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...
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