The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy The Wolf Den as much as I did. A book about prostitutes in a Pompeii brothel didn’t sound very appealing to me, particularly as Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite settings for historical fiction, yet it has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list this year. Once I got into the story I found it difficult to put down and am looking forward to reading the second book (this is the first in a planned trilogy).

Set in 74 AD, just a few years before Pompeii will be destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this is the story of Amara, the daughter of a doctor from the Greek town of Aphidnai, who is sold into slavery after her father’s death. Following a series of misfortunes she has ended up at the notorious Wolf Den brothel owned by the moneylender Felix. Amara and her fellow She-Wolves are treated as commodities, existing only to give pleasure to their clients and to make money for Felix. The women have lost not only their freedom but also their identities and even their original names. It’s a miserable life, but Amara finds some comfort in the friendships she has formed with the other prostitutes.

The women working at the Wolf Den come from a diverse range of backgrounds – from Greece, from Carthage or from Egypt, abandoned at birth, taken captive by slave traders or, like Amara, sold off by their own families. There are just five of them at the beginning of the book – Amara, Victoria, Dido, Cressa and Beronice – although more will arrive later as Felix continues to make ‘investments’ in his business. Each of the five, despite some clients seeing them as interchangeable, has her own distinctive personality and her own way of coping with the situation she has found herself in. Not all of the women can remember life before the brothel, but Amara can and she’s determined to regain her freedom.

This is the first book I’ve read set in Pompeii (I do have a copy of Robert Harris’ Pompeii somewhere, which I’ll get round to eventually) and I loved following Amara around the bustling, vibrant city, going into the shops, taverns and bathhouses, taking part in the Vinalia festivities and watching the gladiators in the amphitheatre. We also see inside the beautiful villas owned by Pompeii’s rich and powerful when Amara and Dido are booked to entertain at private parties and get a glimpse of the lives that could have been theirs under different circumstances. Although most of the characters in the book are fictional, the Roman author, naturalist and military leader Pliny the Elder makes an appearance and has an important role to play in the plot. Finally, real pieces of graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii are used in the chapter headings, adding some further historical authenticity to the story.

The Wolf Den is not always an easy book to read; the nature of the story means there are some quite graphic descriptions of both the women’s work within the brothel and the violence they are often subjected to by the men who pay for their services. Elodie Harper doesn’t shy away from having bad things happen to her characters, but there’s some warmth and humour in the novel too, as well as the beginnings of a romance between Amara and another slave. I can’t wait to read The House with the Golden Door to see how the story continues.

This is book 17/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 45/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

I love historical mysteries but have never felt drawn to Lindsey Davis’ Falco series as the setting – Ancient Rome – is not one of my favourites. Recently, though, I have discovered a few books set in Rome that I’ve enjoyed and have been open to reading more, so I thought I would give the first book, The Silver Pigs, a try. When I noticed that my library had the first four in the series available to download as audiobooks, I decided that as I was stepping slightly out of my comfort zone anyway with the Roman setting, I may as well step out of it completely with a format I usually avoid.

Audiobooks tend not to work for me because I find that my attention wanders more easily when I’m listening to a book than it does when I’m reading it on paper, but I did my best to concentrate on this one and was mostly successful. It is read by the British actor Christian Rodska and although I wasn’t sure about his voice at first (he sounded too old for the thirty-year-old Falco) I changed my mind after a while and decided that his voice was well suited to the down to earth, humorous style of the writing.

The novel opens in the year 70 AD with an encounter between our narrator, ‘private informer’ Marcus Didius Falco, and a young woman who is being chased through the Forum. After helping her to escape from her pursuers, Falco learns that the girl’s name is Sosia Camillina and that she is the niece of a powerful senator. It seems that Sosia has become embroiled in a conspiracy involving a secret stockpile of silver ingots (known as ‘silver pigs’) – a conspiracy which could pose a threat to the rule of the Emperor Vespasian.

To find out who is behind the plot, Falco is sent to the silver mines of Britannia, something he is less than thrilled about because Britannia is a cold, miserable place in winter. During his time there he meets the senator’s daughter Helena Justina, Sosia’s cousin, an intelligent, opinionated young woman to whom Falco takes an instant dislike – and the feeling is mutual. Given the job of escorting her back to Rome, Falco is unsure which task will give him more trouble: solving the mystery of the silver pigs or dealing with Helena!

As I’ve said, Ancient Rome is not one of my usual subjects when it comes to reading historical fiction, so this was an educational read for me as well as an entertaining one. Knowing that Lindsey Davis seems to be highly regarded for her research and accuracy, I could trust that what I was learning was correct (apparently since the book was first published in 1989 new evidence emerged showing that the description she gives of the process used in the formation of silver pigs may not be accurate, but that’s just proof of how our knowledge of history is still changing and evolving).

I wasn’t sure what to think of Falco as a character; I found him a bit off-putting in the opening chapters where his first thought on seeing sixteen-year-old Sosia Camillina is that she’s ‘wearing far too many clothes’ and then, when she tells him she’s not married, he thinks ‘she looked like a person who soon should be’. As I read on, though, I found that he is maybe not quite the sophisticated womaniser he wants us to think he is, but a young man who is trying to get out from under the thumb of his domineering mother and the shadow of his late brother, the military hero Didius Festus, and who is a beloved uncle to his little niece Marcia.

The mystery itself didn’t really interest me, to the point where I started to lose track of what was happening towards the end, although that could have been partly because, as I’ve mentioned, I find it harder to concentrate on the spoken word than the written word. This is the first book in the series, though, so it’s possible that some of the later ones have stronger plots. I will try the second one, but probably in traditional book format rather than audiobook.

Since I finished The Silver Pigs, it has been announced that there are plans for a new adaptation of the Falco novels by ITV and Mammoth Screen, so it seems I have chosen a good time to start reading them!

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

When I decided, a few years ago, to include I, Claudius on my list of books to read for the Classics Club I didn’t really expect to enjoy it. It was a book that I felt I should read, due to its status as a work of classic historical fiction, rather than one that I actually wanted to read. The reason I didn’t particularly want to read it was because Ancient Rome was not a setting I found very appealing. That has slowly begun to change since reading Robert Harris’ excellent Cicero trilogy in 2015 and then Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero earlier this year. It’s probably a good thing, then, that I, Claudius has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end – it meant that when I did finally pick it up last month, I was much more receptive to it than I would have been a while ago.

I, Claudius, as you would expect, is narrated by Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor. It takes the form of a fictional autobiography:

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Claudius doesn’t actually tell us about his time as emperor in this novel – that will come later, in the sequel Claudius the God – but instead he gives us a very detailed account of his family background, his childhood and what it was like to live through the reigns of his three predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, who seemed to become progressively more corrupt, unstable and dangerous. However, it is obvious that the real power in Rome is wielded by Livia, the wife of Augustus (and Claudius’ grandmother) who systematically removes various rivals to the throne to ensure the succession of her own line. The ambitious, manipulative Livia is a great character and a constant presence throughout the novel as she works to control and shape the future of the Empire.

Of course, life for someone part of the imperial family as Claudius is comes with its own set of dangers. With his stammering, his twitching and his limp, he is regarded as an embarrassment, kept in the background and not taken seriously as a possible contender for the throne. There are hints and omens from the beginning – including one memorable scene which takes place early in the novel involving a poetic prophecy spoken by a Sibyl – but otherwise the very qualities that appear to make Claudius unsuitable as an emperor seem to keep him safe as those around him are methodically poisoned, exiled or assassinated. This might not be entirely down to luck, though, as Graves has the historian Asinius Pollio advising Claudius to exaggerate these qualities as they could be his only means of survival.

Although I did enjoy I, Claudius, it was a bit of a challenging read for me at times – but that was mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read a lot of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) about the Roman Empire so I only have a basic familiarity with the important events and people of the period. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to have any prior knowledge before starting this book, but it would certainly help! A piece of advice for future readers: you may find it useful to draw a family tree as you read, if your edition doesn’t already include one. The relationships between the characters quickly become very complicated, especially as so many of them marry and divorce several times, with children from each marriage (as well as adopted children) – but with a little bit of effort and attention, keeping track of the major players in the story isn’t too difficult.

If I have a criticism of this book it would be that as Claudius spends most of his time telling us about events that happened before his birth, elsewhere in the Empire or in which he had no personal involvement, this occasionally takes away the sense of drama and immediacy that there could have been had our narrator always been at the heart of the action. It’s still quite gripping in places – such as the sequence of events leading up to the death of his cousin Postumus, or the ‘haunting’ of his brother Germanicus (two of the few people to actually show Claudius any kindness) – but it’s probably worth being aware that this is not just a book about Claudius himself but also the history of the Roman Empire in general (the real Claudius was a writer and historian so Graves’ decision to have him tell the story in this way feels authentic).

I can’t comment on the accuracy of this novel, the sources Graves has used or the way he has chosen to interpret the characters, because I simply don’t know enough about the subject, but I do know that I found it much more enjoyable than I’d expected – and that I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my ambivalent feelings about Roman history. I’ll look forward to continuing the story soon with Claudius the God.

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

It’s been a few years since I read Margaret George’s Elizabeth I – still the only one of her novels I’ve read – but I’ve always intended to read more and the publication of The Confessions of Young Nero, the first of two volumes on the life of the Roman Emperor, seemed a good opportunity. Until recently, this particular book wouldn’t have appealed to me (Ancient Rome has never been a favourite historical period of mine) but tastes changes and, having read the wonderful Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris, I now feel more enthusiastic about the subject.

The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictional account of the early years of Nero – or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, to give him the name by which he was known as a child. Narrated in his own words, Nero begins by taking us through the events of his childhood, starting with one of his earliest memories: the time his uncle, the Emperor Caligula, tried to drown him. This is the young Nero’s first experience of the ruthless plotting and scheming which surrounds those close to the imperial family; it is never far from his thoughts as he grows older and, following the deaths of first Caligula and then his successor Claudius, becomes emperor himself.

Although, as I’ve mentioned, most of the story is narrated by Nero, there are several much shorter sections scattered throughout the book narrated by two other characters: Locusta, a poisoner whose skills are very much in demand, and Acte, the former slave who becomes Nero’s lover. This was one of the least successful aspects of the book, in my opinion. I really don’t think those sections added anything to the story and I’m not sure why those two characters in particular were chosen, as there were plenty of others who had just as much significance in Nero’s life.

Nero himself is portrayed much more sympathetically than I’d expected. Admittedly I don’t know a huge amount about him, but from the little I had previously read I had formed a very different impression of Nero than the one given by this novel. I can see from Margaret George’s author’s note that she has deliberately taken a revisionist approach to Nero’s story, believing that he has been unfairly treated by history and that some of the accounts we rely on for information about him were written to discredit him. I can accept this (it reminds me of the way Tudor propaganda was intended to discredit Richard III) but I personally found this version of Nero far too nice! Nothing was ever really his fault and on occasions where he did commit a wicked act, it was because he had been driven to it and left with no choice. I think a more complex, morally ambiguous character would have been of more appeal to me.

I did like the characterisation of the main female characters in the novel, particularly Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea, three ambitious women each of whom wields power in her own way. Something which comes across very strongly throughout the novel – and especially when one of these women is involved – is the continuous sense of danger and the way in which anyone of importance in the Roman Empire had to be constantly on their guard against an attempt on their life.

Having such limited knowledge of Ancient Rome, I found the complicated family relationships difficult to follow at first, but I think Margaret George does an excellent job of clarifying them for readers like myself and by the time I was a few chapters into the book I was starting to get Nero’s family tree clear in my mind. As this is quite a long novel and only tells the first half of Nero’s story, it allows plenty of time to explore the major personal and political incidents which take place during this stage of Nero’s life; some of this was familiar to me, but much of it was new and I found it all fascinating. While important events such as Boudicca’s revolt are described in detail, Margaret George also devotes many pages to discussing Nero’s love of music, poetry and sport. I can appreciate how much research must have gone into the writing of this novel!

I’m pleased that I’ve read this book as I think I’ve learned a lot from it – and despite having some negative feelings about it as well as positive ones, I do want to read the rest of the story and will be looking out for the sequel. Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded that I have Margaret George’s novel on Mary, Queen of Scots on my TBR – I’m looking forward to it as that’s a period of history I’m much more comfortable with!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator This is the third and final volume of Robert Harris’s fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman philosopher, lawyer and statesman. I loved the previous two novels, Imperium and Lustrum, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I loved Dictator too. Until recently, I didn’t have much interest in Ancient Rome and would never have thought that I could find reading about the intricacies of Roman politics so exciting and fascinating. How wrong I was! In fact, the only negative thing I can say about this trilogy is that it has now come to an end.

Dictator covers the last fifteen years of Cicero’s life, though as the title suggests, the focus of the book is on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. At the beginning of the novel, Cicero has been forced into exile by his enemy, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and with the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus now governing Rome it seems unlikely that he will be able to return. Loyalties and allegiances change quickly in the Roman Republic, however, and eventually it does become possible for Cicero to come home, to be reunited with his family and to return to politics and the senate.

As he tries to settle back into his old life in Rome, Cicero discovers that it is not the same city he left just a year before and when the tensions between Caesar and Pompey lead to civil war, he knows he is witnessing the destruction of the republic. With the assassination of Caesar after several years of dictatorship comes the sense that Rome is entering a new era, but Cicero will face further challenges with the rise to power of the dictator’s adopted son, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire).

As Dictator is the book which brings the trilogy to a close, there’s a sadness which wasn’t present in the first two books, with the deaths of several major characters and the collapse of the Roman Republic. It’s also sad to see Cicero’s relationship with his wife, Terentia, deteriorate beyond repair. It was never a very happy marriage, but now Cicero acknowledges that Terentia has had enough:

“Only at that moment did I realise how much she must have suffered, living in Caesar’s Rome and being married to me. I cannot say I felt love for her any more, but I did feel great pity and affection and sadness, and I resolved there and then to make no mention of money or property – it was all done with, as far as I was concerned.”

Like the first two novels, this book is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, a man who really did exist and who is credited with inventing an early form of shorthand. After Cicero’s death, Tiro published his master’s letters and collected works, and is thought to have also written a biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Tiro’s role in this trilogy is primarily to tell Cicero’s story, recording his words and actions and making observations on his master’s character and the characters of Rome’s other leading figures. Here he describes meeting Julius Caesar:

“How unreal it felt to watch the approach of this titan who had so dominated everyone’s thoughts for so many years – who had conquered countries and upended lives and sent thousands of soldiers marching hither and thither, and had smashed the ancient republic to fragments as if it were nothing more substantial than a chipped antique vase that had gone out of fashion – to watch him, and to find him, in the end…just an ordinary breathing mortal!”

Over the course of the three novels we see how Cicero comes to rely on Tiro not just as a servant but also as a friend – one of the only people in the world he knows he can truly trust. Tiro’s admiration and affection for Cicero also come across strongly but this doesn’t mean he is unable to see Cicero’s faults. Through Tiro’s eyes, Cicero is portrayed as a brilliant yet flawed man, his wisdom, talent and generosity offset by vanity and self-importance. He is sometimes too quick to speak before he thinks, particularly when he is unable to resist making a joke at someone else’s expense, and this often has serious consequences. I enjoyed getting to know Cicero, with all his faults, and was sorry to come to the end of his story.

Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator are three wonderful books – well-written, well-researched and with a feeling of authenticity. Highly recommended, but try to read them in order if possible. I’m now looking forward to returning to the Roman Empire with an earlier Robert Harris novel, Pompeii.

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Lustrum Lustrum (also published under the title Conspirata) is the second of a trilogy of fictional biographies of the Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book in the trilogy, Imperium, was one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Lustrum even more. A note from the author at the beginning of the book states that both novels can be read independently, but my advice would still be to read them in order, particularly if, like me, you have never read about Cicero’s life before.

The three novels (the third is called Dictator) are narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, a real historical figure believed to have invented an early form of shorthand and thought to have written a genuine biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Imperium is a recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and covers the beginnings of Cicero’s political career, ending just as he is elected one of Rome’s two consuls. Lustrum continues the story, taking us through the year of Cicero’s consulship and the four years that follow (the term ‘lustrum’ is the name given to a five-year period in Ancient Rome).

The period of Cicero’s life covered in Lustrum is a time of highs and lows. As consul for the year 63 BC, he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far when he uncovers a conspiracy led by the senator Catilina to assassinate him and overthrow the Roman Republic. Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Country” for the part he plays in dealing with this threat to Rome, but even his newfound popularity can’t protect him from the further plots and machinations of his enemies Gaius Julius Caesar and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

What a great book this is! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, immersed in Cicero’s world, watching as he struggles with his conscience, tries to make difficult moral decisions and attempts to outwit powerful men like Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great (the First Triumvirate). I realise a book about Roman politicians may not sound very exciting, but this one really is.

While I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and the relationships between them (bearing in mind I have very little knowledge of Ancient Rome) there is some great characterisation when it comes to the more well known names. I particularly loved the portrayal of Cato the Younger! Caesar comes across very much as the villain in this trilogy, but remembering that we only see things from the perspective of Cicero (via Tiro), we are obviously being given a biased view of his actions. The same story told from Caesar’s point of view would clearly be very different.

By Glauco92 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Tiro himself remains in the background, as he did in Imperium, but there is a small amount of character development for him; he even finds a love interest, although nothing really comes of it. But at the heart of the story, of course, is Marcus Tullius Cicero. The portrait of Cicero given to us by Tiro is generally very positive – he is clever and ambitious and usually (though not always) tries to do what he believes is best for the Roman Republic. But he also has a lot of faults and flaws: his arrogance and overconfidence lead him to make some poor choices and he is not above entering into dubious political alliances with men such as his fellow consul, Hybrida, whom he knows are corrupt or incompetent and don’t have Rome’s best interests at heart.

One of the things I love about the way Robert Harris portrays Rome is that he manages to make it feel historically accurate yet strangely contemporary at the same time. There are debates over foreign policy, a court case involving a sex scandal and questions asked over politicians’ expenses, all things which still happen in modern politics. As with Imperium, the scenes set in the senate are particularly dramatic and full of tension, making me wish I had been there to hear one of Cicero’s famous speeches for myself.

Lustrum was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2010. I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of Robert Harris; as well as the two Cicero books, I also loved An Officer and a Spy (the 2014 winner). I’m now looking forward to finishing this trilogy with Dictator and also to reading more fiction set in the Roman Republic and seeing how other authors portray the same characters and events.

Imperium by Robert Harris

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

These are the words of the Roman statesman, orator, philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero, a man who lived many centuries before I was born and of whom, thanks to Robert Harris, I am no longer ignorant. I had heard of Cicero, of course, but knew very little about his work and nothing at all about his personal life. Now that I’ve read Imperium, the first in a trilogy of novels narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, I know much more about both.

Imperium Tiro, like Cicero, really existed and is thought to have written a biography of his master which was unfortunately lost during the fall of the Roman Empire. Imperium is a fictional recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and follows Cicero from his humble beginnings as he progresses up the ladder of Roman politics and pursues his ambition of becoming one of Rome’s two Consuls.

As a ‘new man’ – in other words, the first in his family to be elected to the Roman Senate – Cicero’s incredible rise to power is a result of hard work, intelligence and natural ability. He is able to put these skills to good use in his position as lawyer, as we see in the first half of the book when he agrees to prosecute Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily, who has the support of Rome’s aristocracy despite being accused of corruption. The court case is a victory for Cicero but the drawback of this is that he has made enemies of the aristocrats, who will do whatever they can to prevent him rising any further…

As I’ve mentioned before, Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite periods to read about, so a few months ago I compiled a list of books that I hoped would change the way I feel about Roman history. Imperium is the first novel I’ve selected from that list and it was a fantastic choice. I’d had high hopes for it anyway, because another book by Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy, was one of my favourite reads of last year, but I enjoyed this one even more than I’d hoped! A book about Roman politics may sound boring, but I can assure you it’s not. Harris is an author of thrillers as well as historical fiction and this is an exciting, entertaining read, not just an educational one. The trial of Verres is as gripping as anything I’ve read and there are more tense moments later in the book, such as when Cicero sends Tiro to spy on a secret meeting of rival senators.

The characterisation of Cicero is wonderful. Seen through the eyes of Tiro, I felt that there was a slight distance between Cicero and the reader at first, but as the story went on I started to like and admire him more and more, especially during his investigations of Verres, when he conducted himself with so much honesty and integrity. It’s not long before some flaws start to appear – as he sets his sights on the positions of aedile, praetor and finally consul, we see him beginning to sacrifice some of his principles for the sake of ambition – but this just makes him more human. Tiro himself is the perfect choice of narrator – someone who is happy to get on with telling the story without intruding into it too much. As the inventor of one of the earliest forms of shorthand he becomes indispensable to Cicero so it’s quite believable that he accompanies Cicero almost everywhere, taking notes and recording conversations.

Cicero was known as a great orator and Harris really captures the power of some of his speeches in the senate and the court. Many of his letters, writings and transcripts of speeches are still available which means Harris would have been able to draw on those to put words into the fictional Cicero’s mouth. While I don’t have enough knowledge to be able to comment on the historical accuracy of the novel, there’s nothing that feels noticeably inaccurate – as he says in his author’s note, the things in this story either really happened, could have happened, or didn’t definitely not happen.

There’s still so much I would like to say about Imperium, but this post is already becoming very long so I will just quickly mention a few other things I liked: the portrayal of other famous Roman figures of the time, particularly Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great; the details of Cicero’s family life and his relationship with his wife, Terentia; the descriptions of how the Roman legal and political systems worked, especially the complex voting methods that led to high levels of corruption during elections; and the exploration of class differences in Ancient Rome.

Having loved this book so much I’m now looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy. My copy of Lustrum awaits!