I didn't realise that Gore Vidal was what is called a revisionist when it came to his historical novels, but it only makes me want to pick up more of his books because revisionists tend to give us an alternate view of history that differs from the history that is written by the winners. This book is one of those examples: not so much a retelling of Herodotus but rather a version of Herodotus written from the view of a Persian.
For those who are not familiar with Ancient Greek literature, Herodotus is known as the Father of History, but he is also known as the Father of Lies, most likely because of his portrayal of the Persians (who were the enemies of the Greeks). However, Herodotus' Histories is not strictly a history text but rather an anthropological text in which he describes a number of cultures that existed around the Eastern Mediterranean during his time. A large section of his book deals with the Egyptians in which we learn a lot about Egyptian culture (such as the fact that they practised circumcision) that we may not have otherwise known. However, in the end, it appears that Herodotus' purpose is to demonstrate that the greatest of the civilisations is that of the Greeks.
Vidal tries to overturn that belief by writing from the point of view of a Persian diplomat, Cyrus Spitama. The novel begins near the end of Spitama's life, when he is posted to Greece as a diplomat. Here is spends his time discussing politics and philosophy with Anaximander, which is interesting because when most of us think of Greek philosophers, we think of Plato (who had not been born at this time) and Socrates (who makes an appearance in the story, but is described as a pest with a big nose). In a way Spitama, who was raised a Zoroastrian and believes in a dualistic world, namely a world in which equal but opposite powers are forever struggling for control, on a search for truth and meaning in life. His travels, as he tells them to his Greek friends, have taken him to India, where he met with the Buddha, and as far abroad as China, where he met with Confucius.
There is little to no discussion of Greek religion in this book, namely because it is generally accepted that Greek religion was fairly primitive at the time. Instead we have discussions on philosophy with one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, as well as an exploration of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It should be noted that, with the exception of Zoroastrianism, all of these religions are not strictly religions, but rather philosophies. It should also be noted that there is an acceptance that the old polytheistic religions (such as the one that Zoroastrianism superseded in Persia) were considered primitive, and that a movement forward involved moving away from a world of conflicting deities, to a world with either one, or no, deities.
Zoroastrianism has been considered to be the foundation religion from which the major monotheistic religions of today arose, however I tend to disagree. It is noted by some commentators that there is a problem with Spitama being Zarathustra's grandson in that it is now suspected that he lived a lot earlier than he did in this book. I tend to fall into the position that Zoroastrianism had probably been around in Persia for a while (and in fact it was probably introduced to Persia when the empire expanded to the northeast), but became popular after the fall of Babylon and the freeing of the Jews.
Vidal seems to consider that the 4th century BC was a period in which there was a lot of expansion in human knowledge. It was during this time that Buddhism developed in India, moving away from the pantheistic Hindu religion, Zoroastrianism superseded the older Persian polytheism, as well as seeing the collapse of the Neo-Babylonian empire. Greece was also developing a democratic political system as well as a system of philosophy, ethics, and rudimentary scientific ideas. I believe we even have encounters with the Jews in this book, but it has been quite a while since I read it that I am not able to say for sure (though it is on my list of books to read again). If this is the case, then it is another break from Herodotus, who for some reason, seems to completely ignore this rather important people who would end up having an even greater impact upon our culture (though I explore the reasoning behind this in my commentary on Herodotus).
I wish to finish off with another comment on Zoroastrianism, and that is how many of us do not realise the significant impact that it has had on our culture. As well as enhancing the popularity of monotheistic religions (in that there is only one god that mattered because the other god as out to destroy us), it also introduced the concept of dualism, and that is the eternal struggle between good and evil. It was not the idea that existed beforehand, and is not the actual Christian (or Jewish position). Previously, evil was present, but weak, and this has taken hold to some extent with Christians who actually understand the bible, not so much that God is more powerful, but rather that love extinguishes evil much more than evil extinguishes love. Yet, despite all this we are still a dualistic society, and the modern church preaches not only on a Platonic background of heaven and hell, but on a dualistic notion of good and evil. Satan is everywhere, and if we don't watch out he will ensnare us and destroy us, despite the Bible telling us that love will always triumph over evil. While the bible warns us about indulging in evil, the concept of love, and of evil as being selfish, has become blurred to the extent that we end up living in fear of the real world, or we align ourselves with those who seek to destroy the freedoms that we have fought so hard to obtain.