The Last of the Wine

by Mary Renault
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

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 compared to sweet wine about to turn to sour vinegar. The protracted Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) marked the end of Athens’ hegemony. Renault draws attention to this defeat by contrasting the Greeks with their ultimate conquerors, the Romans. While the Greeks amassed great accomplishments in philosophy, science, culture, and the arts, the Romans would set out to explore new frontiers and eventually rule the entire known world. In The Last of the Wine, the Roman Empire is prefigured at the Pankration (a mixture of boxing and wrestling), when Lysis fights the wrestler Sostratos, a giant, monstrously powerful man. The graceful Greek athlete of the palestra will give way to the brute strength of the arena gladiator.

Political issues are raised in the presentation of Alcibiades. To Alexias, Alcibiades seems so tall and beautiful as to epitomize a divinity accustomed to worship, but he squanders his stellar potential and fails to achieve the good life. Alcibiades turns out to be a citizen so overcome by self-interest that he does not fit into a democratic city. In 415 b.c.e., he goads the Athenians into a megalomaniacal excursion to Sicily, where the Athenian fleet is annihilated.

Thus, in Renault’s hands, hubristic aspirations prove self-defeating in the very act of attaining their objectives. Renault thus uses her portrayal of ancient events to sound a warning against the great tyrants and warmongers of the twentieth century, including Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, and South African prime minister Heinrich Verwoerd. (South Africa, where Renault emigrated in 1948, was a deeply undemocratic county, having implemented strict apartheid laws to secure white supremacy.)

Renault also employs symbolism, notably in the portrayal of wine, which provides joy and headache, love and loss. In classical Greece, wine was part of a young man’s rite of passage. Drinking wine and giving the present of the drinking cup represented admission to the world of adulthood. Women, on the other hand, were forbidden to drink wine. Alexias stands as a model for wine cups bearing the salutation “Alexias the Beautiful.” Lovers drink wine to pledge their commitment to Eros. Renault’s title further alludes to a Greek custom, called kottabos, of tossing the wine remaining in a cup to form the name of a lover or to divine an omen. Socrates drinks but never gets drunk, while Alcibiades is known for drinking unimaginable quantities of wine. Myron cherishes Alcibiades’ gift of a wine cup, but he later destroys it when Alcibiades betrays his country. In the last scene, Socrates enjoys wine with his friends, but later he will be made to drink hemlock.

Renault is famous for her sympathetic depiction of Greek love. Her previous publication, The Charioteer (1953), is a gay novel, but it is set in the clinical and sterile world of a hospital. In The Last of the Wine, the Greek setting enables Renault to depict same-sex love in a frank, celebratory, and social context. Alexias narrates his views not only of contemporary controversies but also of paiderastia, an erotic relationship practiced by elite Athenians that united an erastes—an older, mature, and experienced man—and an eromenos—a beloved boy before the growth of his beard. The eromenos derived from his mentor educational values and often offered his body for the gratification of the erastes’s sexual needs. Together, the two would pursue athletics, discuss politics, and defend their country in war.

Often, a lover would follow his beloved in death by committing suicide. Alexias’s uncle ingests hemlock when his lover Philon is dying from the plague because they want to make their last journey together. Although an erastes often had a wife, the erastes-eromenos relationship was considered preferable to heterosexuality because it guaranteed the youth’s initiation as a worthy member of the city-state. Alexias marries, but only his attachment with Lysis is emotionally meaningful. The Last of the Wine is thus also a bildungsroman, charting Alexias’s growth as an erotic and political citizen.

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