A Field Guide to Greek Metre

Carlo G. Carlucci

A little over 40 years ago, Classical scholars and lovers of poetry the world over were searching high and low for a book. This was not just any book, but a new guide that had turned the field of Greek metre on its head. Yet it was almost impossible to catch a direct glimpse of this text: only 100 copies of the book had been printed, and these were not available for sale. Despite its remarkable rarity, the work has become recognised by scholarly consent as not just the most revolutionary book ever printed but the best book ever written.

Let’s turn to the facts. The book, dubbed A Field Guide to Greek Metre, was in actuality the translation of a Latin text by the otherwise unknown medieval scholar “Morus Mancus” (12th century?).[1] Owing to the enterprising curiosity of Carlo G. Carlucci, then a graduate student in the Department of Classics at the University of California at Berkeley, the first English translation of this marvellous work was unleashed on the world in 1978.

Somehow a copy of this rare little book crossed the Rocky Mountains and landed in the hands of Roger “the Hammer of Sophocles” Dawe. Although based at Cambridge, Dawe was then on a temporary visit at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In a matter of minutes this great scholar saw the light, dashing off at once a glowing review to The Classical Journal. Its “radically new approach”, he told the learned world, made the Field Guide “one of the most simple and most fundamental books he has ever read”:

But the book was not without controversy. John Dillon, then Head of Department at Berkeley, felt both an academic and a societal duty to issue his own apotropaic warning about “this revolting little book” – one that should “not be allowed to fall into the hands of decent young men and women”:

But Dawe’s review had already caused the dam to burst, and a flurry of orders came Carlucci’s way. Off the copies went around the world, with a polite note from the translator suggesting that Dawe’s tongue may possibly have been lodged firmly in cheek when penning his review…

What, then, of the Field Guide‘s actual contents? Well, what it did was nothing short of reconfiguring the arcane terminology of Greek metre into zoological form. Short syllables (brevia) duly became hedgehog-like critters:

Choriambs (ᴗ ᴗ) emerged in fact to be giraffe-like ungulates, whose long front and back legs were compensated by a pair of short wee leggies in the middle:

And a whole menagerie of metrical oddities were set before human eyes for the first time:

How came it that Mancus’ notoriously obscure text received such illustrative exegesis? Alongside his graduate research, Carlucci was helping teach the Greek Workshop in a department “filled with professors both brilliant and eccentric”: Gerson Rabinowitz, Anthony Bulloch, Charles Murgia, Leslie Threatte, C.H. Greenewalt, and of course John Dillon. Despite all of this shining scholarly brilliance, the environment was open for a left-field breakthrough. Carlucci’s admirably no-nonsense preface to the Field Guide explains the iconoclastic power of his new approach:

There are many other books on Greek metre, but they are unsatisfactory in content and style.

Most of them have been written by Germans and therefore smell of the classroom rather than the field.

You will find in them no living ionics, bacchiacs, or choriambs grazing sloppily in their native marshes, but only the tidy skeletons preserved in German museums. For example, one standard textbook gives only the bones of the ionic – – ᴗ ᴗ, whereas the living creature looks like this:

The British, who are also responsible for many of these books, are too prim to treat adequately a subject that requires extensive handling of the ithyphallic.

Moreover, most books on metre are as poor in style as they are in content: either pompous and wordy or terse and incomprehensible as an oracle.

Scholarly readers will therefore welcome the English version of this field guide. It is simple, clear, and abundantly illustrated with plates of the living metres in their native habitats.

The problem: antiquated scholarship on Greek Metre, mostly from the benighted Pre-Field-Guide era.

Unfortunately, we know nothing about the author of the Latin original, Morus Mancus, except his name, which the editor of the German version believes was conferred after a failure to negotiate Porson’s Bridge.[2]

This English version is made from the Latin original (Fratelli Buffi, Rome, 1921, 28 pages), closely compared with the French version (Bernard de Daigneux, Paris, 1922, 26 pages) and the third German edition (Wortreich, Berlin, 1923, 432 pages), which forms Heft 79 of Einleitung in die Altertumswissenschaft.[3]

Special thanks to Anthony Bulloch for conducting the field trip that inspired this translation, to Shannon Zachary for much encouragement, to my brother for much patience, and to the department of Classics of the University of California at Berkeley for more kindness than I can express.

Most printed copies of the book end thus, but Carlucci’s text actually ran on as follows:

It is regrettable not just that the Italian, French and German editions mentioned by Carlucci can no longer be traced, but that the sole manuscript source of Mancus’ text was lost during the “Ramsgate Riots” of 2015, when a bevy of disaffected librarians burned to cinders half of Kent County Council’s collection in order to secure more “post-book study space” and construct seven “free-flow conversational hubs”.

Fortunately Carlucci’s book does survive, but it is as rare as hens’ teeth. There are five copies in US libraries,[4] and just one in Europe, at the University of Leiden, Holland. More are presumably still in private hands here and there, but no copy is currently for sale.[5]

The Field Guide in its natural habit.

So, in the spirit of keeping this stupendous text alive, we are delighted to host on Antigone the full PDF of the book, with the translator’s generous permission:

We encourage those who enjoy this sort of thing to print or download it, and distribute it to those whom it cannot but instruct. We also encourage those who are willing and able to make a donation to the fons et origo of this remarkable work, the Department of Classics at Berkeley, which can be done via this link.

Carlo G. Carlucci has been a monk, a Professor of Sacred Theology and Classical Languages, a cartoonist, an illustrator of children’s books, and a widely-exhibited landscape and portrait artist.

It is remarkable, if unsurprising, that there are still modern-day scholars persisting in approaching Greek and Latin metre without wholesale adoption of the Morus Mancus Method. Even Antigone has managed to host an introductory essay, and a ten-part video lecture series, on Greek and Latin metre by that boring bastard Butterfield.


1 Scholars dispute whether Morus Mancus is in fact a Latin appellation, meaning something like “Feeble Fool”, or rather a genuine name that could suggest dual Moorish-Manx ethnicity.
2 For more on this quirk of metrical engineering, you could try the sixth handout on Greek and Latin metre available here.
3 Volume 79 of the Introduction to the Science of Antiquity.
4 University of Cincinnati, Ohio; University of Missouri, Columbia; University of Texas, Austin; Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa; and Brandeis University, Massachusetts, whose catalogue notes with predictably po-faced disapproval, “This is not a translation, just humorous sketches illustrating some figures of verses.”
5 And what of “Atypical Press”? This was a pun on the offset printing, which was handled by Carlucci’s younger brother. No other books are known to bear the imprint.