Wednesday, January 22, 2020


Lucio Ceccarelli, Contributions to the History of the Latin Elegiac Distich. Studi e testi tardoantichi, 15. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018. Pp. 362. ISBN 9782503574592. €105,00.

Reviewed by Alfredo Encuentra Ortega, Universidad de Zaragoza (

Version at BMCR home site

Lucio Ceccarelli, the author of a previous monograph Contributi per la storia dell'esametro latino (Rome, 2008) on Latin hexameter, now presents a continuation on the Latin elegiac distich. This book provides a general overview of the main features of this metre, especially with regard to the rather overlooked pentameter, and sketches both its evolution throughout the Late Republican, Augustan and Flavian eras and its continued use by Late Antique authors. The study is based on the manual scansion of around 16,500 distichs (from Catullus to Venantius Fortunatus) and on 50 tables, which provide numerical data, percentages and, in some cases, other statistical indexes which enable significant comparison between corpora of different size.1

The book is divided into two parts preceded by a general Introduction (p. 11-22), where the methodological bases are expounded, though their theoretical ground is not justified. For, as the author states on p. 16, his aim is not "to present a complete analysis of the metre of the Latin distich" but to focus on those "aspects more strictly linked to the realisation of the metrical scheme," overlooking those concerning other levels of metrical analysis.2 As in the previous monograph on the hexameter, Ceccarelli follows a rather conventional scheme based on Meyer's analysis of caesurae and Duckworth's distribution and patterning of dactyls and spondees,3 and avoids proposing (p. 21) any "explanations for the phenomena that are identified." This attitude differs from Platnauer's comprehensive monograph or Poe's seminal structural study on caesurae4 and reduces the scope of would-be results, especially in the case of the shorter poems such as those included in the Appendix Vergiliana and the Corpus Tibullianum. In the first part the author analyses the relation between dactyls and spondees foot by foot and in the line as a whole, the treatment of caesurae (or "line-breaks" in the author's own terminology)5 in the third and fourth feet, the different clausulae, the frequency of synaloepha, and the structural relation between elegiac and kata stichon hexameter. The second part is almost symmetric and opened by preliminary considerations on the Late Antique elegiac distich.

On these foundations, each part contains six chapters dealing with:
a) the realisation of the metrical scheme in the Classical (p. 25-68) and Late Antique (p. 131-168) elegiac distich;
b) the line-breaks of the Classical (p. 69-84) and Late Antique (p. 169-186) elegiac distich;
c) the verbal metre of the Classical (p. 85-102) and Late Antique (p. 187-198) elegiac distich;
d) synaloepha in the Classical (p. 103-106) and Late Antique (p. 199-200) elegiac distich;
e) the relation of the elegiac hexameter to hexameter kata stichon in the Classical (p. 111-126) and Late Antique (p. 201-2014) periods;
f) conclusions both for the Classical (p. 107-110) and Late Antique (p. 215-224) distichs.
These chapters are followed by some Final Considerations (p. 225-230), Bibliography (p. 231-248), Tables (p. 249- 356) and an Index of Tables (p. 357-362).

Summing up the main results of this study, in Ceccarelli's view Tibullus and Ovid emerge as the great innovators in classical times. They restricted the relative freedom of Catullus' elegiacs, the first author analysed.6 Tibullus was thus the first to limit the clausulae of the pentameter to iambic words and, conversely, to avoid placing iambic words before the diaeresis after the first hemistich. Ovid developed this tendency to the maximum and reduced the verbal metre of the second hemistich of the pentameter to two main types. This confirms previous studies on the verbal structure of the second hemistich of the pentameter.7 As regards the hexameter, Ovid shows a tendency to avoiding both exceptional clausulae and lines without a break in the third foot, but increases trochaic line-breaks in the fourth. This coincides with his clear purpose to reinforce dactyls in the fourth foot against the general tendency to reduce them from the first to the fourth foot, as Table 1 shows. Generally speaking, the Classical authors analysed adopt different attitudes and vary between two poles: Catullan freedom, on the one side, and Ovid's more regular and dactylic distich, on the other.

Ovid is to Ceccarelli the poet whom Late Antique authors took as a model. Vergil's Aeneis and Statius' Thebais are also included in the tables as contrasting references on the assumption that, as school models offering two peculiar versions or interpretations of the Latin hexameter, they could have inspired and conditioned Late Antique poetry. In that contrastive analysis only Venantius Fortunatus seems to adhere closely to Ovid, whereas the rest of the poets (Ausonius, Paulinus Nolanus, Prudentius, Dracontius, Luxorius…) show their own personalities "in the choice between various possibilities offered to them by the classical inheritance" (p. 224). Ceccarelli declares that "it was not possible to construct an alternative model to those inherited from the classical period, but it was possible to rework them, in various forms – by the acceptance of certain features and rejection of others, the accentuation or attenuation of certain characteristics of the model, the mixing of different models" (p. 229).

All these results are based on solid statistics and criteria and offer essential information for the history of this metre. However, these conclusions could have offered a much deeper and richer picture if the author had expanded his analysis, restricted to the level of metrical scheme, to include phonetic, syntactical and semantical considerations. As many studies have shown, skilful poets exploit both exceptions to metrical rule and word-ends where the rhythm is at risk to create images and effects (such as well-known Vergil's sound metaphors, e. g. the avoided final monosyllable in Aen. 5.481 procumbit humi bos) or they simply turn them into personal or generic markers (e. g. the way Vergil effaces and Ovid enhances a semiquinaria after, respectively, et and est). For, as J. Perret declared, "le mérite propre d'une mise en œuvre artistique n'est pas de faire passer des irregularités en les escamotant ou en les restreignant l'emploi, mais d'en tirer parti".8 Therein lies the difference between a punctuation highlighting an avoided word-end (e.g. in the clausula of the hexameter, or when the bucolic diaeresis, a mere word-end, becomes a ponctuation bucolique, conveying a conversational effect in satire and epigram) and the phonetic devices (mainly the liaison syllabique) which let the rhythm flow up to regular caesuras in epic and didactic poetry.9 Yet the author focuses on quantity and percentages and excludes quality and detailed analyses, save for an exception. In p. 204-207 he pays attention to the final syllables of the line, and, following Quintilian's remark (Inst. 9.4.93), he tests whether short open vowels are avoided therein or not. Conversely, in the cursory analysis of synaloepha the type of vowels elided (short, long, nasalised) and the preferences of particular poets are not considered,10 which would have yielded interesting conclusions on the Late Antique crisis of vowel quantity.11 On the other hand, the possibility that an influential Late Antique author (Ausonius, Prudentius, Paulinus) might have supplied the model for posterity should not be ruled out.

The author also extends consideration to some areas which are arguably partial in scope or prove to be largely irrelevant. For instance, line-breaks are analysed in the third and fourth foot, but not in the first and second, so that structures typical of authors (especially Lucan) who try to reflect in Latin poetic diction the structural role of trochaic caesura in Greek hexameters, such as the combination of semiternaria (caesura after the longum in the second foot), third-foot trochaic break and semiseptenaria (caesura after the longum in the fourth foot), go overlooked. This difference would explain, for instance, why Tibullus increases both the third-foot trochaic break and semiseptenaria, but the author refrains from exploring such issues and gives no reason. Besides, the analysis of the different combinations of dactyls and spondees proves to be somewhat redundant, since, as Ceccarelli himself concludes (p. 51), "the preferences for the realisations of the individual feet seem to be the determining factor," and – I would add – not only for the most frequent schemata but also for those that are sought out and avoided. A different category is the testing whether there is any structural difference between the elegiac hexameter and the hexameter kata stichon. At the level of analysis proposed, that comparison (p. 122; sim. p. 201, 208) "does not seem to have brought to light any unambiguous structural differences between the two types of verse," aside from some preferences in Sidonius.

To conclude, Ceccarelli's is a careful, detailed and valuable study. Though combining many authors writing in different literary genres and across different times and contexts, the author offers a broad overview both of the structure of the elegiac distich and of its evolution. I thus encourage him to submit the huge amount of statistical data at his disposal to other levels of metrical analysis and to further research individual and generic features (elegy, epigram, Christian literature) in future works.


1.   In particular, the Pearson's test (or χ2) shows the deviation between evidence and theoretical possibility, and the Yule coefficient measures the intensity of the deviation, cf. Ch. Muller, Initiation aux méthodes de la statistique linguistique, Paris, 1973, 148 ff.
2.   Besides metrical scheme, structural analysis also pays attention to structure variation, word patterning and sonorous performance, see J. Luque, "Niveles de análisis en el lenguaje versificado," in P. Bárdenas de la Peña et al. (eds.), Athlon: satura grammatica in honorem Francisci R. Adrados, Madrid, 1984, vol. 1, 287-299.
3.   W. Meyer, "Zur Geschichte des griechischen und lateinischen Hexameters," SBMünchen 6, (1884), 979-1098; G. E. Duckworth, Vergil and Classical Hexameter Poetry. A Study on Metrical Variety, Ann Arbor, 1969.
4.   M. Platnauer, Latin Elegiac Verse. A Study of the Metrical Usages of Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid, Cambridge, 1951; J. Park Poe, Caesura in the Hexameter Line of Latin Elegiac Verse, Wiesbaden, 1974.
5.   I prefer to distinguish between word-end or incision (coup or intermot in French studies) and caesura as a point where metrical pattern, phonetics, syntax and meaning coincide. This distinction is currently used in verbal metrical studies such as L. De Neubourg, La base métrique de la localisation des mots dans le hexamètre latin, Bruxelles, 1986.
6.   The author does not consider the works before and contemporary to Catullus since they are practically lost (p. 225).
7.   J. Veremans, "Evolution historique de la structure verbale du deuxième hémistiche du pentametre latin," in J. Bilbaw (ed.), Hommages à Marcel Renard, Bruxelles, 1979, vol. 1, p. 758-767.
8.   J. Perret, "Mots et fin de mots trochaïques dans l'hexamètre latin," REL 32 (1954), p. 183-199, esp. p.190.
9.   J. Soubiran, "Ponctuation bucolique et liaison syllabique en grec et en latin," Pallas 13 (1966), 21-52.
10.   Contrast Soubiran's exhaustive L'élision dans la poésie latine, Paris, 1966.
11.   On the different distribution of elided nasals and long vowels in Late Antique hexameter, see, my El hexámetro de Prudencio. Estudio comparado de métrica verbal, Logroño, 2000, 101-132.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.