Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Sermo I. 8: Canidia

old woman
Fate (?), bronze statuette, 100-1 BCE

Canidia is featured in three of Horace's poems (Satire 1. 8, Epodes 5 and 17) and receives passing mention in three others (Satire 2.1.48, Satire 2.2.95, Epode 3.8). If his commentator, Pomponius Porphyrion (3rd century CE), is to be believed, her real life model was Gratidia, a perfume woman (unguentaria) from Naples, although this definition is far from certain. For Horace, however, Canidia was a woman who engaged in magical rites of questionable morality, a kind of saga or maga who symbolized the dark side of religion and power that was the very antithesis of the ethical ideals Augustus was promoting. Practitioners of magic were perceived as a mortal threat in Rome, as demonstrated by extant curse tablets and the second expulsion of magicians from Rome in 33 BCE by the city aedile Marcus Agrippa, Octavian's lieutenant (see Cassius Dio, Roman History 49.43.5). While Canidia is portrayed variously as an old woman, a fearsome witch, and a poisoner, in Epode 17 she challenges the poet Horace to a battle of carmina, setting herself up as the representative of an alternative dark poetics. In Satire I. 8 the reader meets her through the disapproving eyes of Priapus, a rather comic ithyphallic deity, who narrates his encounter with her in shocked tones and mock epic style. Canidia is seen to invade the public Gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill, where Priapus stands as a guardian statue. Once a cemetery, the area was being reclaimed for communal use by the wealthy statesman Maecenas as part of the renovation of the public face of Rome undertaken by Augustus. In the gardens she and her accomplice Sagana engage in night-time secret rituals that combine elements of divination, love magic and other rituals to form a pastiche of magical malevolence that must have seemed laughable to Horace's audience: a pit excavated for animal blood sacrifice, immolation of magic figurines, invocation to underworld divinities, collection and burial of esoteric organic items, and self-binding with cloth armbands. Priapus views the actions of the witches as wholly inappropriate, anti-social and inhuman. Full of terror and aware of his own uncharacteristic impotence, he fearfully describes what he sees: the grotesque physicality of Canidia and Sagana, their animal behavior and their rejection of proper divinities. The tone of his narrative moves swiftly from gothic horror to comic farce in the poem's final five lines, leaving Priapus the accidental hero and the threatening witches nothing more than old women—toothless, without hair, and fleeing in fright from the insubstantial air. The meter is dactylic hexameter. For further discussion of Canidia, see Paule (2017), M. Hanses (2022) in the Bibliography.

Olim truncus eram ficulnus, inutile lignum,


cum faber, incertus scamnum faceretne Priapum,

maluit esse deum. deus inde ego, furum aviumque

maxima formido; nam fures dextra coercet


obscenoque ruber porrectus ab inguine palus;

ast importunas volucres in vertice harundo

terret fixa vetatque novis considere in hortis.


huc prius angustis eiecta cadavera cellis

conservus vili portanda locabat in arca;

10hoc miserae plebi stabat commune sepulcrum,

Pantolabo scurrae Nomentanoque nepoti:


mille pedes in fronte, trecentos cippus in agrum


hic dabat: heredes monumentum ne sequeretur.

nunc licet Esquiliis habitare salubribus atque

15aggere in aprico spatiari, quo modo tristes

albis informem spectabant ossibus agrum;

cum mihi non tantum furesque feraeque suetae

hunc vexare locum curae sint atque labori,

quantum carminibus quae versant atque venenis

20humanos animos: has nullo perdere possum

nec prohibere modo, simul ac vaga luna decorum


protulit os, quin ossa legant herbasque nocentis.

vidi egomet nigra succinctam vadere palla


Canidiam, pedibus nudis passoque capillo,


25cum Sagana maiore ululantem: pallor utrasque


fecerat horrendas aspectu. scalpere terram

unguibus et pullam divellere mordicus agnam

coeperunt; cruor in fossam confusus, ut inde

manis elicerent, animas responsa daturas.

30lanea et effigies erat, altera cerea: maior

lanea, quae poenis compesceret inferiorem;

cerea suppliciter stabat servilibus ut quae


iam peritura modis. Hecaten vocat altera, saevam


altera Tisiphonen; serpentis atque videres


35infernas errare canis, Lunamque rubentem

ne foret his testis, post magna latere sepulcra.

mentior at si quid, merdis caput inquiner albis

corvorum, atque in me veniat mictum atque cacatum

Iulius et fragilis Pediatia furque Voranus.

40singula quid memorem, quo pacto alterna loquentes


umbrae cum Sagana resonarent triste et acutum,


utque lupi barbam variae cum dente colubrae

abdiderint furtim terris, et imagine cerea

largior arserit ignis, et ut non testis inultus


45horruerim voces Furiarum et facta duarum?

nam displosa sonat quantum vesica pepedi

diffissa nate ficus: at illae currere in urbem.

Canidiae dentis, altum Saganae caliendrum

excidere atque herbas atque incantata lacertis

50vincula cum magno risuque iocoque videres.

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