Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373
Inside the walls of Carthage a vast army of mercenaries gathers in the gardens of Hamilcar. There are Ligurians, Lusitanians, nomadic barbarians from North Africa, Romans, Greeks, Gauls, and Egyptians. A feast for these thousands of hired warriors is in preparation. Odors of cooking food come from Hamilcar’s kitchens, and the Council of Elders provides many oxen to roast over the open fires in the gardens. The men, tired from their defeat at the hands of the Romans and weary from the sea journey over the Mediterranean, wait with ill-concealed impatience for the feasting to begin.
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More than that, they are in an ugly mood because they were not paid. Hamilcar, their beloved leader even in defeat, promises them their pay many times. The city elders, however, parsimonious and afraid of this huge assembly of fierce foreigners, withholds the pay. Offers of token payment are angrily refused.
While the revelry is at its height, many men are emboldened by drink and began to pillage the palace of Hamilcar. In a private lake, surrounded by a heavy hedge, they find fish with jewels in their gill flaps. With joy they ruthlessly tear off the gems and boil the sacred fish for their feast. The slaves bring new foods and fresh casks of wine for the drunken revelers. Then above them on a high balcony appears Salammbô, the priestess of the moon goddess and daughter of Hamilcar. Her great beauty stills the wild barbarians. She calls down a malediction on their heads and in a wailing refrain laments the sad state of Carthage.
Among those who watch the young girl, none is more attracted than Narr’ Havas, a Numidian chief sent by his father to Carthage to serve with Hamilcar. Although he was in Carthage for six months, this is his first sight of Salammbô. Watching her keenly, too, is Mathô, a gigantic Libyan. He heard of Salammbô and already loves her. With Mathô is Spendius, a former Greek slave who, tricky and shrewd, plays the jackal to brave Mathô. Spendius is long in service to Carthage, and he whispers the delights of Salammbô to his master.
The elders give each soldier a piece of gold if he promises to go to Sicca and wait for the rest of his money to be sent to him. The gold and the solemn promises entice many, and finally all the mercenaries and barbarians join the march to Sicca. Many of their leaders distrust the words of the elders, but they are sure of better treatment when Hamilcar returns to Carthage.
Mathô lies in his tent all day long at Sicca. He is in love, and since he has no prospect of ever seeing Salammbô again, he despairs. Finally the wily Spendius profits greatly by Mathô’s inaction, ingratiating himself with Mathô.
At Sicca the enormous Hanno appears in his costly litter. Hanno, one of the Council of Elders, is tremendously fat; the fat on his legs even covers his toenails, and his body is covered with weeping sores. He pompously addresses the crowd, telling them of Carthage’s intent to pay later and urging them all to return to their homes. The Gauls and the Campanians and the rest, however, understand not a word of Hanno’s address, which is in Punic. Spendius leaps up beside Hanno and offers to translate. Falsely he tells the soldiers that Hanno is exalting his own gods and reviling theirs. The mob becomes unruly, and Hanno barely escapes with his life.
Soon the inflamed barbarians are on the march again, this time to besiege Carthage. At their head rides Mathô, Narr’ Havas, and Spendius, now a leader. The mob camps at the gates of Carthage. The city sends Gisco, a famous warrior, to deal with them. In fear the Carthaginians raise a little money and begin to pay the soldiers. They feel powerless without Hamilcar. The payment is slow. Gisco has insufficient funds, and many barbarians claim more pay than they merit.
As the unrest grows, Spendius goes to Mathô with a project of his own. He is sure he finds a way into the city, and if Mathô will follow his lead and help him in his own private errand, he will take Mathô to Salammbô. Outside the walls Spendius finds a loose stone in the pavement over the aqueduct that supplies the city with water. With his giant’s strength, Mathô lifts the stone, and the two swim with the current in the darkness until they come to a reservoir inside the city itself. Then Spendius reveals his project. He and Mathô are to steal the zaïmph, the mysterious veil of Tanit, goddess of the moon. The Carthaginians put their trust in Tanit and Tanit’s strength lies in the veil, so Spendius hopes to demoralize the city. Mathô is fearful of committing sacrilege, but he is obliged to take the veil in order to see Salammbô.
While the female guards sleep, the two steal into Tanit’s sanctuary and Mathô seizes the veil. Then quietly Spendius leads the trembling Mathô, who wears the sacred robe, into Salammbô’s sleeping chamber.
As Mathô advances with words of love to Salammbô’s bed, the terrified girl awakens and shouts an alarm. Instantly servants come running. Mathô flees, but while he wears the sacred veil no one dares to lay a hand on him. Mathô leaves the city and returns to the barbarians with his prize.
Hamilcar returns to Carthage in time to organize the defense of the city, and the siege melts away. The barbarians are short of food, so they march to Utica to demand supplies. Only loosely bound to Carthage, Utica is glad to harass Carthage by aiding its enemies. Newly supplied with arms and food, the barbarians are a more formidable host. Hamilcar, however, brings his army out of Carthage and joins the battle on the plain. Although the Carthaginians are few in number, they are disciplined and well led. They engage the barbarians several times, always indecisively. Finally, by a stroke of luck, the army of Hamilcar is trapped, and the barbarians surround the city’s defenders.
Meanwhile Salammbô is goaded by the high priest into retrieving the sacred veil. Disguised and with a guide, she makes her way into the barbarian camp, under priestly injunction to do whatever might be necessary to reclaim the robe. Finding Mathô’s tent, she goes in and asks for the veil, which hangs among his trophies of war. Mathô is thunderstruck and stammers eager protestations of love. Remembering the commands of the priest, Salammbô submits to Mathô. While the Libyan sleeps, she takes the veil and goes unmolested into her father’s camp.
Hamilcar notices immediately that the thin golden chain linking her ankles is broken, and in his shame he promises her to Narr’ Havas, who long since deserted the barbarians and returned to help Hamilcar. The marriage, however, is delayed until after the final defeat of Hamilcar’s enemies. Hamilcar, wary of the stalemate in the battle, leads his followers back to Carthage, and the barbarians again lay siege to the city. Spendius seeks to end the siege by breaking the aqueduct. Thirst and famine threaten the city from within. When pestilence breaks out, the children of Carthage are burned in sacrifice to Moloch. Moloch is appeased, and torrential rains save the city.
With help from his allies, Hamilcar begins to reduce the forces of the enemy. A large part of the army is trapped in a defile in the mountains and left to starve. Mathô is taken prisoner.
On the wedding day of Narr’ Havas and Salammbô, Mathô is led through the city and tortured by the mob. Still alive but with most of his flesh torn away, he staggers up to the nuptial dais of Salammbô. There he falls dead. Salammbô recalls how he knelt before her, speaking gentle words. When the drunken Narr’ Havas embraces her in token of possession and drinks to the greatness of Carthage, she lifts a cup and drinks also. A moment later she falls back on the wedding dais, dead. So dies the warrior and the priestess who by their touch profaned the sacred robe of Tanit.