Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1862)

With his torch Hamilcar lit the lamp 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, glossopetræ 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, sparkled by the side of chalcedonies, which are a cure for poison. There were topazes from Mount Zabarca to avert terrors, opals from Bactriana to prevent abortions, and horns of Ammon, which are placed under the bed to induce dreams.
(Salammbô, Chapter seven)

Having arrived on the literary scene with a brilliantly realistic depiction of small-town, rural French life in Madame Bovary (1856), Flaubert made his public and the critics wait five years for his next work, a novel which has puzzled and dismayed them, and his many posthumous fans, down to the present day.

Salammbô is a historical novel set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC. It describes the revolt of the mercenaries who had fought for Carthage during the First Punic War (261-241 BC). It could barely – in terms of time, setting and subject matter – be more different from Bovary.

What it does have in common with its predecessor is Flaubert’s obsessive attention to detail. He claimed to have read over 200 history and travel books in preparation for writing it, and undertook not one but two trips to North Africa, where he not only visited the sites of long-extinct Carthage, but befriended European archaeologists to mug up on the latest knowledge. This bookish, encyclopedic quality is on display right from page one.

Men of all nations were there, Ligurians, Lusitanians, Balearians, Negroes, and fugitives from Rome. Beside the heavy Dorian dialect were audible the resonant Celtic syllables rattling like chariots of war, while Ionian terminations conflicted with consonants of the desert as harsh as the jackal’s cry. The Greek might be recognised by his slender figure, the Egyptian by his elevated shoulders, the Cantabrian by his broad calves. There were Carians proudly nodding their helmet plumes, Cappadocian archers displaying large flowers painted on their bodies with the juice of herbs, and a few Lydians in women’s robes, dining in slippers and earrings. Others were ostentatiously daubed with vermilion, and resembled coral statues. (Salammbô, chapter one)

The plot

Salammbô’s plot, characters and many details are based on the account of the Mercenary War (240-238 BC) written by the Greek historian Polybius (200-118 BC) about a hundred years after the event – though Flaubert departs from his source freely when it suits him or for fictional convenience.

So key characters like Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general, are entirely historical, whereas the central figure of Salammbo herself, is entirely fictonal.

There’s a grand, epic, not-really-believable feel to the entire book. It all takes place on an ornate, jewel-encrusted, sun-smitten, blood-soaked stage of the author’s imagination. Every paragraph is devoted to detailed – and no doubt thoroughly researched – descriptions of the exotic and the arcane which have the paradoxical effect of keeping the reader at arm’s length, so that you observe the action but never really become involved.

It opens with the army of mercenaries feasting riotously in the palace of Hamilcar, having served him loyally in the twenty-year-long First Punic War with Rome which has just reached a conclusion (Rome won and imposed harsh penalties on Carthage). The mecenaries get drunk and free some slaves who are clamouring from the cellars.

This liberates a key character, Spendius, a slave of Hamilcar, captured at the battle of Argunisae (we get his full, dire back story) who will become the slippery adviser of the brutish mercenary leader, Mâtho.

During this initial scene of feasting, the slender stately figure of Salammbô, priestess of Tanaan, appears before the drunk barbarians, awing most of them to silence and entrancing Mâtho’s heart. From here onwards a major plot strand is his irrational obsession with Salammbô.

The mercenaries are promised pay and ships home if they will go to the port town of Sicca, so off they trek in a colourful caravanserai. They wait some days, and a peacock-plumed delegation led by fat, ill Hanno, from Carthage eventually arrives with some gold but lots of excuses wny there isn’t more. He’s half way through doling out pay when barbarian spies bring news that a cohort of mercenary slingers, who’d stayed behind in Carthage, have been massacred i.e. treachery! Spendius the freed slave incites the barbarians to rebellion and they attack and ransack the Carthaginian delegation, march back to Carthage and lay siege to it.

Three barbarians are beheaded at the order of the fat, diseased Carthaginian general Hanno - illustration by Victor Armand Poirson

Three barbarians are beheaded at the order of the gross, diseased Carthaginian general, Hanno – illustration by Victor Armand Poirson

There’s a scene crying out to be filmed where Mâtho and Spendius climb the massive aqueduct which carries water into Carthage, lower themselves into the fast-flowing water and are shot out into an underground cistern deep in the city. From here they break out and make their way through the empty midnight streets, till they reach the city’s most holy temple, break into this, and steal the zaïmph, a holy veil studded with precious stones.

Spendius’s motive is purely secular – he knows that theft of the holy veil will demoralise the Carthaginians and also persuade her allies that she’s lost her luck. For Mâtho, though, it is part of his ongoing obsession to see Salammbô and – in a tantalising / erotic / suspenseful moment – he indeed penetrates her bed chamber and stands watching her slender sleeping form.

Then – as in a movie – she wakes, calls the guard and our two heroes have to flee through the waking city. Spendius knows his way about and scarpers through back streets to the high undefended rock towering over the sea, and slithers down it to freedom. In a more baroque scene Mâtho makes his way among the angry citizens, but wraps himself in the zaïmph, so that they are scared of shooting arrows, throwing stones etc, in case they damage the holy relic.

The mercenaries leave Carthage and split into two groups, attacking the vassal towns of Utica and Hippo-Zarytus. The Carthaginian general Hanno surprises Spendius’s force at Utica and crushes the mercenary army with his painted elephants. He is enjoying a luxury bath in the city, when mercenary Mâtho arrives with barbarian reinforcements and routs the Carthaginian troops.

At this point Hamilcar Barca reappears in Carthage. He is the successful general who fought the Romans in the south of Italy during the just-ended war. He is maybe the richest man in Carthage and deeply unpopular with the council of Elders, who suspect him of doing deals with the mercenaries. We accompany him on a grand tour of his palaces, slaves, before entering the secret chambers where he keeps his accumulated wealth in jewels and gold (this is the source of the quote at the top of this review).

Hamilcar is also, incidentally, the father of the sexy priestess, Salammbô. Word has got around that the thieves of the zaïmph were seen coming out of her bed chamber, so gossip has quickly taken hold that she was a) seduced by them b) helped them in the sacrilegious theft.

Hamilcar leads the Carthaginian army to a devastating victory over the barbarian army led by Spendius at the Battle of the Macaras, not least because of his brightly-painted, trumpeting elephants.

However, the barbarians have other armies in the field and, in tracking them down, Hamilcar’s forces are suddenly surrounded and trapped. They quickly make fortifications, a moat and earth wall, and both sides settle down to a siege.

Back in Carthage the narrative zeroes in on Salammbô. In probably the most sensual / sexy scene she is depicted dancing naked with the huge black ‘holy’ python from the temple of Eschmoûn, which coils round her arms and neck and flicks its tail between her white thighs. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud…

Salammbô unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbô, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbô.

A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbô rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold. Salammbô panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again. (Chapter ten)

The high priest Schahabarim persuades Salammbô that the only way to save Carthage (and the besieged Carthaginian army) is to enter the camp of the mercenaries and retrieve the stolen zaïmph. After seeking the blessings of a whole lexicon of ancient gods and being anointed with a pharmacy of rare potions, Salammbô is led to the barbarian camp by a loyal servant.

Without too much trouble she finds the tent of the man who is now their leader by dint of his mad courage – Mâtho, the savage brute we first encountered at the barbarians’ feast in chapter one and who then went on the very filmic adventure via the city aqueduct to steal the holy zaïmph.

Salammbô enters his tent and we can feel the heavy hand of 19th century censorship as the pair proceed to utter stagy dialogue at each other, before Mâtho falls to his knees in front of her, clasps her legs, rises to kiss her face and arms, she falls backwards onto the warm lion skin and then… he falls asleep. Hmmm. I think we’re meant to understand that they made love, but this is not stated.

Two things suggest this:

  1. We are told that the ankles of Carthaginian virgins are tied by a short golden chain from puberty i.e. they can only totter, can’t run and certainly can’t spread their legs wide. Flaubert tells us that this chain is broken during Salammbô’s encounter with Mâtho.
  2. When Mâtho goes out to deal with the Carthaginian attack, Salammbô is momentarily visited by one of the Carthaginian prisoners, who tells her how shameful it was to hear her ‘copulate’ almost within sight of her father’s tents within the Carthaginian camp.

As a matter of scientific / sociological curiosity, this is the relevant passage of (censored) lovemaking in full:

He was on his knees on the ground before her; and he encircled her form with both his arms, his head thrown back, and his hands wandering; the gold discs hanging from his ears gleamed upon his bronzed neck; big tears rolled in his eyes like silver globes; he sighed caressingly, and murmured vague words lighter than a breeze and sweet as a kiss.

Salammbô was invaded by a weakness in which she lost all consciousness of herself. Something at once inward and lofty, a command from the gods, obliged her to yield herself; clouds uplifted her, and she fell back swooning upon the bed amid the lion’s hair. The zaïmph fell, and enveloped her; she could see Mâtho’s face bending down above her breast.

‘Moloch, thou burnest me!’ and the soldier’s kisses, more devouring than flames, covered her; she was as though swept away in a hurricane, taken in the might of the sun.

He kissed all her fingers, her arms, her feet, and the long tresses of her hair from one end to the other.

‘Carry it off,’ he said, ‘what do I care? take me away with it! I abandon the army! I renounce everything! Beyond Gades, twenty days’ journey into the sea, you come to an island covered with gold dust, verdure, and birds. On the mountains large flowers filled with smoking perfumes rock like eternal censers; in the citron trees, which are higher than cedars, milk-coloured serpents cause the fruit to fall upon the turf with the diamonds in their jaws; the air is so mild that it keeps you from dying. Oh! I shall find it, you will see. We shall live in crystal grottoes cut out at the foot of the hills. No one dwells in it yet, or I shall become the king of the country.’

He brushed the dust off her cothurni; he wanted her to put a quarter of a pomegranate between her lips; he heaped up garments behind her head to make a cushion for her. He sought for means to serve her, and to humble himself, and he even spread the zaïmph over her feet as if it were a mere rug.

‘Have you still,’ he said, ‘those little gazelle’s horns on which your necklaces hang? You will give them to me! I love them!’ For he spoke as if the war were finished, and joyful laughs broke from him. The Mercenaries, Hamilcar, every obstacle had now disappeared. The moon was gliding between two clouds. They could see it through an opening in the tent. ‘Ah, what nights have I spent gazing at her! she seemed to me like a veil that hid your face; you would look at me through her; the memory of you was mingled with her beams; then I could no longer distinguish you!’ And with his head between her breasts he wept copiously.

‘And this,’ she thought, ‘is the formidable man who makes Carthage tremble!

He fell asleep. Then disengaging herself from his arm she put one foot to the ground, and she perceived that her chainlet was broken.

Salammbô seizes the zaïmph just as the Carthaginians happen to make a sortie against the barbarians and in the confusion a) is reunited with the loyal slave who’d brought her this far who b) guides her into the camp of the Carthaginians.

Here she presents her father Hamilcar with the zaïmph, which is then displayed from the walls of the besieged camp, heartening the Carthaginians and dismaying the besieging barbarians. At the same moment, one of the rebel leaders, Narr’ Havas king of the Numidians, presents himself to Hamilcar. He has been playing a cunning game, not actually engaging the Carthaginians, allying with the barbarians, waiting to see which way the land lies. Now he senses the tide is turning the Carthaginians’ way, he offers all his forces to Hamilcar and prostrates himself on the ground.

Hamilcar knows a gift horse when he sees one, raises him from the floor, kisses him and declares an alliance. Since his daughter happens to be standing there, he cements the alliance by giving Salammbô in marriage to Narr’ Havas, and their wedding is celebrated in exotic style right there and then.

The barbarians drive Hamilcar’s army back into the walls of Carthage and a long and very bloody siege commences. Spendius reprises his earlier feat with the Great Aqueduct by personally loosening a keystone in its base so that the city’s water pours out uselessly into the sand.

Flaubert then describes with sadistic relish the slow descent of the city’s population into hunger and thirst, punctuated by systematic attacks on the city by the barbarians who bring up an impressive array of medieval war machines, giant catapults, battering rams and so on.

Finally, the elders of Carthage decide that a truly awesome sacrifice is required to set the city free, a sacrifice to the wickedest god of all, Moloch, who demands human sacrifices. In the most gruesome passage of the book the boy children of all the families of the city are blindfolded and brought before the monstrous statue of the god of hell, there to be case into an enormous furnace which vaporises their bodies, until it the flames are glutted and quenched by a vast mound of bloody, burnt children’s corpses.

In proportion as the priests made haste, the frenzy of the people increased; as the number of the victims was diminishing, some cried out to spare them, others that still more were needful. The walls, with their burden of people, seemed to be giving way beneath the howlings of terror and mystic voluptuousness. Then the faithful came into the passages, dragging their children, who clung to them; and they beat them  in order to make them let go, and handed them over to the men in red. The instrument-players sometimes stopped through exhaustion; then the cries of the mothers might be heard, and the frizzling of the fat as it fell upon the coals.

The henbane-drinkers crawled on all fours around the colossus, roaring like tigers; the Yidonim vaticinated, the Devotees sang with their cloven lips; the trellis-work had been broken through, all wished for a share in the sacrifice;—and fathers, whose children had died previously, cast their effigies, their playthings, their preserved bones into the fire. Some who had knives rushed upon the rest. They slaughtered one another. The hierodules took the fallen ashes at the edge of the flagstone in bronze fans, and cast them into the air that the sacrifice might be scattered over the town and even to the region of the stars. (Chapter 13)

Importantly, Hamilcar hides his own son, substituting for him a slave child, suitably bathed, anointed and richly dressed to fool the Council of Elders. The son, thus spared, will grow up to become Hannibal, one of the most famous generals of the ancient world.

In the long penultimate chapter, the tide turns. The holocaust of the children appears to prompt the heavens to open – it rains and allows the Carthaginians to drink after a long drouth. Hamilcar lures the barbarians into a defile in the mountains which he blocks at both ends, leading them to go through all the agonies of hunger and thirst including, inevitably, cannibalism carried out in horrible ways.

When Hamilcar finally offers peace, he gets agreement from the leading barbarians then proceeds to massacre the rest. Narr’ Havas has 192 elephants at his command, covered with lances and holding razor sharp swords in their trunks, with towers on their backs from which Indian warriors shoot arrows. They storm through the weakened barbarians, eviscerating them. Two ‘syntagmata’ had escaped into a bend of the valley. Hamilcar makes them lie on the floor as a sign of submission, and then the elephants walk over them, breaking their backs.

A pocket of 400 of the strongest fighters is found on a hilltop. Hamilcar makes them fight each other, promising the survivors they will be absorbed into his personal guard. There is an interesting suggestion that these select fighters have formed homosexual relationships, in which the younger are protected and mentored by the older fighters, and repaid this protection with ‘delicate attentions and wifely favours’ (p.258).

Nonetheless, they fight each other, best friend killing best friend – exactly as in the final scene of the movie Spartacus. I wonder whether this really happened, in either historical event, or whether the scriptwriter of Spartacus borrowed it from Salammbô.

When the sixty survivors of this self-slaughter present themselves, Hamilcar has them, also, murdered.

Narr’ Havas is sent to Carthage where he tells the Elders about the comprehensive victory. He visits Salammbô, who orders him to track down and kill the impious mercenary leader, Mâtho.

The barbarians’ last force, led by Mâtho, captures Hamilcar’s inept rival, general Hanno, and crucifies him along with thirty of the Elders who had been in his camp. In response, Hamilcar crucifies the ten rebel leaders who had submitted at the Valley of the Axe, including Spendius, the escaped slave who we met right at the start and who has had so many adventures.

The last of the mercenaries, led by Mâtho, wander from Tunis south, but find all villages razed, all caves blocked, all wells poisoned, until they finally return to Carthage seeking a final confrontation. Here they are exterminated, with the help of African allies, the elephants trampling , swords cleaving, heads rolling, guts splurging, retreating up a hill of bloody bodies until only 30 are left, 20, 10, three, then Mâtho and one other, then Mâtho alone. He tries to throw himself upon the spears and swords but the Carthaginians withdraw, letting him through, until he is caught in a net, to be taken back to Carthage and displayed.

The climax of the novel is a huge festival of celebration in Carthage, where all ranks of the aristocracy present themselves in their pomp, the people adulate, and Salammbo appears to great cheers, the heroine of the hour for recovering the zaïmph and restoring the favour of the gods.

And it is her wedding day, for the is to be formally married to Carthage’s ally, Narr’ Havas.

Mâtho is brought out of prison and runs a grotesque gauntlet of citizens, who flay him, beat him, puncture his skin, brand him, rip his flesh off until he appears at the bottom of the great balcony where Hamilcar and the other Elders are waiting. All that remains of his face is his eyes which look up and penetrate Salammbô’s soul, reminding her of his beautiful powerful body crouching before her in the tent, in the pomp of his power. Next moment this bleeding stump of a man is knocked backwards and a slave leaps forward with a flensing knife, with which he cuts our Mâtho’s still steaming heart, and holds it up to the setting sun, dedicating this sign of Carthage’s victory to the gods.

And as the sun sets and Narr’ Havas tightens his grip round the woman who will now be his wife, but Salammbô collapses backwards over her throne and dies on the spot.

The very last words of the of the novel indicate she has been struck down by the gods ‘ for having touched the mantle of Tanith’ i.e. the famous zaïmph. But the way it coincides with the grotesque death of Mâtho who has, we think, taken her virginity, suggests some kind of mystic bond between them, so that his death in some doom-laden, voodoo way, necessitates her extinction.


Sex and violence

Sex and violence sell pretty much anything in Western society – newspapers, books, movies and comics – and this novel, highly ‘literary’ though it may be in technique, was no exception. Its gory, sexy reputation made it a best-seller.

1. War

The blurb promotes the battle scenes, but I have read better accounts of battles in countless history books.

Flaubert certainly describes the important battles of the war, as recorded by his source Polybius, but it seems to me that Flaubert is always more interested in the pictorial quality of the compositions, than in their dynamic – let alone strategic – elements.

The dust settled around the army, and they were beginning to sing when Hanno himself appeared on the top of an elephant. He sat bare-headed beneath a parasol of byssus held a Negro behind him. His necklace of blue plates flapped against the flowers on his black tunic; his huge arms were compressed within circles of diamonds, and with open mouth he brandished a pike of inordinate size, which spread out at the end like a lotus, and brighter than a mirror. At once the earth shook – and the Barbarians saw charging, in a single line, all the elephants of Carthage, with their tusks gilded, their ears painted blue, armoured in bronze, and with leather towers shaking about on top of their scarlet caparisons, in each of which were three archers holding great open bows. (Chapter 6)

The second battle, the Battle of the Macaras is described in more impressive detail. Here again the elephants are a central theme, the brutality of their treatment and the carnage they cause taking pride of place in the gory descriptions.

But a cry, a terrible cry broke forth, a roar of pain and wrath: it came from the seventy-two elephants which were rushing on in double line, Hamilcar having waited until the Mercenaries were massed together in one spot to let them loose against them; the Indians had goaded them so vigorously that blood was trickling down their broad ears.

Their trunks, which were smeared with minium, were stretched straight out in the air like red serpents; their breasts were furnished with spears and their backs with cuirasses; their tusks were lengthened with steel blades curved like sabres,—and to make them more ferocious they had been intoxicated with a mixture of pepper, wine, and incense. They shook their necklaces of bells, and shrieked; and the elephantarchs bent their heads beneath the stream of phalaricas which was beginning to fly from the tops of the towers.

In order to resist them the better the Barbarians rushed forward in a compact crowd; the elephants flung themselves impetuously upon the centre of it. The spurs on their breasts, like ships’ prows, clove through the cohorts, which flowed surging back. They stifled the men with their trunks, or else snatching them up from the ground delivered them over their heads to the soldiers in the towers; with their tusks they disembowelled them, and hurled them into the air, and long entrails hung from their ivory fangs like bundles of rope from a mast. The Barbarians strove to blind them, to hamstring them; others would slip beneath their bodies, bury a sword in them up to the hilt, and perish crushed to death; the most intrepid clung to their straps; they would go on sawing the leather amid flames, bullets, and arrows, and the wicker tower would fall like a tower of stone.

Fourteen of the animals on the extreme right, irritated by their wounds, turned upon the second rank; the Indians seized mallet and chisel, applied the latter to a joint in the head, and with all their might struck a great blow.

Down fell the huge beasts, falling one above another. It was like a mountain; and upon the heap of dead bodies and armour a monstrous elephant, called ‘The Fury of Baal’, which had been caught by the leg in some chains, stood howling until the evening with an arrow in its eye.

Wow.

But throughout the battle scenes, pictorialism triumphs over analysis or clear description. Even rereading it carefully, it’s difficult to make out precisely what is going on, except the basic fact that Spendius’s army is being massacred.

The aim is, quite clearly, to shock and amaze and horrify, rather than enlighten.

2. Sex

Actually, there’s a lot less sex than advertised. Considering that even fairly muted hints at sensuality in Flaubert’s preceding (and first novel) Madame Bovary, had resulted in him being taken to court, the sensuality on display in Salammbô is in line with the general atmosphere of exotic decadence, but no more. It is more a case of heavy sensual atmosphere – of ‘mystic lasciviousness’ (p.277) than anything explicit.

For example, when she makes her first appearance among the feasting barbarians, you might at least have expected Salammbô to be bare-breasted as, after all, women in some ancient cultures were as a matter of course. It’s a surprise, then, to read that:

Her hair, which was powdered with violet sand, and combined into the form of a tower, after the fashion of the Chanaanite maidens, added to her height. Tresses of pearls were fastened to her temples, and fell to the corners of her mouth, which was as rosy as a half-open pomegranate. On her breast was a collection of luminous stones, their variegation imitating the scales of the murena. Her arms were adorned with diamonds, and issued naked from her sleeveless tunic, which was starred with red flowers on a perfectly black ground. Between her ankles she wore a golden chainlet to regulate her steps, and her large dark purple mantle, cut of an unknown material, trailed behind her, making, as it were, at each step, a broad wave which followed her. (Chapter one)

In other words, she’s wearing a tunic covering her torso and a long purple mantle. In a later scene she goes up to the roof of the temple to pray, accompanied by a serving girl:

Salammbô ascended to the terrace of her palace, supported by a female slave who carried an iron dish filled with live coals.

In the middle of the terrace there was a small ivory bed covered with lynx skins, and cushions made with the feathers of the parrot, a fatidical animal consecrated to the gods; and at the four corners rose four long perfuming-pans filled with nard, incense, cinnamomum, and myrrh. The slave lit the perfumes. Salammbô looked at the polar star; she slowly saluted the four points of heaven, and knelt down on the ground in the azure dust which was strewn with golden stars in imitation of the firmament. Then with both elbows against her sides, her fore-arms straight and her hands open, she threw back her head beneath the rays of the moon, and said:

‘O Rabetna!—Baalet!—Tanith!’ and her voice was lengthened in a plaintive fashion as if calling to someone. ‘Anaïtis! Astarte! Derceto! Astoreth! Mylitta! Athara! Elissa! Tiratha! – By the hidden symbols, by the resounding sistra – by the furrows of the earth – by the eternal silence and by the eternal fruitfulness – mistress of the gloomy sea and of the azure shores, O Queen of the watery world, all hail!’

She swayed her whole body twice or thrice, and then cast herself face downwards in the dust with both arms outstretched.

But the slave nimbly raised her, for according to the rites someone must catch the suppliant at the moment of his prostration; this told him that the gods accepted him, and Salammbô’s nurse never failed in this pious duty.

Some merchants from Darytian Gætulia had brought her to Carthage when quite young, and after her enfranchisement she would not forsake her old masters, as was shown by her right ear, which was pierced with a large hole. A petticoat of many-coloured stripes fitted closely on her hips, and fell to her ankles, where two tin rings clashed together. Her somewhat flat face was yellow like her tunic. Silver bodkins of great length formed a sun behind her head. She wore a coral button on the nostril, and she stood beside the bed more erect than a Hermes, and with her eyelids cast down.

Salammbô walked to the edge of the terrace; her eyes swept the horizon for an instant, and then were lowered upon the sleeping town, while the sigh that she heaved swelled her bosom, and gave an undulating movement to the whole length of the long white simar which hung without clasp or girdle about her. Her curved and painted sandals were hidden beneath a heap of emeralds, and a net of purple thread was filled with her disordered hair.

So the atmosphere is certainly heavy with oriental jewels, exotica, incense and gods – but Salammbô is far from naked: she is wearing a petticoat and a long white ‘simar’. Still, this didn’t stop the imagination of contemporary readers, and the illustrations of the next generation of artists, from depicting her bare-bosomed – as in Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau depiction of exactly this scene.

Salammbô by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Salammbô by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

The snake scene (Chapter ten, actually titled ‘The Serpent’) is heavily, aromatically sensual, but involves no actual sex just lots of heavy sensuality. And the seduction scene in Chapter eleven (‘In the tent’) has some pawing and kissing but nothing explicit at all. It is only afterwards that we learn there was an act of sexual congress (I think).

Meanwhile there are a lot of references to the sex of other women; within Carthage there are priestesses who have sex with priests, the camp followers of the barbarian army are casually referred to as having sex with miscellaneous soldiers. The sex act doesn’t have to be anywhere actually described in order for there to be a pervasive atmosphere of wanton sexuality, an atmosphere heavy with implication which represented an enormous liberation from the repressed sexuality of Flaubert’s original readers.

3. Sadism

If there’s not a lot of actual sex, there certainly is a great deal of brutal sadism. Just like today, as it was in my youth in the 1970s, so it was in Flaubert’s 1860s, you show a woman’s nipple and the press and the guardians of Purity go mental – but you can show men being tortured, eviscerated, trampled to death, having their heads, arms or legs chopped off, being crucified or burned to death – and that’s fine.

The tone is set in the odd scene towards the sbeginning where the barbarian army is trekking towards the sea and comes to a valley in which lions have been crucified. It is a bizarre custom of the non-Punic locals, apparently, designed to discourage other lions. Later, three hundred Carthaginian nobles taken prisoner by the barbarians all have their legs broken and are thrown into a deep pit where they slowly starve to death.

When Hamilcar returns to Carthage, he reviews his estates and possessions (which takes up most of a chapter) while dealing out quite vicious punishments to all and sundry for their cowardice in the face of the barbarians. He orders the governors of his country estates who fled the mercenaries to be branded on their foreheads with red-hot irons, and when he discovers that his prize elephants were mutilated by the drunk barbarians, he orders his chief of staff, Abdalonim, to be crucified.

Of course, the battle scenes are full of countless horrible eviscerations, impalings and mutilations. The siege of Carthage itself gives opportunity for gory deaths of all descriptions.

The great trench was full to overflowing; the wounded were massed pell-mell with the dead and dying beneath the footsteps of the living. Calcined trunks formed black spots amid opened entrails, scattered brains, and pools of blood; and arms and legs projecting half way out of a heap, would stand straight up like props in a burning vineyard…

All the other tollenos were speedily made ready. But a hundred times as many would have been needed for the capture of the town. They were utilised in a murderous fashion: Ethiopian archers were placed in the baskets; then, the cables having been fastened, they remained suspended and shot poisoned arrows. The fifty tollenos commanding the battlements thus surrounded Carthage like monstrous vultures; and the Negroes laughed to see the guards on the rampart dying in grievous convulsions…

And so on, at very great length.

The text adds refinement upon refinement in the art of torture and painful death. The crucifixion of Hanno and the thirty Elders is matched by the crucifixion of Spendius and the ten barbarian leaders, and then of Mâtho.

Flaubert goes out of his way to take us back to the defile of the Axe, where Hamilcar had trapped the barbarian army, to describe in detail the slow death from starvation of the thousands left behind there; of how Narr’ Havas has carefully rounded up all the lions in the vicinity and lets them loose into the sealed valley, so that they tear the last survivors apart, while they’re still conscious. Then, at nightfall, come slinking the hyenas to rip apart the last survivors.

It feels like Flaubert has made a comprehensive list of every possible physical torment or torture humans are vulnerable to, and found a place somewhere in his narrative for every single one, described with lip-smacking relish.

In one of the heaps of corpses, which in an irregular fashion embossed the plain, something rose up vaguer than a spectre. Then one of the lions set himself in motion, his monstrous form cutting a black shadow on the background of the purple sky, and when he was quite close to the man, he knocked him down with a single blow of his paw. Then, stretching himself flat upon him, he slowly drew out the entrails with the edge of his teeth. (Chapter 14)

Then the lion stretches itself and gives a desolate roar over the valley of corpses. This image – a solitary wild beast emblemising desolation – echoes the lone elephant, the ‘Fury of Baal’, at the end of the Battle of Macaras, bellowing in pain with an arrow in its eye.

Desolation. Devastated landscapes littered with smoking ruins and stinking bodies. In the (short) introduction to the Penguin paperback edition, A.J. Krailsheimer describes all Flaubert’s novels as ‘sermons in vanity’, which seems about right.

In which case this is much the most bleak of those sermons. Not only is every element of this long-forgotten conflict pointless and cruel, but we know the subsequent history of Carthage, its most famous feature being that it was eventually conquered by Rome and the city itself comprehensively destroyed, and the fields ploughed with salt. All that survives of the once-great city is a handful of stone ruins amid the noisy traffic of modern-day Tunis.

The Carthaginians win this war, but it will turn out to be a futile effort just as Flaubert, the misanthrope, believes that, deep down, all human activity is vile and futile.

4. Exotic details

There are so many of these it’s difficult to know where to start. Flaubert obviously enjoyed himself immensely soaking his text in every exotic detail he could possibly mine from his source texts. Here are the barbarians feasting.

First they were served with birds and green sauce in plates of red clay relieved by drawings in black, then with every kind of shell-fish that is gathered on the Punic coasts, wheaten porridge, beans and barley, and snails dressed with cumin on dishes of yellow amber.

Afterwards the tables were covered with meats, antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers, whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, haunches of she-camels and buffaloes, hedgehogs with garum, fried grasshoppers, and preserved dormice. Large pieces of fat floated in the midst of saffron in bowls of Tamrapanni wood. Everything was running over with wine, truffles, and asafotida. Pyramids of fruit were crumbling upon honeycombs, and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees – a Carthaginian dish held in abhorrence among other nations.

Surprise at the novel fare excited the greed of the stomach. The Gauls with their long hair drawn up on the crown of the head, snatched at the water-melons and lemons, and crunched them up with the rind. The Negroes, who had never seen a lobster, tore their faces with its red prickles. But the shaven Greeks, whiter than marble, threw the leavings of their plates behind them, while the herdsmen from Brutium, in their wolf-skin garments, devoured in silence with their faces in their portions.

There are long detailed passages like this on literally every page.

I soon realised the book was reminding me of Milton’s addiction to exotic names, obscure foods and jewels and dress, a taste he parades throughout Paradise Lost. It is, for long passages, more like wandering through a gallery of ‘orientalist’ art than reading a novel.

In the original editions of Paradise Lost all the rare and exotic names were italicised, which I think would have been a good idea to apply to this novel, so you’d know you’re getting your money’s worth of marvels and wonders, like Victorian visitors to a circus peep show of monsters and rarities.

They were not 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 Marmarica. They had crossed the desert, drinking at the brackish wells walled in with camels’ bones; the Zuaeces, with their covering of ostrich feathers, had come on quadrigæ; the Garamantians, masked with black veils, rode behind on their painted mares; others were mounted on asses, onagers, zebras, 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; Atarantians, who curse the sun; Troglodytes, who bury their dead with laughter beneath branches of trees; and the hideous Auseans, who eat grass-hoppers; the Achyrmachidæ, who eat lice; and the vermilion-painted Gysantians, who eat apes.

Dialogue

The dialogue is dire. A major scriptwriter would need to be brought in to make it acceptable to modern readers. All the characters declaim their words in hammy stage voices, like John Gielgud doing Shakespeare. Almost every sentence of dialogue ends with an exclamation mark to ram home the point that this is an Exciting Historical Drama.

Here is Salammbô greeting her father Hamilcar, on his return to the family palace, and then realising that someone has told him about her suspected involvement in the theft of the zaïmph.

‘Greeting, eye of Baalim, eternal glory! triumph! leisure! satisfaction! riches! Long has my heart been sad and the house drooping. But the returning master is like reviving Tammouz; and beneath your gaze, O father, joyfulness and a new existence will everywhere prevail!’

And taking from Taanach’s hands a little oblong vase wherein smoked a mixture of meal, butter, cardamom, and wine: ‘Drink freely,’ said she, ‘of the returning cup, which your servant has prepared!’

He replied: ‘A blessing upon you!’ and he mechanically grasped the golden vase which she held out to him.

He scanned her, however, with such harsh attention, that Salammbô was troubled and stammered out:

‘They have told you, O Master!’

‘Yes! I know!’ said Hamilcar in a low voice.

See what I mean about exclamation marks!

One of the things films have taught us is that a close-up of a few muttered words can be every bit as terrifying as a Grand Speech. Flaubert was writing 100 years before this was discovered, and so his prose – and the entire novel – reflects the stage conventions of his time, with the actors adopting histrionic postures in order to deliver their melodramatic speeches. Here is Hamilcar addressing the Elders:

‘By the hundred torches of your Intelligences! by the eight fires of the Kabiri! by the stars, the meteors, and the volcanoes! by everything that burns! by the thirst of the desert and the saltness of the ocean! by the cave of Hadrumetum and the empire of Souls! by extermination! by the ashes of your sons and the ashes of the brothers of your ancestors with which I now mingle my own!—you, the Hundred of the Council of Carthage, have lied in your accusation of my daughter! And I, Hamilcar Barca, marine Suffet, chief of the rich and ruler of the people, in the presence of bull-headed Moloch, I swear…’ (Chapter seven)

It’s hard to take most of the dialogue – and therefore most of the characters – very seriously. On the other hand almost every passage of description is wonderfully garish and exotic. This is the paragraph immediately following Hamilcar’s vow:

The sacred servants entered wearing their golden combs, some with purple sponges and others with branches of palm. They raised the hyacinth curtain which was stretched before the door; and through the opening of this angle there was visible behind the other halls the great pink sky which seemed to be a continuation of the vault and to rest at the horizon upon the blue sea. The sun was issuing from the waves and mounting upwards. It suddenly struck upon the breast of the brazen colossus, which was divided into seven compartments closed by gratings. His red-toothed jaws opened in a horrible yawn; his enormous nostrils were dilated, the broad daylight animated him, and gave him a terrible and impatient aspect, as if he would fain have leaped without to mingle with the star, the god, and together traverse the immensities. (Chapter seven)

Dialogue 0, Description 10.

Adaptations and imagery

Salammbô quickly gained a reputation for outrageous violence and heavy sensuality, and so ended up being a best-seller, not only cementing Flaubert’s reputation as a player on the mid-nineteenth century literary scene, but fitting right in with the era’s penchant for ‘orientalising’ visions of the ‘exotic’ East (or south, in this case).

Its sex, violence and exotic setting help explain the startling number of plays, operas and early film adaptations which were made of it, and the number of paintings it gave rise to. (A semi-naked, sex-mad, dark-skinned beauty? It was a subject made in heaven for a certain type of ‘realistic’ Victorian painter). Flaubert’s descriptions of Carthaginian costumes even, apparently, had an influence on the fashions of the day.

Salammbo and the holy python by a) Gaston Bussière (1910) b) Charles Allen Winter c) Jules Jean Baptiste Toulot d) Glauco Cambon (1916)

Salammbo and the holy python by a) Gaston Bussière (1910) b) Charles Allen Winter c) Jules Jean Baptiste Toulot d) Glauco Cambon (1916)

What heterosexual man wouldn’t want to be that snake?

In a way Salammbô was a forerunner of the massive fashion for Salomé, the beguiling, sensual blood-thirsty killer of John the Baptist, whose cult blossomed in the 1880s. Comparing painterly treatment of the two shows the way the explicit and light-filled orientalism of the 1860s and 70s morphed into the more dark and shrouded symbolism of the 1890s.

Summary

Salammbô is a triumph of ornate, jewel-loving detail over psychology or plausibility. It’s more like a succession of brightly coloured orientalist paintings rather than a novel. Which is great if you like exotic and colourful orientalist art – as I do.

Alternatively, you could find the book proto-modernist in the way it almost dispenses with character or dialogue, to focus instead on a kind of unremitting carapace of shiny surfaces. It is like a crown or breast-plate from the ancient world, made of interlinking metallic plates studded with precious stones.

However, the dialogue in Salammbô is made of paste. The characters are Victorian histrions. But the word-paintings remain as beautifully coloured, cluttered and exotic, as evocative of an imaginary otherworld of sonorous names and aromatic unguents, as when they were first painted.

As Hamilcar contemplated the accumulation of his riches he became calm; his thoughts wandered to the other halls that were full of still rarer treasures. Bronze plates, silver ingots, and iron bars alternated with pigs of tin brought from the Cassiterides over the Dark Sea; gums from the country of the Blacks were running over their bags of palm bark; and gold dust heaped up in leathern bottles was insensibly creeping out through the worn-out seams. Delicate filaments drawn from marine plants hung amid flax from Egypt, Greece, Taprobane and Judæa; mandrepores bristled like large bushes at the foot of the walls; and an indefinable odour – the exhalation from perfumes, leather, spices, and ostrich feathers, the latter tied in great bunches at the very top of the vault – floated through the air. An arch was formed above the door before each passage with elephants’ teeth placed upright and meeting together at the points. (Chapter seven)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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