Rome, 1st cent. B.C. (Horace, Epodes 5. L)

‘Oh, by all the gods in the sky who rule earth and the human race, what does this noise mean, why are all of you looking at me savagely? I beg you, by your children, if you ever called on Lucina[1] and she came to bring you successful childbirth-by this purple band on my toga, insignia of innocent childhood; by Jupiter, who will not approve of this-why are you looking at me like a stepmother, like a wild animal facing a spear?’

This is what the boy said in protest, with his lips trembling. He stood there (they had torn off his children’s insignia), a young body, the sort that would soften the sacrilegious heart of a Thracian. Canidia, who had twined little snakes in her dishevelled hair, gave orders to burn in her witch’s fire wild fig trees uprooted from tombs and funeral cypresses, eggs dipped in the blood of foul frogs, a night owl’s feather, herbs from Iolchus[2] and Spain with its rich poisons, and bones torn from the mouth of a hungry bitch.

Now Sagana, with her skirts tied up, sprinkles water from Lake Avernus[3] through the whole house, with her rough hair standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar. Vera, who lacks any conscience, had been digging up the ground with thick hoes, groaning with the effort, so the boy could be placed in the ditch and die from watching, throughout the long day, meals brought in two and three times-only his face would remain unburied, like a swimmer hanging in water by his chin. All this so his marrow could be cut out and his liver dried, to make a love charm, once his eyeballs had melted away from staring at the food.

Folia of Ariminum was there also, with her man’s lust-so the resort town of Naples and all the neighbouring towns believed-she can bring down the stars and the moon from the sky with her Thessalian incantations. Then Canidia, gnawing her nails-what did she say (or not say?):

‘Oh faithful witnesses to my deeds, Night and Diana, you who rule the silent time, when-the secret rites are enacted, come to me now, and turn your divine anger on my enemy’s house. While wild beasts lie hidden in the treacherous woods, relaxed in sweet slumber, that old man, whom everyone laughs at, my lover Varus-have Subura’s[4] dogs bark at him he has been rubbed with an ointment, the most perfect my hands have yet made. What has happened? Why does my cruel poison work less well than barbarian Medea’s, the poisons she used when she went into exile, after taking revenge on her royal rival, high Creon’s daughter, when the robe she prepared, a gift steeped in poison, carried off the new bride in fire? No herb, no root hidden in inaccessible places has escaped me. He is lying asleep on his couch, forgetting all of his lovers. But no! He’s free to move around, thanks to an incantation by some more knowledgeable poisoner! No, Varus, I won’t use ordinary potions. You’ll regret what you’ve done; you’ll come back to me, and your devotion to me will return with no help from Marsian spells.[5] I’ll prepare a stronger potion, made stronger because you disdain me. You’ll see heaven sinking beneath the sea, below the earth’s surface, before you’ll fail to burn with love for me, just like pitch in dark flames.’

After she said this the boy stopped trying (as he had earlier) to mollify the sacrilegious women with kind words and, uncertain how he should break the silence, he threw out Thyestean curses: ‘Your magic poisons don’t have the power to invert right and wrong, to stop a man’s vengeance. I’ll pursue you with curses; no sacrifice can atone for my angry curse. No, when I die the death you have determined, I’11 come as a Fury by night,[6] as a shade I’ll find your face with my hooked talons, the gods of the Dead[7] have this power, and I’ll set on your restless hearts and drive your sleep off in terror. People will pursue you in turn and hit you with stones, you dirty old hags, and the wolves and the birds on the Esquiline hill[8] will scatter your unburied remains-a sight my parents (who alas will survive me)[9] will not fail to enjoy.’


1. An epithet of Juno as goddess of childbirth.

2. A town in Thessaly known for witchcraft. Cf. Odes 1.27.21.

3. A volcanic lake near the Bay of Naples, believed in antiquity to be the entrance to the underworld.

4. The Subura was a crowded, dirty section of Rome between the Viminal and Esquiline Hills. Though it was notorious as a red-light district, it also contained respectable merchants and residents.

5. The Marsi inhabited the mountains east of Rome. They practised magic, but it was, apparently, not strong enough for Canidia.

6. That is, an avenger.

7. The Manes, spirits of the dead or gods of the underworld invoked on tombstones.

8. The land outside the Esquiline Gate (on the east side of the city) was used as a cemetery for paupers. Although cremation was the usual practice in Rome in this period, these bodies were inhumed, hence the reference to limbs. It was not far from the villa of Maecenas, Horace’s patron: cf. Horace, Satires 1.8.

9. The conventional conclusion to a dying victim’s curse (e.g. Dido’s at Aeneid 4.620). Throughout antiquity crucial significance was attached to burial procedures and places by pagan and Christian, rich and poor.