Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
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...
(The entire section contains 578 words.)
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