Publius Vergilius Maro (70 - 19 BCE)

Dactyls and Spondees

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68,786.69 hours

Vergil was born near Mantua in northern Italy, received his education in Naples and Rome, and became arguably Rome's greatest poet. He has three great works or known authorship, the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, Rome's national epic, along with several minor works of dubious authenticity (collected in the Appendix Vergiliana). Despite ancient and medieval biographies of Vergil, much is not known about his life. His family probably was wealthy enough to give him a good education. He possibly was trained in Epicurean philosophy in a school near Naples, which would influence all three of his works. We also know that he ended up in the circle of Maecenas after writing the Eclogues. The influence of Maecenas' patronage (and thus that of Augustus) is definitely visible in both the Georgics and Aeneid. All of his works were written in hexameter.

His Works

The Eclogues are ten short poems (the longest is 111 lines) in the pastoral tradition, written between 42 and 39 BCE. Many of these poems deal with themes from the countryside, like shepherds, the flock, rustic love, but Vergil also inserts some current events, like the land confiscations of the second triumvirs in 42 BCE (Eclogue 1), or the unborn child from Eclogue 4 (maybe the child of Antony and Octavia?).

After completing the Eclogues, Vergil joined the circle of Maecenas and began writing the Georgics, a work in four books/ about farming (the geo- part of the title is Greek meaning "earth"). The first book covers the tilling of the land, the second animal husbandry, the third viticulture (grape growing), and the fourth beekeeping. It's in the second half of this fourth Georgic that Vergil tells of the bugonia (how to resurrect a failed hive of bees by means of a bludgeoned ox), the story of Aristaeus and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. This mini-epic presages his final work, which would take him the rest of his life to create.

The Aeneid is Rome's national epic, which tells of the travels of the Trojan prince Aeneas following the sack of Troy. Aeneas travels to Carthage, where he falls in love with its Queen, Dido, and his departure from there causes her doom (and the future conflict between the two cities). Then, when he lands in Italy, he fights wars against the native Italians, led by the Rutulian Turnus. The poem ends rather abruptly with Turnus' death, and our hero Aeneas kills him in a fit of rage. The epic itself, depending heavily on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, is not quite a retelling. Vergil takes and adapts Homer's model for his own purposes, and in repackaging the original, makes a masterpiece many times greater. We know that Vergil was unable to polish the Aeneid because of his untimely death - the text is filled with dozens of half-lines which he had planned to fill out during the editing process.

His Style

Vergil's hexameter lines are dominated by spondees (in the set of lines active on this site, spondees occur 56.47% of the time), reflecting the seriousness of his work. Look above and see how frequently the patterns SSSS (7.06%) and DDDD (1.95%) patterns occur. Contrast this with the dactyl domination in Ovid's work. Vergil himself created an epic style that allowed for both flexibility and regularity, different from the rigid structure of earlier Latin poets.

Richard Tarrant has identified the following uses of specific meters in Vergil's Aeneid:

  • DDDD is used for rapid action, such as Aeneas pursuing a foe, and Tarrant notes that forms of fuga/fugio (flight, to flee) and volo (to fly) occur in these lines.
  • SSSS can be for slow moving action, for heavy objects, for physical struggle, solemn pronouncements, or the sad mood of a character.
  • DSSS is often placed at the beginning of a section or at the start of a speech. It is also sometimes used at the end of a section or speech.

Tarrant also notes that varying up the spondee/dactyl pattern (e.g., moving from a line of SSSS to one of DDDS) can represent a shift of tempo. Also, repeating the same metrical pattern can reinforce a continued action.


Conte, Gian Biagio. 1994. Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
Tarrant, Richard. 2012. Virgil, Aeneid Book XII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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