Book Review: Harper’s The Wolf Den
By Maggie Yuan
From 2018’s Circe to the Illiad retelling The Silence of the Girls, the women of antiquity have taken the literary world by storm in a recent wave of feminist mythological retellings. Though the subjects differ, the common thread is the authors’ complex reimagining of the often one-dimensional women. Surprisingly, the lives of Rome’s most mysterious, enigmatic, and real women were not given a voice until quite recently. Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den steps in to fill this gap, drawing inspiration from graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. These snapshots of history hold messages ranging from declarative statements of love (If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend) to raunchy sexual boasts (Sollemnes, you screw well!). Although Harper had only snippets of material to work with, she is able to turn them into full stories of the men and women who inhabited Pompeii.
The novel itself focuses on the life of Amara, a woman forced to work as a lupa, a Roman prostitute, in a Pompeiian brothel. Her daily life is one of both monotony and violence, forced to find and serve male clientele throughout Pompeii. Though the action takes place among the streets and alleys of the city, Amara’s life began in the fields of Greece. As the only child of a doctor, she lived a comfortable life in Attica, learning the medical trade from her father until his sudden death. As women in the classical world knew all too well, the death of the paternal figure meant certain ruin for the women of a family. Without her father’s money and guidance to protect her, Amara ends up in the Roman world as a slave, sold to the brothel owner. In Pompeii, her life as a prostitute conflicts with her wealthy upbringing. By the time we are introduced to Amara, she has already become accustomed to the life of a lupa but has not yet forgotten her previous life. As such, her attitude remains fierce and her emotions deep.
Nothing in this narrative is purely black or white. Since we are viewing the story from Amara’s eyes, we must grapple with the same internal conflicts that she does: those of love, companionship, and freedom. Because love is one of the only emotions that the lupa is able to control, each woman finds a different way to express it. One lupa finds solace in the arms of one of the Wolf Den’s bodyguards. Another one is presented with the opportunity to love but chooses to forego it, as her body is not her own. Another lupa twists the cruel love of the brothel owner into true love in her mind. Amara meanwhile seeks the companionship of Menander, a potter’s slave who shares her Greek origins.
It would be wrong, however, to characterize the novel as a triumphant love story. While Amara does seek love within the confines of her own body, her slaver, and society, her love for Menander and her friends takes a backseat to her other motivations. The most fierce of Amara’s desires is her wish to win freedom. For each decision that she makes, her liberty is the driving factor behind it. She does not mince words or apologize for her actions: “Either we choose to stay alive, or we give up. And if it’s living we choose, then we do whatever it takes.” She uses her wiles to access and enchant Rome’s upper echelon, serving wealthy men at parties and gaining even wealthier patrons. Each small action that Amara takes is a step toward freeing herself from the brothel’s grasp. Though the plot may be described as meticulously slow, the benefit is that it provides the reader with the time to deeply understand Amara’s motivations and empathize with her struggles.
Alongside Amara, Harper is able to deftly weave in the stories of other characters. Each character appears as a protagonist in their own right, fighting for their own aspirations. To boil any figure down to a single characteristic would be doing the novel a disservice. Even Felix, the brothel owner, is two dimensionally cruel, instead having his own vulnerabilities and emotions. Through her striking descriptions and masterful use of dialogue, Harper illuminates the hardships of the lowest classes in Roman society.
The Wolf Den is unapologetic in its language, refusing to shy away from the violence and exploitation that Roman prostitutes experienced daily. It moves beyond being a story of victimization, however, instead choosing to paint a nuanced picture of Roman prostitution as a story of both triumph and despair. Regardless of how Amara’s story may end, we know that she fought against the restraints of her tainted status as hard as she could. Though the story of The Wolf Den is fictional, it allows us to shift away from famous tales of imagined women to explore those of real women lost to time.
Maggie Yuan (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and International Relations.