METER: Dactylic Hexameter


Latin poetry borrowed Greek poetic meters as well as Greek forms after early experiments in the 3rd century BCE with epic in native Saturnian verse. It has been argued that Greek meter was not well suited to the Latin language, as Latin words have different long and short syllable sequences and they are based on accent rather than pitch. However, over time and long practice, beginning with Ennius' importation of epic hexameter, Roman poets impressed their own character on these borrowings, successfully adapting them to their language, purposes, and audience.

Roman meter is based on the quantity of its syllables, which may be long or short by nature or by position (i.e., followed by two or more consonants). Short syllables are marked "short mark" long syllables are marked "long mark." In pronunciation, long syllables are held for a period of time that is twice as long as short syllables. Patterns of short and long syllables form feet, which are separated from each other in scansion by a stroke (slash ). Patterns of feet form a line of verse. The principal pause in a line of verse is called the caesura, which occurs in hexameter within the third foot, in between two words; it is indicated in scansion by a double stroke (caesura). The first long syllable in each foot was stressed; this metrical stress was called an ictus (ictus). The ictus did not always coincide with the word accent, and poets sometimes created an interesting interplay between ictus and word accent. The final syllable in each line could be either long or short, marked "common."

Latin verses have a distinctive set of rhythmic patterns which both define them and, by tradition, determine their content. Dactylic hexameter was the meter the Romans used for epic and narrative poetry (cf. Vergil and Ovid). Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal employed dactylic hexameter variously, to complement the conversational and relaxed or rhetorical and severe style of their satires.

The hexameter verse allows the substitution of spondees (spondee) in any of the first four feet:

For further information, see Meters and Metrical Terms. Reading Latin Poetry will enable you to hear Latin verse read rhythmically, though the RealAudio player is required.