Persian history at the peak of the Achaemenid Empire
(5th century BCE) is pretty neatly summed up in a few lines from our high school world history courses, largely in connection with Greek history. We hear a few snippets about the Persian rulers, Cyrus
, and Xerxes
; a big paragraph about the runner who sprinted from Marathon
to warn the Greeks of the Persian attack (which was comeuppance for supporting a revolt in Persia and burning the city of Sardis) and ever after served as the namesake for future long-distance running contests; the battle at Thermopylae
in which a handful of Spartans embarrassed an overwhelming Persian force under the Persian king, Xerxes, immortalized and buried under a mountain of hyperbole in cinema, and how Greeks won freedom from a terrible oppressor, launching democracy, serving as a basis for civilization and western world, blah blah blah.Hyperbole. And partial nudity. And epic nose chains.
Essentially, most of what we know about Persia has been related through the lens of Greek history. The Persians amassed an enormous army and had an equally enormous empire, making them the perfect foil in the Star Wars parable that we've made Greek v. Persia history out to be.Look, sir! Greeks!
It's a suitable mentality to have even in the current age, as the Persian empire stretched across the middle east, a land that is, and has been, largely unfriendly to the Western world for centuries, mostly for religious reasons (on both sides) that didn't exist during the Achaemenid empire.Say, isn't this this pretty much the same empire Alexander ruled and was considered so awesome for creating, but promptly fell apart when he died?
The question that must
come to mind to anyone reading this myopic history is: How
did this empire come to be so massive and rich? Surely it could not have been all bad. Vidal's Creation answers this question and carefully explores what most folk of the Western hemisphere have deliberately ignored as a relic of the backwards and dangerous middle east: the Persian perspective.
What Vidal provides in Creation, from the viewpoint of the fictional diplomat and spiritual inheritor of Zoroastrianism
, Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of none other than Zoroaster
and childhood friend of Xerxes, is the story of a lush and powerful civilization, rife with power struggles and an abundance of history, just like the Greeks, and with ample justification for the contempt that Persians in power felt for the Greeks. And not without cause, as they're depicted as self-serving, filthy, shifty, and hardly trustworthy. Reading Creation, you're liable to share the Persian contempt. In many ways, and without stretching the truth, Spitama compares and contrasts Greek and Persian civilization, and it's difficult, in the end, to see how Greece receives the historical accolades while Persia is ignored. There's certainly a sense of foreboding and bitterness in Spitama as an old man recounting his journeys throughout the Persian empire, Greece, India, and China, who seems to know the wheels of fate have turned inexplicably in favor of Greek culture.
While much of Spitama's angst is directed at the Greeks, having metastasized from previous Persian rulers who had to deal with them, he also serves as a diplomat to the East as well. He visits and marries in India, is captured in China, and meets figures of extraordinary historical significance.
It's important to note that Vidal has selected a singularly remarkable time period and location to explore, in which the likes of significant eastern
historical figures, such as Siddhartha Guatama
(the Buddha), Master K'ung Fu-tzu
(Confucius), Lao Tse
(creator of the Tao Te Ching), were mucking about in the East at the same time prominent Greeks and Persians were mucking about in the "West". Not only do we meet these philosophical titans, we get to listen to their followers interact and deride one another, which is an unparalleled treat.
Much of the greatness I attribute to this story has little to do with Vidal's writing ability, which itself is slick as wet glass in the reader's mind, and more to do with Vidal's selection of time period. Volumes and volumes and volumes of books have been written on each of the characters in this work, on the empires explored (including those lesser-known in India), on the political machinations of those in power (including Zoroaster himself, which provided Spitama with an important political role where he otherwise might have been No One). But to combine this confluence of activity and personality seamlessly into a single novel is all at once an obvious choice, a fascinating exploration of that which most overlook, and ultimately nothing short of sublime.