J. O'Hara

Vergil's Dactylic hexameter:

1     2     3     4     5     6

_ uu _ uu   _ uu  _ uu  _ uu  _ x   (the spacing here may be wrong online)

The Latin hexameter is a quantitative meter: the length of the syllables, rather than the stressed and unstressed syllables, must fit the pattern.

Rules for scansion:

1) Long vowel or dipthong: long syllable
2) Short vowel followed by two consonants not in #3, or double consonants x and z: long syllable

3) Short vowel followed by cr, gr, tr, pr, br, cl, pl, fl: may be long or short
(e.g. patres u _ or patres _ _)

4) h is ignored

Elision: Last syllable ending in vowel, dipthong, or vowel plus "m," before a word beginning with a vowel: elided and so not really pronounced

e.g.: A. 7.4 Hesperia in magna, si qua est ea gloria, signant Prodelision: with vowel before est, the e of est is elided: qua est ~= quast
[Some stats on average # of elisions per 100 lines, from R. Lyne, Ciris: Ennius 24, Lucretius 50, Cicero, epic frags. 48 but Aratea 35, Catull. 62 and 64 39, Verg. Ecl. 29 Geo. 50 Aen. 54, Hor. Epist. 20, Ovid Met. 20, Lucan 12. Catullus and Vergil sometimes have more elision in excited, emotional speech.]

[Vergil has about 21 "hypermetric" lines; lines with a syllable elided at the end, as at A. 7.160]

[Neglect of elision is called "hiatus" (the word means "gaping"). Cf. A. 7.631 Ardea Crustumerique et turrigenae || Antemnae. Lines in V. with hiatus will often have names, be Greek-sounding (this one is also a "spondaic" line; see below), or have a sense-pause at the hiatus.]

Tricky stuff:

1) Crasis (synezesis): coalescence or smushing together of two vowels usually pronounced separately. Cf. A. 7.33 fluminis alveo _ u u _ _.

2) i and u are sometimes pronounced as consonants (like y and w). Cf. A. 7.175 ariete caeso _ u u _ _ and 12.915 genua labant _ u u _ . This gives the word one fewer syllable, and may help "make position" for the previous syllable.

3) Sometimes a syllable can be lengthened at the "ictus," the first long of the dactyl. Cf. 7.174 regibus omen erat _ u u _ u u _


It is hard for beginners not to turn the quantitative meter of the hexameter into a sing-song stress meter

(/ uu / uu / uu etc.). Some will want to "cheat" and do this just to get the pattern down; this is ok at first.

Actually the stress accent on the words should probably be pronounced according to the normal rules of accentuation for Latin words:

two syllables: / u

three, long penult (second to last): u / u

three, short penult: / u u

Thus the first three words of the poem:

stress: / u u / u / u

meter: _ u u _ u u _

arma virumque cano

This is hard to do correctly, and we will work on it only gradually.

Ictus and Accent:

The Latin hexameter seems to have a "pulse," "beat," or "ictus," in which the first syllable of each dactyl gets a little extra thump:

/     /     /     /     /     /

_ uu  _ uu  _ uu  _ uu  _ uu _ x (the spacing here may be wrong online)

Vergil can thus play with the "coincidence" or "clash" of ictus and the natural Latin word accent. The fifth and sixth foot almost always have coincidence; 3 or 4 of the first 4 generally have clash, but Vergil can use coincidence there (esp. in 4th foot) for special effects (rapidity, smoothness, etc.).

Often coincidence in the 4th, 5th and 6th will round off a period/sentence/paragraph (cf. 7.105 religavit ab aggere classem, 134 vina reponite mensis; also 191, 211 etc.).

A monosyllable at the end of a line will produce clash: A. 1.105 praeruptus aquae mons.

[Lines with coincidence in the 4th foot are called "homodyne" (homo="same," dyn="power," "stress"), those with clash "heterodyne" (hetero="other"]

Caesura/ Diaresis/ Wordbreak:

The length and shape of words affect the sound of the line and the interplay of ictus and accent. This is often described in terms of where the breaks between words are.

"Caesura" = wordbreak within a foot, e.g. _ u u _ | u u

"Diaresis" = wordbreak between feet, e.g. _ u u | _ u u

I often like to talk simply of wordbreak.

Wordbreak generally occurs in these places:

1 | u| u | 2 | u u| 3 | u | u 4 | u | u | 5u u 6 x

Wordbreak after the first long of a dactyl (_ | u u) is called a strong or masculine caesura; because of the rules of Latin accent it tends to produce clash of ictus and accent. Latin poets generally want clash in the 3rd and 4th feet, and so have more strong caesuras here than the Greeks.

Wordbreak after the first short of a dactyl (_ u | u ) is called a weak or feminine (sorry, these are old names) caesura, and produces coincidence of ictus and accent. This is also called a trochaic caesura; a trochee is ? u.

Thus the first three |'s in the diagram above could be called "first foot strong," "first foot weak," and "diaresis after the first foot." A diaresis after the 4th foot is called a "bucolic diaresis," and appears often in bucolic poetry.

Dactyls and Spondees:

The poet can manipulate the number of dactyls and spondees in the line either to achieve variety from line to line, or in order to achieve a feeling of lightness (more dactyls) or heaviness or solemnity (more spondees).


Homer Od. 10.593ff. (Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill)

A. 12.18 Olli sedato respondit corde Latinus (1 dactyl)

(Enn. Ann. 32 Olli respondit rex Albai Longai (all spondees)

A. 8.452 Cyclopes: illi inter sese multa vi bracchia tollit

Dactyls: A. 1.500f. (arrival of Diana) illa pharetram/ fert umero gradiensque deas supereminet omnis

8.596 (horses) quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum

A spondaic fifth foot is comparatively rare in Vergil: 1 in 20 lines in Homer, 1 in 14 in Catullus 64 (the neoterics apparently liked them), 1 in 410 in Aen. It makes the line end rather heavily, and at the very least calls attention to itself. A line with a spondaic fifth foot is called a spondaic line.

A. 8.53f. urbem/ Pallantis proavi de nomine Pallanteum