The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault [A Review]

The Last of the Wine is a powerful story of love and war, family and friendship, democratic ideals and failings, set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. It is immersive and relatable with a plot that will affect readers deeply and capped with a great ending.

The Last of the Wine is the story of Alexias, a young man coming of age during the Golden Age of Athens (480-404BCE), living with his father and stepmother in the city. They are a family of fairly high standing with a few farms and other properties. Alexias has begun hanging around a circle that listens to the wisdom and teaching of an old man, Sokrates, much to the disapproval of his stern, traditionalist father, Myron.

When [Sokrates] liked he could make any hard thing seem easy, and the natural thing to do; yet he could make something familiar look new and strange, so that one was surprised not to have seen its beauty, or not to have cast it away in disgust.

This is also the era of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404BCE). Much of the talk around the city is about Alkibiades – an Athenian general who has defected to the Spartans. When the Athenians embark on an expedition to Sicily, a strategy championed by Alkibiades before his downfall, Myron is called up into the army, leaving Alexias to take care of their farms and his pregnant stepmother.

Though, at 16, Alexias is too young to serve in the military, he takes the initiative of some combat training. That and the labour on the farm transform his body and soon he is turning heads as he walks through the city. A couple of older men hope to make Alexias their lover and embarrass him with their bad poetry and night-time serenades outside his home. Fortunately, it does not last.

A letter from his father arrives instructing Alexias that should his stepmother give birth to a girl, Alexias is to tear the baby from her mother before they can form a bond and allow the child to die from exposure. Alexias cannot bear to perform this task, and though he fears the consequences if he is found out, he destroys the letter and pretends he never received it. The baby is in fact a girl and Alexias takes no action against her. Shortly after, the Athenian campaign in Sicily ends in a disastrous defeat and Alexias learns his father has been captured and made a slave to work in a quarry where he subsequently died. News of his father’s death means Alexias must face a new threat from his uncle Strymon, who asserts his right to take possession of his dead brother’s property including his wife and family. Though still not of age, Alexias manages to hold off his uncle and protect his stepmother and stepsister for now.

When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

Alexias starts making friends among the others who gather to listen to Sokrates. There’s Phaedo, a young man sold into sexual slavery before he was emancipated with help from Sokrates; Aristokles, a wrestler becoming better known by his nickname – Plato – and especially, Lysis. A few years older than Alexias, Lysis and Alexias become good friends and lovers.

In all this time, Lysis never asked anything from me beyond a kiss. I understood him, that he wanted me to know he was in love from the soul, and not, as they say, with the love of the Agora. As for me, it seemed to me that nothing could have added to the joy I felt in his company; and I wished for nothing, except to possess whatever would increase his happiness, that I might give it to him. I felt that another time would come, as one feels an air of summer while still in spring. We had no need of words to say such things. We talked of I know not what; of our childhood, and of times when we had happened to see each other at festivals, or in the palaestra, or at the Games. When it grew late he threw the last of his wine into the bowl, saying, ‘This for my Alexias,’ and the bowl rang true. Then we drank to the Good Goddess in clear water; and he called for a torch and took me home.

The novel follows the relationship of Alexias and Lysis over the following years. Their relationship and Athens’ fortunes in the Peloponnesian War both twist, rise and fall. Lysis is a commander of his own cavalry unit and takes charge of Alexias’ combat training. Together they fight in battle in defence of Athens when the Spartans appear on their frontier; they debate the teachings of Sokrates and enjoy the plays of Greek masters; they travel to and compete in Olympic games and, as the war escalates, they go to sea to fight away from Athens. Even when there is a respite from the war, there are battles at home; of family, marriage, births and deaths.

As for Lysis and me, anyone who has gone campaigning with a lover will know what I mean, when I say we have never been together so much, and never so little. We seldom spent an hour out of each other’s sight; for after the first day I always rode with Lysis, and fought at his side, and no one, I believe, ever questioned my place. We got a new way of talking to each other from being always overheard; sometimes, if we were alone for a while, we were almost tongue-tied, and would look at each other smiling, not knowing how to begin.

[…] The troop, as soon as they saw I took my share of the hard work and night watches, were kind to our friendship. The usual jokes were made, but without any malice. Now the country was quiet, we used sometimes when the evening fire was lit to go for a walk together in the night. Once, coming back quietly over the grass, we heard young Gorgion, who had a salty tongue, accounting for our absence. Just afterwards, they saw us in the firelight. Of course we joined in the laughter. But next time we went we were a little constrained, knowing what they thought, but not quite willing to speak of it, out of modesty or for another cause. For I was not so young in war as not to have felt already how death touches love’s shoulder and says, ‘Make haste.’

I cannot say I have read much of what may be called ‘historical fiction’ but just this year I have read Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God and now Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine. Renault, like Graves, seems to be that rare author who achieves recognition for both the strength of their storytelling and their knowledge of the history, lending considerable credit to the genre. Renault enjoys acclaim from both other historical novelists, like Hilary Mantel and Madeline Miller, as well as by historians like Mary Beard and Tom Holland. The Last of the Wine has a great beginning, it is unsparing and totally immersive. In the introduction to this edition, novelist Charlotte Mendelson explains Renault’s acclaim and the reader’s experience as the result of her intimate knowledge of the subject and her skill at infusing her work with tiny accurate details, without making it feel forced or over-researched but entirely natural.

The Last of the Wine contains some great writing; passages of poetic beauty that are a pleasure to read. I also felt there was great realism to the character relationships and interactions; their evasions, arguments and misunderstandings; their growing near to each other and growing apart. This made the story feel very relatable despite being set over 2,000 years ago. There are also some genuinely heartbreaking scenes and I found myself being affected more by this story than anything I had read in a while.

I said to my heart, ‘What mighty power hast thou been defying?’ Truly love may be likened to the Sphinx of the Egyptians, with the face of a smiling god and a lion’s claws. When he had wounded me, all my longing was to leap into his darkness, and be consumed. I called on my soul, but it bled away from me like salt washed back into the ocean.

That being said, there were some parts that I found difficult. Parts where either Renault’s narration or the character’s dialogue was indirect, evasive and enigmatic; where they would speak in metaphors or in a roundabout way. I couldn’t always follow it and was unsure what was going on. On a larger scale, I often felt I lacked a sense of direction, of a larger story beyond the subplots, of where the story was going or building towards. On that matter you should not worry because as well as having a great beginning, The Last of the Wine has an even better ending. I would not say it was an effort to persist with The Last of the Wine – it was enjoyable to read even when I was uncertain of its overall story arc – but that persistence is well-rewarded in the end.

Athens of the Golden Age, with its experimentations in democracy, its fostering of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, amongst other influential people and ideas; is usually held as the foundation of much of Western civilisation. Although I did not feel that such aspects were a large part of The Last of the Wine, the concerns of the Athenians in the story are relatable more than 2,000 years later. Concerns such as ethical compromises during a time of total war, the weaknesses and difficulties in upholding democracy, freedom of speech and the influence of unfamiliar new ideas on youth. There were parts of The Last of the Wine that felt Orwellian in their concerns or that recalled my recent reading of Snyder’s On Tyranny or Müller’s What is Populism?

It was now certain that this Samian business was only the spearhead of a greater one. The Athenian oligarchs were using it to seize control of the navy and presently of Athens itself. Then they would treat with Sparta for terms; how disgraceful was no matter, if they could grow fat on the carrion of the City. Athens would be only one more, then, of the Spartan vassals, crushed under such a rule as no Spartan would bear at home, to make the leaders servile and the people weak. We were to be sold to the Spartans, as long ago the tyrant Hippias would have sold us to the Medes.

The Last of the Wine was the first in a series of novels that Renault set in the Hellenic world. Often when I discover a series of novels by an author of high repute I can barely contain my enthusiasm and rush to buy them all before I have even read one. In Renault’s case I was cautious, determined to read her first before deciding on the rest. Having now enjoyed The Last of the Wine with its evocative writing, powerful story and its informed history, I am going to get more of her books, push them up in the TBR queue and read them soon.

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