of the Latin language. During Latin literature's Golden Age, most of the great literature was written in poetry, including works by Virgil, Catullus, and Horace.

A number of meters are used in Classical Latin poetry, almost all inspired by Greek originals; the most common is dactylic hexameter, followed by elegiac couplets and hendecasyllabics. Many Roman poets were particularly inspired by the Hellenistic style of poetry practised at Alexandria.


Special features of Classical Latin poetry

Heavy and light syllables

Classical Latin poetry differs from English poetry in that Latin meter is based upon vowel length rather than stress. In Latin, syllables are either heavy (long) or light (short). A light syllable has a short vowel followed by at most one consonant. Heavy syllables are either those that have a nucleus consisting of a long vowel or a diphthong (then traditionally called long by nature), or those that have a short vowel but which is followed by multiple consonants (or by one of the double consonants, x and z) (long by position). The consonants in the next word may count toward making a syllable long by position. Certain combinations of two consonants can make a syllable long or short, at the discretion of the poet. These are the so called muta cum liquida, namely those starting with a stop (p, b, t, d, c or g) and ending with a liquid (l or r). However, they can only count as a single consonant if they belong to the same word.


Elision occurs when the following two conditions are satisfied:

  1. A word ends in a vowel, diphthong, or the letter "m".
  2. The next word begins with a vowel, diphthong, or the letter "h".

When this occurs, the first word loses the vowel or diphthong if it ends in a vowel or diphthong; if it ends in "m", it loses the "m" and the vowel immediately preceding it. This elided syllable is often marked by placing it in parenthesis and drawing a curved line from the bottom of the syllable to the bottom of the next syllable. The elided syllable is not counted when scanning the line.

Sometimes a syllable does not elide even if it meets the above condition. The lack of elision is called hiatus. See the examples below.


A caesura occurs anytime a word ends in the middle of the foot; however, the caesura is typically metrically significant when it occurs near the middle of the line and correlates with a break of sense in the line, such as a punctuation mark. The caesura divides the line in two and allows the poet to vary the basic metrical pattern he is working with. When a caesura correlates with a sense break, a person speaking the poetry should make a slight pause at the caesura.

(info about strong, weak caesuras, etc, to be added)

Examples of different meters

Guide to symbols used

  • - indicates a heavy syllable
  • u indicates a light syllable
  • ^ indicates a syllable anceps, which may be either heavy or light
  • | indicates the end of a foot (when it is directly above a letter, assume that it is before the letter)
  • || indicates a caesura
  • (parentheses) show that a vowel is dropped due to elision
  • _ indicates that an elided syllable is connected to the next syllable

Dactylic hexameter

Dactylic hexameter was used for many of Latin's greatest poems. Influenced by Homer's Greek epics, dactylic hexameter was considered the best meter for weighty and important matters, so it is used in Virgil's Aeneid, Ennius's Annals, and Lucretius's On The Nature of Things. Dactylic hexameter is composed of six feet per line. Each foot is either a dactyl (heavy-light-light) or a spondee (heavy-heavy). The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The sixth foot consists of a heavy syllable followed by a syllable anceps; this line ending is perhaps the most notable feature of the meter. Typically, the dactylic hexameter's caesura comes in the third or fourth foot.

Also, dactylic hexameter often has a bucolic dieresis. A dieresis is a pause that happens when the end of a word coincides with the end of a metrical foot; a bucolic dieresis is a dieresis between the fourth and fifth feet of a line.

-  u  u|-   u  u|-||  -| -   -|  - u  u |- ^ 
Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs,
- u u|-   -|-   u u|- || -|- u  u| - ^
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīnaque vēnit
 - u u|  -       -|     - ||-| -   -| - u  u |-  ^
lītora, mult(um)_ill(e)_et terrīs iactātus et altō
 -  u u|-    -| -  u u|- ||-|- u  u |- ^
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;

Note the multiple elisions in line 3. Also note the caesuras throughout and the bucolic dieresis in line 1.

(Virgil's Aeneid, Book I, lines 1-4)

Elegiac couplet

In elegiac couplet, lines are grouped into couplets (pairs of two). The first line of each couplet is standard dactylic hexameter. The second is a modified dactylic pentameter line: two feet + a heavy syllable (a half-foot), then two more feet, then another heavy syllable. Essentially the pentameter line is two and a half feet plus two and a half feet. The division between each half-line in pentameter is usually a caesura.

 -  - | -   - |-||- | -  u  u | -  u u| -  ^
Multās per gentēs et multa per aequora vectus
     -  u u   | -   u u|- ||  - u   u |-  u u|-
     adveni(o)_hās miserās, frāter, ad īnferiās

-   -| -   -|-||-|- - | - u u| -  ^ 
ut tē postrēmō dōnārem mūnere mortis
     -   -|-   u  u| -||-  u  u|-   u u|-
     et mūtam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,

Note the elision in line 2 and the hiatus in line 4; also note the caesuras throughout and the bucolic diaresis in line 1.

(Catullus 101, lines 1-4)

Examples of other meters to be added.

Post-classical poetry

After the classical period, the pronunciation of Latin changed: in particular the distinction between long and short vowels was lost. Some authors continued writing verse in the classical meters, but this was now something of an academic exercise. Popular poetry, including the bulk of Christian Latin poetry, came to be written in accentual meters (sometimes incorporating rhyme, which was never systematically used in classical verse) and thus came to resemble poetry in modern European languages. This accentual Latin verse was called sequentia, especially when used for a Christian sacred subject.

See also

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