BMCR 2018.01.07

Canidia, Rome’s First Witch. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs

, Canidia, Rome's First Witch. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. x, 218. ISBN 9781350003880. $114.00.


This monograph explores the various incarnations of Canidia in Horace’s corpus. To that end, Paule offers detailed examination of Satire 1.8, Epode 5, Epode 17, as well as brief examination of her minor appearances in Epode 3, Satire 2.1 and Satire 2.8. Paule argues that Canidia fulfils a variety of specific roles across these poems. In seeking to understand this literary figure on her own terms in each of her major appearances, Paule strengthens our understanding of Horace’s poetic intent and enriches our appreciation of the complexity of the poet’s engagement with witches and demonic figures. Paule’s prose style is clear and strives to engage the reader. The combination of clarity and insightful analysis in this monograph makes the positions offered engaging, even in the moments where you might disagree with the interpretation.

In order to establish the basis for the thesis, Paule examines the language around witches in order to demonstrate the significant overlaps between particular words. The thorny topic of the category of witches in classical literature is a pillar in Paule’s case. A consideration of the ambiguous Latin terminology that is lumped under the English term ‘witch’ provides orientation, while allowing Paule to clarify his interpretation of the key vocabulary. Ultimately Paule finds that close examination of the Latin vocabulary reveals the significant problems it poses for interpretation rather than offering a clear paradigm through which to understand the concept of a Roman witch. Paule‚Äôs opening balances confidence with anticipation of the reader’s doubts and questions. It is up to the individual reader to make their own judgment as to the extent that their concerns have been allayed by his discussion. Certainly, for my own reading, some of my questions were satisfied as I continued to read. Paule has a tendency to offer interpretations of the Latin that both recognise the complexity of associations and find difficulties in reconciling them to a linear argument (such as the concluding matter regarding sagae, pp. 13-14). The tantalising challenges of semantic fields upon translation will prove fruitful ground to revisit in future projects.

Paule’s project is classical, but his approach hints at a seductive path for literary scholarship that is simultaneously compelling and somewhat risky. He explicitly seeks to examine the Canidia of each poem as a separate entity. This is a move that trends away from the approach of seeking patterns across a corpus and it has a lot to recommend it in terms of allowing each poem to be a moment contained and bounded by itself. Each chapter offers a contained study with close reference to the poem, clear intertextual references from Latin and Greek poets, as well as some detail pertaining to context.

Paule argues for Canidia to be read as a strictly fictional character. This frees him from the theories of Canidia as a stand- in for a real-life lover or antagonist of Horace and dispenses with attempts to malign real as well as literary women. For Paule’s purposes Canidia’s significance is generally bounded by the specific poem in which she appears. The approach yields some fascinating insights into the nature of witches, demons, and the potential value of Canidia as closure in Epode 17. Paule is most interested in how Horace has chosen Canidia as a literary device to further poetic ends. This produces a tension in the work. While the project begins with the realm of definitions around the vocabulary pertaining to witches, the difficulty of applying these with certainty is revealed when considering Horace’s poems. As poet, Horace relies upon definitions as part of his set-up in engaging the reader, but also actively seeks to bend those definitions to poetic ends. As a consequence, Paule focuses upon Horatian incarnations of Canidia, the connections between particular manifestations of Canidia, and the broader semantic fields that these manifestations touch upon.

There is no clear or easy way to separate out Horace’s poetic project from the less than precise semantic fields offered by Latin terminology around witches. Paule approaches the situation with an equal measure of caution and confidence. The strongest moment comes in Chapter 4 ‘Routing the Empusa: The Iambic Canidia of Epode 17’. The argument that the Canidia of Epode 17 is best understood as an empusa is immediately appealing on the grounds that it is the final Epode. The implied banishment of Canidia in the course of this poem fits well with Paule’s argument that Canidia is both a character within the corpus and an embodiment of the Epodes. A tension lingers, however, in the prominence of Canidia in Epode 17. Her dominant role in this final poem is enhanced when her appearances across the earlier corpus are taken into account.

The organization of the monograph is clear and approachable. After the introductory matter, Paule moves into the project of examining each of the major Canidia poems in chronological order. Chapters 1-4 follow the same structure which will make this monograph easy for scholars who need to dip in quickly for analysis of a particular poem. Paule offers the poem first in Latin with a face-to-face translation. This ensures the usefulness of the text to a wide audience. The line-by-line approach makes for ease of reference and stands as Paule’s first offering for the interpretation of Canidia. Chapter 5 is organized slightly differently to accommodate the brevity of Canidia’s appearance in Epode 3, Satire 2.1 and Satire 2.8. In this case, the poems are not treated in full, and only the excerpt that is pertinent for the study is offered, both in Latin and translation. Throughout the chapters, Paule’s interpretation from the point of the text is guided by the content.

Chapter 1 explores common terminology connected with witches in Latin such as saga, maga, venefica, anus, lamia, malefica. Chapter 2 is mostly concerned with the liminal position Canidia occupies between female mourner and magical practitioner. Chapter 3 sees Canidia emerge as a strix / lamia with elements of a venefica. Chapter 4 focuses on the connections Canidia shares with an empusa. Chapter 5 returns to smaller instances of Canidia as venefica.

The last year of consultation with scholarly material is 2014. This is to be expected given the nature and length of the publication process. It does mean that interested scholars will be curious to see how Paule’s position on Horace develops in response to collections such as Bather, P., Stocks, C. (eds.) Horace’s Epodes: Contexts, Intertexts, and Reception (2016).