ANTHONY BURGESS wrote Kingdom of the Wicked as preparation for writing the television mini- series A.D. From its title onward, A.D. was an unintended joke, and this novel suffers throughout from that association.

Burgess means here, as in A.D., to show the evil might of Rome challenged and confounded by a handful of ordinary men having no other weapon than their faith in Jesus Christ. His story alternates between scenes of the decadence of the Imperial Court and the struggles of the Apostles in the Holy Land to understand the mission given them by the resurrection of Christ and the miracle of the Pentecost.

The noble scale and huge moral theme of such a project demands a writer of considerable skill, and Burgess writes wonderfully well. The surface of his book, as in all his novels, flashes with intelligence, with wry wit, with presence, with style. Unfortunately the substance is amazingly trivial.

For one thing, in writing about the Caesars, Burgess invites, foolishly, comparison with Robert Graves, whose I, Claudius deals with the same material.

The great dynasty that Julius Caesar founded reached the seat of ultimate power and its members immediately set about destroying one another; the decline and fall of this extraordinary family marks the beginning of the terrible collapse of ancient civilization. Graves, through his profound knowledge of and empathy for the ancient world, penetrated the monstrous deeds of individual people to expose an underlying crisis, the fundamental disjointing of society.

Without some such resonance of meaning, the careers of such as Tiberius and Caligula are grotesque and crazy, a black comedy. Burgess has always had a taste for black comedy, and yielding to it here he lets it drown his story.

His Caesars are conventional parodies: pointlessly cruel, infantilely lascivious, stupid, narcissistic. While they indulge their appetites, the good, lacking all conviction, stand around wringing their hands and weeping. "Rome was mad under Gaius," someone sighs.

If Burgess had developed some idea here of what was going wrong with Rome, of how the traditional ways were failing these people, he could have shown why the doctrines of Christ and Saint Paul had such a widespread appeal.

The first Christians lived in daily expectation of the Second Coming and the end of the world, yet none of this apocalyptic intensity comes through in this novel.

BURGESS has chosen to place a narrator between his readers and his plot, a narrator of ironic detachment and very little commitment, whose physical and intellectual distance from vents makes even miracles seem humdrum. The Apostles are mouthpieces, actors, who've read the script and know what happens next.

Kingdom of the Wicked is a television show in disguise, A.D. in hardcovers. Exactly what is missing here are the complexity, the depth, the difficulty of real fiction.

Toward the end of the novel, a strange mood sets in, a feeling of despair, of missed opportunities. Rome loses her chance for salvation, and Burgess has lost a chance at a wonderful novel.

Rome was "the kingdom of the wicked," as the Jews called it: a vacuum, a negative, the world made blind and stupid by sin, the absence of Christian love. Yet, to save the people of this same kingdom, the saints of the early Church subverted the Jewish bedrock of their faith and borrowed rituals like baptism and concepts like the Holy Spirit from the very same pagan religions they abhorred.

There's a great story here, but Anthony Burgess has not written it. Kingdom of the Wicked leaves Christianity as it began: a mystery religion.