in Pedagogy

Latin Hexameter Pangrams

I’m sure most of us remember the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which we saw over and over again as children learning to write or to type. But if you’re like me you didn’t know that it’s called a pangram, a name which makes perfect sense once you know it.

I intend to focus on proper pronunciation this week in Latin II and had the novel idea of finding such a sentence in Latin, to have my students memorize it, and to have them recite it back to me individually for a grade.

My search turned up little at first, until I stumbled upon the following by Pedro Madariaga (published as an illustration for handwriting in 1565):

gaza frequens Libycum duxit Karthago triumphum

This has caused those who’ve discussed it online no end of difficulty, and I think I know why. Others want to take Libycum as an accusative singular with triumphum, which leads them to read gaza as an ablative, or to make other unnecessary changes that destroy the meter as well as the sense.

But gaza must be nominative singular, and the progression of thought leads one to read Libycum as a poetic genitive plural (for Libyc(or)um). Read it like this:

gaza frequens Libycum: duxit Karthago triumphum!

At once the ellipsis of est is clear, as is the sense: “The treasury of the Libyans is full: Carthage has led a triumphal procession.”

(Incidentally, variants appear with the forms “libycos … triumphos“, a sort of hyper-correction following the common misreading.)

Following upon this I devised my own, though I’ve omitted K and Y:

heu Zama, quam Scipio celeber dux frangit inique!

“Alas (poor) Zama, whom the famed general Scipio is shattering unequally!”

Here our make-believe poet apostrophizes Zama in his sympathy at the heavy losses on the Carthaginian side. With inique I was aiming at the imbalance in losses between the two sides.

I think I’ll offer both lines to the students, teach them in meter and with proper pronunciation, and give them a choice as to which they recite for credit.

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  1. Just a question on hexameter. Is this word something that a 3rd grader should be expected to understand? Thank you in advance for your answer.

    • I would say no. There is probably a rare child somewhere in the age group who is reading and possibly even composing hexameters in Latin (and perhaps even Greek), but if so he or she is most likely a wealthy European with a private tutor, and not technically a third grader.

      I’m curious how this question came up though.

  2. Well, it’s like this. My daughter who is in the third grade came home with spelling words with the prefixes of penta, hexa, hepta, octa, deca and I had no problem with these prefixes. There were 2 words that I was a little concerned with and those were heptane and hexameter. The reason I was concerned is their instructions for their homework this week was to draw a picture that would describe the words and also use them in a sentence. Now to use them in a sentence, you definitely need to know what they mean. And drawing these 2 words? I just thought that the teachers could have come up with other root words that were more on their level. My daughter also told me these were not explained to them and no examples were given. So, I did voice my concern to the principal and to her teachers. I’m not even sure the one teacher knew what a hexameter was. This is her first year of teaching. She told me that they could draw a stick showing 6 meters on it and that would be a hexameter. So anyway, thank you for your answer. I was just curious if I was the only one who thought this word was a little much for a 3rd grader.

    Have a great night!


  3. Brilliant. I love your elucidation of gaza frequens Lybicum etc. Totally convincing. You really should be a textual critic. As for inique, you can just take it as “unfairly” (OLD 2), no? Very postmodern to look at the fall of Zama from the Carthaginian point of view–but in Latin. As for pangrams etc., the mother load of thise kind of thing seems to be the elusive book _Jocosa: lateinische Sprachspielereien, gesammelt und erläutert_ By Hans Weis. I have been trying to hunt up a copy. Only a snippet view on Google Books.


  • Latin Poetry Podcast: hexameter lists | the CAMPVS February 24, 2010

    […] was that one that reminded me of my own post on Latin hexa­m­e­ter pan­grams, in which I com­posed […]