Salammbo (Review)

Salammbo (Review)

arthage – I’ve written about its founding (Fire and Bronze) and some of its people (Early Retyrement). In one my my first unpublished novels (Oath to Carthage) I wrote about Hannibal and his war on Rome (and some dystopian time-grabbing future society). So yes, I’ve tried to write Punic for some time.

The thing is, I’m not sure I’ve gotten it right. See, in a way the Punic wars determined the culture that would become our world. You had the Romans (who won) who embraced the pragmatic, materialistic world that we recognize. They are who we spawned from, with our rules of laws and our scientific advances and our entire worldview. But the Carthaginians (who they fought tooth and nail across three wars) were something (I suspect) alien, a culture of ancient religion and mysticism, one with a ruling body of ancients, flashy generals, loose laws, and a strange menagerie of gods represented by a priestly class. When I write them, I sometimes think that I’m “Romanizing” them, not making them alien enough.

But Gustave Flaubert, writing in the late 1800’s, he got it.

In Salammbo, we follow the affairs of the Carthaginian state as it reels back from its first Punic War, where they scrimmaged with Rome across the Isle of Sicily. Burdened with their defeat and heavy war Indemnity, they’ve withdrawn back to North Africa, with Hamilcar (their general, father of the young powerhouse Hannibal) in exile and the plains before Carthage filled with unpaid mercenaries. All I know from history about this was how the sell-swords assaulted Carthage and ran amok across the farmlands until Hamilcar returned and put paid to them. The details, I assumed, have been long lost. But Flaubert has imagined them to the grimiest, grittiest detail.

The story revolves around several characters – Hamilcar (and his son, whose future greatness he endeavors to protect). And then there is his daughter, Salammbo, beautiful and winsome and all that, a child of temples and priests and delicate swoonification. Against them stands the three great Mercenary figures – Matho, the huge black merc (who has glimpsed Salammbo and is fixated on her); Narr’ Havas, the dashing Numidian prince with his waves of cavalry; and Spendius, former slave, crafty and shifty, the one who keeps the others on track, spurring the revolt on with an eye to being a virtual king himself.

The things Flaubert imagines are amazing. Of course, I know (and have seen) the Punic ports – those he covers in detail. How much of the other places he describes, the broad avenues, the temples, the people, I cannot verify. Still, they feel alien enough that they could be Carthage. It’s not just togas and sandals and such – its a crazy metropolis in a crazy time of transition, with their gates pressed by mutineer barbarian mercenaries, the council and temples dicking around, of half-hearted military attempts and sieges and such, until finally Hamilcar is recalled, the last of Carthage’s strengths are committed, with Matho looking at the city’s great walls and pining for Salammbo (who, in turn, fears and lusts for him), of Spendius spooling out his devious plans and Narr’ Havas playing both sides. Great book. Great history.

I really enjoyed it. Yes, it was windy as stories were at the turn of the last century. But the author held true with the thought of this alien culture. The battles are horrific, the deaths grisly and drawn out, and even a strange and unexpected twist in the final sentence. But yes, a good book. I’d have to thank some friends I have in Tunis for putting me onto this one.

You can get it all for free, right HERE, from Project Gutenberg!