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An Online Database of the Meters of Roman Comedy

Timothy J. Moore

Washington University in St. Louis

This paper introduces and explains how to use a new online database that records all metrical changes in the extant plays of Plautus and Terence ( 

The importance of metrical variety to the comedies of Plautus and Terence is undeniable (see, e.g., Leo, Law, Beare, Maurach, Wille, Tobias, Braun, Bruder, Gratwick 1982, Raffaelli, Dupont, Llarena i Xibillé, Marshall, Questa 2007, Moore 2012).  Metrical patterns tell us which passages (iambic senarii) were spoken without accompaniment and which passages (other meters) were sung or chanted to the accompaniment of the tibia (Moore 2008).  The close relationship between musical rhythm and duration of syllables in Latin quantitative meter also means that meter reveals much about the rhythm used by actors and tibicines in performing Roman Comedy’s musical passages.  Metrical changes are Plautus and Terence’s most important structural devices, and they allow the playwrights to vary emotional tone, distinguish between characters, and underline key themes.  They are also one of the most important reasons the plays brought such delight in performance.  Hence Plautus’ alleged boast on his tombstone of his numeri innumeri (Gellius 1.24.3).  It is therefore essential that any scholar working on Plautus or Terence, and any student seeking to understand the plays, have an awareness of what happens metrically. 

Charting meters in Roman Comedy, however, can be very challenging.  Plautus and Terence’s verses are notoriously difficult to scan. The schemata metrorum of various editions and commentaries (e.g. Lindsay, Kauer and Lindsay, Gratwick 1993, Questa 1995, Barsby, Christenson,) are priceless aids.  But these can be difficult to use, and they are not conducive to an appreciation of overarching metrical patterns in the two playwrights. Not surprisingly, therefore, many studies of Plautus and Terence simply ignore meter, and instructors often spend little or no time on meter when teaching the plays. A new online database seeks to make appreciation of Plautus and Terence’s metrical patterns more widespread by allowing its users to identify easily the meter of any given passage, all the passages where different meters are used, and other metrical features of the plays.

The database consists of 2408 records, each representing a verse group (a unit of consecutive verses in a single meter, according to the schemata metrorum of Lindsay, Kauer and Lindsay, and Questa 1995).  Each record includes the following fields: playwright, play, verse numbers at which the verse group begins and ends, total number of verses in the verse group, quotations of the opening and closing verses of the verse group, the meter (e.g., trochaic septenarius) and type of meter (e.g., trochaic) of the verse group, the meter preceding and following the verse group, and how many verses within the verse group are delivered by which characters and types of character.  Also included are notes on the meter and content of the verse group, and on the way the verse group ends.  The database thus allows scholars and students both to see clearly and thoroughly the metrical patterns of individual plays and to assess globally features of Plautus and Terence’s metrical practices. 

The paper presents several examples of what the database can help scholars and students do.  For example, Charinus, in an especially erratic song early in Plautus’ Mercator, three times interrupts bacchiac verses—among Roman Comedy’s slowest meters—with swift trochaic octonarii (341, 356, 359).  By combining the fields “meter,” “meter before,” and “meter after” in the database, one can see just how striking these moves from bacchiacs to trochaic octonarii and back would be to an audience: nowhere else in Roman Comedy does such movement occur without a change of speaker.

Using the database, scholars working on any aspect of Roman Comedy can more easily consider meter as they evaluate their conclusions.  It is hoped that the database will also lead scholars to new observations about Plautus and Terence’s use of meter.

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Digital Pedagogy

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