Book Review: Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert

The twenty-three year long war with Rome is finally over. Carthage has been defeated and the once wealthy city is depleted of funds. What to do about the mercenaries? They must somehow be paid. The Suffetes decide to appease them by giving them a grand banquet at the property of the immensely wealthy general Hamilcar, who is traveling abroad. As may be expected, the mercenaries trash the premises.
“Men of all nations were there, Ligurians, Lusitanians, Balearians, Negroes, and fugitives from Rome. Beside the heavy Dorian dialect were audible the resonant Celtic syllables rattling like chariots of war, while Ionian terminations conflicted with consonants of the desert as harsh as the Jackal’s cry. The Greek might be recognized by his slender figure, the Egyptian by his elevated shoulders, the Cantabrian by his broad calves. There were Carians proudly nodding their helmet plumes, Cappadocian archers displaying large flowers painted on their bodies with the juice of herbs, and a few Lydians in woman’s robes, dining in slippers and earrings.”
The mercenaries caught and ate the sacred fish from the stream, they killed the lions and apes and killed or mutilated the elephants, and set fire to groves of trees, and killed some slaves while liberating others from the ergastulum, among them a Greek named Spendius.
During the mayhem and havoc, Salammbo, the beautiful daughter of the absent Hamilcar, and priestess of Tanith, emerges from the mansion and surveys the destruction. “Dead! All Dead! No more will you come obedient to my voice as when, seated on the edge of the lake, I used to throw seeds of the watermelon into your mouths! The mystery of Tanith ranged in the depths of your eyes that were more limpid than the globules of Rivers.” After more lamentations she sings a long song about the god Melkarth, entrancing and captivating the mercenaries, although none of them understand the words. None are more captivated than the Libyan, Matho.
“Matho, the Libyan, leaned over toward her. Involuntarily she approached him, and impelled by grateful pride, poured him a long stream of wine into a golden cup in order to conciliate the army.”
Eventually, the Suffetes, Hanno and Gisco persuade the mercenaries to leave Carthage and withdraw to Sicca, there to await payment. Spendius, the slave freed from the ergastulum, attaches himself to Matho and becomes a self-appointed agent provocateur. Speaking many of the mercenaries’ tongues he devotes himself to stirring up rebellion and discontent against Carthage. Matho is obsessed with Salammbo, and Spendius offers to bring him into Carthage to see her. They go first to the temple of Tanith where they steal the Zaimph, the veil of the goddess. Then they invade Hamilcar’s house and Salammbo’s room. Matho intends to offer Salammbo the veil and plead his love. Things do not go as planned. “She was stretching out her arms. Suddenly she stopped, and they stood looking at each other, open-mouthed.
“Then without understanding the meaning of his solicitation, a horror seized upon her. Her delicate eyebrows rose, her lips opened; she trembled. At last she struck one of the brass pateras which hung at the corners of the red matress, crying: ‘To the rescue, to the rescue! Back, sacrilegious man! Infamous and accursed!’” Hearing her servants coming to her rescue, Matho and Spendius escape to the mercenary encampment, taking the Zaimph. The Zaimph conferred sacred power on Carthage, and without it the city is no longer protected by Tanith. It is incumbent upon Salammbo to retrieve the veil.
Salammbo, published in 1862, is written in classical style. It is replete with vivid and striking descriptions, some beautiful, others grotesque and gruesome. The book is not for readers with delicate sensibilities. As for historicity, there are a number of errors in the historical details. As a classic of literature, Salammbo is well worth reading. The Mercenary war was a horror story on both sides, and it is not surprising that there is little literature on it.

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