Salammbô was created by Gustave Flaubert and appeared in Salammbô (1862). Flaubert (1821-1880) is one of the major writers of the 19th century. Although he is best known for Madame Bovary he has a respectable body of work, from short stories to dramas. His work is generally placed in the realist genre, but his skill as a stylist and technician is far above most of the other realists. Salammbô is one of the two or three greatest historical romances of the 19th century.
Salammbô is the story of Carthage in 237 B.C.E, during the mercenary rebellion described by the Greek historian Polybius in his History. The novel is not really about Salammbô, who is the priestess of Tanit, the moon, and is the daughter of the mighty general Hamilcar Barca. Salammbô is about the mercenary rebellion itself. Salammbô only appears as a subplot, albeit a compelling one and one which Flaubert himself saw as important to the novel.
The mercenaries rebel against Carthage because the city elders refuse to give them their pay. The mercenaries are led by Mathô, a Libyan, and are opposed by first the Carthaginians and then by Hamilcar Barca himself. The war is lengthy, and there is a great deal of suffering and cruelty on and from both sides. The mercenaries win several temporary victories, only to suffer reversals. They eventually lay siege to Carthage and destroy the city’s aqueduct, which subjects the city to thirst as well as famine. But the Carthaginians sacrifice children to their god Moloch, which brings rains to the city. Eventually Hamilcar Barca defeats the mercenaries, trapping and most of their troops in a ravine in the mountains. Mathô is captured and forced to run a gauntlet through the city before he dies.
Salammbô is not central to the result of the rebellion, but she is influential on Mathô, who is desperately in love with her. Early in the siege Mathô breaks into Carthage to see Salammbô, but on the advice of his wily slave Spendius Mathô changes his mind and steals the zaïmph, the sacred veil of Tanit. The zaïmph is not to be touched by any mortal, and by stealing it Mathô hopes to destroy the morale of the Carthaginians. Soon afterward Mathô and Salammbô have a brief meeting. Mathô tells Salammbô his feelings for her and reveals that he stole the zaïmph.
Infuriated, she calls down curses and imprecations on him for defiling the zaïmph. Mathô flees from her and escapes from the city. When the Carthaginians discover that the zaïmph has been stolen, their spirits are lowered, as Mathô planned. Eventually Salammbô steals into the rebels’ camp and goes to Mathô’s tent. He repeats his love for her and she submits to him. When he has fallen asleep she takes the zaïmph and returns with it to Carthage, thus rallying the Carthaginians.
At the end of the novel, when Mathô runs the gauntlet, he falls dead at her feet. Remembering his words to her, she feels something for him, but then drops dead “for having touched the mantle of Tanit.”
Salammbô has a lot in common, at least on a surface level, with Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. Like Hugo, Flaubert created a fictional world with a truly astonishing amount of detail. Flaubert spent over four years researching Carthage, and Salammbô is proof of his efforts. There is a wealth of architectural, military, and social detail on every page. Like Hugo, Flaubert makes his chosen subject come alive on the page. But Salammbô is a far more compelling read than Notre Dame de Paris. Flaubert’s declamatory, faux-epic style is smoother and more polished than Hugo’s more conversational tone. Hugo’s characterization is rather heavy-handed, while Flaubert’s characterization, such as it is–Salammbô is not a novel of characterization, but of history-in-action–is, if not subtle, then less overt and clumsy. Flaubert’s style has impressionismus, the quality in art of evoking emotions and impressions in the eyes and minds of the readers. And Flaubert has the advantage of describing romantic history, rather than gritty urban history.
There is, as mentioned, an enormous amount of historical detail in Salammbô. More than that, however, Flaubert devotes a great deal of space to describing, in detail, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. Flaubert’s effort to create sensual impressions in the minds of the readers, to make the smells and sounds waft from the page, is not wasted; Salammbô is peculiarly vivid and atmospheric and sensual, and although the novel is ultimately exotic and alien to modern readers it is absorbing and feels real.
Flaubert described Salammbô as “a maniac controlled by a fixed idea.” She is obsessed with Tanit, the moon, and spends much of her time just looking at the stars and the moon. Salammbô is appalled when the zaïmph is stolen. But like Flaubert’s Emma, Salammbô is disillusioned when she at last touches the sacred veil. Salammbô is really just a young woman filled with inchoate urges and longings. She is chaste but curious, decadent in the way she revels in her clothes and makeup but ignorant of lust, and innocently oblivious to the reality of the war outside Carthage. It is Mathô’s words which really touch her, but she remains an innocent to the end, wise in the ways of the gods but naive about humanity.
Lastly, like Lewis Wallace’s Ben Hur, several 19th century editions of Salammbô are gorgeously illustrated in ways that modern editions are not.