I can understand why Virgil would like to use standard devices like chiasmus and synchysis to create poetic effect in the Aened. But sometimes the word order is scrambled up so much, I can't work out what poetic effect would be achieved with this?

I understand that Latin has a much freer word order than English, so sentences that appear "scrambled" in English might not be perceived to be so in Latin. Yet, there must be a limit to how much you can move words around until even Latin readers get confused?

For example, from Book 1 of the Aeneid:

"Urbs antiqua fuit, Tyrii tenuere coloni,
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe
ostia, dives opum studiisque asperrima belli;
quam Iuno fertur terris magis omnibus unam
posthabita coluisse Samo; hic illius arma, ..."

Apart from metrical considerations, why is the word order "quam Iuno fertur terris magis omnibus unam / posthabita coluisse Samo" and not "quam unam Iuno magis terris omnibus posthabita Samo coluisse"? I don't see what benefit is achieved by moving unam all the way to the end, or by saying "terris magis omnibus" instead of "magis terris omnibus", or "posthabita coluisse Samo" instead of "posthabita Samo coluisse"?

I can't imagine all this is done purely to preserve meter? Since Virgil could presumably preserve meter through other means (for example substituting synonyms etc.)


2 Answers 2


I think you're still assuming that English-style word order is in some sense natural or default, despite your correct disclaimer that "sentences that appear 'scrambled' in English might not be perceived to be so in Latin". For example, you refer to "moving unam all the way to the end", but of course it hasn't been moved anywhere; its position is simply affected by different factors than would be the case in English.

One of these factors is the tendency to place important nouns and other content words (other than main verbs, which are less mobile) early in the sentence, at the expense of words without specific reference. Two of your specific questions about this passage can be made sense of with this principle in mind. Comparing Vergil's lines

quam Iuno fertur terris magis omnibus unam posthabita coluisse Samo

with your proposed order

quam unam Iuno magis terris omnibus posthabita Samo coluisse

we can see that the first two of Vergil's word-order choices have the effect of placing Iuno and terris earlier in the sentence than in your version. This arguably aids intelligibility rather than the opposite, in that the reader is told early on what the sentence will be about. A Latin reader might object to your version by asking, "Isn't it more important to tell me the topics of this part of the sentence -- Juno and lands -- before giving abstract words like alone and more which won't make much sense anyway without knowing those?" You could bring across the idea with an English paraphrase such as "As for Juno, as for lands, she prized this one above all".

Note also that Vergil's version has the virtue of keeping together the words magis omnibus unam, which of course go together in sense, and thus marking the contrast between "all" and "one" more effectively than if those words were separated.

The third part of the question, about posthabita coluisse Samo, is harder to answer; this is a fairly marked hyperbaton of a kind which is conventional in poetry but would be less likely to occur in prose. Metrical constraints alone don't seem to explain it given its frequency. Possibly the answer is partly that Latin verse (like artistic registers of other languages) was expected to make cognitive demands on listeners that prose did not, and partly that the difficulty involved was actually much less for a native speaker of Latin than it is to us. But it's noteworthy that this word order too has the effect of placing the content noun Samo in a position of greater prominence, in this case at the end of the clause.

  • 1
    It seems that the hyperbaton involved in posthabita coluisse Samo was very pleasing to Latin poets/ears. E.g. cf. the parallelism with posthabito studium est coluisse Tonante (Silvae 4,4,58), which can be taken as a nice piece of evidence that Statius was trying to present himself as a second Vergil. It would be really great for me to find a similar AA in prose but, as you say, I'm afraid ... it ain't gonna happen!
    – Mitomino
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 4:34

I suspect that any reply to this broad a question will always be rife with conjecture, but the reason for the convoluted word order is always a combination of the metrical cadence, and the effect that word order has on the listener. It is generally accepted that literature was usually read aloud in ancient Rome - we can even assume that lyrical poetry was (sometimes) sung, with some background music as well.

In a recitation, the order of words is much more important than when reading a text silently, since you can't go back and painstakingly puzzle back together the sentence. Since every word is read exactly once, in a fixed sequence, there is always a specific grammatical (and semantic) question being asked or answered with every word. In a language that has freedom in word order, it's something that can be played with by a skillful author, and it's something that an audience would appreciate if done well.

You also have to understand that, while word order was not as fixed as in many modern European languages, there was still a "default" word order to deviate from. While I'll not venture to go into many details, in general the word order in Latin was, in an unmarked sentence, preferrably Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). If we look at one of the most famous sentences in Roman literature (because most everyone who learns Latin in school has read it by age 15), that is not the case at all:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres
Sub1   V1  Sub2  V2     (     Obj     )

So omnis is not next to its noun (this is called hyperbaton) and it splits the verb components, which are not at the end of the sentence. It is also usually so that a numeral (tres) precedes its noun, which is not the case here. An unmarked sentence with the same meaning would be:

Omnis Gallia in tres partes divisa est

This was of course still understandable to the listener, or else a good writer would never have committed to this kind of word order. Of course the intended audience for this was native speakers of Latin, who had an enormous intuition for what was a regular sentence, and what were stylistically acceptable (and understandable) deviations. It seems to me like in those seven words, Caesar was saying from the get-go: "this is not some dreary campaign diary, this is Literature, so listen up !".

Making your sentences a bit of a puzzle forces the audience to listen to every word, and it's always possible that a word provides a resolution ("ah, here is the verb that ties everything together !") or an extra question ("why is there an adjective in the accusative feminine here ? I expected one in the genitive masculine !"). It is a useful exercise when reading Latin to try that once in a while, to hold still at every word and take stock of what you know of the sentence already. And since Latin by default puts its verb at the end of the sentence, you often can't tie the sentence fully together until the very last word.


In poetry, there are of course more constraints from a metrical standpoint, but there are also opportunities. A verse is of a fixed length, and (although there has been considerable debate about how the boundary between verses was realized), there was definitely some sense in the audience what was the first word of the verse and which one was the last. These are marked positions, so if an author puts a word there - especially a word belonging on line X being put as the first word of line X+1 or vice versa (mutatis mutandis) - that is something that is noticed by the audience. It's an extra method of stressing specific meaning.

  • Good answer! I think the key question is whether the word order is significantly more scrambled in poetry than in prose. Neither is a sequence of clean SOV-sentences as you demonstrate.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 12:31
  • Good point, I added some more thoughts specifically about poetry. I'm specifically not wading into metrical constraints, because that is a (very interesting) bottomless pit of a subject
    – blagae
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 12:47
  • 1
    My own personal take is that meter as a reason for word order is basically a cop-out, viz. a bit of a modern perspective. Evidently some word combinations (and some words) simply don't scan in particular meters, but surely alternatives can always be found. Word order in Vergil (and poetry in general, of course) has, in my mind, as a rule always more significance than (overly) simple metric requirements.
    – Batavulus
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 15:57
  • 2
    I think there's more to Caesar's word order than signaling literariness. He starts by introducing the topic Gallia, and ends with the word (tres) which most effectively links forward to the content of the next part of the sentence (listing the three parts). Both choices arguably improve understandability rather than detracting from it.
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 6:27
  • Very educating answer. Minor point however with respect "in general the word order in Latin was, in an unmarked sentence, preferrably Subject-Object-Verb (SOV)". I assume classical Latin is referred here; for the "general" order itself appears to be different in earlier period of Latin.
    – d_e
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 8:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.