I have seen several accounts of ancient poetic meters, but it just occurred to me that none of them discussed the origin of the information. Where does our knowledge of the ancient poetic meters come from? Was the theory explained by ancient grammarians or other theorists, or was the system analyzed and reconstructed later from the poems themselves?

If the answer is different for different meters or the situation is otherwise complicated, an overview would be great. Currently I find the big picture more interesting than the specifics since I know almost nothing.

I know how to read or compose in elegiac couplet or Sapphic stanza, for example, but I do not know how this information reached our era.


1 Answer 1


We know that meter existed because Aristotle in his Poetics flatly tells us so. Moreover, we have quite a bit of testimony from ancient grammarians like Quintilian and Victorinus, whose work on meters is most informative.

We also have poets' own words about their meters, such as Catullus mentioning his hendecasyllabi or Ovid writing about how Cupid stole a foot from epic poetry, which created elegy. The testimony here is huge and varied, but it aligns with what the later grammarians say about meter.

Finally, many manuscripts of poetry preserve line division. You can see how clear that is from this manuscript of the Iliad. The regular line division allowed scholars to notice the patterns of long and shorts and match it to descriptions of ancient testimony. From there we just "worked it out," though of course there are still some minor disputes today.

Venetus A Iliad I
(source: historyofinformation.com)

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