(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Salammbô Gustave Flaubert

The following entry presents criticism of Flaubert's novel Salammbô (1862). For discussion of Flaubert's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 2 and 62; for discussion of the novel Madame Bovary, see NCLC, Volumes 10 and 66; for discussion of the novel L'Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education), see NCLC, Volume 19.

Famous for its erotic, sadistic, and decadent content, Flaubert's exotic novel Salammbô is also noted for its lush descriptive quality, visual brilliance, and Oriental texturing. It is a symbolic work notorious for its atmospheric evocation of a dying civilization and imagery of sensuous and terrifying cruelty. Set in North Africa after the First Punic War in the third century b.c., Salammbô details a mercenary revolt against the city of Carthage led by the Libyan soldier Mâtho and suppressed by the renowned Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. Within the historical context of the rebellion Flaubert inserts his unique fictional character, Salammbô, Barca's daughter and the object of Mâtho's passion. A work principally concerned with sacrilege, ruin, and the tragic futility of desire, Salammbô has both intrigued and repelled critics with its depiction of lust, violence and excess.

Plot and Major Characters

Salammbô opens with a great feast in the gardens of the Punic general Hamilcar Barca after the conclusion of war between Carthage and Rome in 241 b.c. Its guests are the formerly employed mercenaries—an army of mingled races, including Africans, Gauls, and Greeks—who are disgruntled over having not been paid. With Barca having not yet returned from the war, the Council of the Ancients offer up his private gardens for the feast. The drunken revelry turns violent and the soldiers begin destroying the grounds and killing Barca's sacred fish. At this, Salammbô, Barca's daughter and a Carthaginian priestess, comes forth and rebukes them. The barbarians are unable to understand her words, but are fascinated by her beauty, particularly the gigantic Libyan warrior, Mâtho.

After the feast, the Mercenaries agree to leave the city, but remain restless over the withheld wages. Under the direction of Mâtho and the Numidian, Narr'Havas, they camp beneath the walls of Carthage. Mâtho's obsession with Salammbô deepens, and—counseled by the cunning Spendius, a freed Greek slave—he decides to steal Carthage's greatest treasure in order to draw Salammbô out and demoralize the citizens. Entering through an aqueduct, Spendius and Mâtho reach the temple of Tanit, the Carthaginian moon goddess served by Salammbô. They seize the zaïmph, a sacred veil that embodies the mystic power of the city. Though apprehensive of its reputed power to destroy the profane, Mâtho wraps himself in it as he passes through the enraged and fearful crowds of Carthage to the city gates. With the zaïmph in his possession, Mâtho takes full command of the barbarians, leading them into battle against Carthaginian forces. Meanwhile, Barca returns and resumes command of his military.

Back in Carthage, Schahabarim, the eunuch high priest of Tanit, convinces Salammbô that the only way to ensure Carthaginian victory is to recover the zaïmph, even if it means the sacrifice of her own life. She travels to the mercenary camp, meeting Mâtho in his tent. Remaining there for the night, she mesmerizes the Libyan who, enamored, hands the sacred veil over to her. Salammbô returns to Carthage unharmed.

Later, the mercenary Narr'Havas and his formidable Numidian cavalry betray the barbarian cause, allying with Carthage. In return, Barca promises his daughter to Narr'Havas. As the mercenaries surround the city, Spendius manages to break a hole in the aqueduct, spilling the city's water supply outside its walls. The continued siege is disastrous for the citizenry, but the barbarians prove unable to breach Carthage. In order to end the standoff, the city's rulers arrange a human sacrifice to the angry god Moloch, condemning innocent youths to his sacred temple fires. None are exempted. Hamilcar, anxious to spare his own son Hannibal, sends a slave child in his stead. Moloch appeased, Hamilcar breaks the siege by luring the barbarians into an axe-shaped gorge between mountains. Trapped behind a landslide caused by the Carthaginians, the mercenaries have little choice but to wait for death.

Starvation quickly ravages the mercenary army. A moment of hope arises as ten emissaries, including Spendius, are allowed to leave and meet with Barca. The Carthaginian crucifies them and sends lions into the valley to feed on the soldiers that remain. In a last effort, Mâtho leads his men in a futile attack against the superior forces of Barca. They are defeated and Mâtho is captured. Exacting revenge for the barbarian siege, the people of Carthage force the Libyan to run bound through the streets while a mob tortures him, flaying his flesh from the bone. Covered in blood, and barely recognizable among his wounds, Mâtho appears before Salammbô, then dies. A priest removes his heart, sacrificing it to Moloch. Narr'Havas, momentarily relishing his treachery, takes possession of Salammbô as promised by her father. Standing beside her, he drinks to Carthage and its victory. Salammbô drinks as well, then falls dead.

Major Themes

Critics of Salammbô tend to agree that Flaubert poured his obsessions with the irrational, mystical, exotic, sacred, and feminine into the novel, while adding to the mix a decadent sensibility and a visceral, yet clinical, depiction of violence and brutality. In order to lend structure to this arrangement, they assert, Flaubert presented a series of symbolic oppositions, which provide the thematic locus of the novel. A traditional view of these oppositions associates them with antagonistic male and female principles: featuring, on the one side, Moloch/the Sun/Mâtho, and on the other, Tanit/the Moon/Salammbô. Other significant polarities in the work include those of history and myth, and a conflict between civilization and barbarity. In the case of the latter, critics have observed the lack of any absolute differentiation between the barbarian and the civilized. Flaubert generally expressed this idea through metaphor and stark imagery, describing the mercenaries as violent animals, only to demonstrate their awe and surprise at the ultimate brutality of the Carthaginians as they sacrifice their own children to the sun god Moloch.

A number of themes have additionally been associated with the symbolic elements of Salammbô. Specifically, the zaïmph, the sacred veil of Tanit carried off by Mâtho, is thought to exemplify Flaubert's motif of sacrilege. Even the novel's final line suggests a price exacted by the gods for profane acts, attributing Salammbô's death (and by implication that of Mâtho as well) to her touching of the veil. Another minor theme in the work involves the limits of language, particularly notable in a scene early in the novel in which Hanno, a Carthaginian general, attempts to appease the disgruntled mercenaries with words instead of money. Recognizing that his speech in the Carthaginian tongue is unintelligible to the collected multitude, the crafty Spendius mistranslates, hurling insults at the crowd, which they believe to have come from Hanno. The enraged barbarians then assault Hanno and his entourage, who are obliged to flee. Inaccessibility and unattainability round out the dominant motifs in the work. Mâtho's desire for Salammbô, like the barbarian efforts to revenge themselves on Carthage for its mistreatment, prove in the end to be utterly futile. Desires in the novel remain everywhere unfulfilled. Finally, the work is pervaded throughout with a foreboding sense of disease, sterility, ennui, and nihilism. The first two of these concepts are personified by the grotesquely leprous Hanno and the learned but ultimately powerless eunuch priest, Schahabarim. Likewise, a multitude of episodes featuring bizarre rituals and bloody conflict, coupled with a total absence of human pity or mutual understanding, contribute to the overall nihilistic effect of the narrative.

Critical Reception

The process of writing Salammbô occupied more than five years of Flaubert's life. During this time, Flaubert claimed to have read hundreds of texts on the culture, art, economy, and history of ancient Carthage. Flaubert organized these records in his dossier for the novel, later made public. This was partially in response to criticism from his contemporary Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who had questioned not only the obscure subject of the work, but also its historical accuracy. Like Sainte-Beuve, modern scholars have generally dismissed Flaubert's claims of historical veracity. They have pointed out that Flaubert drew his material from one principal source, the history written by Polybius in the second century b.c., a primary record of the Punic Wars. Accompanying such historical personages as Hamilcar Barca, Hanno, and Mâtho, all of whom appear in the writings of Polybius, Flaubert inserted the invented figure of Salammbô. In the end, most have seen Salammbô as a conflation of history and the product of Flaubert's active and neurotic imagination.

Bloodthirsty and sensationalist, Salammbô won considerable popular acclaim upon its publication. Unlike his previous novel, Madame Bovary—which created open scandal in France and led to Flaubert's prosecution for offending public morality—Salammbô aroused far less ire. Since then, critics have perceived a kind of spiritual affinity between Salammbô and Emma Bovary; disillusionment and disenchantment being key characteristics of both characters. Some critics have unequivocally disparaged the novel, or contended that it is completely out of keeping with Flaubert's other works of fiction. Others have disagreed with this assertion, however, pointing to stylistic and thematic continuities within Flaubert's oeuvre that belie the ostensible differences of varied subject matter. Formal criticism of the novel itself has been conditioned by the commentary of Sainte-Beuve, who in addition to his other reservations, criticized the work for its lack of structural unity. Subsequent scholars tend to dispute this claim, finding an architectual order in the novel's symmetrical design and thematic concern with polar opposition.

In the twentieth century, Georg Lukács viewed Salammbô as a model of the historical novel. Later commentators have responded by arguing that Flaubert's novel, despite its historical setting, bears little resemblance to such fiction, which tends to depict psychological motivation and to trace a teleological momentum in history, qualities completely lacking in Salammbô. In the contemporary period, Victor Brombert initiated a new phase of serious interest in the work. Acknowledging Salammbô's brutal imagery, indeed viewing the work as “a compendium of atrocities,” he refused to dismiss it outright as the sensationalized product of a disturbed mind. Brombert admired Flaubert's skillful scene-painting in Salammbô and highlighted its carefully crafted form, seeing the novel as a literary depiction of aesthetic stasis. He called it a “Parnassian epic” that was better judged in the contexts of poetry and the visual arts than that of prose fiction. Brombert noted Flaubert's highly metaphorical style, the novel's lapidary imagery, and the rendering of eroticized polarities. He also identified its recurrent theme of sacrilege and indeed its vertiginous attraction to Nothingness, to the nihilistic futility of the tragic act. Lastly, Brombert recognized “the dialectic of the eternal couple, Tanit and Moloch,” said to provide structural coherence to the work on schematic, symbolic, and thematic levels.

In addition to form and theme, many late twentieth-century critics of Salammbô have also been drawn to the sense of historiography implied by the novel. Most have maintained that its method is ahistorical, observing that Salammbô questions the very possibility of composing a scientific, archeological recovery of the past in written form. Other scholars have considered Flaubert's appropriation of myth in his narrative. Scholars have also suggested that Flaubert undertook to write historical analogy in Salammbô by drawing broad comparisons between the ancient Carthaginians and the French bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century. As numerous points of view have been forwarded by critics, most consider the work a paradoxical and unique component of nineteenth-century French fiction. Frequently denigrated for its rough sensationalism, brutality, and decadence, Salammbô has also been widely admired for its exotic descriptiveness, aesthetic renderings and distinctive, if fanciful, reconstitution of an ancient civilization about which relatively little is known.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Madame Bovary, mours de province. 2 vols. (novel) 1857

Salammbô [Salambo] (novel) 1862

L'Éducation sentimentale, histoire d'un jeune homme [Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History]. 2 vols. (novel) 1869

Le Candidat, comédie en quatre actes [The candidate: a humorous political drama in four acts] (play) 1874

Le Tentation de saint Antoine [translated as The First Temptation of Saint Anthony or The Temptation of Saint Anthony] (novel) 1874

*Trois contes [Three Tales] (short stories) 1877

Bouvard et Pécuchet, oeuvre...

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Victor Brombert (essay date spring 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brombert, Victor. “An Epic of Immobility.” Hudson Review 19, no. 1 (spring 1966): 24-43.

[In the following essay, Brombert describes the Flaubertian obsessions that inform Salammbô with nihilism and sacrilege—identifying concepts of immobility, sadism, violence, ennui, and the desire for an unattainable absolute.]

                         “La plastique est la qualité première de l'art.”



The opening chapter of Salammbô, with its orgiastic barbarian feast and the ethereal appearance of the patrician virgin, plunges the reader into...

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J. R. Dugan (essay date September 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dugan, J. R. “Flaubert's Salammbô, A Study in Immobility.” Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache und Literatur 79, no. 3 (September 1969): 193-206.

[In the following essay, Dugan analyzes the style, imagery, symbolism, and form of Salammbô, concentrating on the novel's rendering of aesthetic immobility.]

Since the publication of Salammbô, critics have been faced with the difficulty of categorizing it. There is evidence from within the work to support any one of a number of points of view—a historical novel in the great tradition of Sir Walter Scott, a long prose poem with a markedly «Parnassian» flavour, or simply a novel in the...

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Dennis Porter (essay date winter 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Porter, Dennis. “Aestheticism versus the Novel: The Example of Salammbô.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4, no. 2 (winter 1971): 101-6.

[In the following essay, Porter claims that Salammbô is not a well-structured novel, but rather, is at best a manifesto of aestheticism.]

From Baudelaire down through Maupassant, Turgeniev, Henry James, and into the twentieth century, Flaubert has been hailed as the first great modern master of his craft, the novelist's novelist par excellence, whose influence on the subsequent evolution of the genre has been as great as that of Baudelaire himself on poetry, and for similar reasons. Both writers brought to...

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Bruce Louis Jay (essay date February 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jay, Bruce Louis. “Anti-History and the Method of Salammbô.Romantic Review 63, no. 1 (February 1972): 20-33.

[In the following essay, Jay maintains that Salammbô, employs little of the typical mechanics of historical fiction and that it presents exoticism and ritual action instead of theme, motivation, or historical veracity.]

Salammbô tends to be a highly satisfying and at the same time rather distracting book. That is, perplexed as to the consequences of its subject matter, the reader, in this pendent, indecisive state of mind, is overcome with the novel's opulence and exotica. But the flamboyant spectacle of Salammbô...

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Jonathan Culler (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Culler, Jonathan. “Values.” In Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, pp. 212-28. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1974, Culler asserts that bewilderment is experienced by both the characters in the unreal setting of Carthage and the readers of the novel itself. The critic theorizes that the characters' gradual attachment to the divine as a source of meaning and structure is portrayed so that the role of the sacred in human society is laid bare for the reader to dissect.]

This is one of the basic problems confronting the reader of Flaubert: how is he to make sense of novels which thematize the...

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Patrick Brady (essay date winter 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brady, Patrick. “Archetypes and the Historical Novel: The Case of Salammbô.Stanford French Review 1, no. 3 (winter 1977): 313-24.

[In the following essay, Brady concentrates on the archetypal structure of Salammbô, including its eroticized imagery and suggestions of alchemical transformation.]

One of the most influential modern evaluations of Salammbô is that made by Georgy Lukács, and it is negative.1 According to Lukács, “La modernisation de la psychologie des personnages … est la seule source du mouvement et de la vie,” and he continues a little later: “Cette modernisation détermine la structure de...

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Sima Godfrey (essay date May 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Godfrey, Sima. “The Fabrication of Salammbô: The Surface of the Veil.” Modern Language Notes 95, no. 4 (May 1980): 1005-16.

[In the following essay, Godfrey examines the lush imagery and the central symbolic role of textiles in Salammbô, particularly addressing Flaubert's treatment of the veil of Tanit.]

It is both striking and curious that of the many critics and readers who have tried to identify the peculiar structure and difficult texture of Flaubert's Salammbô, none has considered the fabric of textile imagery so prevalent throughout the novel. Curious for the fact that the major action of this novel centres about the theft...

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Richard M. Berrong (essay date fall 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berrong, Richard M. “Salammbô: A Myth of the Origin of Language.” Modern Language Studies 15, no. 4 (fall 1985): 261-8.

[In the following essay, Berrong asserts that Flaubert depicted a myth of the creation of language in his Salammbô.]

Of all the French novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century, certainly none was more concerned with form than Gustave Flaubert. His correspondence is filled with such remarks as: “Je cherche … le dessin” (12:617; to Louise Colet, 11/12/47); “Tout dépend du plan” (13:165; to Colet 1/2/52); “Nous avons trop de choses et pas assez de formes” (13:323; to Colet 6/4/53);...

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Carol A. Mossman (essay date January 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mossman, Carol A. “Salammbô: Seeing the Moon through the Veil.” Neophilologus 73, no. 1 (January 1989): 36-45.

[In the following essay, Mossman assesses Salammbô as an iconoclastic juxtaposition of myth and history illuminated by a symbolic conjunction of the sacred and the feminine.]

Beyond the literary violence which is Salammbô—with its gruesome details of desert war waged between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians and the cannibalism to which the Mercenaries are ultimately reduced, with the periodic, painfully clinical descriptions of Hanno's advancing leprosy—lies a tale of profanation. Flaubert's novel in fact begins by...

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Mary Rice (essay date winter 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rice, Mary. “The Failure of Metaphor as an Historical Paradigm: Flaubert's Salammbô.Modern Language Studies 20, no. 1 (winter 1990): 95-8.

[In the following essay, Rice posits that not only is Flaubert's view of modern life as a reflection of history evident in Salammbô, but the novel contains several internal relationships which mirror one another.]

In 1864, two years after the publication of Salammbô, Flaubert wrote in a letter, “… history is nothing but the reflection of the present on the past, and that is why it is always to be remade [à refaire].”1Salammbô is Flaubert's own version or remake of the...

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A. J. L. Busst (essay date July 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Busst, A. J. L. “On the Structure of Salammbô.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 44, no. 3 (July 1990): 289-98.

[In the following essay, Busst studies symmetry and parallelism in the four meetings between Salammbô and Mâtho, within the context of the novel's overall structural opposition of male and female principles.]

Few modern critics would endorse Sainte-Beuve's judgement that Salammbô, showing no signs of an architect, is without unity and structure.1 Although regret was expressed not so long ago at the novel's disjointedness2 and its lack of ‘architectonic order’,3 there is nowadays general...

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David Danaher (essay date spring 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Danaher, David. “Effacement of the Author and the Function of Sadism in Salammbô.Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures 46, no. 1 (spring 1992): 3-20.

[In the following essay, Danaher presents an analysis of Salammbô based upon the critical concepts of Russian Formalism, explaining Flaubert's use of focalization, the sadistic motif, and his ahistorical application of archeological material to impersonalize himself as the author and to estrange his readers.]

Roman Jakobson has defined the dominant of an artistic work as “the focussing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining...

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Stuart Barnett (essay date fall-winter 1992-93)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnett, Stuart. “Divining Figures in Flaubert's Salammbô.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 21, no. 1-2 (fall-winter 1992-93): 73-84.

[In the following essay, Barnett considers Flaubert's problematic concern with sacrilege in Salammbô in terms of the paradoxical figuration of Mâtho and Salammbô as the Carthaginian gods Moloch and Tanit.]

The publication of Flaubert's Salammbô in 1862 caused an intellectual battle—the so-called “querelle de Salammbô”—that was almost as heated as any of the battles described within the novel itself.1 Since then the novel has remained, as the Carthage depicted within it,...

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Mary Orr (essay date autumn 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Orr, Mary. “The Cloaks of Power: Custom and Costume in Flaubert's Salammbô.Nottingham French Studies 36, no. 2 (autumn 1997): 24-33.

[In the following essay, Orr focuses on costume in Salammbô to emphasize Salammbô's feminine challenge to the power of male authority.]

Flaubert's eponymous heroine has attracted some excellent feminist criticism largely focusing on how she is chained and sacrificed to a patriarchal power system.1 Exchanges of power are represented by the goddess Tanit's veil, the famous and problematic ‘zaïmph’, which the Barbarian Mâtho tears from the inner sanctuary of Tanit's temple and which Salammbô...

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Sonja Dams Kropp (essay date winter 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kropp, Sonja Dams. “Language Dynamics: The Carthaginian Exploitation of the Mercenaries in Flaubert's Salammbô.Dalhousie French Studies 53 (winter 2000): 42-8.

[In the following essay, Kropp emphasizes how Carthaginian leaders manipulate the Barbarians by exploiting their naïve “belief in the transparency of language.”]

In 1862, following five years of extensive study of documentary evidence and two trips to the Orient, Flaubert published his second novel, Salammbô. The story, set in the ancient Punic universe around 240-238 B.C., is based on an account in Polybius. It recounts the war between Carthage and its mercenaries who, after...

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Volker Durr (essay date 2002)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durr, Volker. “Introduction” and “An Allegory of Bonapartism.” In Flaubert's Salammbô: The Ancient Orient as a Political Allegory of Nineteenth-Century France, pp. 1-9, 87-108. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Durr dissects the critical consensus regarding Salammbô, contending that most readings of the work are flawed. Durr also illustrates the ways in which Flaubert subtly draws comparisons between the Carthage of the book and the Napoleonic France in which he lived.]

Salammbô, Flaubert's only historical novel, was long discreetly ignored by literary criticism but in more recent book-length studies of his oeuvre a...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Aprile, Max. “Flaubert and the Irony of ‘le mot juste’: The Editions of Salammbô.RLA: Romance Languages Annual 1 (1989): 227-31.

Highlights numerous omissions and changes from Flaubert's autograph manuscript of Salammbô to printed editions.

———. “Dureau de la Malle's Carthage: A Documentary Source for Flaubert's Salammbô.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 43, no. 3 (July 1989): 305-15.

Claims Flaubert's considerable debt to an archaeological essay by Dureau de la Malle entitled Carthage as a source for Salammbô that was never publicly...

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