Sunday, February 07, 2016

Measured accounts …

… Take the opening to Tacitus’ Annals, from the early second century AD –
urbem Romam a principio reges habuere.‘Kings first governed the city of Rome’This statement opens a famous passage in which Tacitus describes how the government of Rome transitioned from monarchy, to aristocracy, back to a virtual monarchy again under the Emperor Augustus. What is not so apparent, at least until we read the words aloud, is that they form a perfect dactylic hexameter – the very verse that, since Ennius, had been used by the Romans for the writing of epic poetry. There is no chance that this is just a coincidence. Aristotle calls the iambic trimeter the closest metre to natural speech, remarking that we often utter trimeters in conversation by accident – whereas no-one, he says, would ever unintentionally come out with a dactylic hexameter. And an artist of Tacitus’ calibre just does not do things by accident.

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