Latin was originally one of several dialects spoken in Italy - it came to dominate as a result of Roman expansion. Roman poetry was very much influenced by Greek models, and by Greek metres.


I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
Ever moulded by the lips of man. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “To Virgil” 37 - 40


Mosaic of the epic and pastoral poet Virgil, flanked by Clio, muse of history, and Melpomene, muse of tragic and lyric poetry. Tennyson addresses him by the Italian epithet of the poet’s place of birth.(VRoma: Bardo Museum, Tunis: Barbara McManus)

Three of the many dialects of the ancient speech which wandering immigrants first brought to the Italian peninsula emerged as contenders for the ultimate language of the region: Umbrian, Oscan, and Latin. Latin, which was used in the comparatively small area of Latium, had been enriched by an admixture of features of local Sabine and Etruscan speech, and much more significantly by Greek.


(Mosaic from the Vestibule of Polyphemus, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily: René Seindal)

The historical Trojan War took place in about 1220 BC, and legend has it that soon afterwards Greek settlers came to Italy. Certainly there was a Greek trading post in the Bay of Naples by 775 BC, and the fifty years or so after the traditional date for the founding of Rome in 753 BC coincide with the composition of the Greek epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad, and the establishment and circulation through the Greek world of the Greek alphabet.

The domination of one dialect over another is usually due to external rather than linguistic features. In the case of Latin, it was Roman military expansion which caused it to become the first language of the Italian peninsula and the second, if not the first, wherever Rome’s conquests lay.

From the Latin alphabet is derived the English alphabet, and to all intents and purposes they are the same. Although there are some uncertainties about the Romans' pronunciation, someone without any knowledge of Latin who reads it aloud cannot go very far wrong. This is important, because whereas the flowering of English literature, for instance, occurred after the introduction of printing, much of Latin literature was expressly written to be read or spoken aloud.

Writing implements

Drawing of Roman writing implements, based on a wall painting at Pompeii: inkstand, pen, papyrus roll, wax tablets, stylus.(From Herman Bender, Rome und Römisches Leben in Altertum 1893: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The Latin word liber meant to the Romans anything that was written, but particularly a book. The equivalent of our “book” was volumen, meaning roll. This was a roll of papyrus up to 10 metres long and 30 centimetres deep, with a rod fixed at each end, on which the work was written in columns about 10 centimetres wide. As you read, you rolled up the used portion with the left hand while unrolling the next bit with your right.


Private library, after the library at Villa Hadriana. The word library comes from liber. The first public library in Rome was founded by Asinius Pollio (76 BC - AD 4). (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Ann Raia)

The most striking feature of Latin is its use of inflections: changes in the form of a word to indicate, for example, gender, number, case, person, degree, voice, mood, or tense. The order of words within a sentence was flexible and could be varied for the sake of emphasis, different minutiae of meaning, or simply rhythm. Alliteration was widely used in both verse and prose, but rhyme only rarely, and then usually internally in prose.


Q. Sulpicius Maximus, who died at the age of 11, having won first prize in extemporaneous verse at the Capitoline Games in AD 95. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Poetry was written in prescribed metre patterns, made up of short and long syllables, arranged in feet, as in Shakespeare’s line:

1 2 3 4 5
꙾ ¯ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ¯
O what a rogue and pea- sant slave am I

This is the classic iambic pentameter of five feet, each comprising one short and one long syllable; it is the basis of all the verse in Shakespeare’s plays.

The equivalent line in Latin poetry is the dactylic hexameter (borrowed from the Greek) of six feet, each comprising one long and two short syllables, or two long syllables, with a break in the middle of the third foot called a caesura. Which we can apply to the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid:

1 2 3 4 5 6
¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯|| ¯ ¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯ ¯
arma vir- umque ca- no    Troi- ae qui primus ab oris
I sing of arms and the man who first from Trojan shores …

In Latin, when the letter “i” comes before a vowel in the same syllable, as in “Troiae”, it has the effect of the English y, as in “you”. In modern English it is represented by, and sounded as, the letter j, as in “junior” (Latin iunior) and “Julius” (Latin Iulius).

In English prosody iambic pentameters rhyming in pairs are known as heroic couplets, a form perfected by John Dryden (AD 1631 - 1700) and Alexander Pope (AD 1688 - 1744), and into which Dryden translated works of Virgil and Juvenal. The equivalent in Latin is the graceful elegiac couplet: a dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter, a line of five feet comprising two parts, each of two-and-a-half feet.

An elegiac couplet by Propertius
1 2 3 4 5 6
¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯|| ꙾ ꙾ ¯ ¯ ¯ ꙾ ꙾ ¯ ¯
Cynthia prima su- is miser- um me cepit o- cellis
¯ ¯ ¯ ¯ ¯|| ¯ ꙾ ¯ ꙾ ꙾
contac- tum nul- lis ante cu- pidini- bus

Cynthia’s dear eyes were the first to ensnare my luckless self,
never till then aroused by love’s desires Propertius, Elegies I. 1, 1 - 2

Another Greek metre, the hendecasyllable, widely used, especially by Catullus and Martial, comprises eleven syllables:

1 2 3 4 5
 ¯ ¯  ¯ ꙾ ꙾  ¯ ꙾ ¯ ꙾    ¯ ꙾
viva- mus mea Lesbi(a) atqu(e) a- memus

Come, Lesbia, let’s live and love Catullus, Poems V. 1

Note that where a word which ends in a vowel precedes one which begins with a vowel, the former vowel is “elided” or suppressed.


Much more on Greek and Latin metre on the Classics Pages;

with illustrations and audio here.

Homer's Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey is the tale of the hazardous wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus (in Latin Ulysses) after the destruction of Troy. In Book 9 he encounters, and outwits, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, depicted here with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.

The Greek alphabet.

For an illustration, click here

The Latin Alphabet

For an illustration, click here.


More on Propertius click here. A very free translation!


For more click here. The whole poem explained, with audio.


Nothing changes

Importunate friends were an occupational hazard for writers, just as they still are: “Whenever we meet, Lupercus, you immediately say, ‘May I send my boy to pick up a copy of your new book? I’ll give it back as soon as I’ve read it.’ Lupercus, don’t bother the boy: it’s a long way to my district, and I live up three flights of stairs, long ones, too. You’ll find what you want much nearer. I guess you’re often in the Argus shopping precinct. Opposite the forum of Caesar there’s a bookshop whose front is plastered with advertisements: you can see at a glance which poets are available. Ask for Atrectus -- he’s the owner -- and he’ll get down for you from the first or second shelf a Martial smoothed with pumice-stone and bound in purple, for 5 denarii. ‘You’re not worth that,’ I hear you say? You’re a sensible chap, Lupercus!” (Martial, Epigrams I. 117).

The equivalent observation from authors’ acquaintances today is, “I see you’ve got a new book out: I’ll borrow it from the library!”

Hexameters in English

In “The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich” by Arthur Hugh Clough (AD 1819-61), the Highland country girl Elspie complains to Philip, an Oxford undergraduate who admires her:

As we went home, you kissed me || for saying your name. It was dreadful.
I have been kissed before, || she added, blushing slightly,
I have been kissed more than once || by Donald my cousin and others;
It is the way of the lads, || and I make up my mind not to mind it.

Cleopatra’s famous encounter with Julius Caesar is described in Pharsalia by Lucan (AD 39-65), written in Latin hexameters. This extract is translated into English hexameters:

Vain would have been her address || to the obdurate ears of a jury.
Judged on her looks, not her case, || with come-hither eyes as her counsel,
Passionately she appealed, || and a passionate night was the outcome.

Dryden’s Aeneid

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labours, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banished gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome. Aeneid I. 1-7