The Last of the Wine

by Mary Renault

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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 athletic ideal of developing a fine body is overshadowed by a meretricious concentration on winning, a change in attitude that eventually led to the decline of Greek athletics.

Alexias is severely shaken when it turns out that his father was not killed but taken prisoner. The father resurfaces, now a disenchanted, bitter man, whose land has been usurped by invaders. He turns on his son, whom he thinks has been taken in by dangerous revolutionaries. The father sides with the conservative aristocrats, who fault the liberal democracy that has led Athens to its present state.

To escape this hostile environment (broadly reminiscent of Renault’s family situation), Alexias and Lysis go off to fight at Samos, siding with those who favor democracy over oligarchy. The oligarchy is overthrown and the two return to Athens only to find that a similar situation exists there and that Alexias’s father is strong among the oligarchs.

The political situation grows increasingly unstable as power shifts from the people to the oligarchs and back again several times. Finally, after the Athenian fleet is lost at Aegospotami, Lysander, the Spartan general, blocks all transport into Athens, starving it into submission. He foists upon the city the Thirty Tyrants, who impose a rule of terror.

Kritias, expert at using the logic Socrates has taught him, uses his skill cynically to gain power. Kritias has learned rhetorical technique from Socrates but has failed to learn the great thinker’s most important lesson, that of pursuing the highest ideals of good and beauty.

Eventually, Kritias murders Alexias’s father. Alexias and Lysis join the revolutionaries outside the city walls. The Spartans now abandon the Thirty Tyrants and the people again rule, but Athens is severely weakened. Alexias kills Kritias, but in the confusion of the fight, Lysis is killed. The people have won, but Renault forces her readers to consider whether this victory is to the good if those in control are driven by motives other than the Socratic ideals of good and beauty.

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