How do I scan hexameter?

Latin poems are written in a number of forms. Epic, such as Ovid's metamorphoses or Virgil's Aeneid, are written in hexameter. 

When scanning, there are a couple of important terms you need to know:

syllable is a vowel or a dipthong. It is one sound, that often has consonants on either side of it. 

foot is made up of several syllables, and in hexameter there will be six of these in a line. 

dactyl is the basic form of a foot. It consists of one long and two short syllables, and is shown like this - u u and sounds like dum di di

spondee is a long foot. It consists of two long syllables and is marked up like this - - and sounds dum dum

caesura is a break in the line. It must come at the end of a word, and commonly is found in the third foot, sometimes in the fourth and occasionally elsewhere in the line. It is marked //

Elision is when the vowel or sometimes a dipthong is not pronounced at the end of a word. When this happens, it is not counted for the purpose of scansion. 

The final two feet of hexameter will always be a dactyl followed by a spondee, so the lines will be like this:

- u u | - u u | - u u | - u u | - u u | - x

Or: - - | - - | - - | - - | - u u | - x

So, let's think about this in terms of some actual Latin. If we take the opening line of the Aeneid as an example:

arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab ori

I sing of arms and the man, who first, from the shores of Troy....

The first thing to do is count the syllables in the line. In this line, there are 15 syllables. We know that the final two feet have to be - u u | - x, so that takes away five syllables, leaving us with ten syllables to divide between four feet. There are then some rules we need to apply to work out the rest. 

A vowel followed by two consonants is long. This means that the second syllable of virumque and the final syllable of cano are both long, so the scansion is like this:

 x x x - x x - x x x | - u u | - x 

Dipthongs are long. This means that the final syllable of Troiae is long, so we can then get to this:

 x x x - x x - x - x | - u u | - x 

The accusative is a short syllable, so the final a in arma is short, so the line is like this:

x u x - x x - x x x | - u u | - x 

 With these bits of information, we can then make the rest of the line fit in and work out where the feet go. 

The caesura falls on the comma, neatly spitting the line in two. 

So, the line scans thus: 

- u u | - u u | - // - | - - | - u u | - x

Gusta M. A Level Classical Civilisation tutor, A Level English Litera...

2 years ago

Answered by Gusta, an A Level Latin tutor with MyTutor

Still stuck? Get one-to-one help from a personally interviewed subject specialist


£22 /hr

Aidan C.

Degree: Classics & French (Bachelors) - Oxford, Oriel College University

Subjects offered:Latin, French+ 4 more

Classical Greek
.MLAT (Modern Languages)
-Personal Statements-
-Oxbridge Preparation-

“Hi! I'm Aidan, a 2nd year undergraduate, and I'm a big fan of both language and literature :)”

£30 /hr

Olly J.

Degree: Classics (Bachelors) - Oxford, St Hilda's College University

Subjects offered:Latin, English Literature+ 3 more

English Literature
Classical Greek
-Oxbridge Preparation-

“As a tutor of Latin and Greek, my aim is to help students improve their language skills in an interactive way.”

PremiumElaine S. GCSE History tutor, A Level History tutor, GCSE Latin tutor...
£26 /hr

Elaine S.

Degree: Classics and Ancient History (Doctorate) - Liverpool University

Subjects offered:Latin, History+ 3 more

Classical Greek
Classical Civilisation
-Personal Statements-

“In my tutoring sessions I aim to convey passion and enthusiasm, using the idea of little and often; to gradually build up understanding”

About the author

Gusta M.

Currently unavailable: for new students

Degree: English Literature (Bachelors) - Kings, London University

Subjects offered:Latin, Maths+ 7 more

English Literature
English Language
Classical Civilisation
-Personal Statements-

“Hi, I'm Gusta and I'm a 21 year old English student from London.Unsurprisingly, I love books! Whether it is reading them, discussing them or writing about them, it is unusual for me to find something that I dislike or don't want to f...”

You may also like...

Posts by Gusta

How do I scan hexameter?

How should I begin to approach a practical criticism?

Other A Level Latin questions

What stylistic features should you be looking out for when analysing Latin poetry?

What are purpose and result clauses?

What is the best way to approach an unseen translation?

How are fear clauses constructed?

View A Level Latin tutors

We use cookies to improve your site experience. By continuing to use this website, we'll assume that you're OK with this. Dismiss