Creation (novel)

Creation is an epic historical fiction novel by Gore Vidal published in 1981. In 2002 he published a restored version, reinstating four chapters that a previous editor had cut and adding a brief foreword explaining what had happened and why he had restored the cut chapters.

Cover of the first edition
AuthorGore Vidal
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
1 January 1981
Media typePrint (Hardback and Paperback)
Pages510 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN0-394-50015-6 (first edition, hardback)
813/.54 19
LC ClassPS3543.I26 C7

Plot summary

The story follows the adventures of a fictional "Cyrus Spitama", an Achaemenid Persian diplomat of the 6th-5th century BCE who travels the known world comparing the political and religious beliefs of various empires, kingdoms and republics of the time. Over the course of his life, he meets many influential philosophical figures of his time, including Zoroaster, Socrates, Anaxagoras, the Buddha, Mahavira, Lao Tsu, and Confucius. Though vehemently identifying himself as a Persian and speaking disparagingly of the Greeks, he is half-Greek himself - having had a formidable Greek mother.

Cyrus, who is the grandson of Zoroaster and who survives his murder, grows up at the Achaemenid court as a quasi-noble, and becomes a close friend of his schoolmate Xerxes. Because of Cyrus' talent for languages, the Achaemenid King, Darius I, sends him as an ambassador to certain kingdoms in India, and in fact as a spy gathering information for Darius' intended invasion and conquest of the Gangetic Plain. Cyrus becomes interested in the many religious theories he encounters there, but being a worldly courtier fails to be impressed with the Buddha and his concept of Nirvana. After coming to power, Cyrus' former schoolmate, now King Xerxes I, sends Cyrus to China, where he spends several years as a captive and "honored guest" in several of the warring states of the Middle Kingdom, and spends a great deal of time with Confucius - who unlike the Buddha, seeks "To rectify the world rather than withdraw from it". Upon returning home, Cyrus witnesses the defeat of Xerxes and the end of the Greco-Persian wars. Cyrus then goes into retirement, but is called upon by Xerxes' successor, Artaxerxes I, to serve as ambassador to Athens and witness to the secret peace treaty between Pericles and himself.

The story is related in the first person as recalled to his Greek great-nephew Democritus. Cyrus's recollection is said to be motivated in part by his desire to set the record straight following the publication by Herodotus of an account of the Greco-Persian wars.

Major themes

Vidal evokes a theme which Robert Graves had previously explored, a skepticism of the reported facts and interpretations of our understanding of history as reported by the winners of its battles. The story features a rather amusingly sarcastic treatment of the pretensions to glory of Classical Golden Age of Athens. In the parts of the book that comment on history, Vidal makes obvious use of the Histories of Herodotus.

As noted in Vidal's own introduction, it can be considered a "crash course" in comparative religion, as during the story, the hero sits down with each of the religious/philosophical figures (apart from Socrates) and discusses their views.

Historical significance and criticism

The era which Vidal covers in this novel has been referred to by some historians as the Axial Age. In Vidal's story, Darius is portrayed as a usurper who murdered King Cambyses and stole the throne from the rightful heir, Prince Smerdis, in collusion with Queen Atossa. This account of Darius's ascension is in contrast to the known historical sources. There is also speculation about the identity of the character in the court of Ch'in known only as Huan, whether he is a reference to the later Legalist Prime minister of Ch'in, Shang Yang or some other unknown historical figure. The figure usually given credit for the founding Legalism, Han Feizi was born much later than the book is set.

Vidal's fictional protagonist, "Cyrus Spitama" is portrayed as the grandson of Zoroaster, and a contemporary of Xerxes - which would have made Zoroaster a contemporary of Cyrus the Great or even Cambyses. However, most historians today believe that Zoroaster lived centuries before any of the Achaemenid kings (although older non-specialist texts that Vidal would have used in researching his novel in the 1970s would indeed have mostly used what used to be the traditional date based upon later Zoroastrian sources having placed the beginning of the 'Age of Zoroaster' 258 years 'before Alexander' i.e. between 581 and 589 BC).

It is also unusual that Cyrus Spitama (who bears the same surname as Zoroaster) was an ambassador and a nobleman rather than a priest - the Zoroastrian priesthood was hereditary, and anyone bearing the Spitama name would be in high demand as a guardian of a fire temple. This issue is however dealt with throughout the novel, explained by the character's own attitudes and decisions. In reality, there is no record of Zoroaster's family having survived into the Achaemenid era. The central character, Cyrus Spitama, is intentionally a fictional construct and not based on a real historical figure.

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