Challenging but very enjoyable

I do not usually write about a single book as it can be subjective, but I thought I would share the reasons why I found The Wolf Den so engaging. The title taken from the Latin for brothel, Lupanar, also meaning wolf den and the word for prostitute, lupa, meaning she-wolf. It is set in Pompeii five years before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE and follows the lives of a group of prostitute slaves.  We follow the life of Amara, a Greek sold into slavery, her battles with her owner and pimp, Felix, who controls his prostitutes with unpredictable physical and mental abuse and her relationships with and between the other prostitutes: Dido, Beronice, Victoria Cressa and Britannia. It is heartening that the characters are treated as individuals with their backgrounds shaping their actions and attitudes to slavery and prostitution. As such, it is sometimes a challenging read with direct, earthy language and, although not interminably depressing with some joyous moments, is not for the feint hearted. Although it is an imagining of a fictional character it can still have realism and because it is challenging it can be very thought provoking.

Explicit, direct, earthy, whatever the preferred choice of adjective for the language used it is not gratuitous but transportive. There have been 11,000 examples of graffiti discovered in Pompeii in a range of locations and settings including pottery, houses, stairwells and public buildings. They can take the form of writing and pictures. Brothels are identified by the subject and nature of the graffiti which is invariably both lewd and sexual and the language used in The Wolf Den is a direct reflection. The choice and style of language transports the reader to Pompeii the often-unheard voices of the common person. Whilst the general language throughout the book reflects the spoken word in Pompeii this is enhanced by examples of Pompeiian graffiti as a chapter ‘header’ signposting the story.

For those who have visited it feels like a trip around Pompeii. Pliny the Admiral, Pliny the Elder, is staying at the house with an exquisite faun and the main character, Amara, visits the house with the snarling dog mosaic (the House of the Tragic Poet). Mentioned are the street steppingstones, the fullonica (the laundry), thermopolia (‘fast-food restaurant’), the amphitheatre, the baths and of course the Lupinar. Having visited Pompeii, I could visualise the locations in my ‘minds-eye’.

I particularly enjoyed the sensory aspects which cannot be experienced by modern visitors and often not appreciated. It can be forgotten that Pompeii was a bustling port so the sounds of the workers and cityscape, smells of the sea, fish and brine are a sensorial reminder. The existing Lupanar frescos are a visual, erotic reminder of the building’s use but what is missing to the modern visitor is the smell of excrement and vomit or the sounds of sex and/or violence which was an all too familiar experience of a sex slave. There is mention of the smell of urine which would have permeated the fullonica as the slaves stamped urine into the clothes to bleach them. There are the smells, heat and the noise from bars and thermopolia. Sounds and sights are incorporated of arguments and violence which could erupt at anytime both within buildings or the street. Where the story is set in the baths and palestra there is the full complement of sounds. The rubbish heap is mentioned several times, not only a place where refuse is dumped but also bodies, especially slaves, when burial or cremation is not paid for. Finally, there is the ever-present smell of sweat mixed with the occasional Lavender water to counteract the odour. Although culturally these smells may have evoked different reactions and emotions to present day, there is little doubt daily life in Pompeii would have been an assault on the senses and unhygienic, dangerous, noisy and smelly.

It is fun recognising the sources that have influenced the story. As already mentioned, the frescos in the Lupinar and graffiti drive a good deal of the story and conversations. The occupations, sounds and sights of the bath house and palestra are as described by Seneca.

My dear Lucilius,

If you want to study, quiet is not nearly as necessary as you might think. Here I am, surrounded by all kinds of noise (my lodgings overlook a bath-house). Conjure up in your imagination all the sounds that make one hate one’s ears. I hear the grunts of musclemen exercising and jerking those heavy weights around; they are working hard, or pretending to. I hear their sharp hissing when they release their pent breath. If there happens to be a lazy fellow content with a simple massage I hear the slap of hand on shoulder; you can tell whether it’s hitting a flat or a hollow. If a ball-player comes up and starts calling out his score, I’m done for. Add to this the racket of a cocky bastard, a thief caught in the act, and a fellow who likes the sound of his own voice in the bath, plus those who plunge into the pool with a huge splash of water. Besides those who just have loud voices, imagine the skinny armpit-hair plucker whose cries are shrill so as to draw people’s attention and never stop except when he’s doing his job and making someone else shriek for him. Now add the mingled cries of the drink peddler and the sellers of sausages, pastries, and hot fare, each hawking his own wares with his own particular peal.”

Seneca Letter 56.1-2

There is a large helping (pun intended) influenced by the Feast of Trimalcio from Petronius’ Satyricon where the prostitutes are hired to perform, as naked performers and later as sexual playthings, at an outrageously ostentatious and expensive dinner party complete with a platter carried in by slaves with a huge pie in the shape of a swan containing live sparrows and Falernian wine at two thousand sesterces a jar.  There are some wonderful turns of phrase “Some are sweating under the physical weight of their wealth. One woman wears a headband so heavy with jewels she is struggling to prop herself up on her elbow”. Hosted by a freedman, the evening was thoroughly ridiculed by the elite guests. Perhaps one of the more hidden references which, when mentioned, rang memory bells from Open University A340 The Roman Empire module, was the following: “She turns and looks towards Vesuvius, the mountain whose plants he wanted to study.Its sharp peak is shrouded in clouds”. I immediately thought of the fresco of Dionysus which is acknowledged to show Vesuvius before the eruption which was discovered in the House of the Centenary.

Dionysus on Mount Vesuvius National Archaeological Museum of Naples

I enjoyed the memory and identity references as it has always been an interest. Whether it is an overheard snatch of conversation in a mother tongue in a multicultural setting, clothes, the smell of flowers or a type of food, reading or listening to a certain passage from a book, the sight of a type of plant all can trigger a memory to transport to another time and place. All these memories are elements which make up an identity and for Amara her identity as Greek, the daughter of a doctor and whose mother attended the garden, a time before she was sold into slavery.

However, it is this concept which is making me consider some aspects of slavery in Roman culture and both how alien it is to us and how difficult it is to understand and access. Culturally, embedded by nearly 200 years after the Abolition of Slavery Act, we view slavery as an abhorrence. Acknowledging that there are still incidences of modern-day slavery, enslavers are viewed with disgust and the enslaved with sympathy, support and freed. However, in Pompeii in the first century we enter a world where slavery was institutionally, culturally, socially and legally embedded. Whilst Amara spends her waking hours planning and thinking about how to achieve her freedom, it is not a universal ideal. Controversial perhaps, I wonder if freedom was something that was not always sought or even desired. In modern day we believe in freedom and, if enslaved, should be freed. Amara seeks freedom as she was initially free but to those who were born into slavery what does freedom look like. To some of the characters slavery and prostitution make up their memories and is their identity. What would their freedom look like and would freedom be just as frightening with the fear of the unknown as entering slavery? Perhaps another factor is, although being a prostitute slave was fraught with danger with ever-present violence, as a slave of a pimp there is a degree of protection. As a commodity there to make money the pimp would try to ensure that the ‘goods’ do not get to damaged to maximise attractiveness. If not, and the worse was to happen it would cost money, the loss on the investment and the cost of replacement. So, although badly treated, the alternatives to being a slave prostitute could be worse. It is strangely hard to write that in those terms but just highlights the huge difference in cultures and how difficult it is to be dispassionate. I am not being an apologist for prostitution or slavery and I would welcome any ideas on this.

So, although the subject is a challenging read, I did enjoy it for the descriptive language, the memories of Pompeii it evokes, identifying the sources and influences and the thoughts the challenging story precipitates. Along with a few other titles on my bookshelf, all the Homeric re-imaginings, 24 Hours in Ancient Rome, 24 Hours in Ancient Athens (both by Philip Matyszak) and Roman Woman (Lyndsay Allason-Jones) it is good, in line with current trends, to have another view of the empire.

Now, onto the next in the trilogy: The House with the Golden Door.


  1. This is a thoughtful and comprehensive appreciation of a truly gripping book.I particularly enjoyed the sensory aspects, Seneca’s letter, and the photographs of the setting in Pompeii. An excellent read thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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