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Authors: Mary Renault

The Last of the Wine

BOOK: The Last of the Wine
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The Last of the Wine
A Novel
Mary Renault































Notes on Some of the Characters

Chronological Table

A Biography of Mary Renault


, place of assembly, especially the market-place

, one of the nine chief magistrates of Athens

a cloak worn by men

gold or silver coin, named after Darius, King of Persia, equal to 20 drachmas

, township or district in Attica

law-courts formed by 6,000 citizens elected annually for the trial of judicial cases

Greek silver coin

name given to young men belonging to the first three property classes, when they were eighteen to twenty years of age; they then became liable to military training and duties

title of the highest magistrates in Sparta; there were five, elected annually, and put in charge of guardianship over law, conduct of war, internal affairs, and the training of the young

the annual funeral oration spoken for the Athenians who had fallen in battle

Athenian official charged with the supervision of athletic training schools and games

commander of the cavalry


“potters’ field,” an area of ancient Athens divided by the walls of Themistokles into the Inner and Outer Kerameikos

an obscene dance of Greek comedy

a game played at drinking parties, in which the wine left in the cup was thrown into a bronze vessel; if the sound was clear, it was a good omen

an alien allowed to reside at Athens on payment of a tax

denomination of money corresponding to 100 drachmas

coin representing the value of 1/6 of a drachma

training school for wrestling and athletics

participant in a Pankration

athletic contest, combining wrestling and boxing

public place of assembly in Athens, on a hill west of the Akropolis

hall in which distinguished citizens and foreign ambassadors were entertained at public expense

song sung in turn by guests at a banquet

gold coin, weight about 1/2 ounce

upright slab or stone

commander-in-chief or chief magistrate at Athens

instrument for scraping dust and sweat from the body

galley with three ranks of oars, used chiefly in war

ruler of one of the three divisions of a country


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.

You will say there is nothing out of the way in this. Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose; for as a rule, when a father decides to expose an infant, it is done and there the matter ends. And it is seldom a man can say, either of the Spartans or the plague, that he owes them life instead of death.

It was at the beginning of the Great War, when the Spartans were in Attica, burning the farms. There was a notion in those days that no other army could meet them on land and live; so we were holding only the City, and Piraeus, and the Long Walls between. This was the advice of Perikles. It is true that when I was born he was still alive, though already sick; which is no reason for foolish youths to ask me, as one did lately, whether I remember him.

The country people, whose farms were being burned, poured into the City, and lived like beasts wherever they could put up a few boards, or a roof of hide. They were even sleeping and cooking in the shrines, and in the colonnades of the wrestling schools. The Long Walls were lined with stinking huts all the way to the harbour. Somewhere thereabouts the plague began, and spread like fire in old heather. Some said the Spartans had called on Far-Shooting Apollo, some that they had contrived to poison the springs. Some of the women, I believe, blamed the country people for bringing in a curse; as if anyone could reasonably suppose that the gods would punish a state for treating its own citizens justly. But women, being ignorant of philosophy and logic, and fearing dream-diviners more than immortal Zeus, will always suppose that whatever causes them trouble must be wicked.

The plague thinned my family as it did every other. My mother’s father, Damiskos, the Olympic runner, was buried with his old trophies and his olive crown. My father was among those who got the disease and survived; it left him for some time with a bloody flux, too sick for war; and when I was born he had only just recovered his strength.

On the day of my birth, my father’s younger brother, Alexias, died in his twenty-fourth year. He, hearing that a youth called Philon, with whom he was in love, had been taken sick, went at once to him; meeting, I have been told, not only the slaves but the boy’s own sister, running the other way. His father and mother had already perished; Alexias found the lad alone, lying in the basin of the courtyard fountain, where he had crawled to cool his fever. He had not called out to anyone to fetch his friend, not wishing to endanger him; but some passers-by, who had not cared to go very near, reported that they had seen Alexias carrying him indoors.

This reached my father after some time, while my mother was in labour with me. He sent over a reliable servant who had had the plague already; who, however, found both the young men dead. From the way they were lying, it seems that in the hour of Philon’s death, Alexias had felt himself sicken; and, knowing the end, had taken hemlock, so that they should make the journey together. The cup was standing on the floor beside him; he had tipped out the dregs, and written PHILON with his finger, as one does after supper in the last of the wine.

Getting this news at night, my father set out with torches to fetch the bodies, so that he could mix their ashes in one urn, and have a fit memorial made. They were gone, having been thrown already on a common pyre in the street; but later, my grandfather had a stone set up for Alexias in the Street of Tombs, with a relief showing the friends clasping hands in farewell, and a cup beside them on a pedestal. Every year at the Feast of Families, we sacrificed for Alexias at the household altar, and the story is one of the first that I remember. My father used to say that all over the City, those who died in the plague were the beautiful and the good.

Alexias having died before the time of his marriage, my father now decided to name after him the child that was being born, if it should be a boy. My elder brother Philokles, who was two years old, had been a particularly fine strong child at his birth: but I, when held up by the midwife, was seen to be small, wizened and ugly; my mother having brought me forth nearly a month too soon, either through a weakness of her body or the foreknowledge of a god. My father decided at once that it would be unworthy of Alexias to name me after him; that I was the child of an unlucky time, marked with the gods’ anger, and that it would be better not to rear me.

As it happened, however, I had been born while he was out searching for the bodies; and the midwife had handed me over to my mother to nurse. This annoyed my father; for she had taken a fancy to me after this, as women will, and being rather sick and feverish begged for my life with tears. He was still reasoning with her—for he was reluctant to snatch me from her by force—when the herald blew for the horsemen, because the Spartans had been sighted making for the City.

We were a fairly rich family in those days; my father kept two or three horses; he had therefore to arm, and muster with his squadron. He took leave of my mother, not withdrawing his orders; but, whether through haste or pity, he charged no one with carrying them out. There is never much rivalry for such work; so there the matter rested till some days later, when the Spartans withdrew and my father rode home.

He found the household in distraction. My brother Philokles was dead, and my mother breathing her last. From the first she had ordered me to be kept away from her; I had been left with a wet-nurse found by one of the slaves.

Returning with shorn hair from the funeral, he had me brought to him, and, finding the wet-nurse a decent woman, left me in her charge. He had been, I believe, fond of my mother; I daresay too he called to mind the uncertainty of life, and thought it less disgraceful to leave even me behind him, than to perish without offspring as if he had never been. In the end, finding I put on flesh and seemed stronger and better-looking, he named me Alexias, as he had first meant to do.


the Inner Kerameikos, not far from the Dipylon Gate. The courtyard had a little colonnade of painted columns, a fig-tree and a vine. At the back were the stables, where my father kept his two horses and a mule; it was easy to climb on the stable roof, and thence to the roof of the house.

The roof had a border of acanthus tiles, and was not very steep. If one straddled the ridge, one could see right over the City wall, past the gate-towers of the Dipylon to the Sacred Way, where it curves towards Eleusis between its gardens and its tombs. In summertime, I could pick out the funeral stele of my uncle Alexias and his friend, by a white oleander that grew there. Then I would turn south, to where the High City stands like a great stone altar against the sky, and search between the winged roofs of the temples for the point of gold, where tall Athene of the Vanguard lifts her spear to the ships at sea.

But I liked best to look north at the range of Parnes, snow-topped, or scorched brown in summer, or grey and green in spring, and watch for the Spartans coming over. Until I was six, they came nearly every year. They came over the pass at Dekeleia, and as a rule some horseman brought word of their coming; but sometimes the first thing we knew in the City was the smoke on the hills, where they were burning a farm.

Our own place is in the foothills, beyond Acharnai. Our family has been there, as they say, since the grasshoppers came. The slope above the valley is terraced for vines, but the best crop is the olives, and the barley from the olive-fields. There was one grove nearly as old, I think, as the earth itself. The trunks were as thick as three men’s bodies, and all knotted and gnarled. Athene herself was reputed to have planted them, when she gave the olive as a gift to the land. Two or three of them are standing still. We sacrificed there at every harvest-time; that is, when there was a harvest.

I used to be sent to the farm early each spring, to get the country air, and fetched back when it was time for the Spartans to come. But once, when I was four or five, they came early, and we had a great scramble to get away. I remember sitting in the cart, with the women slaves and the household gear, my father riding beside us and the slave pricking the oxen on; the cart-wheels jolting, and all of us coughing with the smoke of the burning fields. Everything was burned that year, all but the house walls, and the sacred olive-grove, which they piously spared.

Being too young to understand serious things, I used to look forward, when they had gone, to seeing what they had been up to. One year a troop of them had been quartered in the farmhouse; and those who could write had inscribed the names of their friends, with various tributes to their beauty and virtue, all over the walls. I recall my father rubbing angrily at the charcoal and saying, “Get this ignorant scrawl whited over. The boy will never learn to spell, or to make his letters properly, with this in front of him.” One of the Spartans had left his comb behind. I thought it a treasure; but my father said in disgust that it was filthy, and threw it away.

BOOK: The Last of the Wine
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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