Pacesetter

Adrienne Mayor

  • Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Mediterranean Civilisation by Richard Miles
    Allen Lane, 520 pp, £30.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 7139 9793 4

Those who discovered Salammbô at an impressionable age, before reading any conventional histories of the Punic Wars, know how difficult it is to shake off Flaubert’s intoxicating vision of the doomed Carthaginian Empire. Brimming with war and lust, vast riches and bizarre rituals, violence and tragedy verging on melodrama, his novel about the North African power that rivalled Rome in the third century BC received mixed reviews, but Salammbô herself – a high priestess of strange Punic rites, the femme fatale of Carthage – inspired operas by Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky, appeared in voluptuous Art Nouveau and Symbolist paintings, and even influenced Parisian fashions. In the illustrated 1927 edition I read in the 1960s, Mahlon Blaine’s Aubrey Beardsley-on-ecstasy drawings made Flaubert’s tale even more eidetic.

Written in 1862, during the French colonisation of North Africa, Salammbô has been criticised by modern scholars as ‘a rollercoaster ride of sexual sadism, extreme cruelty and repugnant luxury [that] played to every Western European stereotype … about the decadent Orient’, as Richard Miles puts it in his impressive new history of Carthage. Pointing out that Rome’s triumph over Carthage ‘provided an attractive blueprint’ and ‘metaphor’ to justify French domination in North Africa, Miles dismisses Salammbô as ‘the most famous product of these colonial assumptions’.

No doubt. Yet Salammbô was an amazing feat of literary archaeology. After reading Miles’s dispassionate, fact-packed Carthage Must Be Destroyed, I went back to it. Expecting the novel’s charms to have faded, I found myself swept up in Flaubert’s fever-dream of Orientalism. But this time, I could appreciate his grasp of the Greek and Latin sources and his knowledge of the French archaeological excavations of the city, begun by Charles Beulé in the 1850s. As Miles’s photographs make clear, even Blaine’s drawings of 1927 – Salammbô’s diaphanous gown and towering headdress, the horned helmet of the Punic god Melqart, the priests sacrificing a child to Baal – were influenced by the discoveries of French archaeologists after Flaubert’s death.

Flaubert could hardly avoid being influenced by two millennia of sensational negative images of the powerful Phoenician trading empire, and excavations at Carthage seemed to confirm ancient accounts. As Miles demonstrates, archaeology is continuing to illuminate – and complicate – the Greco-Roman literary evidence. With the exception of Aristotle, who singled out Carthage for admiration in the Politics (‘Many of the Carthaginian institutions are excellent. The superiority of their constitution is proved by the fact that the common people remain loyal to it’), most Greek and Latin writers portrayed it as a decadent, ruthless barbarian empire that deserved annihilation. Virgil in the Aeneid describes the suicide of the Carthaginian Queen Dido after her lover Aeneas deserts her to fulfil Rome’s glorious destiny. Livy assured the Romans that, as a little boy, Hannibal had sworn to destroy Rome. The Early Christian Fathers gave horrifying accounts of children being hurled into a pit of fire as offerings to Baal. Hannibal’s audacious trek over the Alps with war elephants, intent on enslaving all of Italy, became an icon of danger preserved in Latin scare quotes: ‘Hannibal at the Gates!’

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