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Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.511-733

Ingo Gildenhard
Andrew Zissos


1. Versification

Texte intégral

1One of the great pleasures of reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses is his verse-craft. His lines flow like those of no other poet — and he is therefore an ideal author for learning how to read and to appreciate Latin hexameters. What follows is a quick overview in the basic principles of hexametric verse.

The Quantitative Basis of Latin poetry

2Latin poetry depends for its rhythm on quantity rather than accent. Quantity is the amount of time taken to pronounce a syllable. There are two kinds of syllabic quantity — long and short (defined in the next section). Unlike English poetry, which produces its effect by a sequence of accented and unaccented syllables, Latin poetry uses a predetermined sequence of long and short syllables, a sequence determined by the meter of the poem. Syllables are combined into certain metrical groupings called feet (see section 3), and feet are combined into verses.

Long and Short Syllables

3A syllable in Latin poetry is long if it contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or if it contains a short vowel followed by two consonants (one of which may be at the beginning of the following word). Otherwise, it is short. But a syllable containing a short vowel followed by a mute (p, b, t, d, c, g) and a liquid (l, r) may be either long or short, according to the needs of the verse. For example in the line

inque patris blandis haerens cervice lacertis
(Met. 1.485)

4the a in patris is short by nature. But since it is followed by the mute t and the liquid r it is common, i.e. it may be either long or short. Since in this case the position in the verse requires a short syllable, it is read as short.

Metrical Feet: Dactyls and Spondees

  • 1 Thesis/θέσις comes from the Greek tithemi/τίθημι, meaning ‘to put down’ hence ‘to
  • 2 stress’.

5A given combination of syllables comprises what is known as a foot. In dactylic hexameter, the meter in which Latin epic is written (see next section), two kinds of foot are used: a long syllable followed by two short syllables (e.g. carmina), called a dactyl (Greek dactulos is itself one); and two long syllables (e.g. nubes), called a spondee (the Greek word spondê is itself one). Note that the small number of syllabic patterns allowed by the hexameter exclude many words which have intractable combinations. For example, any word in which a single short syllable comes between two long ones (e.g. iudico) can never be placed in a hexameter verse. The first syllable of the dactyl and the spondee is always accented: this accent is called the ictus. The accented part of a foot is generally known as the thesis;1 the unaccented part as the arsis.2

Dactylic Hexameter

6The meter of Latin epic is known as dactylic hexameter (also sometimes called the Heroic Verse). It is called hexameter (from the Greek ‘hex’, meaning six) because each line, or verse, contains six feet; and it is called dactylic because the dactyl (long-short-short) is the characteristic foot of the meter and is generally more frequently used than the spondee. The first four feet of the hexameter may be either dactyls or spondees. The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The rare verse having a spondee in the fifth foot is called spondaic. An example of a spondaic verse from the set text is 3.669 pictarumque iacent fera corpora pantherarum. The sixth foot is always a spondee. The last syllable of a verse may be short in itself; if it is short, it is regarded as long, because a spondee is required in the last foot. Such a syllable is known as the syllaba anceps (‘either-way syllable’).

7In general terms, verses that are light and rapid and pleasing to read have a preponderance of dactyls, or at least alternate dactyls and spondees. Speaking broadly, an accumulation of spondees tends to give a slow and laboured movement to the line. This slower movement is, however, often very expressive, as in the following line from the set text:

illi admirantes remorum in verbere perstant …
(Met. 3.662)

Astonished they persisted in beating their oars (sc. to no avail)…

8This ponderous line, with its five spondees nicely conveys the strenuous effort exerted by the Tyrrhenian sailors to set their vessel, which Bacchus has rooted to the spot, back in motion; the effort is of course in vain, and the slow and ponderous versification nicely captures (or self-annotates) this effect.

9Among Roman epicists, Ovid is the acknowledged master of light, quick-moving verse, whereas Virgil’s verse is more spondaic and hence considered more ‘stately’. In their choice of metrical patterns, the silver epic poets adopted various approaches. Valerius Flaccus, for example, followed Ovid in showing a preference for the dactyl over the spondee. Lucan, on the other hand, took on Virgil in exhibiting a decided preference for spondees over dactyls.


10An examination of any line of verse shows that words often end within a foot. The ending of a word within a foot is called a caesura. In most Latin epic poets, the use of caesurae was considered absolutely necessary for an agreeable cadence. Early Latin hexameter poets, such as Ennius, were regarded in later ages as crude versifiers for failing to recognize this principle. An example of the failure to make use of caesurae is the Ennian verse

Romae | moenia | terruit | impiger | Hannibal | armis

Restless Hannibal threatened the walls of Rome with arms.

11where the end of each of the six metrical feet of the hexameter coincides with the end of a word (in an all-out ‘busy’ effort to stand out, and to say so: the word |Hannibal| collides with |Rome’s| supposedly unshakable |walls|). A given verse tends to have more than one caesura. If there is a particular caesura at the end of an important word or phrase or at a sense pause, it is called the caesura. This main caesura is often a help to the sense and should be observed in reading the verse out loud. It may occur after the thesis (the so-called masculine caesura), or in the arsis of a dactyl (the so-called feminine caesura). The masculine caesura is more common than the feminine.

12The more common location of the main caesura is in the third foot, less often in the fourth. Note that the caesura is conventionally indicated by two vertical lines (as opposed to the one vertical line used to indicate the metrical feet):

Talia | dicen | tem || pro | turbat Ech | ione | natus.
(Met. 3.526)

As he was saying such things, the son of Echion drives him away.

13Here the caesura, which is not a particularly strong one, falls into the third foot and separates the participial construction talia dicentem, which refers to Tiresias, from the main verb and the subject of the sentence (proturbat Echione natus), which refers to Pentheus. As such, it kick starts the next action after the standstill for the speaking and is furthermore expressive of the clash between the two characters, though in syntactical terms, the caesura is not strong since talia dicentem serves as accusative object of proturbat.

14Sometimes a verse has two caesurae — usually in the second and the fourth foot — dividing the verse into three parts instead of two. An example (embodying agitation) of this is:

turba fu | rens; || cunc | tae coë | unt || trepi | dumque se | quuntur
(Met. 3.713)

15The ending of a word with the end of a foot is called diaeresis. In the energetic line from Ennius quoted above, there are thus five diaereseis! When a diaeresis occurs at the end of the fourth foot it is known as a bucolic diaeresis, because it was specially favoured in Greek pastoral poetry. A very expressive example of its use is found early in Book 4:

saepe, ubi | constite | rant hinc | Thisbe, || Pyramus | illinc
(Met. 4.71)

Often, when they stood there (sc. at the wall), Thisbe here, Pyramus there…

16It comes from Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (the ancient archetype of Romeo and Juliet), with the pair of lovers living in adjacent houses separated by a wall and prohibited to meet by their parents. The verse mirrors how Thisbe and Pyramus (each receiving their own foot of the hexameter) tried to get as close to each other as possible (a desire enacted in the verse by the placing of their names right next to one another) by meeting at the wall, which however kept them apart: the bucolic diaeresis after Thisbe and before Pyramus thus enacts the wall on the level of verse design (as their introduction set out, at 4.55–57. At the death, the two names, his dactyl to her spondee, will get it together arithmetrically: ‘Pyram-[id like River]’in one ‘Urn [for cremated ashes]’, 4.166, una… in urna. ||) In general, however, Latin epic poets used the bucolic diaeresis very sparingly: it was considered to be something of a metrical blemish.

17As these examples show, Ovid’s handling of the caesura is often expressive and invites interpretation. Consider, for instance, the following two lines:

at qua | cumque tra | bes ob | structaque | saxa te | nebant spumeus | et ferv | ens || et ab | obice | saevior | ibat.
(Met. 3.570–71)

18It is difficult to place any significant break (caesura or diaeresis) in line 570 — it is as solid and uninterrupted a hexameter as the (tenacious) barrier to the water it means to describe. The following line features a weak caesura in the third foot (after fervens) and is further marked by a pronounced presence of diaereseis: word end and foot end coincide after spumeus, obice, and saevior. This design helps to highlight the fact that the water, ‘enraged’ by the obstacle, foams emphatically and manages to break through.

Elision and Ecthlipsis

  • 3 Note that Taygetenque scans long (Ta) short (y) short (ge) long (ten-), i.e. the y is a syllable b (...)

19A vowel at the end of a word is usually not pronounced when the next word begins with a vowel or h; this is called elision. For example, in the following verse elision of the final vowel (e) occurs in the second and third foot:3

Taygetenque Hyadasque oculis Arctonque notavi
(Met. 3.595)

20Here the syllable -que after Taygeten is merged with the following word hyadasque, and the two syllables would be pronounced as one ‘-quyh-’, and would count as a single short syllable metrically; likewise the (weak) syllable -que after hyadas is merged with the following word oculis, and the two syllables would again be pronounced as one ‘-quo-’, and would count as a single short syllable metrically.

21A vowel and m at the end of a word are also elided when the next word begins with a vowel or h; this specific type of elision is called ‘ecthlipsis’. For example, in the following verse ecthlipsis of the second syllable of quidem occurs in the second foot (as well as elision of ego and actutum in the third):

quem quidem ego actutum (modo vos absistite) cogam
(Met. 3.557)

quem quidem eg | o actu | tum modo | vos ab | sistite | cogam.

22That is, the syllable-dem is merged with the following word ego, and the two syllables would be pronounced as one ‘-deg-’, and counts as a single short syllable.

Metrical Licenses

23Latin epic does not always adhere strictly to the regular norms of hexameter verse. The metrical licenses that occur frequently are as follows:

24i) Sometimes, a final vowel is not elided when the next word begins with a vowel or h; this is called hiatus. Hiatus is especially common before the principal caesura or at a pause in the verse or between proper names. It also occurs regularly with the interjections o, heu and pro. For example in a howling out loud ‘Bacchic’ line from later in the epic,

tympanaque et plausus et Bacchei ululatus
(Met. 11.17)

25hiatus occurs — that is, the diphthong -ei at the end of Bacchei and the initial vowel u in ululatus remain unelided and hence are pronounced (and scanned) separately. Note that hiatus tends to occur with long vowels (like the diphthong -ei in the line just quoted); hiatus with a short final vowel is very rare.

26ii) In certain lines a long vowel or diphthong is made short before a word beginning with a vowel: this is called semi-hiatus.

27iii) Occasionally a short syllable is treated as long. This change is known as diastole. One example from the set text occurs at 3.530: vulgusque proceresque ignota ad sacra feruntur, where the -que after vulgus (which is a short syllable) unusually scans long.

28iv) A long syllable is sometimes treated as short. This poetic license occurs most often in final vowels or diphthongs. It is called systole or, when it involves the shortening of the second syllable of an iambic word or phrase, correption. In most Latin poetry, correption (i.e. the shortening of the second syllable of an iambic word) was a more accepted poetical practice than systole of longer words.

29v) Sometimes a verse ends in a syllable that is elided before the initial vowel of the following verse. Such verses are known as hypermetric, and the elision is called synaphea. The majority of hypermetric verses end in the weak syllable -que. An example occurs in a hymn to Bacchus, immediately after the set text:

turaque dant Bacchumque vocant Bromiumque Lyaeumque ignigenamque satumque iterum solumque bimatrem.
(Met. 4.11–12)

They burn incense, cry ‘Bacchus’ and ‘Bromius’ and ‘Lyaeus’ and ‘the offspring of fire’ and ‘the twice born’ and ‘the only one born of two mothers’.

30Here the -que at the end of Lyaeum would open up an impossible ‘seventh’ foot, but the extra syllable elides with the initial i of ignigenamque in the following line. Here the hypermeter is expressive of the ‘Bacchic enthusiasm’ of those who hymn the deity and generate so much energy and ecstasy in doing so that they even make the narrator join in with the racket and burst out of metre...

31vi) Two consecutive vowels (or two vowels separated by h) belonging to different syllables are sometimes to be pronounced together as one syllable. This contraction of two normally distinct syllables into one is called synizesis (or sometimes synaeresis). Ovid tends to avoid it. (One rare instance occurs at Met. 15.718 where Antium is to be read as Antjum, i.e. di-syllabic.)

Monosyllabic Endings

32The last word of a hexameter verse is generally a disyllable or a trisyllable. Two monosyllables at the end of the line are always a special effect, and can be disproportionately striking. For example, in the couplet

rupit et excussum misisset in aequora, si non haesissem, quamvis amens, in fune retentus
(Met. 3.627–28)

33 si non introduces the protasis of the postpositive protasis of the past counterfactual condition: Acoetes hangs on by two tenuous monosyllables. (The fact that haesissem ‘hangs over’ onto the next line enhances the effect.) A single monosyllable, however, is guaranteed to trigger emphasis — humour or a jolt — at a verse end. The principal exception to this is the word est, which often ends a line, and occurs regularly in Silver epic, including the set text, where its vowel is often elided. (This is called prodelision.) See 3.612:... in isto est; 620:... cupido est; 653:... rogata est; 654:... vestra est; 681:... cauda est; 728:... nostrum est.

  • 4 Otis (1970) 76.

34In general, Ovid’s hexameters are pleasingly easy to scan owing to their polished flow: ‘In a word, Ovid puts in everything (dactyls, regular pauses, coincidence of ictus and accent, rhyme, alliteration, grammatical simplicity and concision) that will speed up and lighten; leaves out everything (elision, spondees, grammatical complexity, clash of ictus and accent, overrunning of metrical by sense units) that will slow down and encumber his verse’.4 But as the examples above show, the fluent ease of the metre does not mean the absence of special effects and expressive verse design. Ovid’s craft is such that contents and verse-form always work perfectly together — a synergy that significantly enhances the overall impact and resonance of his poetry.


1 Thesis/θέσις comes from the Greek tithemi/τίθημι, meaning ‘to put down’ hence ‘to

2 stress’.

Arsis/ἄρσις comes from the Greek airo/αἴρω ‘to rise’, ‘lift up’ (in this case after the ‘putting down/stress’ of the thesis).

3 Note that Taygetenque scans long (Ta) short (y) short (ge) long (ten-), i.e. the y is a syllable by itself. Greek proper names often bring exotic sounds and sound-patterns into Latin, not least when myth is handled.

4 Otis (1970) 76.


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