CYRUS SPITAMA, the hero of Gore Vidal's long new historical novel Creation, is ideally qualified by birth, upbringing, character, travel and the accident of time to be the greatest name-dropper who ever lived.
He is the grandson of no less a man than Zoroaster and, at the age of 7 is present at, and the only survivor of, the massacre in which this holy man is butchered by some Turanian savages. His mother, to whom he often refers as "the Thracian witch," is a Greek from a rich family in Abdera. She is much in demand at the Persian courts of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes because of her skill as a poisoner; she is on friendly terms first with Queen Atossa, wife of Darius and daughter of Cyrus the Great, and later with the wife of Xerxes. Among her lovers are Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens, and Demaratus, exiled King of Sparta. It is largely through her influence that the young Cyrus Spitama is brought up as a Persian noble of the fifth century B.C. His best friends are the young Xerxes, the future king, and Mardonius, the future great general.
As a young man Cyrus, already a scholar in Persian and Greek, travels to India and becomes fluent in at least some of the languages of that country. He also adds to his royal connections by marrying the daughter of the most imporant king in central India. He meets the leaders of the Jains and has a philosophical discussion with the Buddha himself. Leaving behind his pregnant Indian wife (a pity, since she is the only agreeable woman in the book), he returns to Persia with a Chinese diplomat who tells him about Confucius.
Back at the court of Darius he is promoted to the important position of "King's Eye." On his tours of inspection he visits his very rich Greek grandfather (a loyal Persian subject) and meets the young Protagoras. yin Halicarnassus he sees his old boyhood friend, the general Mardonius who has become the ardent lover of the warrior Queen Artemisia.
His next assignment is China. Here after many adventures, not all pleasant, he falls on his feet again and meets all the most influential people, including Confucius and "Master Li," the Taoist. Finally he manages to get back to Persia and finds his old friend Xerxes still on his throne. In later years, as unofficila ambassador to Athens, he will meet the sophist Anaxagoras, Socrates (a clumsy and inefficient stonemason), Pericles, the courtesan Aspasia, and a young relation from Thrace, Democritus, later to become founder of the atomic theory. It is an imposing collection of names and to these could be added many others, including Scylax, the great exploreer, Milo, the world's greates athlete, and so on.
Cyrus Spitama, when Vidal has him recount the story of his adventures, is in his old age, blind, but very alert mentally. He is rather cantankerous, has few good words for the Greeks in general and the Athenians in particular ("Anaxagoras is the best of a bad lot"). He cannot see the new building which Pericles is putting up, but is pretty sure that they are feeble imitations of Persian architecture. And he is much incensed by; the experience of listening to a public reading given by Herodotus and describing the Persian defeats at Marathon, Salamis and Platea. It is largely in order to set the record straight that he enlists the services of young Democritus as a secretary to take down his own account of these events and indeed of his whole eventful life. He promises even more: "I shall begin at the beginning and tell you what I know of the creation of this world, and of all other worlds too. I shall also explain why evil is -- and is not."
One can imagine the eagerness with which Democritus, like the reader of Creation, must have awaited the revelations. But I fancy that by this time he must have known that his elderly and distinguished relative, although a skillful diplomat, a brilliant reconteur and the most traveled man in the world, cannot count either history or philosophy among his strong points. His admirable loyalty to the doctrines of his grandfather Zoroaster and to the memory of his friend Xerxes has the unfortunate effect of making him strangely pig-headed, so that he cannot understand any philosophical theory more complicated than Zoroaster's simple dualism (good vs. evil), and refuses, against all the evidence, to admit that any army commanded by Xerxes could ever have been defeated. He is also handicapped by his rejection of his Greek ancestry. To him the Greeks are crooks, "eel-wrigglers" and "hair-splitters," and he forgets that they, like the Persians, have been brought up to speak the truth. Had he been more capable of rational thought and less bound to his own dogmas he might have understood better the sages of the East, though one must own that, except for Confucius (who is an expert fisherman), these are all singularly unattractive.
What Cyrus Spitama is really good at is gossip-riting. He can tell you of all the intrigues of the Persian court and knows most of the secrets of the harem. With Xerxes he visits all the best brothels in Babylon. He has inside information on the big banks.
He is good too on traveler's tales such as that of the two Indian merchants saved from drowning "by two of the many mermaids who abound in the sourthern sea." There are also dragons from the bones of which an eccentric Chinese nobleman makes quite a lot of money. He is lastly as brilliant secret agent and can recognize other spies at a glance. For example, in India "The prince fondled a naked girl of nine or ten who lay across his lap. She had enormous, watchful eyes. I assumed that she was a secret-service agent. In Magadha agents are recruited young, usually from among homeless orphans." Not, perhaps, quite up to some of the more fabled spymasters, but pretty good all the same.