General Rules


  • A syllable is a word, or any part of a word, that can be pronounced as one, uninterrupted sound:

 e.g. “sound” is a one syllable word: “pro-nounced” is a two syllable word.

One way of thinking about this is that there is a syllable every time your chin moves downwards [HINT: hold the back of your hand under your chin and practise e.g. pronounce 'omniscient'. Your chin moves FOUR times: om-ni-sci-ent]

  • In Latin the quantity of a syllable is determined by the length of its vowel.
  • Each word normally begins a new syllable. Within words syllables are normally marked off by consonants or vowels acting as consonants.

 e.g.          vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni

vul-nus a-lit ve-nis et cae-co car-pi-tur ig-ni.

  • Occasionally two vowels together are pronounced separately to form two syllables.

 e.g.          a-li-a

In such cases the first vowel is SHORT i.e. here the li is a short syllable.

  •  A syllable is long if it ends in:

 A long vowel or diphthong (scri – bae)
 Two consonants or a compound consonant (dant; dux)
 In a single consonant followed by a syllable beginning with a consonant (mul – tos)

  •  All other syllables are short

Note: When a naturally short vowel is followed in the same word by two consonants, the first of which is a mute (b, p, d, t, g, c) and the second a liquid or nasal (l, m, n, r), its syllable can be either long or short.
Most monosyllables are long e.g. da ,des, me, te, ver, si, sis, sol, nos, mus, vis.
There are some exceptions to this rule: words in l, b, d, t: e.g. sub, vel, id, et, stet. Also es and its compounds; then -que, -ve, -ne; nec, an, in, per, ter, vir, cor, fac, fer, bis, is, cis, quis.

  • Elision:

Elision occurs between a word ending in a vowel and one beginning with a vowel or diphthong. In this case the elision is treated as a diphthong and is long.

e.g. bell(a) exhausta

Elision also occurs when a word ends in –um

e.g. litora, mult(um) ill(e) et terris iactatus et alto

When the second word is es or est, the elision is reversed. It is then called aphaeresis. The e of the form is elided.

e.g. dictum (e)st  or dicta (e)st= dictumst or dictast (not dictest)

  •  Synizesis:

 When two adjoining vowels in the same word are pronounced as one

e.g. deinde (=dein-de); eadem (=ea-dem)

 Note: i and v at the beginning of words always count as consonants (our “j” and “v” instead of “i” and “w”)

e.g. Iuppiter; venit;

Sometimes along with u, they also count as consonants in the middle of words:

e.g. Lavinia = La – vin – ia or genua = gen-ua.


Dactylic Hexameter


  • Latin verse would have been sung aloud to an appreciative audience. Therefore it depended on a regular rhythm.
  •  Each line of Vergil consists of 6 FEET (hence hexameter: hex- = 6).
  •  Each FOOT consists of TWO long or ONE long and TWO short syllables

 e.g. _ _ or _ U U

  •  _ _ is called a SPONDEE. A lot of these makes the line seem very heavy.
  • _ U U is called a DACTYL. A lot of these makes the line seem very light.
  • The end of a foot is marked by a single line /
  • The first syllable of EVERY line has to be long because it is the first syllable of the FOOT.
  • The last TWO feet of every line are _ U U/_ _ or U
  • So you can mark off the FIRST syllable and last FIVE syllables of every line (if you don’t know if the last syllable is long or short just mark it with an x)

Hint: Another way of thinking of the FEET in Latin poetry is to think of them as musical BARS, in 2/4 time, consisting of two crotchets or a crotchet and two quavers. There are six such bars in every line of poetry.


Helpful Hints for Scanning Dactylic Hexameter


  • LEARN the RULES. These are just like the rules for e.g. Maths or Chemistry. They just ARE.
  •  Write out the line again on a separate sheet of paper but mark off the syllables.
  •  Make sure that you mark off any examples of ELISION (see above) with brackets.
  •  Mark the known syllable quantities first above the appropriate vowel.
  1.  First syllable [always long! _ ]
  2.  Last two feet [long, two shorts/long, long or short; _ U U / _ X]
  3.  Known long syllables (i.e. diphthongs and elisions).
  4.  Known short syllables (i.e. –que, -ve, -ne. If not elided)
  5.  Fill out the remainder according to the rules given above.
The Caesura


Every line of Latin poetry has a natural break known as a caesura (from caedo – ‘to cut’). Normally in Virgilian hexameter this break occurs in the THIRD FOOT, after the second syllable when it is known as a ‘weak’ caesura. Sometimes the caesura occurs in the fourth foot after the first syllable when it is known as a ‘strong’ caesura.

However, a caesura can occur whenever there is a natural sense break (a break between clauses or sentences). Thus some lines may have more than one caesura. This can be used to create emphasis and to draw attention to the subject matter.

The caesura is marked thus: //.


Elegiac Couplets


  • Elegiac couplets were originally used by Greek lyric poets. The style differentiated the new lighter form of verse from the epic poem, epitomised by Homer.
  • They were later adapted by Roman poets, notably Ovid, and Martial.
  • Elegiac couplets consist of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter [not to be confused with iambic pentameter, as epitomised by Shakespeare!]
  • Thus each couplet looks like this:

- u u   | - u u   | - u u  | - u u  | - u u  | - x
-    -    |  -   -     | -   -    |  -   -   |

- u u | - u u | - || - u u | - u u | -
-   -   | -    -   | - ||

  • Dactyls can be replaced for spondees in both the first four feet of the hexameter and the first 2 feet of the pentameter.
  • Hexameter verse should be analysed according to the principles outlined above.
  • Pentameter verse is rather easier.
  1. Scan the last 8 syllables and the very first syllable. They NEVER change!
  2. That means you only have 3, 4 or 5 syllables to change in the 1st and 2nd feet.
  3. This will, therefore, normally be quite obvious! It becomes a mathematical equation.
  4. However, if you are stuck go back to the rules above.
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