The Association for Latin Teaching

respice prospice


What follows presumes that you are already familiar with the sounds of letters and letter combinations, rules for word stress, and elision (but more on this later). Use Read It Right! for help with these. Also assumed is the ability to scan a hexameter (see Reading Latin Poetry).

Once you’re happy with the basics and can understand the passage you’re tackling, read on …

There are two forms of stress at work in the hexameter: verse ictus and word stress. These often coincide, but it is where they diverge that gives the verse its life. We can get an idea of what happens by considering a couple of well-known lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the verse ictus is marked by /:

In this example from Aeneid IV, verse ictus is marked by /, word stress by ^:

Read the lines aloud adhering strictly to the verse ictus. Then read the same lines concentrating on just the word stress. Which way sounds more natural? The second? Now try combining the two. The aim is a reading which takes account of both verse and word stress, not a wooden but a natural sounding rendition which brings the verse to life and projects its meaning. So pay attention to the relationship between the two types of stress, and between metre and sense.

Some particular points


This occurs where a sentence flows over from one line to the next. A pause at the end of the line may interfere with this flow, so only include one if there is a strong pause in the sense. In this example run-on lines are shown by >:

multa viri virtus animo multusque recursat >

gentis honos; haerent infixi pectore vultus >

verbaque nec placidam membris dat cura quietem.


Opinions vary as to how consistent the Romans were in observing elisions. While we need to observe them if we are to make verses which contain them scan, automatically eliding on every occasion can give inelegant or unfortunate results. A middle way is needed between slavish observance of elisions and completely ignoring them. A straightforward working suggestion might be to let the verse dictate the solution. In a fast-running line, where elision is used to create a sense of speed or urgency, elide short vowels. But don’t elide where doing so would cause confusion or sound unnatural. In particular, do not elide where a strong pause in the sense would be lost. Don’t elide long vowels: it is legitimate to shorten them and this was probably normal Roman practice. In the example, elisions which seem natural for the purpose of pace and sense are shown with (brackets), others by italics.

postera Phoebea lustrabat lampade terras

umentemqu(e) Aurora polo dimoverat umbram,

cum síc unanimam adloquitur male sana sororem:

'Anna soror, quae me suspénsam ínsomnia terrent!

quis novus hic nostris successit sedibus hospes,

quem sese ore ferens, quam forti pector(e) et armis!

Taste and judgement are needed here – there is no one correct solution.


To some extent the metre makes this easier than with prose. The Romans of course had little punctuation whereas the editions we use today do, and this should help with reading. But placement of commas etc is sometimes a matter of editorial judgement, so make up your own mind. The caesura in the line should help here.

Slow down when reading! Too often people have a tendency to rush and this leaves nowhere to go where the meaning demands speed. Do not be afraid to pause briefly where the sense calls for it and to emphasise words as necessary. Use your voice as well to impart the tone of the verse, adjusting volume and pitch. This is epic poetry in the ‘grand manner’ and we should employ every technique we have to bring it to life. Above all, try to read sympathetically and avoid monotony. After all, everyone who reads poetry in English brings something of their own approach to bear.

Listen to different people reading and record and listen to yourself as you practise. Examples can be found on the ARLT and CSCP sites.


Wilf O'Neill

There is further discussion of how to read hexameters in "Reading Hexameters" a guide by Gerry Nussbaum, the webmaster's former tutor at Keele University in the late Sixties.

ausus quin etiam voces iactare per umbram

implevi clamore vias, maestusque Creusam

nequiquam ingeminans iterumque iterumque vocavi. 770

quaerenti et tectis urbis sine fine ruenti

infelix simulacrum atque ipsius umbra Creusae

visa mihi ante oculos et nota maior imago.

obstipui, steteruntque comae et vox faucibus haesit.

tum sic adfari et curas his demere dictis: 775

‘quid tantum insano iuvat indulgere dolori,

o dulcis coniunx? non haec sine numine divum

eveniunt; nec te comitem hinc portare Creusam

fas, aut ille sinit superi regnator Olympi.

longa tibi exsilia et vastum maris aequor arandum, 780

et terram Hesperiam venies, ubi Lydius arva

inter opima virum leni fluit agmine Thybris.

illic res laetae regnumque et regia coniunx

Hinc ferro accingor rursus clipeoque sinistram

insertabam aptans meque extra tecta ferebam.

ecce autem complexa pedes in limine coniunx

haerebat, parvumque patri tendebat Iulum:

'si periturus abis, et nos rape in omnia tecum;

sin aliquam expertus sumptis spem ponis in armis,

hanc primum tutare domum. cui parvus Iulus,

cui pater et coniunx quondam tua dicta relinquor?'

Talia vociferans gemitu tectum omne replebat,

cum subitum dictuque oritur mirabile monstrum.

namque manus inter maestorumque ora parentum

ecce levis summo de vertice visus Iuli

fundere lumen apex, tactuque innoxia mollis

lambere flamma comas et circum tempora pasci.

nos pavidi trepidare metu crinemque flagrantem

excutere et sanctos restinguere fontibus ignis.

at pater Anchises oculos ad sidera laetus

extulit et caelo palmas cum voce tetendit:

'Iuppiter omnipotens, precibus si flecteris ullis,

aspice nos, hoc tantum, et si pietate meremur,

da deinde auxilium, pater, atque haec omina firma.'