For the most part, my book group found this to be something of a clunker. And to be perfectly honest, I also found this book to be a slog. I'm still trying to understand exactly why that is, because, based purely on concept, if I were going to pitch this book for a TV series, I would say it was I, Claudius meets the travels of Marco Polo.
I think one problem with it is that for a story that covers Greece, and almost all of the Near and Far East, it is curiously static. This may be in part because Vidal chose to tell this from the point of view of a very old, blind man, and so some of the more dynamic events of his own life are not of much interest to him anymore. And Vidal has deliberately chosen his narrator to be not a central historical figure, like, say Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, but instead a chronicler of the real movers and shakers of his era. To put it another way, as Paul Theroux wrote in his review in 1981, when the book was new: "Anyone looking for libido in this novel will be disappointed." And actually, Theroux's appraisal is quite just and worth reading. You can find it here .
However. All these things being true, it is still a worthwhile read. It is set in the fifth century B.C., and "anybody who was anybody" was there. I have long heard about the almost miraculous explosion of consciousness in this era, when not only the Greek philosophers began their inquiries, but in quite separate spheres, Confucius and Buddha also were holding sway. Cyrus Spitama, half Greek, half Persian and the grandson of Zoroaster to boot is Vidal's fictional creation. He is young enough and ambitious enough--and well connected enough, although he never seems to think so--to be able to journey to see all of them in one lifetime.
The novel's interests are not those of most novels. Vidal is inquiring not into our social interactions but our political ones, and above and beyond that, his character Spitama is preoccupied with the subject of Creation, with all the different ideas that were going on in that vast part of the world on how everything came to be, and how we are supposed to live as a consequence. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and if Vidal didn't write the novel we wanted him to write, he certainly wrote the novel that he wanted to write. I spent much of the time I was reading it wondering how on earth he did it. How did he know enough about multiple, vastly different political and religious/philosophical realms to do it? One reason I persisted with the novel is that I knew that even if it took a bit of effort, I was never going to have another guide through this period as good as this one.
Another thing I really appreciated about this book was that Vidal chose to tell it all from the point of view of a Persian. What little most of us know about ancient history, if we know anything at all, and on my part, that's not much, comes down to us from the Greeks and Romans, or, on another track, from the Hebrews. To have the Persian perspective on the Persian Wars--even just an educated guess as to how it must have seemed from their angle-- is a nice way of turning different truisms on their heads. And though the book is not particularly droll, though every once in a while Vidal's wit shows through, it is funny to see Cyrus moan about the Greeks so much. We are used to bowing to them without knowing them all that well. Cyrus, though half Greek himself, does not bow to their superiority. It is a little hard to know what Vidal himself thought of them.
I liked the way the book helped me put together the relation of all these concurrent empires in time and space. They were all in one way or another looking to receive heaven's mandate--which meant world domination. And yet, in Cyrus's view, on a basic level, they were self preoccupied and not interested in the other cultures beyond the horizon. Cyrus is always returning from some expedition or other, full of tales and adventures, and finding that no one cares. (Of course, it may have been that they, like we, simply found him not to be that scintillating a storyteller. It happens.)
I also found it interesting to read about democracy when it was young, especially in the context of recent news from Syria, Iran and Egypt. The interplay of the military and democracy seemed particularly apt. It takes a power other than democracy to enforce democracy, then as now.
If you have an interest in this period and have the kind of disposition it takes to get into a long, slowly paced book (it definitely doesn't feel as if it was written for our current historical moment), give it a go. But if you do, you might start writing down who's who as you go. Because Gore is not going to help you with that one.