Prosody | Elision | The Elegiac Couplet | Reading Aloud

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 (Cambridge, 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 lěvis ("light") and lēvis ("smooth").  Much more common are the words whose form is identified only by their quantity: amīcitia 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 and of trādit is short, or that the ō and īs of puerō and puerīs are long, or the first ī of mīlitibus is long while the second and third i’s are short.

Other syllables with easily identifiable quantities are those which though short by nature, becomes 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 tellus, and it is easy to make this distinction aloud once alerted to it (MAL-us vs. TEHL-Lus). More generally, a short syllable can be long by position when followed by any two (or more) consonants together, or by x and z, which were each the equivalent of two consonants. 

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

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

However, a vowel cannot remain short when the two consonants following it belong to different parts of a compound (*ābrupit), 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.

            *āstǐtǐt īll(a) āmēns ālb(o) ēt sǐně sānguǐně vūltū (Am. 1.7.51)

            nēc tē dēcǐpǐānt větěrēs cīrc(um) ātrǐǎ cērae (Am. 1.8.65)

A failure to elide (hiatus) is rare.

The Elegaic 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  (- u u) 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:

            - uu | - uu | - uu | - uu | - uu | - u

               - uu | - uu | - // - uu | - uu | -           

In the dactylic line the fifth and sixth feet are almost always a dactyl and a spondee (the last beat 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 beat is long); thus each line can be expected to end - u u ∕ - -.  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 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 line essentially repeats the first, but here there are no spondees.

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  - uu | - uu | -, 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 the last two feet of the hexameter lines will be - u u - -, 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 - uu | - uu | - 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:

            -- | -- | -

            - uu | - uu | -

            -- | - u u | -

            - uu | - - | -

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 1.13.  I have introduced gaps in the text to identify caesurae, and lines with weak caesurae are printed in italics; 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.

Iam super oceanum                        venit a seniore marito

  flava pruinoso                                         quae vehit axe diem.

quo properas, Aurora?                        mane: sic Memnonis umbris

  annua sollemni                                         caede parentet auis.

nunc iuuat in teneris                         dominae iacuisse lacertis;            5

  si quando, lateri                                         nunc bene iuncta me(o) est.

nunc etiam somni                         pingues et frigidus aer,

  et liquidum tenui                           gutture cantat avis.

quo properas ingrata                         viris, ingrata puellis?

  roscida purpurea                           supprime lora manu.                        10

ante tuos ortus                                     melius sua sidera servat                   

  navita nec media                           nescius errat aqua;

te surgit quamvis                                     lassus veniente viator

  et miles saevas                                         aptat ad arma manus;

prima bidente vides                         oneratos arva colentes,                        15

  prima vocas tardos                           sub iuga panda boves;                 

tu pueros somno                                     fraudas tradisque magistris,

  ut subeant tenerae                           verbera saeva manus,

atqu(e) eadem sponsum                         cultos ant(e) Atria mittis,           

  unius ut verbi                                        grandia damna ferant;                        20

nec tu consulto                                     nec tu iucunda diserto:                    

  cogitur ad lites                                         surger(e) uterque novas;

tu, cum feminei                                     possint cessare labores,

  lanificam revocas                           ad sua pensa manum.                       

omnia perpeterer;                         sed surgere mane puellas                        25

  quis, nisi cui non est                           ulla puella, ferat?               

optavi quotiens                                     ne nox tibi cedere vellet,

  ne fugerent vultus                           sidera mota tuos!

optavi quotiens                                     aut ventus frangeret axem                       

  aut caderet spissa                           nube retentus equus!                        30

invida, quo properas?                          quod erat tibi filius ater,         

  materni fuerat                                         pectoris ille color.                        32

Tithono vellem                                     de te narrare liceret:                        35

  femina non caelo                           turpior ulla foret.

illum dum refugis,                         longo quia grandior aevo,

  surgis ad invisas                           a sene mane rotas;                     

at si quem manibus                         Cephalum complexa teneres,

  clamares "lente                                         currite, noctis equi."                        40

cur ego plectar amans,                         si vir tibi marcet ab annis?

  num me nupsisti                           conciliante seni?

aspice quot somnos                         iuveni donarit amato                    

  Luna, nequ(e) illius                           forma secunda tuae.                       

ipse deum genitor,                         ne te tam saepe videret,                        45

  commisit noctes                           in sua vota duas.

iurgia finieram.                                     scires audisse: rubebat,

  nec tamen adsueto                           tardius orta dies.                                   

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