In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Metrics

  • Introduction
  • Handbooks and Reference Works
  • Bibliographies, Guides, and Dictionaries

Classics Greek Metrics
Joel Lidov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0094


Greek metrics is the discipline that studies the patterns and arrangements of syllables and words that characterize Greek poetry. Its domain extends from the study of the properties of syllables (that is, prosody) to the analysis of the structure of the largest poetic components: stanza, strophe, and triad. It overlaps with a number of other disciplines, and there is no agreement on what constitutes the boundaries of metrics proper. Since the patterning is associated with the effect of rhythm, and because most early poetry was sung, metrics is especially allied to the study of the other performed rhythmical arts, namely music and dance. As a study of one aspect of Greek as a language, it shares concerns with various branches of linguistics, both comparative and historical. Metrics depends on having reliable textual data, and metrical regularities can assist in restoring texts, so metrics is closely allied with textual criticism. The specific practices of poets, periods, or genres can often be distinguished on the basis of their metrics, and in these respects metrics is part of stylistics and literary history. It is also a field of ancient scholarship, which can be studied for its own sake or treated as evidence. Finally, of course, metrics describes poetic choices and the structure of poems and so is a part of the study and appreciation of literature generally. The aim of metrics is to construct a general system that provides a basis for describing individual compositions; scholars who emphasize differently the associations that metrics has with other disciplines often emphasize very different features in their construction of general systems. Rhythmically inclined scholars concern themselves with the actual temporal quantities, text critics with features that can be reduced to rules, and linguists with the different ways structures can be realized. The metrical literature, however, is largely made up of presentations of different systems or of detailed discussions of individual problems. Only rarely do such works compare the difference in theoretical frameworks; instead, metrical scholarship tends to fall into various, partly national, schools with shared assumptions. They can best be understood through the history of the modern scholarship. This bibliography will include, therefore, works in use in the early 21st century, significant and accessible studies from the history of the discipline clarifying the origin of theories, and exemplary special studies.

Handbooks and Reference Works

These works provide overviews of Greek verse forms; most also provide some details about the actual use of the commonest meters. (Longer studies, some quite different from the basic systems of these handbooks, will be listed separately.) They propose different systems of description or differing emphases but also reflect the extremely concise descriptive system of Maas 1962 (a translation of the 1927 German original incorporating Paul Maas’s later additions), which has proved fundamental for all later work, notwithstanding Maas’s own insistence that metrics is most closely allied to textual criticism. Snell 1962, starting from Maas, develops a descriptive system based on metra and cola in a thin volume that has proved to be widely useful and influential; in particular, Bruno Snell popularized a scheme for describing longer Aeolic forms in terms of internal expansion (the third edition is preferable to the fourth of 1982). The popular American school text Halporn, et al. 1963 provides a simplified version of Snell’s handbook. Korzeniewski 1968, an expanded version of Snell’s system, is worth consulting for its fuller and more helpful discussions of some of the difficulties, but Dietmar Korzeniewski’s attempts to relate meter and meaning have not been widely approved. The popular British school text Raven 1968 (first edition 1962) draws partially on Maas, partially on an earlier tradition of analysis by foot and metron; its original treatment of Aeolic in terms of a choriambic “nucleus” has been influential. West 1982 was the first handbook fully to reflect the rethinking of the presentation of Greek meter made possible by the accumulation of archaic fragments from the papyri; M. L. West adds a historical organization to the customary division into metrical types but also recasts Snell’s and Maas’s systems in terms of his own theoretical approach. His descriptive system now provides the standard reference, and his thorough, detailed collection of metrically relevant data is indispensable. West 1987 rewrites the presentation of the essential information from West 1982 for use as a school text. Parker 2016 provides a synopsis of what might be called the common understanding of Anglophone and German scholarship, avoiding the peculiarities of any one system.

  • Halporn, James W., Martin Ostwald, and Thomas G. Rosenmeyer. 1963. The meters of Greek and Latin poetry. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

    Basic American textbook. The Greek part is based on Snell 1962; frequently reprinted and now available from Hackett.

  • Korzeniewski, Dietmar. 1968. Griechische Metrik. Die Altertumswissenschaft. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    Usefully expands Snell 1962 but adds some questionable theories about the interaction of meaning and metrical emphasis, making use also of D. S. Raven’s theories of Aeolic. See the review by R. Kannicht in Gnomon 45 (1973): 113–134.

  • Maas, Paul. 1962. Greek metre. Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Concise, fundamental recasting of how verse is to be described. Maas isolates repeating sequences and emphasizes a verse scheme made up of “elements” filled by syllables in actual verses. Includes descriptions of compositional practice in hexameter and trimeter.

  • Parker, L. P. E. 2016. Metre, Greek. In the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Digital ed. Edited by Sander Goldberg. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.4167

    Excellent synopsis avoiding disputable features of particular theories. Originally published in 1996, in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed., edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, 970–975 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press).

  • Raven, D. S. 1968. Greek metre: An introduction. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber.

    Basic British school text featuring a rich set of examples of variant forms rather than abstract schemes.

  • Snell, Bruno. 1962. Griechische Metrik. 3d ed. Göttingen, West Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

    The best starting point for study. A comprehensive presentation of all metrical types, balancing comments and schematic representations, and written in a lucid, very accessible style. Snell adopts Paul Maas’s controversial scheme for dactylo-epitrites but offers more analysis of Aeolic verse.

  • West, M. L. 1982. Greek metre. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Although out of print, the standard reference for classification and descriptive terminology and especially details of the practices of individual periods, genres, and poets.

  • West, M. L. 1987. Introduction to Greek metre. Oxford: Clarendon.

    An abridgement of West 1982 with some more explanations of basic concepts, more emphasis on the more common meters, less bibliography, and less detail about variations. Out of print.

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