The Last of the Wine Essay - Critical Essays

Mary Renault

Critical Evaluation

The Last of the Wine continues to fascinate readers for a number of reasons. As a historical novel, it is based on a multitude of rich sources. Particularly user-friendly, the text includes a map of ancient Greece, chronological table, glossary, and notes on the principal characters. Mary Renault diligently researched Socrates and his world, as well as their reconstruction by Plato and the historians Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, Macrobius, Atenaeus, and others. Before putting pen to paper, Renault also visited Athens, Piraeus, Crete, Delos, Knossos, and Marathon, and she spent long hours in various European museums devoted to Greek culture. All this research helped Renault visualize battles at sea, Spartan armor, the beautiful male body, Greek vineyards, athletic contests, and geographic peculiarities.

As a result, The Last of the Wine vividly portrays a climax in Athenian history, beginning with the reign of Pericles (c. 490-429 b.c.e.), epitomized by the building of the Parthenon, and ending tragically with the execution of Socrates for allegedly corrupting young people and failing to honor the established gods (399 b.c.e.). Together with its sequel The Mask of Apollo (1966), the novel offers a detailed view of the Socratic circle, with intimate portraits of the “traitors” Alcibiades and Critias; of the title characters of many Platonic dialogues, such as Euthydemus, Menexenus, Charmides, Phaedo, and Lysis; of the playwrights Agathon, Aristophanes, and Euripides; of the historian Xenophon; of the orator Lysias; of the star actor Theodoros; of the philosopher Aristotle; and of Anytus, the chief accuser at Socrates’ trial.

Renault provides readers with unique anecdotes, firmly anchored in historical evidence yet virtually forgotten to posterity. Aristokles, known to history by his nickname, Plato, exercises as a first-class wrestler and, as young man in Corinth, once composed poetry. To modern-day readers, he is better remembered for excluding mimetic poetry from his ideal republic. Phaedo, to whom Socrates would lovingly explain the immortality of the soul while awaiting the final days of his life, began his career as a prostitute in a bathhouse after being sold into slavery. Even the normally calm Socrates occasionally lost his temper, but behind his ugly, satyrlike exterior, he exuded godlike wisdom.

As the novel’s title implies, social erosion and decay are imminent, as Athens is...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)