(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Last of the Wine, typical of Mary Renault’s historical novels, provides voluminous information about notable Athenians—Socrates, Plato, Kritias, Phaedo, Xenophon—but presents it through the eyes of a more ordinary Athenian. Alexias, a youth on the brink of manhood, suddenly has adult responsibility thrust upon him by the report of his father’s death in battle.

When Alexias’s mother dies in childbirth, Alexias is so sickly that his father intends to expose him to the elements, thereby allowing the Fates to decide whether he will live or die. A Spartan attack, however, forestalls this. Alexias grows up with no real father figure until Lysis courts him and becomes his lover, providing the youth with a father surrogate. As was customary, Lysis also informally becomes Alexias’s teacher, helping to prepare him for a manhood in which he will marry and have children, as Lysis himself plans to do.

Alexias’s father takes a young bride and with her sires a daughter. When news of his father’s death reaches Alexias, he is catapulted into being the man of the house, even though he is ill prepared to assume that responsibility. He grows deeply attached to his stepmother, becoming a surrogate husband.

Alexias prevails in the footrace at the Isthmian Games, but his joy at winning soon turns to disillusionment when his beloved Lysis is nearly killed by a wrestler during competition. Renault here shows what happens when...

(The entire section is 578 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Alexias is born prematurely at a most unpropitious time: The Athenian statesman Pericles has died, the Athenians are embroiled in skirmishes with the Spartans, and a plague threatens Athens. When Alexias’s father Myron is called to military duty, he orders that the puny baby be killed, but the household, distracted by the death of Myron’s brother and his male lover, spares the child.

Alexias grows into childhood and adolescence as a typical Athenian boy of good family: He attends school accompanied by his tutor, makes friends such as his schoolmate Xenophon, develops strength as a runner, and blooms into a handsome youth. His beauty attracts a large number of suitors. With the help of the famous philosopher Sokrates, Alexias commits himself erotically to Lysis, a handsome athlete and one of Sokrates’ disciples.

When Alexias is fifteen years old, sacred statues of Hermes (square pillars of stone topped by busts of Hermes, often with prominent phalli) are mutilated—a portent of disaster. On the evening of this sacrilege, Myron hosts a meeting of his club. Serving wine at the feast, Alexias observes guests such as Theramenes and Kritias, who are later to play significant roles in Athenian politics. Kritias spills wine on Theramenes to mask fondling the boy. Alexias also overhears a discussion of Alkibiades, a charismatic orator and Myron’s treasured friend.

Because Alkibiades may have been responsible for the desecration of...

(The entire section is 554 words.)