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, 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 within which 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 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 rhythmical patterns which both define them and, by tradition, determine their content. 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.

The selections in this program from Catullus and Ovid represent two categories of Latin poetry in which Roman poets were exceptionally creative: Lyric and Elegy. Unlike Greek lyric, Latin lyric was not intended to be accompanied by an instrument, it had fewer lyric poets (chiefly Catullus, Horace, and Martial), and its lyric meters are less complicated in form. The Romans seem not to have favored lyric poetry, perhaps because it remained closely connected to its Greek origins.

The three Catullus selections in this program employ the two lyric meters described below:

Hendecasyllabics (Phalaecean): Catullus, Poems 7 and 10

Each verse in this meter follows this pattern with some few substitutions, as indicated below:

hendecasyllabic meter

Besides a spondee (spondee), the first foot can contain a trochee (trochee) or an iamb (iamb).

Sapphics: Catullus, Poem 11

This meter, named after Sappho, the early 6th century Greek poet from Lesbos who often employed it in her poetry, is combined into four-line stanzas as follows:

Sapphic meter

The three selections from Ovid, all from the Amores, are in elegiac couplet, a meter created by the early Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes (drinking, military, history, dedications, epitaphs, laments, and love poems) and to be accompanied by music on the flute. While the meter of Roman elegy is almost totally derived from its Greek originals, it is original to the Romans in its treatment. Latin love poetry is traditionally composed in elegiac couplet. It consists of two paired lines of primarily dactylic ( dactyl ) meter: the first line, which contains six feet, is a hexameter line; the second, which contains five feet, is a pentameter. The elegiac couplet, particularly as Ovid composed it, tends to be sense contained, in that each line of verse presents a complete idea.

Elegiac Couplet: Ovid 1.1, 1.9, 2.17

elegiac couplet

The first line, the hexameter verse, allows the substitution of spondees (spondee) in any of the first four feet. The pentameter verse permits the substitution of spondees only in the first two feet.

For a full discussion of this meter, consult M. Platnauer, Latin Elegiac Verse (Cambridge, 1951).