By Adrienne Mayor
Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics (2010)
Review of Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (2010) and a new appreciation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô (1862)
Those who discovered the phantasmagoric novel Salammbô (1862) at an impressionable age, prior to studying conventional histories of the Punic Wars, know how difficult is to shake Gustave Flaubert’s intoxicating vision of the doomed Carthaginian empire. Brimming with visceral images of war and lust, vast riches and bizarre rituals, violence and tragedy verging on melodrama, Flaubert’s bestseller about the North African power that rivaled Rome in the third century BC received mixed critical reviews. Unlike the bored, provincial Emma Bovary, Flaubert’s new heroine Salammbô—a high priestess of strange Punic rites—inspired operas by Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. The femme fatale of Carthage was featured in voluptuous Art Nouveau and Symbolist paintings, Rodin’s erotic sketches, and she even influenced Parisian fashions. In the illustrated 1927 edition that I pored over in the 1960s, Mahlon Blaine’s diabolical Aubrey Beardsley-on-Ecstasy drawings rendered Flaubert’s evocative tale even more eidetic.
Largely forgotten now, Salammbô still has the power to scandalize critics (and thrill certain audiences— consider the video game Salammbô: Battle for Carthage recently created by award-winning French graphic artist Philippe Druillet). Penned during French colonization of North Africa, Flaubert’s Carthaginian chronicle has been criticized by modern scholars as an over-the-top imperialist fantasy that denigrates indigenous cultures. “A roller-coaster ride of sexual sadism, extreme cruelty and repugnant luxury [that] played to every western-European stereotype . . . about the decadent Orient,” says Richard Miles, author of an impressive new history of Carthage. Pointing out that Rome’s triumph over Carthage “provided an attractive blueprint” and “metaphor” to justify French domination in North Africa, Miles dismisses Salammbô as “the most famous product of these colonial assumptions”.