There is no disputing the fact that the Romans read everything aloud, in fact they were apparently not able to read silently. We know this from testimony about Roman villas having private "reading rooms" where the master could read without disturbing the family, and it was only in the time of St. Augustine that silent reading developed, perhaps out of the requirements of monastic life. In other words, all Romans continually "phonated" the way a third grade child often does, and were happy with this as a satisfactory way to read. Of course there is one major benefit: Reading is kept to a slow and sensitive pace, one savors the sounds and enjoys minute changes of meaning and inflections of mood. It is said that a modern student must be able to read forty pages of non-technical prose an hour simply to be able to keep up with college assignments in the Humanities. One marvels at how much is covered, but cannot help wondering how much is missed.

Romans not only read aloud, but they read everything with gusto and with much pleasure. Poets like Vergil were known for the effectiveness of their poetic reading, and poetry was clearly an acoustic art. Nor was rhetoric and the art of public speaking less auditory than poetry, as treatises on the art of public speaking clearly indicate.

In the last few decades we have seen a proliferation of recordings of modern poets and novelists reading from their works. Hearing EE Cummings or James Joyce, Gertrude Stein or Dylan Thomas gives a much better idea of the way they thought of their work. Unfortunately modern readings from Classical authors do not come up to such standards, not just because exact authenticity and style of reading are impossible, but because Classicists are still not accustomed to reading aloud. Especially nauseating is the rocking-horse mode of reading Latin verse, which is still largely taught in the schools

To us, largely schooled in a Print Culture with silent reading and accustomed as we are to the visualness of printed texts, this Roman "acousticity" seems strange. But no one can read Latin poems or prose silently without losing a great deal of the impact of the original. It often happens that a student, puzzled by complicated sentence structure, can make the meaning reveal itself to him by reading it aloud over and over.

I should note one problem with Latin pronunciation (leaving aside the minor issues of whether we pronounce the -c- hard or soft, and -v- as -v- or -w-). When reading prose we use the Rule of the Antepenult, that is we accent with stress the third syllable from the end of the word, unless the second from the end is long, in which case it gets the accent. But Latin verse is constructed in a somewhat different manner, following the pattern of the Greek literary prototypes. In Greek a distinction is clearly made between short, long and overlong syllables, and poetry is constructed with syllable length as a musical basis. Scanning a line of Vergil, you follow the Greek mode, which is actually antithetical to the sound of Latin prose and normal speech. So it was with something of a psychological wrench that Romans approached their national poetry, following the pattern of the Greek masters but forcibly separating poetry from prose.

Yet the Roman poets managed to harmonize the two systems to some extent, by choosing their wording carefully so as to let the Penultimate Rule echo lightly in the background, while the Greek metrics overlaid the corpus of Roman poetry. This may seem a straight fix to be in, but for a master like Vergil a away between the two camps could be found. Put the other way around, if you didn't get the harmonization right, your lines would come out simply awful, like the few scraps of Cicero's attempts at verse.

Perhaps the situation is parallel to that of modern English poetry, which faces the discrepant paths of rhymed poetry as against blank verse, metered lines against what was once called "Pindaric verse", even the sound of prose in many of Frost's poems vis a vis "Whose woods these are I think I know/.....". A poet can work among these variables, usings some rhyme, some syllabic irregularity, with modern slang facing a Shakespearean turn of phrase, which is exactly what Eliot did in "Prufrock". Just so the Roman could veer between Greek modes and Roman tonality of speech with no great effort, since synthesis of this kind is at the heart of poetry.

Coming back to the subject:
Always read Latin aloud, don't be afraid of making mistakes, just roar it out and take pleasure in the sound of the spoken Latin words. Incidentally, this works to fix words in your memory, in fact it is the way everyone learns his native language. The eye is our most perceptive organ of sensation, but the ear has a far better memory.

When you start reading poetry, some more detailed instructions and specialized practice will be necessary before you can become easy with verse and enjoy it as it should be read. One learns to read Latin poetry by ear, the penciled-in system of analysis may be used for a difficult line, but it is useless for fluid reading of page after page. Only by becoming so familiar with the sound of Latin verse that reading becomes an automatic and effortless process, can one approach Vergil's poetic mastery in the proper spirit.

A full dicscussion of information relating to this can be found in these two essays:

Reading Verse

Stress in Prose.

Return to Latin Background index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College