Salammbô is one of the great historical romances of French literature. Following Théophile Gautier’s “Une Nuit de Cléopatre” (1838; “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” 1888) and Le Roman de la momie (1856; Romance of the Mummy, 1863), which were set in different eras of Egypt’s remote history, Gustave Flaubert’s novel brought a new level of sophistication to the French historical novel. Many French writers were fascinated by the ancient history of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. French historical novelists were particularly entranced with decadence, which makes for entertaining reading and into which the great empires of the ancient world fell before being sacked by barbarians. Although in Flaubert’s novel the barbarians lose, the book strongly implies that Carthage will soon fall as a result of its moral decline.
Decadence was not only a topic; it became a writing style. Gautier defined a decadent style in writing in his introduction to the posthumous third edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931), which had first been published in 1857—the year in which Flaubert visited Tunisia to collect material for Salammbô. Flaubert, however, was not at all interested in decadent style. He had recently completed the profoundly antiromantic Madame Bovary (1857), and he approached his new task in the same careful, literal-minded, scrupulous manner. He stated that his intention was “to perpetuate a mirage by applying to antiquity the methods of the modern novel.” The Carthage that he desired to reproduce in the pages of his novel might have been trembling on the brink of decline, but Flaubert had no wish to submit his powers of description to the glamour of its decay. The novel, nevertheless, may be considered to betray its author’s intentions, in that its lush, sensuous, and exuberant description lend glamour to an extremely unglamorous dirty little war.
No one else ever managed to combine the lush exoticism of the ancient world with such brilliantly detailed and realistic descriptions as are found in Salammbô. The fact that Carthage, unlike Rome or Alexandria, had been so obliterated by its...
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