Scansion of Latin Poetry

(How rhythm works in these things.)

Latin, like may other classical languages, uses quantitative meter for its verse. This means that unlike English, where the accent of a given syllable determines its value in verse, a Latin syllable's value is determined by the length of time it takes to say it.

The Rules of Syllable Quantity in Latin

  1. A vowel that is long, i.e. marked with a macron (a circumflex on these pages:â) makes its syllable long. It is then called "long by nature."
  2. If a vowel has two or more consonants between itself and the next vowel, it makes its syllable "long by position."
  3. If two words are on the same poetic line, and the first ends with a vowel or m, and the second begins with a vowel or h, the last syllable of the first word and the first syllable of the second word elide, forming a single consonant, which has the value of the longer of the two syllables. This syllable is pronounced either as a combination of the two syllables, or, by individual choice, as the second syllable. If the second word is est, "is," the syllable is pronounced as the first syllable with "-st" added to the end.

Latin Poetic Feet

Like English, Latin organizes its poetry in feet. These feet are very similar to the ones used by english, except that they are based on quantity instead of accent and a single type of foot can have a variant form. I am using an upended, but more HTML-compatible, version of the standard notation for poetic feet, composed of the symbols I,c,3,D,B for syllables and / for the separations of feet. Some of the different feet are:
Dactyl
Dactyls are a very common foot in Latin poetry. A dactyl consists of a long syllable followed by two short syllables, though the two short syllables may often be replaced by one long one, making the foot a spondee. When a dactyl may be replaced by a spondee, I will note it as /IB/. When it must be a true dactyl, I will note it as /I3/.
Spondee
A spondee is a long syllable followed by another long syllable, except that at the end of a line, any syllable can be long or short. So at most times, a spondee is /II/, but at the end of a line it is /ID/.

Latin Poetic Meters

Dactylic Hexameter
Although the name means "six feet of dactyls", this line is actually formed by four dactyls that can become spondees, a dactyl that must remain a dactyl, and a spondee that can have its final syllable shortened, like so:
/IB/IB/IB/IB/I3/ID.
To give an example, here is the first line of Virgil's Aeneid, with long syllables in strong characters:
Arma virumque canô, Trôiae quî prîmus ab ôrîs
Which is scanned as: /I3/I3/II/II/I3/II/.
In contrast, my own poem "Hora Diei Primula" starts:
ra diêî prîmula vixdum frîgida luxit
Which is scanned as: /I3/II/I3/II/I3/Ic/.

Last Modified May 10, 1996/Mut. prox. a.d. vi Id. Mai. MCMXCVI C.E.
Marc Moskowitz/marc@suberic.net