“The brazen arms were working more quickly. They paused no longer. Every time that a child was placed in them the priests of Moloch spread out their hands upon him to burden him with the crimes of the people, vociferating: ‘They are not men but oxen!’ and the multitude round about repeated: ‘Oxen! oxen!’ The devout exclaimed: ‘Lord! Eat!’ – Salammbô, chapter 13
Much to everyone’s no doubt collective dread, I continue to be on a bit of an obscure-historical-literature kick (it’s still winter during a quasi-pandemic in my neck of the woods, so what else can you do?), so I thought this week I’d introduce all of you to the Gustave Flaubert novel Salammbô (1862), a historical melodrama set in Carthage during the Mercenary War (241-238/7 BC), and talk a little bit about both the book and the history. Much like Proust and the other male-centric navel-gazing French writers of the late 19th century, I have an ambivalent relationship with Flaubert (I vastly prefer Hugo, Dumas, and Sand, personally, and never agreed with my sophomore English teacher more fervently than when he referred to Madame Bovary as ‘Madame Boring’). But despite vowing to abandon Flaubert after reluctantly slogging through L’Éducation sentimentale a couple of years ago, the plot of Salammbô drew me back in against my will. In part because I always like to see what older authors do with historical fiction as a genre, and also because I fully confess that a lot of Roman history beyond the period I wrote about in my novels is only sketchily known to me and I previously knew only the bare outline of what was going on in the early parts of the Latin-Carthaginian conflict that form the background of this novel.
Though speaking of Madame B, it was Flaubert’s most famous novel that in part led to him writing Salammbô. Bovary caused a sensation when it was published in 1857, and its depiction of its desperate, romantic heroine’s adultery and suicide was so shocking for its times that Flaubert was charged with criminal penalties for “immorality.” He would ultimately be acquitted, but the affair did encourage him to take a breather from the painstaking contemporary realism that would be his literary legacy and focus on writing something that might not get him dragged into court. Considering that Salammbô’s story involves a significant amount of hardcore violence, orientalized sexuality, and culminates with child sacrifice, a modern reader might have trouble believing its author wrote it to be less controversial, but Flaubert knew the secret that many writers before and after him have fallen back on: if it happens in the past somewhere else, you can get away with a lot more, content-wise. Flaubert also used his story’s exotic setting as an excuse to travel to French-controlled Tunisia for research, which let the legal controversy around Bovary die down a bit in his absence.
But before we get into specifics about the novel, we, like Flaubert, have to rewind a bit and talk turkey about the historical lead-up to its action. From my title, you probably think I’m going to explain the so-called Mercenary War—and we will—but first we need to talk a little about the First Punic War (264-241 BC).
The Punic Wars were, at their heart, caused by the growing friction between the culturally Greek empire of Carthage (the city itself located in modern Tunisia) and the growing Roman Republic for trading and political dominance of the western Mediterranean. The First Punic War was a twenty-three year conflict that encompassed much of Carthage’s territory in North Africa, but ultimately condensed into an amphibious fight over control of Sicily, where Carthage had placed trading posts and military garrisons. As would be the case in its more-famous sequel war, it took a long time for either side to gain any decisive advantage. The Roman Republic at this time was smaller and had a significantly less powerful army than what it would eventually amass in the future (not to mention an almost nonexistent navy), but while Carthage had a formidable navy (appropriate for a people who were founded by the sea-faring Phoenicians), its army strength relied heavily on recruiting temporary foreign mercenaries to fill its ranks.
With these foreign soldiers, Carthage managed to chase Rome from North Africa and conquer new territories in modern-day Algeria and Morocco. But against all expectations, when they pursued the Republic to Sicily and sought to land a death blow by sea, the fledgling Roman navy managed to hold its own enough to force Carthage to sue for peace after the financial strain of continuing the fight and manning the few garrisons it still held in Sicily became nigh-ruinous for the six hundred year old Carthaginian Empire. The negotiations were left in the power of Carthage’s commander in Sicily, Hamilcar Barca (Greek: Hamílkas [Ἁμίλκας]; Punic: 𐤇𐤌𐤋𐤊). The Barca family (whose cognomen, Brq [𐤁𐤓𐤒] meant “thunderbolt”; the Arabic Barq and Hebrew Barack have a related root) was not an especially notable one prior to Hamilcar’s successful military career, but his posthumous fame in Carthage and beyond would be largely subsumed into that of his son, Hannibal (Punic: 𐤇𐤍𐤁𐤏𐤋).
Anyway, Hamilcar and his deputy, Gisco, signed what would become known as the Treaty of Lutatius with Rome in 241 BC. In it, Carthage was forced to abandon its remaining Sicilian garrisons, return any Roman prisoners of war, and pay an indemnity of 3,200 silver talents to the Republic (1,000 was due upfront, with the rest to be paid installments over the next decade). While alchemizing what the exchange rate of ancient measurements is often more of an art than a science, it has been hypothesized that the talents in question would have been a Roman weight measure of precious specie (1 talent = 100 Roman lbs), or as much as fifty-six tons of silver. Which is a lot of wealth for an empire that just fought a grossly expensive war and still has to cash out a large portion of its army. Because in a rare show of munificence, Rome allowed the Carthaginian soldiers to keep their arms rather than be stripped of them by the victorious Romans, which was a term Hamilcar had specifically bargained for. And while this was ostensibly a great PR victory for Carthage, avoiding the humiliation of disarmament, it created a unique problem for them. For since the foreign mercenaries in the Carthaginian ranks were permitted to keep their arms, they were technically, by ancient standards of warfare, part of an undefeated army and therefore very much entitled to the pay Carthage may have been able to deny them if they had been marked as defeated in the usual way. That meant there were suddenly at least 20,000 men with their hands out to Carthage’s treasury and that treasury was now effectively empty.
Hamilcar of course knew this, and tried to mitigate the damage by sending the mercenaries back to Carthage in clumps to give the authorities time to try to raise the necessary funds. But like most governments, the Carthaginians sat on the problem until all 20,000 mercenaries were camped out on the city’s doorstep and growing increasingly rowdy in the face of Carthage’s stalling. Many of these troops had been held to the Carthaginian cause not out of any particular regard to the empire or its people, but rather by personal loyalty to Hamilcar, and with the general still in Sicily and no sign of anyone giving them their pay, the mercenaries revolted and the resulting mutiny, which ended up attracting an accompanying force of nearly 70,000 of Carthage’s African tribal vassals who sensed a good opportunity, became known as the Mercenary War, or the Truceless War. Led by Spendius, whom the historian Polybius (c. 200-c.118 BC) described as a former Roman slave serving in the Carthaginian mercenary army and Matho (or Mathos), a Libyan from one of the empire’s suzerainty territories, the rebel force battled Carthage for nearly four years before enough of their forces were defeated and ringleaders captured to bring the whole episode to a grisly end. Carthage and Hamilcar would eventually emerge victorious, but the further drain on the empire’s finances and manpower, along with additional aggravating factors like the revolt spreading to garrisons on Corsica and Sardinia that would lead to more Roman intervention and more Roman sanctions against Carthage, would all but guarantee a renewal of Afro-Latin hostilities and culminate in a second Punic conflict that would bring the utter annihilation of ancient Carthage.
So, in this exciting swirl of history, who or what is Salammbô? The titular character of Flaubert’s novel is a fictional daughter of Hamilcar, who in history had at least three daughters, but whom we don’t have names for. Flaubert’s Salammbô is a priestess of the Punic goddess Tanit, a great mother deity who was seen as both the fertile agricultural consort of the chief Punic god Baal-Hamon and a virginal war goddess. Her historical depictions are similar to the older incarnation of Artemis worshipped at Ephesus and other Semitic goddesses like Astarte. It is in her vengeful, dichotomously sexual virginity as a harsh moon goddess that she is depicted in the novel. Salammbô’s service to the goddess is both chaste and aggressively sexualized: she writhes with a sacred snake and has ecstatic communion with Tanit, but at the same time we are assured that she has been raised ascetically, denied meat, wine, and “obscene images.” This is a common orientalizing trope in European literature of time that allows a prudish audience to have its cake and eat it too. Flaubert can indulge in this because while all the characters in Salammbô are very much Othered by culture and geography, there is definitely a sliding scale. The Carthaginians are still more “civilized” (also read whiter) overall than than Matho the Libyan and the duplicitous Numidians, led by their prince Narr’ Havas. We are told often of Salammbô’s pale complexion and henna-dyed locks, and Flaubert devotes long paragraphs at her every appearance in the story (surprisingly few, considering she’s the titular character) to exhaustively lay out every nuance of her opulent and exotic wardrobe. Indeed, Salammbô would kick off a French fashion craze based off of Flaubert’s descriptions of Carthaginian womenswear, and as evidenced by the many pictures in this entry, the chaste but half-naked Salammbô was a popular fin de siècle art subject.
But maybe it’s fitting that it’s Salammbô’s aesthetic that so captured the Parisians who eagerly snapped up the certifiably scandalous Flaubert’s next book, because much of the plot of Salammbô is set in motion by appearances. We join the action with the mercenary army enjoying a riotous banquet on the property of the still-absent Hamilcar Barca, where they’ve been dumped by the stalling Carthaginian council of lords who both are trying to put off the mercenaries from demanding their pay and jealously punishing Hamilcar for his successes by letting the increasingly uncontrollable mercenaries eat him out of house and home and destroy his property. The drunken, mutinous mercenaries work their way up from merely being loud and obnoxious to minor arson and animal torture, which is what draws the mysterious and whispered-about Salammbô from the house and into the story, to plead with the soldiers for some basic level of decency.
She invokes the protection of Tanit and singles out Matho, an enormous Libyan commander not currently involved in any of the shenanigans, probably because he looks imposing-enough to control some of the others, by giving him a cup of wine from her hand. The Libyan cannot understand anything Salammbô is saying, but he is dumbstruck by her beauty and a Gallic soldier sitting with him jokes that among his people, such a gesture constitutes a betrothal. Rather than thinking that there might be any cultural differences between the proto-French Gauls and the Phoenician Carthaginians, or finding anyone who can understand Salammbô, everybody immediately takes this as fact—from Matho, who becomes obsessed with her, to the Numidian prince Narr’ Havas, who wants Salammbô for himself but is jealous of Matho’s “preferential” treatment by her. This leads to an even larger scuffle amongst the mercenaries as Narr’ Havas tries to throw a javelin at Matho, and Salammbô flees. Spendius, a Roman slave freed by Matho, also sees all of this and schemes to win Matho to the idea of leading a full-scale revolt against Carthage as a way to make Salammbô his through military conquest.
This all leads to the Mercenary War, with the rebels attacking Carthage and inciting the subjugated African tribes to join them with Narr’ Havas’ help, as Matho’s size and Herculean-style courage brings even this reluctant ally into the fold. In an attempt to demoralize the city, Spendius and Matho sneak into Carthage and steal the veil that covers the statue of Tanit in her temple, the zaïmph. Matho tries to show it to Salammbô, but she is horrified at the sacrilege done to the goddess and pushes him away. However, because the alarm is raised, the city finds out that Matho was with Salammbô and suspicion falls on her that she might be somehow responsible and that her virtue is also compromised. Even with what they fear is the wrath of Tanit bearing down on them, the Carthaginians try to fight back without Hamilcar, but eventually bring him back to clean things up. The general acquiesces, with the intent of talking the mercenaries down, but then he sees the godawful mess they’ve made of his house and possibly his daughter, and he vows to crush them.
There is a bunch of back and forth on who has the upper hand, but Carthage begins to despair of defeating the mercenaries as they continue to gain tribal allies and Matho keeps saving them from complete disaster. Salammbô becomes convinced that the only way to save the city and salvage her reputation is to retrieve the zaïmph from Matho’s camp. She successfully sneaks into his tent, but seemingly under the influence of the mystical zaïmph, both Salammbô and Matho have a quasi-religious experience where they appear as divine beings to one another. This the late 19th century so it’s a bit obscured, but they also have a hazy sexual encounter. However, Salammbô recovers first and escapes with the zaïmph back to Carthage, where she is hailed as the savior of the city. Afraid that now the mercenaries will lose heart, Spendius is able to cut off water to an already drought-ravaged Carthage and the city begins to suffer terribly despite the return of the zaïmph. Thinking that the gods are still offended at the theft, the Carthaginian elders hold a child sacrifice to the dark Semitic god Moloch. Hamilcar is commanded to produce his only son, Hannibal, for the sacrifice, but the general has kept his son largely hidden from the city, so he is able to substitute a slave child for Hannibal at the last minute.
No doubt forecasting the importance of the boy to the future of Carthage, the gods seem to accept this subterfuge and they end the drought, which gives the city enough strength to defeat the mercenaries, which is achieved by them being betrayed by Narr’ Havas and the Numidians, who switch sides in exchange for Hamilcar giving the prince Salammbô’s hand in marriage. Most of the mercenary army starves to death in the trap they’re led into, and Spendius and most of the lead generals are crucified. Matho is publicly tortured in the streets of Carthage prior to his execution, and Salammbô, watching from a dais of honor dies of shock at the sight before she can wed Narr’ Havas. The implication being that no matter their intentions, Tanit strikes down all of the characters (Spendius, Matho, Salammbô) who gazed upon the zaïmph in her cruel vengeance.
This story feels very different than Madame Boring, if only because Bovary is so grounded in realism and Salammbô is highest melodrama, which gives it perhaps a more dated feel than Flaubert’s other books, which are usually hailed as the parents of the modern novel. Everything feels so over the top—from Salammbô’s lavish costumes to the lengthy and graphic recounting of a pagan sacrifice of children—that as I was reading it, I was immediately struck by how this felt much more like an opera than a novel. And indeed, during the ensuing Salammbô-mania, there were no less than three produced operas based on the story, plus two unfinished operas begun by Modest Mussorgsky and Sergei Rachmaninov.
But aside from its somewhat unfashionable style, I think it probably suffers (and frankly, should) with a modern audience for its casual 19th century racism. I’m not saying Flaubert is actively trying to be racist, but as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of racialized subtext in this story, perhaps nowhere more strongly embodied than in the character of Matho the Libyan. While as the Greekish Carthaginians show, this part of North Africa has always been an ethnic melting pot because of its fixed historical position as a major crossroads for trade, you quickly notice in art created contemporarily with the novel’s release that Matho is depicted as decidedly black, especially compared to the super-Caucasian depictions of Salammbô. This may in fact be historically accurate, but accuracy is not likely to have been the intent of the artists, or Flaubert. Rather this is another way to Other him from the virginal Salammbô, just as there is a noticeable difference in how the Gallic mercenaries are shown compared to the African Numidians. Matho spends most of the story being almost literally stupefied by Salammbô, or being easily manipulated by the sneaky Spendius (who, incidentally, is drawn much less white than is typical for a Roman, too). At best, that makes his characterization as a big, dumb warrior who means well more of the paternalistic “noble savage” variety of racist stereotype, rather than the “savage savage” trope, neither of which has aged well.
Some might point out that the Carthaginians don’t come off particularly well in the book either, with all of their decadent indifference and human sacrifice, but as I said, everyone’s the Savage Other in this story by virtue of geography, race, or in the case of the few “European” characters (Spendius, the Greek and Gallic mercenaries), by time and class status. Hamilcar and Salammbô are probably two of least grotesque characters, but you also see the general tear a slave child away from its inconsolable father dry-eyed in order to save his own son and it’s genuinely awful to read. And it’s hard to get attached to Salammbô because, especially for a title character, she has so little agency of her own. Even the decision to rescue the zaïmph is something she’s manipulated into by her priest-mentor and much of the rest of the plot has her somnambulating about, communing with Tanit and vaguely remembering Matho occasionally. She’s certainly not as active a heroine as Emma Bovary, though she displays some of the same unfocused, romanticized yearning.
To wrap this up, it is said that Flaubert read one of his other more fantastical novels, La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Antony), to two of his friends, the writers Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp in a four-day spread during which they were not allowed to comment on anything until the end. When the end was reached, their consensus was that Flaubert was hopeless enough at the fantastic that he should burn it and go back to realism. You might disagree with the sentiment expressed that strongly, but it does suggest that even contemporaries found Flaubert not at his best in this sort of story. Salammbô was sort of like Flaubert’s Fifty Shades Darker (sorry Gus, even I don’t dislike you enough to not feel bad about putting you and E L James in the same sentence). Madame Bovary was a titillating, runaway bestseller and its follow up book, while not a sequel, was a huge hit in its day mainly because people were excited to see what Flaubert would come up with next, rather than specifically on its merits. Salammbô has some positive qualities (a very evocative sense of time and place, and some truly spine-tingling scenes), and I still bet it makes a bang-up opera, but it’s also not too difficult to see why its predecessor is still considered one of the greatest books ever written, while it has largely shrunk into obscurity in the greater literary world. A worthy challenge for the Flaubert enthusiast or the curious historical fiction fan, but probably not essential reading for the average bookworm.