The acatalectic iambic dimeter has long been connected with the poetics of late antiquity and early Christianity (Bede de arte 8.1, Isid. eccl. off. 1.6.13). For centuries, this has been explained by the rise of a "simpler and more natural type of prosody" or "a simple . . . very popular form" (Phillips 1937, Ferguson 1990). This paper examines epigraphic evidence from the most recent research on inscriptional verses (Cugusi 2007a, Blänsdorf 2011) and proposes that the stichic acatalectic iambic dimeter was not a regular feature of vulgar poetics and that its use in early Christian poetry may mark the confluence of classical and Biblical elements.
Fourth and fifth century poetry's use of the acatalectic iambic dimeter and its association with epigraphic verses deserves renewed consideration. Thirty years ago, Alan Cameron questioned the correlation between stichic iambic dimeters and popular inscriptional verse (Cameron 1980), and the most recent scholarship on verse epigraphy appears to support Cameron's position (Cugusi 2007a, Blänsdorf 2011). Late antique studies, however, have suggested that iambic dimeters were a "familiar" or more "natural type of prosody" which "no doubt had existed all along in the songs of the people" (Phillips 1937, Raby 1953). The disparity between these positions remains problematic, and confusion over the issue continues to cloud a modern understanding of early Christian poetry.
With a systematic presentation of epigraphic material (from Courtney 1993, 1995, Cugusi 2007a, Blänsdorf 2011), this paper examines the connection between extant Christian acatalectic iambic dimeters and inscriptional verses. It demonstrates that the stichic iambic dimeter offers an extremely rare form in late antique epigraphy, and its use as a popular meter remains doubtful. Considering the challenges and limitations of this evidence, the paper re-examines the motivations of Christian poets who employed the dimeter form and suggests that the symmetry and octosyllabic structure of acatalectic iambic dimeters indicate an understated allusion to Biblical theology.
To highlight the possibility of Biblical influence, the paper explores the prologue of St. Ambrose's Expositio psalmi CXVIII, a text that emphasizes "unity not plurality" and evidences the theological significance of an eight-part structure. St. Ambrose's reading of psalm 118 makes a clear allusion to the importance of symmetry and theological numeration – especially in regard to Christian salvation (on the eighth day) and spiritual re-birth (on an eight-part cycle). Ambrose's emphasis on numeration and unity in early Christian verse is thus presented as an important exegesis of Christian poetics and a possible motivation toward octosyllabic iambic dimeter compositions.
It is the primary aim of this paper to address the disparity between Cameron's view and the traditional approach to the "popular" dimeter. Fontaine (1981) and den Boeft (1993) have already hedged Cameron's claim, yet a more systematic and comprehensive catalogue of epigraphic material would assist future research in the field. Furthermore, this paper highlights the possibility of Biblical influence on Latin prosody and comprehensively addresses the notion that Christian poets assimilated vulgar Latin rhythms into Christian liturgy. The fact remains that according to available inscriptions from the late antique and classical world, the acatalectic iambic dimeter was a rare epigraphic meter, and the extremely regularized iambic patterns of Christian poetry suggest a unique farrago in fourth century literary creativity.