IT SEEMS THE GODS will have their revenge, or at least their ironic outcomes. Thus we owe it to a woman and a lesbian to have written the most authentic and beautiful prose about romantic love between men in all of literature. In eight novels and one history (a definitive biography of Alexander the Great), Mary Renault recreated the world of ancient Greece with an intensity and an authenticity unmatched by any of the writers who have attempted it, including some of greater critical acclaim.
Renault received her share of praise, to be sure, most of it coming from her adoring public, which turned novel after novel into a bestseller. But she was also esteemed by other writers, such as Gore Vidal, who gave The Persian Boy (1972) a rave review, marveling that the author had found a readership for a novel about a homosexual love affair between a world conqueror and his Persian eunuch. Renault also won numerous awards for her work, and got a front-page obituary in The New York Times upon her death in 1983. Still, she is generally ranked below such writers as Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar who also wrote of ancient times. And she appears rarely if ever among the “greats” of 20-century literature when critics take to drawing up their “top ten” lists.
It is worth pondering for a moment why Renault is not in fact included among the mightiest of literary lions. One factor is certainly the 20th-century bias in favor of experimentalism, especially in the use of language. Alas, Renault was a writer of gorgeous, realistic prose in the great 19th-century tradition; she was not Proust, Faulkner, Woolf, or Joyce. And while some of these earlier writers did achieve popular success, by the time Renault came along—her first books were published in the 1950’s—the arbiters of literary greatness were starting to take a dim view of anything that ventured onto the Times bestseller list. There also seems to be some critical bias against the historical novel, once a revered literary form that’s now seen as a sort of genre fiction.
But one can imagine other reasons, extraneous to strictly literary criteria, for why Renault occupies a less elevated rank than she may deserve. For starters, she was a woman writing in the 1950’s and 60’s. And then there’s the profusion of explicit homosexual content in most of her tales of ancient times. Renault clearly believed that one cannot write meaningfully or accurately about ancient Greece without treating homosexual behavior and relationships, which she saw as intimately connected to core Greek values. Many have tried, needless to say. For example, until Renault there was a virtual conspiracy of silence concerning Alexander the Great’s undeniable homosexuality. Only in the last thirty years or so (with a few exceptions) has any serious work dealing with that subject received mainstream critical attention. It is also telling that critical treatment of Renault’s work has tended to ignore the homosexuality of her leading characters.
“It is a lovely thing to live with courage, and to die leaving everlasting fame.” These words of Alexander the Great epitomize Renault’s characterization of him in two of her best novels, Fire from Heaven (1969) and The Persian Boy. Renault’s Alexander personifies the ethical ideal found in Greek culture from Homer to Plato and Aristotle: the concept of “virtue” as a moral standard—as the moral standard. This is quite a different approach to morality from the Christian habit of setting down a set of rules or principles that must be followed more-or-less exactly if one is to lead a moral, God-pleasing life. Greek virtue subsumed such qualities as generosity, self-control, physical courage, loyalty, and energetic citizenship. Not excluded from this configuration was one’s physical countenance and development. Plato cautioned against confusing the beauty of the soul with that of the body, but he never said that the latter should be ignored or despised. Such attributes were integral to the whole person. The Greeks had no interest in splintering the person into separate qualities and relegating some parts, such as a man’s sexuality or ardor, to a lower rank.
This concept of virtue can perhaps be illustrated by a passage in Fire from Heaven in which Hephaistion, Alexander’s adolescent lover, asks for proof of Alexander’s love. They are climbing in a tree at the time. Alexander grasps his lover’s hand and leans out into thin air. This demonstration of love is profound, for it presupposes a trust not only in Hephaistion’s love but also in his physical strength and skill. The dramatic effect is far more compelling than any bedroom scene could be to demonstrate the essential unity of romantic love and virtue in Hellenistic culture. It is also perfect literary realism, exactly the sort of demonstration of affection that one young man might seek from another.
There are two other passages in The Persian Boy that elaborate this conception of male-to-male love. The first occurs when Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who became Alexander’s lover at sixteen when the conqueror was 25, is seated at a dancing festival where Alexander first sees, then falls in love with, his future wife, the daughter of a tribal chieftain. Bagoas, as a part of Alexander’s company, bears witness to the infatuation: “I had found him Hephaistion’s boy … (and) now I had given him to a woman. I sat in the hot torchlight, tasting death, and being pleasant to those around me, as I had been taught when I was twelve years old.” What Bagoas understands is that, however strong his bond of love with Alexander—and the two remained together until the latter’s demise—their love can never be shared on an equal basis: the youth’s physical incompleteness renders him morally incomplete in the Greek scheme of things, limiting his attainment of virtue, and so Alexander’s love itself cannot be complete.
This point is re-enacted, with Renault’s same flair for dramatic characterization and economy of narrative, after the death of Hephaistion from a sudden sickness. Bagoas is contemplating one of the carved images of Hephaistion in Alexander’s suite, pondering the man’s mystique, when Alexander startles him and asks what he’s doing. “‘He was dear to you. I wanted to understand.’ Alexander took a turn across the room, then said, ‘He knew me.’” Now, in this moment, Bagoas knows that his real rival, Alexander’s boyhood lover, has surpassed him for eternity, again because Bagoas cannot offer Alexander the love of an equal and therefore, in a special sense unknown to us today, cannot partake of the same ethos as the departed hero.
This is a different premise for love from what we have today—different not only in its inherent sexism, but in its indissoluble link between love as adoration and virtue of character. As for Alexander’s attachment to the noble Hephaistion, it is a fact of history that Alexander lay upon his body, weeping, for an entire day. He sent the corpse to the oracle of Ammon at Siwah so that Hephaistion could be worshipped as a god. And he ordered that all contracts within his realm (which spanned from Greece to India) be sworn “in Hephaistion’s name.”
What is also unique to Renault’s writing is her depiction of the various patterns of homosexual love that existed in the classical world. She notices one type of relationship for which there is no genuine heterosexual equivalent: the long-term homosexual bond that is non-monogamous, that may even involve female partners for fun and procreation. The fact that Alexander participated in such a relationship has given rise to the assumption that he was “bisexual”—as Gore Vidal asserted and as Renault herself let slip in her biography of Alexander. But I would still call this a homosexual relationship, because it’s clear that the primary emotional bond is between the long-term male partners. Indeed there’s a strong strain in Greek culture, famously expressed in Plato’s Symposium, that love between a man and a woman, because of their inherent inequality, is necessarily inferior to the love between men, whom the gods have made superior in character to women.
In The Last of the Wine (1956), Renault’s twenty-year-old protagonist Alexias wonders anxiously if his friend Xenophon (based on the real historical figure) has the capacity to love another man. The implication is that there’s something lacking in a man who cannot love an equal. For its exploration of a homosexual relationship, The Last of the Wine surpasses even The Persian Boy. In part this is because the two central characters, Alexias and Lysis, young citizens of Athens, are more conventional, far less exotic, than Alexander and his retinue, so it’s possible for their relationship to take its own course without having to be reconciled with the spectacular accomplishments of Alexander the Great. What one finds in this relationship is a pattern that is perhaps familiar to all great loves, yet unique to the homosexual experience because of the accommodations it must make to other sexual liaisons, including marriage to a woman. Alexias is about eight years Lysis’s junior, and their relationship initially follows the pattern of a slightly older man setting a standard of behavior for the youth. Alexias’s father writes him that he approves the union and admonishes his son to follow the elder’s example and advice.
The destiny of the two lovers over the next years, set against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War and developed beautifully by Renault, takes them through all the stages of any great love affair: the honeymoon period in which all is perfect; the gradual distancing for no apparent reason; reconciliation that restores the former closeness but not the passion; the challenges posed by other love interests, including women; attractions (never acted on) for other men and boys. They do not grow old together—I won’t reveal why lest I spoil the story—but their relationship progresses through all the seasons of change and maturation of any loving couple in a time of social crisis.
The bond between lovers in ancient Greece was cemented by a concept of virtue whereby each partner vowed never to shame the other through ignoble conduct. Again, we have a contrast with, say, heterosexual love in a Christian marriage, where monogamy is the essential bond that one partner owes the other. In the Greek context, sexual loyalty—by no means guaranteed—was based on a concept of shame and presupposed equality between the two partners: if one held one’s lover as the highest ideal, then sex with anyone else would by definition be a step down—an act of slumming, if you will—and a debasement of oneself.
IT WOULD be difficult to impress upon a non-gay reader the importance of Renault’s works in the closeted context of the 1950’s and 60’s, when positive representations of gay people were virtually nonexistent. Renault offered not just passing references but complete portraits of homosexual relationships of various kinds. And by attaching these relationships to a Homeric or Platonic concept of personal virtue, she was daring to suggest that they were superior to heterosexual relationships! In The Last of the Wine, Alexias asks his lover one summer night: “Lysis, where do you think the soul goes, when we die?” And this is how Lysis replies: “Who has come back to tell us? Perhaps, as Pythagoras taught, into the womb again. Into a philosopher if we have deserved it, or a woman if we were weak; or a beast or bird if we failed altogether to be men. It would be pleasant to think so, because it would be just. But I think we sleep, and never awaken.”
It is worth commenting on some particular ways in which Renault establishes the realism of her recreations of the Greek world and the authenticity of her narrative technique. Her gift was that of inventing a language that was both elevated and perfectly natural to the ear. For example, a character would say “I gave it him” rather than “I gave it to him.” The dropping of the preposition before the indirect object conveys a slightly dated mode of speech that is natural in its brevity and cadence. Here is what Renault has Alexander say when his troops have mutinied at Opis, on account of being slighted in favor of Alexander’s Persian Companions: “Yes, tell them at home how you forsook me, and left me to the care of the foreigners you conquered. No doubt it will bring you glory among men, and heaven’s blessings. Get out.” This reproof, with its slightly archaic ring (“forsook”), seems to me a plausible rendering of how an angry general would really have spoken.
Lest one think this easy to do, compare Renault to other, more celebrated writers. Kazantzakis in his novel Alexander the Great has the conqueror say to his general Parmenion: “My venerable general, my faithful co-worker, the time has come for us to part. I am going to entrust you with an important, confidential office.” It is safe to say no one talks like this, at least in private. Somewhat similarly, Yourcenar has the emperor Hadrian reminiscing on his life in sentences like the following: “When I seek deep within me for knowledge of myself what I find is obscure, internal, unformulated and as secret as any complicity.” Even the more felicitous Robert Graves in I Claudius has his protagonist speaking in whole paragraphs at age fifteen, sounding like Cicero in the Roman Senate.
Renault is especially adept at filling in historical detail and making it seem vividly real. In The Praise Singer, for instance, the poet Simonides is horrified to discover his pupil writing down the lyrics to a poem he’s composing. Here, in this dramatic but amusing scene, perfectly rendered, Renault is reminding the reader that Western verse originated as oral performance (probably sung or chanted), and that transcription was at first regarded as a vulgarization. In The Mask of Apollo, one learns much about ancient stagecraft, and there’s a wonderful scene, perhaps the most dramatic in the book, in which the hero and his companion (a woman!) escape the sack of Syracuse in the reign of Dion by using the sound and stage effects in a theater to frighten superstitious pursuers. In The Bull from the Sea, a novel about the youthful Theseus, Renault intelligently makes her bull-riders slight and lithe and not heavily muscled—for how else could they perform the gymnastic acrobatics required by the riders (who were recruited by lot in Athens and sent to Crete) in the bull ring?
Alexander the Great’s last known remarks were uttered as he lay dying from pneumonia in Babylon (he was 32). The Greeks believed that certain men who had excelled in excellence and courage became gods upon their death. (Alexander was even regarded as a god in his own lifetime.) When asked at what times divine honors should be paid to him after his death, he replied, “When you are happy.” Mary Renault should be read when you are sad to make you happy; and also when you are happy, to remind you why. She writes with supreme grace and fluency, and she has mastery of both characterization and narrative technique; her novels recreate an ancient Greece that is noble and seems wholly credible. Perhaps best of all, Renault gives us many images of what human beings can become if they strive to be what they wish to seem to others, and she has furnished us with portrayals of homosexual love that are at once realistic and idealized. Her representations of love reflect specific features of the Greek ethos and invoke what is most difficult, most intense, and most admirable within each of us.
Alan Brady Conrath is a writer and poet based in Boston.