Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

5.4 Word order in Latin

Latin writers could use the flexibility of Latin word to achieve some striking effects. Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, for example, begins with two nouns in the accusative case: arma (‘arms’, ‘weapons’, i.e. war) and virum (‘a man’, i.e. the hero of the poem, Aeneas).

arma virumque cano ...

I sing of arms and a man ...

Virgil, Aeneid, 1.1

This order of words allows the topic of the poem to take centre stage. It also enables Virgil to echo Homer, who started his Iliad and Odyssey in a similar way, with nouns in the accusative case indicating his subject matter.

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος ...

mēnin aeide thea Pēlēiadeō Achilēos ...

Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilles, son of Pelias ...

Homer, Iliad, 1.1

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον ...

andra moi ennepe, mousa, polytropon ...

Tell me, Muse, of the man of twists and turns ...

Homer, Odyssey, 1.1

This use of word order creates such an impact that English translators have sometimes opted to preserve it. Thus Robert Fagles in his translation of Aeneid writes ‘Wars and a man I sing ...’, which is about as close to Virgil’s Latin as it is possible to get.

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