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A Metrical Search Tool for Greek and Latin Poetry

Michael Tueller

Arizona State University

In his influential article “Vergil’s Georgics and the Art of Reference” (HSCP 90 (1986): 171–198), Richard F. Thomas outlines the concept of the “technical reference,” which includes referring to another text by means of a shared “metrical or rhythmical anomaly” (p. 179). His example of this phenomenon, however, is not merely technical: it also includes the more regular variety of allusion/reference, i.e. shared vocabulary (in this case the Ennian nox intempesta). Surely a purer instance of this phenomenon—where only shared meter cements the reference—is possible; but how would a scholar discover such a thing? Solving this problem is the goal of my project, a tool that can search both Latin and Greek poetry for metrical patterns. The tool can identify the meter (i.e. longs and shorts) of lines of dactylic hexameter and elegiac couplets, and can also identify word-breaks, even while accounting for metrical enclitics and proclitics (words for which a break before or after the word does not “count” for metrical purposes). It performs this function on human-readable text files in which the broader metrical schema (“dactylic hexameter” or “elegiac pentameter”) has been tagged for each line; no additional information is required, so additional text files may easily be added by the user. At present, it searches an assembled database of more than 200,000 lines of Greek and Latin poetry, and preliminary tests confirm the accuracy of its results. The tool is programmed in Python. Currently it runs on a terminal interface, but I have a computer science graduate student who is now at work creating a browser-based interface, with the goal of migrating the tool to the web—a goal we hope to reach before the 2021 SCS convention.

With a tool such as this one can discover, for instance, that AP 7.386, a four-line sepulchral epigram by Lollius Bassus, is metrically identical (in its arrangement of dactyls and spondees) to AP 7.487, an epigram composed by Perses four centuries earlier. Lollius Bassus emphasizes the number of Niobe’s children, without ever naming that number: but Perses’ poem, which also features a mother mourning her child, prominently features the number itself: fourteen. This tool holds the promise of a new avenue of research in intertextual classics, along with the ability to discover and test metrical “laws” and to trace metrical and prosodic trends across the centuries.

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