Canidia, Rome's First Witch
Maxwell Teitel Paule
Bloomsbury
232pp, four black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £85

One of the most elegant of the Roman poets, Horace, is known for his causitc wit as well as his exquisite grace. Writing in the 1st century BC, during the emergence of the empire, he rose from his humble origins as the son of a freedman to become one of the leading lyric poets of the day, well established among prominent figures in society.

He wrote poems praising Augustus, charming odes about love and, as this book explores, several verses on a less salubrious subject: Canidia the witch. In his book, Maxwell Teitel Paule, Assistant Professor of Ancient and Classical Studies at Earlham College, pays careful attention to Canidia, arguing that she has not yet received proper treatment in scholarship. This is despite her being one of the most notable witches in Latin literature, featuring heavily in three poems by Horace (Satire 1.8 and Epodes 5 and 17) and being explicitly mentioned in three more (Epode 3, Satires 2.1 and 2.8).

The author rebuts previous lines of enquiry that have focused on connecting Canidia to a historic figure, most
popularly a perfume-seller from Naples and ex-lover of the poet, Gratidia. He also offers a fascinating comparison of English and Latin vocabulary, which can cause problems in studies of ancient witches, given relative paucity of relevant terms in the modern vernacular compared to the multitude of words, such as venefica, lamia, saga and striga meaning 'witch' in Latin.

The book presents each of the poems featuring Canidia in turn, with a chapter each devoted to those in which she appears prominently, and her lesser mentions forming the final chapter. The chapters open with the Latin text of the poem in question and a full translation by the author.

In the first of these poems to be published, Satire 1.8, Canidia intrudes into the gardens of Maecenas (Horace's literary patron and the friend and advisor of Augustus) and attempts to practise magic there. She is driven away by the apotropaic phallus of a statue of Priapus (which acts as the protector of the Gardens of Maecenas). This episode is taken to reflect Horace's own struggle with writing satire. Epode 17 also has a strong literary component. In this poem, Canidia can be seen as the embodiment of the Epodes and Horace's treatment of her here, in the last of his Epodes, serves as the conclusion of his iambic poetry.

Of particular interest is the discussion on Epode 5. Here, Canidia is compared with ancient child-killing demons. Her various demonic traits (childlessness, association with nocturnal birds of prey, sexual perversion and the harvesting of internal organs) are analysed and a thematic comparison between Horace's poem and Virgil's Eclogue 4 is made. What stands out most in this rich study of the poem, though, is the considered analysis of Epode 5 as a commentary on civil war in a collection of poems that, as a whole, concerns itself with this grave and timely topic, one that weighed heavily on Roman minds.

Throughout the book, the close readings of the poems bring out key stylistic details, Horace's influences, and Roman attitudes towards witches. Latin and Greek passages are quoted, but also translated so it is not necessary to know the original language to benefit from this robust and insightful study.

The comprehensive treatment of Canidia makes this book a most welcome contribution to Horatian scholarship, and one that will be of use to researchers on witches in literature.
Lucia Marchini

 

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