Roman comedy is fun. Don’t let the meter scare you.

Mike Fontaine
Sep 17 · 10 min read
Yes, you can scan meters other than dactylic hexameter. (source)

There are many things to fear in life. The meter of Roman comedy shouldn’t be one of them. If you like Plautus or Terence but you’re clueless how the meter works, read on.

Scene 1 of Menander’s Synaristosai (Ladies at Brunch) = Plautus’ Cistellaria

Let’s start with something you already know. In Latin poetry, you don’t accent words the way you do in prose. The normal way to say “tears” is LÁcrimis (ablative case here, not that it matters). Sometimes you’ll say the word that way in poetry, too, but as often as not, you’ll say lacriMÍS or even laCRÍmis. The meter makes you.

Weird, I know. In English you have to say FÚRniture; say furNÍTure, and everyone will look at you funny. Not so in Latin. Hence the first rule, which you already know from Virgil and Ovid: in Latin poetry, you disregard a word’s natural accent and pronounce it the way the verse forces you to.

Here’s a bunch of examples where the accent is weird every single time. They all come from the start of Plautus’ Pseudolus:

…duorum labori ego hominum parsissem lubens,
mei te rogandi et tis respondendi mihi;
nunc quoniam id fieri non potest, necessitas
me subigit ut te rogitem. responde mihi:
quid est quod tu exanimatus iam hos multos dies
gestas tabellas tecum, eas lacrumis lavis,
neque tui participem consili quemquam facis?
eloquere, ut quod ego nescio id tecum sciam.

Do you see how almost every line ends in a two-syllable word? That’s not an accident. Those words are all “iambic,” which means they all have a short first syllable and long second syllable. In prose, you’d pronounce them lúbens, míhi, díes, and so on. Here, though, you have to say lubéns, mihí, diés, and so on.

By the way, that shape — short-long — is called an iamb (pronounced I AM). The cool way to remember it is that the word iamb itself is an example of what it illustrates, because the i is short and the amb is long. Get used to it, because the iamb is the building block of Roman comedy verse.

I’m sure you saw that necessitas at the end of line three isn’t an iambic word, but its ending, itas, fits the pattern. Nice.

Here comes point #2. Look at those lines again, this time with a few extra lines at the start:

Si ex te tacente fieri possem certior,
ere, quae miseriae te tam misere macerent,
duorum labori ego hominum parsissem lubens,
mei te rogandi et tis respondendi mihi;
nunc quoniam id fieri non potest, necessitas
me subigit ut te rogitem. responde mihi:
quid est quod tu exanimatus iam hos multos dies
gestas tabellas tecum, eas lacrumis lavis,
neque tui participem consili quemquam facis?
eloquere, ut quod ego nescio id tecum sciam.

Right off the bat you’ll see that certior and macerent at the end of the first two lines also fit the iambic pattern (-ior, -erent). Because their first syllables are long — and you just have to know that for mācerent, or look it up — both are pronounced the way they normally are: cértior and mácerent. Or, if you want to exaggerate the verse as you’re learning, it might be easier to say CÉRtiÓR and MÁceRÉNT. Actually, do do that. It’ll help.

Do you see how in all the other cases — the ones we just looked at — you get this same pattern when you combine it with the last syllable of the word that comes before it? I put them in bold to make it obvious. In those cases, you’re going to need to say parsissÉM lubÉNS, respondenDÍ miHÍ, and so on. This will seem very weird at first. If you do it aloud a dozen times or so, though, it’ll start to sound less so. So do that.

So far, so good. Let’s look at the lines again. This time I’m going to write those stress marks in:

Si ex te tacente fieri possem CÉRtiÓR,
ere, quae miseriae te tam misere ceRÉNT,
duorum labori ego hominum parsissÉM lubÉNS, 5
mei te rogandi et tis respondenmi;
nunc quoniam id fieri non potest, neCÉSSiTAS
me subigit ut te rogitem. responmi:
quid est quod tu exanimatus iam hos mulTÓS diÉS
gestas tabellas tecum, eas lacrumÍS lavÍS, 10
neque tui participem consili quemQUÁM facÍS?
eloquere, ut quod ego nescio id teCÚM sciÁM.

The pattern you see at the end of all these lines — the alternation long-short-long — is the fundamental rhythm of all verse in Roman comedy (and that’s saying a lot , because we have 26 extant comedies).

This particular variety at the start of Pseudolus is the second most common in Roman comedy. It’s called iambic senarius, which means you get six (sen-) iambic beats per line.

Obviously it would have made sense to call it an iambic hexameter instead, since hexameter means the same thing as senarius. I have no idea why we don’t.

But don’t be fooled. The thing that makes those two meters different is huge, and you need to know it: in the iambic senarius, each line starts on a down beat. That’s the total opposite of a dactylic hexameter, which always starts on an up beat (ÁRma virÚMque caNÓ…; ÍN nova FÉRt aniMÚS…;)

As I said, notionally you get six iambic beats per line. A good example of that is this poem of Catullus, #4, about a toy ship:

Phalus ÍLle, quÉM vidÉTis, spitÉS,
aÍT fuÍSse viÚM celÉRrimÚS

You can tap your fingers right along as you say this one aloud. It’s entirely regular, like a metronome: ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM…. Click your tongue like that a half-dozen times to see what I mean.

Life would be easy if that were all there were to it.

In reality, though, that regularity would be horribly monotonous and alien to Latin. You’d need the language to be equally divided between long and short syllables to make it work. But Latin simply has far too many long syllables (about 2/3) for it to ever sound natural.

Instead, the Roman comedians regularly substitute a long syllable for a short syllable at any point in the verse. To put that differently, any down beat can be a long syllable instead of a short one. (The only exception to this rule is the very place we’ve already looked at — that is, the end of each line.)

Watch how this works with a sample:

gesTÁS taBÉLas c(um), eÁS lacrumÍS lavÍS,

The first part of the first word, gestas, shows a long syllable in the down beat, where you’d expect a short. The same thing’s happening with the end of tabellas.

(Something slightly different is happening with lacrumÍS, where the a and u are short. I’ll circle back to it in a second.)

In reality, about 2/3 of every iambic senarius will have long syllables instead of short syllables in the down beats.

Meanwhile, notice — no surprise — that like any other poets, the Roman comedians also elide vowels. Plautus did it there with tecum and eas. They do it in every single line, sometimes a few times, and you’ll have to get used to it fast. I’m hoping you’re familiar with this from scanning dactylic hexameter.

Here’s another sample, this time starting with an elision:

s(i) ex taCÉNte eri PÓSsem CÉRtiÓR

Where *did* this guy get his name?

This example shows us another super-important point that is totally different from dactylic hexameter: in Roman comedy, you can substitute two short syllables for a long syllable. (You cannot do this in dactylic hexameter.) You can do that anywhere you can have a long syllable. When you do, the beat typically goes on the first short syllable. FÍeri here is an example of what I’m talking about. It’s short-short-long. In tongue-clicks, it’s BA-ba-bum.

But that’s still not all, because in Roman comedy, you can also substitute two short syllables for a short syllable, too. You can do that anywhere in the line except the last foot (and no, you definitely cannot do that in dactylic hexameter).

That’s what is happening with lacrumÍS in our example just above:

gesTÁS taBÉLas c(um), eÁS lacrumÍS lavÍS,

You might expect the line to end …ba-BUM, ba-BUM or …BUM-BÚM, ba-BUM. Nope. Instead, Plautus substitutes a word, lacrumis, whose shape is short-short-long. That substitution has the effect of speeding up the end of the line and throwing a weird accent onto both lacrumis and lavis. The rhythm is …ba-ba-BUM ba-BUM.

Of course it’s subjective to say so, but the effect this particular “exit” rhythm creates is sort of charming. You find it all over Plautus.

Here’s another example of that same swapping out of two short syllables for a short:

ere, QUÁE misÉRiae tam MÍSere ceRÉNT,

The first word is the substitution I’m talking about: ere (vocative of erus, “master”). The interesting effect here the substitution creates here is that it preserves rather than distorts the natural accent of the word. You wind up saying ére instead of eré in that initial down beat.

And now for the really interesting thing: Did you even notice that substitution when you read the line? In my experience, students don’t. They read right over it and latch on to that big fat QUÁE as the first long syllable, and from there, they get the general rhythm instinctively.

They reason they do is because they know this “secret,” that at the beginning and middle of an iambic senarius, the beat usually falls on the normal word accent. The upshot is that once you get the cadence of the iambic senarius stuck in your head, you will read right over those substitutions automatically. This is what I call faking it till you make it reading Plautus.

Here’s another example:

equer(e), ut QUÓD ego NÉSci(o) ÍD teCÚM sciÁM.

These substitutions — two shorts for one long or one short syllable — are the secret sauce that gives the meters of Roman comedy their huge variety and interest. I don’t know the percentage of how often syllables get substituted, but it’s a lot — in the zillions.

Anyway, do you see how “fast” and natural-sounding the start of the verse is, and how “slow” and regular and even artificial the end is? With practice, you will.

In fact, the title of this post will help you remember those beats and secret-sauce-substition of iambic senarii, because it’s an example of it:

how to ke it TÍLL you | MÁKE it SCÁNning PLAÚtine VÉRse.

Say it aloud until you get the cadence stuck in your head, then tackle the Latin. Watch the verse start scanning itself before your eyes.

One last thing. The iambic senarius has a caesura in the same place as the dactylic hexameter. I’ll add some upright slashes here to show you where they go, and I’ll put a word in bold in the couple cases where it’s missing. Take a breather when you get there, the same way you do after arma virumque cano. I’ll also mark all the beats for you. Your job is to read ’em all aloud a dozen times a day till it sticks — and as you do, notice how the words’ accents tend to be normal at the start and middle of the verse, and increasingly wrong at the end:

S(i) ex taCÉNte | eri PÓSsem CÉRtiÓR,
ere, qumisÉriae | tam sere ceRÉNT,
dworÚM lar(i) eg(o) minum PÁRsissÉM lubÉNS, 5
mei roGÁNd(i) et | TÍS reSPÓNdenmi;
nunc QUÓNi(am) id eri | NÓN potÉST, neCÉSSiTAS
me SÚBigit ÚT te | RÓGitem. sponmi:
quid ÉST quod t(w) ÉXanimÁTus i(am) HÓS mulTÓS diÉS
gesTÁS taBÉLLas | c(um), eÁS lacrumÍS lavÍS, 10
neque twÍ parTÍCipem | CÓNsi quemQUÁM facÍS?
equer(e), ut QUÓD ego | NÉSci(o) ÍD teCÚM sciÁM.

Satis de hoc! There are refinements and subtleties, and we’ll get to them in due course. Meanwhile, you’ll see this meter in Terence, Seneca’s tragedies, Phaedrus’ Fables, Publilius Syrus, and a bunch of miscellaneous poetry. Leave questions in the comments — and please say so if you’d like me or others to make audio files to help. Quod optume vortat (Good luck)!


PS: Some of us think the lines of Pseudolus we’ve been looking at are translated from a Greek play by Menander that survives on papyrus. There’s no way to prove it, but take a look at section four here. What do you think?


In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

Mike Fontaine

Written by

Wine, swine. Is there an art to drinking alcohol? Yep. https://press.princeton.edu/titles/30166.html

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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