I have understood that many poetic meters were inherited to Latin from the Greeks. This includes, for example, the dactylic hexameter and the Sapphic meters. But the Romans did have their own poetic forms before adopting anything from the east. The only thing I know of is the Saturnian. I do not know much about the history of metric poetry, but I would like a brief overview of the Greek influence on Latin poetry: How do the poetic forms of Greek origin differ from Latin ones? What, at a high level, changed in Roman poetry due to Greek influence? Is there a difference in the way of viewing, structuring or reading poetry that captures the spirit of this transition?

There is no need to give a full account if it would be long. Instead, an overview with citations of further reading or ideas for more detailed questions would be nice.

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    A very interesting question, but it may not be answerable, unfortunately -- very little is known about the original forms of Latin poetry, to the extent that people can't even agree on the basic principles of the Saturnian meter.
    – TKR
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 20:50
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    @TKR, I feared that might be the case. But even if people have only a vague idea of how the Saturnian works, it might be enough for a rough comparison. If people are still unsure of the basic details of the Saturnian, perhaps it was less rigid than hexameter, which would be an interesting observation. I'm not sure if scholarly disagreement is sufficient evidence of that, though. I hope someone has more insight on this than I do...
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:14
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    The earliest surviving piece of Latin verse was written boustrophedon, and the rhythm may have been similar with an iambic beat on the first line and trochaic on the second. My informant compared it to the Nursery rhyme >The king >was in the >counting >house// <eating <bread and <honey. This accentual rhythm survived in extempore verse into 20th Century, for funerals. This element dictates the mood, the dance, the intonation of the verse even when metre (longs and shorts) were added.
    – Hugh
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 3:13

1 Answer 1


The Saturnian was (probably) stress-based, not weight-based.

To borrow from another answer of mine:

In a question about Old Latin meters, an anonymous user brought up Mercado's convincing argument that the Saturnian was based on accent. The idea isn't new, but Mercado backs it up with some nice information-theoretical analysis: basically, the accent theory passes some statistical tests that all the quantity theories I've seen fail at.

His idea is that a Saturnian line generally resembles one of the following:

'⏑'⏑|⏑'⏑ || ⏑'⏑|⏑'⏑
'⏑'⏑|⏑'⏑ || '⏑⏑|⏑'⏑

where ' marks a stressed syllable and an unstressed one. For example, the Epitaph of Naevius:

Ímmortálēs mortálēs / si fóret fas flére,
flérent dévae Caménae / Náevium poétam:
ítaque póstqu' est Órchi / tráditus thesáuro
oblítī sunt Rómae / lóquier línguā Latínā.

If gods could weep for mortals, the divine Muses would mourn the poet Naevius: after he was delivered to the vault of Hades, Rome forgot how to speak Latin.

(Translation mine.)

In other words, according to Mercado, the Saturnian meter didn't depend on vowel length or syllable weight at all, except insofar as they change the position of the stress within each word. The pattern involved stressed versus unstressed syllables, somewhat like English poetic meters.

In the Greek-derived system, on the other hand, the pattern was built out of heavy and light syllables, with a syllable's "weight" depending on vowel quantity and coda consonants. This was much better suited for the Ancient Greek language, which had quite a lot of single-syllable particles that could be inserted anywhere into a phrase; Latin didn't have these, so the system didn't fit it nearly as well.

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