Flaubert is most famous for Madame Bovary. Despite now being regarded as one of the all time classics of literature Madame Bovary at the time got Flaubert into a lot of trouble, and he ended up in court accused of corrupting the nation’s morals. Quite an achievement when the country in question is France.
The whole affair was quite bruising for Flaubert who retreated to the south to completely immerse himself into his next novel. This was a project completely different to his previous one. He now created what is for me the greatest historical novel of all time, and I think his conscious rejection of his own times and complete absorbtion into the world he was describing are key in making it so.
The novel is set in ancient Carthage just after the end of the first Punic War. Carthage has been defeated by the Romans and is nearly bankrupt. Being broke is always a problem, but it is made worse in Carthage’s case because they owe a huge amount in back pay to the mercenaries that they had been using to fight Rome. These battle hardened troops were camped outside the city.
The novel opens with a huge feast being thrown on behalf of the mercenaries in the grounds of the temple of Tanit – the fertility Goddess whose pomegranate groves provided the backdrop. Salammbô is the daughter of Hamilcar Barca and the brother of Hannibal, who is a small boy at this time. One of the mercenaries, Matho, falls in love with Salambo from afar – following which a riot breaks out. A slave called Spendius takes advantage of the situation to escape and befriend Matho.
The mercenaries leave the city, still without their pay and camp outside Sicca. A delightfully decadent Carthaginian politician, Hanno, tries to use charm in place of hard cash to placate them. This was always going to be a tough sell, but becomes impossible when news arrives that some archers who had stayed behind had been killed. The mercenaries are now incesnse and lay siege to Carthage; Matho and Spendius carry out a daring raid via the aqueduct. They penetrate to the alter of Moloch and steal a powerful talisman called the Zaïmph. Matho, hot headed and impuslive, breaks into Salammbô’s bedroom in order to see her again. She is stunned by the barbarian’s behaviour, but it also means she is suspected of sympathising with him.
But despite having the charm the mercenaries cannot continue the siege without supplies and split up and return to ravaging the countryside. Meanwhile, the war hero Hamilcar Barca returns. Barca had had a good war against the Romans, scoring successes against them in Sicily and effectively reaching the end of the war undefeated. But this being Carthage, there are politics and intrigues to overcome, and some council members try to blame him for the city’s predicament. He defends himself before the Council and defends the mercenaries, but turns against the barbarians when he sees the damage they have done to his property. He is put in charge of what few forces can be mustered. Advancing to Macar he defeats Spendius but his troops are surrounded by the mercenaries led by Matho.
In the most strange and erotic section of the book, Salammbô sneaks into the mercenary camp in disguise to retrieve the Zaïmph. In the semi-light she encounters Matho who believes he is dreaming – in turn she is overcome by the power of the barbarian who she feels has mystical powers. They make love and then she makes her escape. Unaware of these events, Hamilcar leads a break out from the encirclement aided by a turncoat called Narr’Havas. On meeting Salammbô, Hamilcar has her betrothed to Narr’ Havas.
The Carthaginian army returns to their city with the mercenaries in hot pursuit. They cut off the water supply – the situation has now become critical. The Carthaginian response – sacrifice their children to Moloch. Hamilcar is not superstitious, nor in despair. Rather than sacrifice the young Hannibal, he grabs a slave boy from his household and sends him to die in his son’s place.
Moloch has been appeased and now the Carthaginian’s fortunes change. The drought is broken and aid comes. Hamilcar drives the mercenaries away from their encampments. Later, thousands of mercenaries are trapped in a valley. Flaubert describes their suffering as they slowly starve. Eventually they surrender and are carried back to Carthage.
Carthage has been delivered from the greatest threat it has so far suffered in its history. Being Carthage, the celebrations include a bit of ritual torture and executions. Salammbô seeing Matho’s crucifixion, dies of shock. The curse of the Zaïmph has worked its course.
Although not much read today, Salammbo was a sensation in its day inspiring works of art, fashion and even a full length opera version. Thanks to Wikipedia for the Art Noveau Poster above by Alphonso Mucha – even in our licentious times this image oozes the decadence and cruelty of the book. The world of Carthage that Flaubert evokes is strange but compelling. It is one of those books that really carries you into it. Although Salammbo herself is a fictional character, many of the details were drawn from contemporary historians and archeology. It remains the most vivid picture of the ancient world that I have come across. I read it in the original language so I can’t recommend any particular translation. But it most certainly is a book I can recommend to lovers of history.