I’ve had a busy summer composing an annotated bibliography. It’s a bibliography of Roman poetic metre, and I wrote a book tangential to that topic a few years back (how tangential, I now fully appreciate.) Not the most stimulating activity, it’s fair to say, and if there’s anything better gauged to play on academic insecurities, I can’t think what it is. There is so much I don’t know…

What this exercise has reminded me of, though, is what caught my interest all those years ago, the moments when an ancient poem’s metre is absolutely critical to its meaning. Catullus 11 falls into this category, I believe (I wrote about it here), and Statius’ Silvae 4.3, a poem about a road in which the poet makes it increasingly hard to distinguish road-building and versifying, or so I once argued. Then there was an epigram by Martial, 3.29, composed in a metre called “Sotadean”, quite a rare metre, but one of the most fascinating metrical phenomena that ancient poetry had to offer.

Here is Martial 3.29 in its entirety:

Has cum gemina compede dedicat catenas,
Saturne, tibi Zoïlus, anulos priores.

These chains with their twin fetters are dedicated
to you by Zoïlus, Saturn: the rings he used to wear.

Zoilus is a regular butt of Martial’s abuse, and here we are told that a man who now wears the insignia of high status, gold rings, used to be a slave. True to my topic, though, the Sotadean metre has its own contribution to make. I’ll get to that, eventually…

Greco-Roman metre is governed by quantities, the length of syllables, and Martial’s poem follows the structure of a standard version of the Sotadean ( _ is a long syllable, u a short):

_ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _

Just a pattern of long and short syllables, then. But what makes the Sotadean so interesting is how the ancients responded to this particular pattern. Here is the ancient critic Demetrius (Eloc. 189) describing what happens when a poem is turned from another metre into Sotadeans:

“A composition <is described as affected when it is> anapaestic and like the emasculated, undignified metres, especially the Sotadean because of its rather effeminate rhythm, as in … ‘brandishing the ash spear Pelian right over his shoulder’ in place of ‘brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder.’ The line seems to have altered its whole shape, like figures in myth who change from males into females.”

A bit of explanation. Demetrius identifies the Sotadean as an especially “effeminate” metre, then quotes by way of illustration two versions of a line from Homer’s Iliad, 22.133: Homer’s original, in the epic metre of dactylic hexameters, and (before that) a reworking of the same line in Sotadeans. Demetrius then records his feelings about what has happened when a line written in hexameter is converted into Sotadean: it is as if it it has metamorphosed from male to female.

Here are the two versions of the line, Sotadean first, then the Homeric original in hexameter:

σείων μελίην Πηλιάδα δεξιὸν κατ’ ὦμον

σείων Πηλιάδα μελίην κατὰ δεξιὸν ὦμον

Both these lines mean “brandishing the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder”, but while the second one scans as a hexameter, _ _ _ u u _ u u _ u u _ u u _ _, the first follows the same scheme as Martial’s poem on Zoïlus, _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _. This may not look like much to you and me, but to Demetrius that reordering of long and short syllables is weird and unsettling.

The Sotadean version of this line was written by Sotades himself, the Greek poet who invented and lent his name to this metrical length. Very few certain fragments of his work survives. That one is Fragment 4 Powell; in a poem that included Fragment 1 he was so rude about the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the king’s marriage to his own sister Arsinoe, that he was sealed in a lead jar and dropped in the sea, allegedly. In our Fragment 4 he seems to be engaged in “translating” Homer’s Iliad from hexameters to Sotadeans, and we need to ask why.

The first thing to say is that converting hexameters into Sotadeans was quite a popular activity in the ancient world. Quintilian (9.4.90) gives us a Latin hexameter, astra tenet caelum, mare classes, area messem (“Heaven holds the stars, the sea the fleets, the threshing floor the harvest”), which, if you read it backwards, messem area, classes mare, caelum tenet astra, turns into a Sotadean. Similarly, (Demetrius 1.516.29-30 Keil) esse bonus qui uis, cole diuos, optime Pansa (hexameter); Pansa optime, diuos cole, si uis bonus esse (Sotadean), “If you want to be respectable, worship the gods, excellent Pansa”. In the fourth century Optatianus Porfyrius, trick poet par excellence (see Sarah Bond on the remarkable poetic creations of Optatianus here), included “reversible” hexameters/Sotadeans in his Poem 15 in praise of Constantine. William Levitan (reference at the bottom) explains how this poem contains every trick in the box, but this one strongly suggests that Romans of Optatian’s day had lost a sense of what the Sotadean had entailed earlier in antiquity.

I say this because, whatever the truth of the story about his death, Sotades’ poetry was seriously subversive stuff. Strabo gives us the clue when he tells us (Geog. 14.1.41, the same forwards as backwards) that ἦρξε δὲ Σωτάδης μὲν πρῶτος τοῦ κιναιδολογεῖν, “Sotades was the first to write as a cinaedus“, in other words that the main concern of his poetry was to describe what the ancients considered his perverse sex life. A κίναιδος/cinaedus was a man who assumed the passive role in a sex act with another man, behaviour which, according to ancient ethics, was reprehensible and shocking enough to exclude him from the category of true men.

This starts to explain Sotades’ interest in dactylic hexameters. If the Sotadean was the metre of the cinaedus, the hexameter represented its polar opposite: it was known as the “heroic” metre (herous in Latin, τὸ ἡρωικόν in Greek), the vehicle for epic and its praise of Great Men, models of normative masculinity. Varro expressed the relationship snappily: ᾿Αχιλλέως ἡρωικός, ἰωνικὸς κιναίδου (Men. Sat. 360 Cèbe), “the heroic hexameter is the metre of Achilles, and the ionic (the class to which the Sotadean belongs) is that of the cinaedus.” When Sotades converted hexameters into Sotadeans, and epic moments into cinaedic, what might seem to us a very intellectual exercise, transposition from one metre to another, amounts to an assault on the sexual mores of the ancient world. And as any Classicist can tell you, from their sexual ethics flowed much that was fundamental to Greco-Roman society.

Perhaps I don’t need to explain that the line of Homer changes more than its shape when it is converted into Sotadeans. Homer is describing the spear of Achilles, the massive ash-hewn weapon that is his defining accessory: when Patroclus dresses in Achilles’ armour in Iliad 16, the spear of Achilles is the one thing he does not (because he cannot) borrow (“Only the spear of the peerless son of Aeacus he did not take,/ the spear heavy and huge and strong; none other of the Achaeans could/ wield it, but Achilles alone was skilled to wield it,/ the Pelian spear of ash, that Cheiron had given to his dear father/ from the peak of Pelion, to be slaughter for heroes,” 16.140-144). This spear defines Achilles, in other words. It is the essence of his heroic character.

Well, what can I say? The long thin appendage in Sotades’ version of the line is not a spear, that’s for certain.

Turning back to Martial, there’s something broadly similar going on. The poem is presented as a dedicatory epigram, and that had a proper form closely related to the hexameter, the elegiac couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a dactylic pentameter. Martial’s poem, converting elegiacs into Sotadeans, subverts the respectable act of dedication just as Sotades had the noble arms of Achilles, implying that Zoïlus and his dedication are morally corrupt, that he is sexually perverted, indeed that Zoïlus’ very rise in Roman society proves that society’s decadence (dedicating his fetters to Saturn, the Lord of Misrule, is an telling detail, too).

In so many ways, a deeply unpleasant poem, Martial 3.29, but one that gets much of its force from associating its target  with  _ _ u u _ _ u u _ u _ u _ _ . For the ancients, that was metrical code for utter depravity.

C. Connors, Petronius the poet: verse and literary tradition in the Satyricon (Cambridge, 1998), 30-31;

W. Levitan, “Dancing at the end of the rope: Optatian Porfyry and the field of Roman verse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985), 245-69;

Ll. Morgan, Musa Pedestris (2010), 40-48;

R. Pretagostini, Ricerche sulla poesia alessandrina: Teocrito, Callimaco, Sotade (Rome, 1984), 139-47.


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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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