How Elodie Harper Brings the Forgotten World (and Women) of Ancient Pompeii to Life

Books Features Elodie Harper
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How Elodie Harper Brings the Forgotten World (and Women) of Ancient Pompeii to Life

In a publishing landscape that’s full to bursting with bestselling dystopian science fiction, epic high fantasy, and twisty domestic thrillers, it may surprise some to discover that one of the year’s absolute reads is a historical fiction series about a group of prostitutes in an ancient Pompeiian brothel. Yet, Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den (and its forthcoming sequel The House with the Golden Door) is just that good, a righteously furious tale of survival and struggle, centered around precisely the sort of voices from history we far too rarely get to hear.

Grounded in not just emotional truth, but archeological fact, Haper’s meticulously researched series will likely change the way you think about the ancient world and the people who inhabited it, simply because finally puts the least of its denizens—women, enslaved people, sex workers, and more—front and center in their own stories.

“It really has been a trend in scholarship in recent years to start thinking about the lives of enslaved people, and of women, and of freed men and women,” Harper says. “Not how they were viewed in their own time by the elite writers—so not from the sources that we have—but to try and get inside what their world would have looked like to them. [But while] that’s been going on in scholarship, but still in fiction it’s not that usual to be focusing on this group of people in Roman society, normally it’s empresses and senators and all the rest of it. “

The Wolf Den trilogy primarily follows the story of Amara, a Greek woman sold into slavery in the aftermath of her family’s financial ruin. She ends up working at the lupanar or brothel, where she befriends her fellow prostitutes and dreams of the freedom she left behind.

“Slavery in the ancient world was really kind of a matter of bad luck,” Harper says. “So, although it was horrific—and that was actually something I did want to reflect on, that slavery in any era is horrendous for the people who are impacted by it—-but you could buy your own freedom. You didn’t look any different from people who weren’t enslaved. Anybody could end up, pretty much, as a slave. The Romans were very brutal about it, but it’s almost a pragmatism about slavery: this is just how the world works. This is how trade works, this is how money works. It wasn’t, there’s this particular group of people that we’re going to oppress, exploit It’s really different as well, I think, than the legacy of slavery in America obviously, it’s profound and different from that.”

Harper enthusiastically recommends a book called Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp, whose “really interesting work” focuses primarily on enslaved people, using the few “very limited sources of what [these] people had to say for themselves” such as tomb inscriptions to get a different sort of presentation of the Roman world than we see from canonical texts like Cicero.

“And the thing about Pompeii is it’s somewhere where so many details survive about ordinary people from the Roman Empire,” Harper says. “We’ve got the graffiti, we’ve got the bars where they hung out, we’ve got the famous brothel. So this interest that I had in both this physical evidence of what ordinary people’s lives were about and this new interest in scholarship, of areas made me think it would be so interesting to write this type of book from that type of perspective, to really look at the Roman world from the viewpoint of people whose stories aren’t normally told. Particularly women, but also enslaved people, both men and women.”

And though Harper’s novels are technically set in Pompeii, it likely doesn’t look like the city we, as readers, often think of. Most people tend to remember the city because at one point everyone who lived there died horribly, and are often less interested in the real lives that were lived in the shadow of the mountain that would one day destroy it.

“That was very deliberate, and I know this is going to sound a bit bonkers, but when I wrote the book I literally forgot that Vesuvius was going to erupt. I genuinely did,” Harper says. “They didn’t know it was a volcano or have any sense that it was dangerous or that it could bring destruction. Obviously, they knew what volcanoes were, but it hadn’t erupted for so many, many centuries. They simply didn’t know that they were living under a live volcano, so there would have been no sense of doom.”

In fact, other than occasionally popping up in descriptions of scenery, Vesuvius isn’t really mentioned in the story of Amara and her friends at all.

“They did have quite a lot of earthquakes, but that’s really common in that part of southern Italy anyway,” she explains. “There had been a massive earthquake a decade or so before the action in my book, which did have an impact on the town. There was still rebuilding going on. And we now know that was probably Vesuvius getting ready to erupt, but they wouldn’t have known that then. It’s a bit like in 2018, nobody knew COVID was coming, so if you wrote a book set in 2018 you wouldn’t have loads of plague references because people didn’t know that was going to happen.”

But rather than focus on the tragedy of the city’s impending destruction, The Wolf Den is bursting with the “signs of life” Harper says still exist even among Pompeii’s ruins. From the colorful decorations on the brothel walls to the chatter of the brothel women, their constant teasing of one another, or their off-color jokes, her book is full of these sorts of details that all reflect the women’s attempt to “wring the joy out of life”

“People make the best of the situations they’re in. That’s how we cope. If you aren’t free, you try to find freedom in smaller things. And the signs of life in Pompeii are just so abundant even today,” she says. “It’s exactly as I’ve described in the book. You can walk into [the lupanar], there are the five cells, and there are even the stone beds, the remains of them. The frescoes are all there, the sexual frescoes. It’s such a big draw on the tourist trail, but at the same time, it’s kind of spoken about in this really ‘nudge nudge, wink wink, ha ha, how funny, oh It’s the brothel’ way.”

But as a storyteller, Harper deliberately refuses to depict the brothel at the center of her story in that way. There’s no objectifying male gaze, and the fact of the women’s profession is not used to titillate or shock readers. Life at the lupanar isn’t a joke, it’s a tragedy.

“These were real people, who had real lives, and yes, we know they were engaged in sex work. They didn’t have a choice about that. But what about the rest of their lives, what that might have looked like, and their relationships with each other, rather than with men? How they saw themselves, what dreams and hopes they had for their lives/”

She also rejects the (quite understandable) temptation to either romanticize her heroines or somehow sentimentalize the experiences they go through. Instead, Harper’s story is open and extremely straightforward about the brutality of the lives these women must live, the choices they often have to make between nothing but bad and worse options, and the sort of people that forces them to become.

“Sometimes, suffering doesn’t make you very nice,” she says. “If you’re not shown much kindness in your life, maybe you’re not going to be kind. I did want to be quite unsentimental about a lot of the characters as well, that we feel a lot of compassion for them but also maybe don’t like them too much. But—and I guess this is what’s really essential—I feel like human beings do not lose their dignity because they’re in an undignified position.”

This is part of the reason that, despite the fact that this is a novel about enslaved sex workers, The Wolf Den is never graphic in its depiction of the violence perpetrated against the women at its center.

“Before I wrote the book, I was like, okay, I’m not going to have any explicit sex scenes. This is non-consensual sex. We know what’s happening, we know this is part of these women’s lives. So the curtain cuts, metaphorically, a lot of the time before you see the interaction with the customers. You’re there with the women in the aftermath, rather than having to live through it.”

What Harper was specifically most interested in exploring was the aftermath of this violence—and what it forces the women who experience it to become in the name of survival.

“How does [Amara] deal with all that trauma?” she asks. “[Because] it is exactly that—trauma. Who does it make her? Does she continue to get tougher and tougher? Does she become more vulnerable? Are her priorities going to be the same?”

Over the course of The Wolf Den, Amara schemes and struggles, lies and manipulates, all in the name of winning back the freedom she remembers once possessing. Though Harper admits that “Amara’s story is fairly extreme” and that her specific circumstances—a Greek doctor’s daughter essentially kidnapped and sold as a slave in Italy—”would be pretty unlucky”, her background helps her more fully understand that another kind of life is possible, thereby making her willing to do almost anything to claim it.

“I sometimes find it really interesting when people refer to Amara as unlikeable or say she makes some really unlikeable choices. I mean—what would you do in that situation?” Harper asks. “Although I can also understand what people mean because unlike her best friend Dido, say, she’s much more ruthless, she’s a born survivor. She’s got this ferocity that she is not going to die in this place, she is going to get out. She is going to get the better of her pimp. [But although] I love writing Amara, I also didn’t want to make her such a badass with all this confidence. She’s also very insecure, very vulnerable, and very afraid because that felt realistic to me. Bravery is about being afraid and going for broke anyway, in my opinion, and that’s very much what Amara does.”

The Wolf Den sequel The House with the Golden Door (which, I can personally confirm is as excellent as its predecessor and deserves a top spot on your reading list for Fall) depicts the next chapter of Amara’s story.

“Amara gives up love for financial stability and freedom in book one, but in book two, once she’s got a bit more [of both of those things], what is life—what is love—going to look like for her? What are her priorities going to be? Harper asks.

Despite the fact that Amara wins her freedom at the end of The Wolf Den, her choices in The House with the Golden Door don’t necessarily get any easier.

“Part of what I wanted to do in The House with the Golden Door is [show] that Amara’s [position is] significantly better, but the past doesn’t leave you behind,” she explains. “Her circumstances are [still] quite difficult.”

Now a freedwoman, she is faced with a new set of problems: primarily that she still has to rely on the financial largess of a man paying for her company to survive. As a concubine, she faces fewer explicit threats of physical violence and her living conditions have vastly improved. But in many ways, Amara’s choices are still not her own, and she’s as subject to the whims of men as she ever was.

Part of the reason The Wolf Den and The House with the Golden Door feel so timely is the fact that their stories, sadly, are still so timely. Women of the twenty-first century are still fighting for female autonomy and equality, still having these same sorts of conversations about whether women have rights to their own bodies, and still making complicated choices to survive in a world that doesn’t always treat them as equals.

“The lack of respect, the objectification, the fact that [women] are still seen as lesser. It still happens,” Harper says. “I mean, of course, it’s not as bad. But it’s not so different when you look at the ancient world. It’s a lot worse then, of course. But not as much as it should be. I wish we’d come further.”

Though she is adamant that her novel is written from a place of specifically focused female anger, Harper says she was very careful to try and avoid projecting our own modern-day ideas of feminism and female empowerment back onto the past.

“It’s interesting because I wrote [these books] to try and truly think about the mindset of a woman from the ancient world, and the kinds of ideas about freedom that would be available to her,” Harper explains. “So there was no feminism—we would never have Amara thinking systematically about how women are treated, or that women are just as good as men, anything like that. It’s much more kind of visceral and instinctive, [meant] to reflect the time that she was living in. We know that slaves did resist, that they wanted their freedom, that they wanted their agency. We know that women vied for power and wanted things.”

However, when asked whether this trilogy can be considered a feminist story, Harper pauses, wondering whether such a label could be fairly applied given the time period in which this story takes place.

“I mean, I’m a feminist, so I guess de facto it’s a feminist story because it’s written by a feminist,” Harper laughs. “I wrote it from a real place of feminist rage, as you noted in your review. It’s written from a very female perspective about the difficulties that women face and continue to face. But there’s no overt feminism in it in terms of what the characters are feeling or expressing because I just couldn’t do that because it wouldn’t have been [true to the time period].

Yet, according to Harper, just because these women wouldn’t have embraced the concept of feminism in the that we understand it today, that doesn’t mean that Amara and other women like her wouldn’t have been fighting to improve their lives or better their place in the world. Just perhaps in a way that doesn’t feel as familiar to modern readers.

“It’s something that really annoys me when people look at women in the past like ‘Oh, well, there was no feminism, so they were content with their lot.’”, she continues. “No, they weren’t! They didn’t have the ability to express themselves [in those terms], but just look at history. It’s full of discontented women.”

The Wolf Den is available now. The House with the Golden Door hits shelves on September 6, 2022, from Union Square Co. Elodie Harper is on Twitter at @ElodieITV

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.