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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 literatureTemplate:Dubious was written in the form of poetry, including works by Virgil, Catullus, and Horace.

Latin MeterEdit

A number of meters were used in Classical Latin poetry, almost all inspired by Ancient 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.

Heavy and light syllablesEdit

Classical Latin poetry differs from English poetry in that classical Latin meters use syllable-length as their dominant feature more so than stress. In Latin, syllables are either heavy (long) or light (short).

A light syllable has a short vowel followed by one or zero consonants. All other syllables are called heavy.

For the effects of the above rule, the digraphs ch, qu, th, and ph, and the gv in sangvis, etc., count as one consonant. The double consonants x, z, and intervocalic i, always count as two.

The groups called muta cum liquida, namely the groups of stop ([p,b,t,d,c,g]) plus liquid ([r,l]), can be counted as one consonant or two at the discretion of the poet. But they always count as one when they start a word.

Heavy syllables are classified into two types. The long by nature have a nucleus consisting of a long vowel or a diphthong, followed by zero or more consonants. And the long by position have a short vowel followed by two or more consonants.

The consonants in the next word do count toward making a syllable long by position.


When a word ends in a vowel or diphthong, optionally followed by "m", and the next word begins with a vowel, diphthong, or the letter "h", the vowel plus m of the first word does not count metrically.

As for instance, monstrvm horrendvm ingens is scanned as if it were monstrorrendingens: it has just five heavy syllables, not seven.

At the discretion of the poet, the words can be kept separate. This poetic license is called hiatus. As an example: fémineó ululátú would usually be scanned as if it were fémine'ululátú, in seven sylables HSSSSHH, but a poet can choose to pronounce fémineó // ululátú with a pause, so that the words scan as eight syllables HSSH SSHH.

This forced pause may (or may not) lengthen the final short vowel of the first word.

Hiatus is much more infrequent than joining.


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 metersEdit

Guide to symbols usedEdit

  • - 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 Edit

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). Typically, the dactylic hexameter's caesura comes in the third or fourth foot.

Owing to the stress-timed nature of classical Latin[1] (as opposed to Greek, which was mora-timed) there is a strong tendency to harmonize word-stress and verse-ictus in the final two feet of a hexameter [2]. The fifth foot, therefore, is almost always a dactyl whereas 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. In fact, in classical times, it was the only readily audible metrical feature, and Romans unfamiliar with Greek literature and versification often heard no sound pattern at all save in the stress-pattern of the last two feet.[3]

Also, dactylic hexameter often has a bucolic diaeresis. A diaeresis is a pause that happens when the end of a word coincides with the end of a metrical foot; a bucolic diaeresis is a diaeresis 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, Lāvīniaque 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 diaeresis in line 1.

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

Elegiac coupletEdit

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 diaeresis in line 1.

(Catullus 101, lines 1-4)

Examples of other meters to be added.

Post-classical poetryEdit

The above versification, based in heavy and light syllables, was applied only to learned poetry, made by Latin poets of the classical period in imitation of Greek models. The metrics of popular songs, popular poetry, military marches and so on was based on accents.

After the classical period, the pronunciation of Latin changed and the distinction between long and short vowels was lost in the popular language. Some authors continued writing verse in the classical meters, but this way of pronouncing long and short vowels was not natural to them; they used it only in poetry. Popular poetry, including the bulk of Christian Latin poetry, continued to be written in accentual meters (sometimes incorporating rhyme, which was never systematically used in classical verse) just like modern European languages. This accentual Latin verse was called sequentia, especially when used for a Christian sacred subject.

See alsoEdit


  1. Allen 2003, pp. 83–88
  2. Allen 2003, p. 86
  3. Allen 2003, p. 127
  • Allen, William Sidney (2003). Vox Latina — a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37936-9. 

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