Wednesday, 4 January 2023

SALAMMBO! (spoilers)


It’s pretty good! Give it a read!

An historical novel set in the Mercenary War Carthage fought after the first Punic war. Essentially, Carthage refuses to pay its mercenary soldiers, things spiral out of control, then they get worse, then they get really worse. The main axis of the book is built around the love/hate relationship between Matho, the leader of the mercenaries and Salammbo, daughter of Hamlicar Barca, (who is the father of Hannibal of Elephant fame). Story has slaves, war, battles, schemes, pride, jealousy, strange gods, savagery, massive orientalism and many many elephants were very much harmed in the creation of this story not approved by the animal care people at all.

This is the only book by Flaubert I have read and seems to be very much not typical for his oeuvre. The rest are 19th Century French realism about relationships and stuff. I have done a series of social media posts about the relationship of literary and 'secret genre' writers and will try to pull those together in a later post.

Most images are from the amazing Sci Fi Adaptation
by Phillipe Druillet


It is a steaming pile of details! Researched, imagined, confabulated. A story of things! Very like some balladic structure stories,  lists of lists of lists, inflated and intensified by the density of the novel.

The book drips gems and oozes blood. Tip it over; the shining feather of a sacred hummingbird wound with old thread comes out clutched in the head of a skinned mouse which has been stuffed with mhyrr. The book is nearly smoking, its fuming, its hot in there and the bloodstench, burning cities, spices, perfumes, wafts of burning bezoars drawn from the gullets of a whale, is so heavy you feel drugged, which you probably actually are.

Vividness! Everything is so particular. No vague moments, general experiences or non-specific objects. Only immediate, vivid, burning slices of a highly imagined reality.

The Multiplication of Hieraticism! Flaubert is very into his characters being Hieratic, posing, performing, existing like statues or symbols, embodying roles, which they do both diegetically in the imagined world but also generally like that in the story, Matho IS the Noble Savage Barbarian Mercinary, Spendius IS the crafty, clever cowardly greek, Narr' Havas IS the mysterious Numidian Horse Lord, Slammbo IS the moon-worshipping Pirestess/Princes object of desire and feminine principal. Hanno, the preferred leader of Carthages corrupt old man class IS.. well look at this Druillet illustration from his si-fi adaptation;


Characters have strong singular emotions. The source of the strife, or its main organiser, is the existence between Matho and Salammbo of something like love, or at least an emotion or range of emotions neither of them can describe, understand or adapt to, and which express themselves in vast towers of gilded obsession.

They desire each other, exert power over each other, submit or gloat. Really almost no-one has what we would consider a normal conversation in this world. One either holds the edge of a bronze sword to another’s neck and LAUGHS while sweat and perfume is massaged into your scalp by slaves, or rolls and capers in the dust, naked and scarred, begging to kiss another’s feet. 

Its fucking nuts. When the elders of Carthage finally get Hamlicar, their best general, back to save them from their own dumb fucking screwups, in the weird masonic cult meeting that passes for their Central Command Conference, where no-one is meant to be armed, they lose their shit with him and pull out daggers to kill him, then he pulls out two(!) swords and leaps onto an altar to defy them. Then everyone realises that since everyone broke the sword rule they just agree not to speak about it. This is like if MacArthur came back from Korea and got into an armed mexican standoff with Truman in the White House, which McArthur would probably have done if he could but he was a bit like a Salammbo character anyway. 

Luckily(?) everyone in the story gets to occupy each of those positions at least once.

HATE! Nearly everyone in Salammbo seems to low-key hate nearly everyone else;  Carthaginians and Mercenaries, Matho and Salammbo, the Carthage elders and Hamlicar, Carthage and its surrounding territories, Punic Carthaginians and native Carthaginians, Moloch and Tanit, camels and elephants...

LOVE! There are only a few examples of what we would call love, or even affection; Matho and Salammbos strangulated mutual desire, Hamlicar loves Hannibal, his son but Flaubert is careful to say, he is an extension of himself into the future. The patricians of Carthage seem to love their children at least enough for some of them to be reluctant to sacrifice them to Moloch. The biggest scene of love is towards the end where many of the mercenaries have been trapped and Hamlicar pulls a Joker and tells them if they kill each other in hand to hand he will forgive and employ the survivors. Here we get this;

"The community of their lives had brought about profound friendship amongst these men. The camp, with most, took the place of their country; living without a family they transferred the needful tenderness to a companion, and they would fall asleep in the starlight side by side under the same cloak. And then in their perpetual wandering through all sorts of countries, murders and adventures, they had contracted affections, one for the other, in which the stronger protected the younger in the midst of battles, helped him to across precipices, sponges the sweat of fevers from his brow, and stole food for him, and the weaker, a child perhaps, who had been picked up on the roadside, and had then become a Mercenary, repaid this devotion by a thousand kindnesses.

They exchanged their necklaces and earrings, presents which they had made to one another in former days, after great peril, or in hours of intoxication. All asked to die, and none would strike,. A young fellow might be seen here and there saying to another whose beard was grey: "No! no! you are more robust! you will avenge us, kill me!" and the man would reply: "I have fewer years to live! Strike to the heart, and think no more about it!" Brothers gazed on one another with clasped hands, and friend bade friend eternal farewells, standing and weeping upon his shoulder."


Gigantic! Through reach, specificity and most of all through its teeming diversity of wildly different cultures all massed and thronging together. Though to us, we could fly across every land described in a few hours, and even drive across the main areas in a day or two, to those within it, Carthage is like a strange moon travelling strange stars; the entirety of the Mediterranean world, from the misty gloom forests of the Germans to the north, the Numidian horsemen, Greeks, Romans, the strange impossible peoples of Africa beyond the desert. First the Nomads;

"They were nor Libyans from the neighbourhood of Carthage, who had long composed the third army, but nomads from the tableland of Barca, bandits from Cape Phiscus and the promontory of Dernah, from Phazzana and Marmaricia. They had crossed the desert, drinking at the brackish wells walled with camels bone, the Zuaeces, with their covering of ostrich eathers, had come on quadringa, the Garamantians, masked with black veils, rode on their painted mares; others were mounted on asses, onagers, zebra, and buffaloes; while some dragged after them the roofs of their sloop-shaped huts together with their families and idols. There were Ammonians with limbs wrinkled by the hot water of the springs, Ataranians, who curse the sun; Troglodytes, who bury their dead with laughter beneath branches of trees, and the hideous Auseans, who eat grass-hoppers; the Achyrmmachidae who eat lice, and the vermillion-painted Gysantians, who eat apes."


"First were seen running up all the hunters from Malethut-Baal and Garaphos, clad in lions skins, and with the staves of their pikes driving small lean horses with long manes; then marched the Gaetulians in cuirasses of serpents skin; then the Pharusians, wearing lofty crowns made of wax and resin; and the Caunians, Macarians, and Tillabarians, each holding two javelins and a round shield of hippopotamus leather."

We can go further! (and get waaay more racially sketchy);

"But when the Libyans had moved away, the multitude of the Negroes appeared like a cloud on a level with the ground, in the place which the others had occupied. They were there from the White Harousch, the Black Harousch, the desert of Augila, and even from the great country of Agazymba, which is four months journey south of the Garamantians, and from regions further still! In spite of their red wooden jewels, the filth of their black skin made them look like mulberries that had been long rolling in the dust. They had bark-thread drawers, dried-grass tunics, fallow deer-muzzels on their heads; they shook rods furnished with rings, and brandished cows tails at the end of sticks, after the fashion of standards, howling the while like wolves."

Ok we have gone through 19thC orientalism, can we go into near-fantasy? Like a Conan story?

"Then behind the Numidians, Marusians, and Gaetulians pressed the yellowish men, who are spread through the cedar forests beyond Taggir. They had cat-ski quivers flapping against their shoulders, and they led in leashes enormous dogs, which were as high as asses and did not bark."

How about EVEN FURTHER into full Realms of Chaos Warhammer?

"Finally, as though Africa had not been sufficiently emptied, and it had been necessary to seek further fury in the very dregs of the races, men might be seen behind th rest, with beast-like profiles and grinning with idiotic laughter - wretches ravaged by hideous diseases, deformed pigmies, mulattoes of doubtful sex, albinos whose red eyes blinked in the sun; stammering out unintelligible sounds, they put a finger in their mouths to show that they were hungry."

A world in the lap of the gods - divine power everywhere! Layered secret-trap temples hiding incredible histories, sacred treasures. Huge Brazen Gods that fucking shovel children into their burning mouths with articulated fucking arms.

Were you wondering where shit like this first came from?

From here! From Salammbo!

TREASURE - does treasure only exist as a vector of our desire? It would seem so, Hamlicar has his multiply-hidden treasure vault (the extra grain isn’t there, its hidden under the flagstones of his house) with the fake pit, the secret entrance, and then the even more secret entrance with the super-secret built in code so complex it is secretly worked into the pattern tattooed on his arms!

"The walls were covered wtih scales of brass; and in the centre, on a granite pedestal, stood the statue of one of the Kabiri called Aletes, the discoverer of the mines in Celtiberia. On the ground, at its base, and arranged in the form of a cross, were large gold shields and monster close-necked  silver vases of extravagant shape and unfitted for use; it was customary to cast quantities of metal in this way, so that dilapidation and even removal should be almost impossible.

With his torch he lit a miner's lamp which was fastened to the idols cap, and green, yellow, blue, violet, wine-coloured and blood-coloured fires suddenly illuminated the hall. It was filled with gems which were either in gold calabashes fastened like sconces upon sheets of brass, or were ranged in native masses at the foot of the wall. There were callaides shot away from the mountains with slings, carbuncles formed by the urine of the lynx, glossopetrae which had fallen from the moon, tyanos, diamonds, sandastra, beryls, with the three kinds of rubies, the four kinds of sapphires, and the twelve kinds of emeralds. They gleamed like splashes of milk, blue icicles, and silver dust, and shed their light in sheets, rays, and stars. Ceraunia, engendered by the thunder, sparkles by the side of chalcedonies, which are a cure for poison. There were topazes from Mount Zabarca to evert terrors, opals from Bactria to prevent abortions, and horns of Ammon, which are placed under the bead to induce dreams.

The fires from the stones and the flames from the lamp were mirrored in the great golden shields. Hamlicar stood smiling with folded arms, and was less delighted by the sight of the riches than by the consciousness of their possession. They were inaccessible, exhaustless, infinite. His ancestors sleeping beneath his feet transmitted something of their eternity to his heart. He felt very near to the subterranean deities. It was as the joy to one of the Kabirir; and the great luminous rays striking upon his face looked like the extremity of an invisible net linking him across the abysses with the centre of the world.

A thought came which made him shudder, and placing himself behind the idol he walked straight up to the wall. Then among the tattooings on his arm he scrutinised a horizontal line with two other perpendicular ones which in Channatish figures expressed the number thirteen. Then he counted as far as the thirteenth of the brass plates and again raised his ample sleeve; and with his right hand stretched out he read other more complicated lines on his arm, at the same time moving his fingers daintily about like one playing on a lyre. At last he struck seven blows with his thumb, and an entire section of the wall turned about in a single block.

It served to conceal a sort of cellar containing mysterious things which had no name and were of incalculable value. Hamlicar went down the three steps, took up a llama's skin which was floating on a black liquid in a silver vat, and then re-ascended."


TREASURE, especially Hamlicars Vaults and Matho and Spendius' break in of the Temple of Tanith

MURDER-HOBOISM, unitary desires, consuming ambition, wild fluctuations in state power, huge diversity of peoples and the frontier of an undiscovered ungoverned (by the people in this story at least) world, mean law is power and power is law, and that means promises, schemes, negotiations, very occasional mercy and relentless betrayal of everyone by everyone.

GODS AND MAGIC!! - Is any of it real? Probably not! But everyone in the story believes it! Including you if you are there! Look out for those curses, inauspicious hours, sacred animals, angry priests, mass hysteria, dark hours, divine promises, informative dreams and so on. Also all the gods have treasure even if its just food, also the priests are stealing the food



  1. Interestingly, Robert E Howard probably never read Salammbo, although his correspondence buddies Lovecraft and Ashton Smith were evidently fans of Flaubert (going off of:

  2. Used sparingly, I could see this being inspiring for one's campaign setting or simply scenario flavor.

  3. This is really interesting. I'd always assumed Tolkien's exoticizing of the Haradrim armies in The Two Towers, getting weirder, more racial, all the way to the infamous "black troll-men," came from Renaissance-era Crusader romances or maybe Greek descriptions of the Persian armies. But maybe he'd read Flaubert?

  4. It's been years since I read it, but it reminded me at the time of the list of soldiers of different nations at the start of Moorcock's Stormbringer.

    The other Flaubert work that goes into similar (but wilder!) territory is The Temptation of St Anthony:

    "And all manner of frightful creatures arise:—The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before-and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks. Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.

    Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies:—Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

    They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful."

    Worth checking out - there are guest appearances from some big-name monsters too!

    1. Thats what I'm talking about! But how is it meant to *tempt* St Anthony? I feel like in most of the poems and painintings the devils sent to *tempt* St Anthony seem to have focused just on scaring the shit out of him or just weirding him out.

    2. The obvious answer is that St Anthony was into some really freaky shit. If he was alive today he'd be on DeviantArt.

  5. I’ve only seen the 1962 film adaptation (The Loves of Salammbo) as finding an English translation of the novel has been challenging…at least it was five years ago when I was researching Carthage / ancient Phoenicia and doing my best to gobble up all the folklore I could find.

    The project I was working on petered out long ago, but this glowing review has inspired me to try again to lay hands on a copy of Flaubert’s work.