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5: Scansion

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  • Since the Amores may well be among the first Latin poems a student encounters, it may be helpful to provide a brief introduction to the rules of Latin prosody (the quantity of individual syllables) and to the reading aloud of elegiac couplets. For fuller discussion see D. S. Raven, Latin Metre: an Introduction (London: Faber and Faber, 1965).


    Whereas English meters are based on a word’s accent (“Múch have I trávelled in the reálms of góld”), Latin meters are based on quantity; what matters most is whether syllables are long or short.

    For most of us the obstacle to reading Latin verse aloud is that we have not learned the quantities of Latin very well. All diphthongs are normally long by nature, but individual vowels can be either long or short, though a vowel followed by another vowel not in a diphthong is normally short. Ideally we would all know, say, that the first syllable of miles was long and the second one short, but in practice we are often uncertain, or even wrong, and it sometimes necessary to consult a dictionary solely to ascertain the quantities of a word.

    An additional problem is that it is often necessary to know the meaning of a Latin word before one can know its prosody. Latin has a number of virtual homonyms, distinguished only by their quantity, such as lĕvis (“light”) and lēvis (“smooth”). Much more common are the words whose form is identified only by their quantity: puella can be nominative singular or ablative singular, cīvis can be nominative or genitive singular or accusative plural, and manus can be nominative singular or nominative or accusative plural, etc. In such cases it is almost impossible to scan the line without also establishing its sense.

    On the other hand the endings of Latin words provide us with a large collection of easily learned quantities: with a review of the basic declensions and conjugations it is not difficult to learn that the o of amō is long, and that the i of trādit is short, or that the ō and īs of puerō and puerīs are long.

    Other syllables with easily identifiable quantities are those which, though short by nature, become long by position because of the consonants that follow them. The most obvious instances are when vowels are followed by double consonants (ll, mm, nn, pp, ss etc.), and such words are also the easiest for a reader to speak correctly; in Latin there was a clear difference between the L-sounds in malus and bellum, and it is easy to make this distinction aloud once alerted to it (MAL-us vs. BEHL-Lum). More generally, a short syllable can be long by position when followed by any two (or more) consonants together (except h), or by x and z, which were each the equivalent of two consonants.

    But before the following combinations of consonants the preceding short syllable can remain short:

    • bl, br;
    • cl, chl, cr, chr;
    • dr;
    • fl, fr;
    • gl, gr;
    • pl, pr;
    • tr, thr.

    However, a syllable cannot remain short when the two consonants following it belong to different parts of a compound abrumpo), or to different words (et refer).


    A further complication in reading aloud is the fact that a vowel or a vowel + m at the end of a word is usually suppressed (“elided”) when the next word begins with a vowel, or h + a vowel. This occurs even if the elided vowel would have been long.

    āstĭtĭt īll(a) āmēns ālb(o) ēt sĭnĕ sānguĭnĕ vūltū (Am. 1.7.51)

    nēc tē dēcĭpĭānt vĕtěrēs cīrc(um) ātrĭă cērae (Am. 1.8.65)

    A failure to elide (hiatus) is rare.

    The elegiac couplet

    The Amores are all written in elegiac couplets. This meter consists of a line of dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic poetry, i.e. six dactyls (― ⌣ ⌣) or spondees (― ―), followed by a line of dactylic pentameter, i.e. five dactyls or spondees (with one of the spondees divided into two). The basic scheme is as follows:

    In the hexameter line the fifth and sixth feet are almost always a dactyl and a spondee (the last syllable of each line is technically anceps, i.e. it can be either long or short, but for practical purposes the lines can all be read as if the last syllable is long); thus each line can be expected to end ― ⌣ ⌣ / ― ―. The first four feet can be any combination of dactyls and spondees, and it is here that a knowledge of prosody becomes important.

    In addition, the hexameter line almost always has a break between words in the third foot, most commonly after the first beat (whether of dactyl or spondee). This is called a strong caesura, e.g.

    Iam super oceanum ‖ vĕnit a seniore marito (Am. 1.13.1)

    Sometimes the break occurs after the second beat of the third foot (which must be a dactyl), giving a kind of syncopated feel to the line. This is the so-called “weak” caesura, e.g.

    quo properās, Aurōră? ‖ mănē: sic Memnŏnis umbris (Am. 1.13.3)

    The first half of the pentameter line can be thought of as the first part of a hexameter line extending to a strong caesura. As in the hexameter line spondees can be substituted for dactyls in the first two feet. The second half of the pentameter essentially repeats the first, but here there are no spondees. As with the hexameter line, the last syllable of the pentameter is anceps, i.e. it can be either long or short, but for practical purposes each pentameter line can all be read as if the last syllable is long. (I cannot find this explicitly stated in the reference books).

    Reading aloud

    Despite the apparent complexities, elegiac couplets are reasonably easy to read aloud. The key, in my view, is to become thoroughly at home with the basic unit of ― ⌣ ⌣ | ― ⌣ ⌣ | ―, which in its pure form provides the second half of the pentameter line, and which with spondaic variation provides the first half of the pentameter line and begins the vast majority of the hexameter lines. This, combined with the near certainty that the last two feet of the hexameter lines will be ― ⌣ ⌣ | ― ―, makes it possible to guess how most of Ovid’s couplets should be scanned, even if one’s grasp of basic Latin prosody is weak. It is important, of course, to be alert to those quantities which can be known in advance, such as diphthongs, certain word endings, vowels followed by double consonants, and vowels followed by more than one consonant, while remaining alert to the exceptions mentioned above.

    I suggest practicing by beginning with the easiest section to scan, reading the second halves of all the pentameter lines in a poem; here there are no variations from ― ⌣ ⌣ | ― ⌣ ⌣ | ― and it is usually easy enough to see where the second halves of the lines begin. Follow this by reading the pentameter lines complete; the first two feet will offer some variation, but there are only four possible combinations for the first half of a pentameter:

    Practicing the pentameter lines should make the hexameter lines much easier. Most lines will have a strong caesura, and will thus offer exactly the same four possibilities as the first half of the pentameter line. Following the strong caesura there will be either one long beat or two short ones to complete the third foot. The fourth foot will be either a dactyl or a spondee, and is thus usually the hardest foot to scan, but the fifth and sixth feet will almost certainly be a dactyl and a spondee. Lines with a weak caesura of course work slightly differently: the third foot will be a dactyl, with the caesura coming between the two short beats.

    To introduce this approach to reading aloud, I print here a modified text of Amores 1.1. I have introduced gaps in the text to identify caesurae, all of which are strong caesurae. I have also put elided syllables in parentheses. In theory this should make it possible to follow the procedure suggested above with relative ease, so that unknown quantities can be deduced rather than looked up.

    Arma gravī numerō         violentaque bella parābam
    ēdere, māteriā         conveniente modīs.
    pār erat inferior         versus; rīsisse Cupīdō
    dīcitur atqu(e) ūnum         surripuisse pedem.
    “quis tibi, saeve puer,         dedit hōc in carmina iūris? 5
    Pīeridum vātēs,         nōn tua, turba sumus.
    quid, sī praeripiat         flāvae Venus arma Minervae,
    ventilet accensās         flāva Minerva facēs?
    quis probet in silvīs         Cererem regnāre iugōsīs,
    lēge pharetrātae         virginis arva colī? 10
    crīnibus insignem         quis acūtā cuspide Phoebum
    instruat, Āoniam         Marte movente lyram?
    sunt tibi magna, puer,         nimiumque potentia regna:
    cūr opus adfectās         ambitiōse novum?
    an, quod ubīque, tuum (e)st?         tua sunt Helicōnia tempē? 15
    vix etiam Phoebō         iam lyra tūta su(a) est?
    cum bene surrexit         versū nova pāgina prīmō,
    attenuat nervōs         proximus ille meōs.
    nec mihi māteri(a) est         numerīs leviōribus apta,
    aut puer aut longās         compta puella comās.” 20
    questus eram, pharetrā         cum prōtinus ille solūtā
    lēgit in exitium         spīcula facta meum
    lūnāvitque genū         sinuōsum fortiter arcum
    “quod” que “canās, vātēs,         accipe” dixit “opus.”
    mē miserum! certās         habuit puer ille sagittās: 25
    ūror, et in vacuō         pectore regnat Amor.
    sex mihi surgat opus         numerīs, in quinque resīdat;
    ferrea cum vestrīs         bella valēte modīs.
    cingere lītoreā         flāventia tempora myrtō,
    Mūsa per undēnōs         ēmodulanda pedēs.

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