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!’
Carthage taught the Romans fear, but Romans liked to believe they were predestined to triumph, and they finally crushed Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC. After the siege and sacking of Carthage itself in the Third Punic War (150-146 BC), Scipio Aemilianus burned the magnificent city to ashes and sold the 50,000 survivors into slavery. His intention was to obliterate the memory of Carthage, except as a parable of overweening power and debauchery bringing about its own destruction (the story that the Romans sowed the fields with salt is a modern flourish inspired by an incident in the Old Testament).
Remarkably, Flaubert decided to ignore these famous duels between Carthage and Rome and instead set his novel during an obscure internal conflict that took place during Hannibal’s boyhood. After losing the First Punic War, Carthage was unable to pay its diverse army of Libyans, Numidians, nomads and other warriors of the Maghreb. This resulted in the Mercenary Revolt (241-238 BC), led by Matho, a Libyan, and a former Roman slave named Spendius. The elite of Carthage, including Hamilcar, Hanno and the powerful eunuch priests of Baal, retaliated. Treachery, torture, mayhem and cannibalism ensued, according to later Greek and Roman historians, who had access to some Punic annals. Flaubert took the idea for his heroine Salammbô from a brief mention of Hamilcar’s unnamed daughter, and imagined Matho seized by mad love for her. Unforgettable scenes of excess in the novel include Salammbô’s sensual encounter with a giant serpent and the frenzied mass sacrifice of Carthage’s children. Meanwhile, Matho steals the forbidden veil of the goddess Tanit; he and Salammbô become secret lovers, and suffer agonising deaths amid barbarian splendour.
Livy and Polybius, friend of Scipio and eyewitness to Carthage’s destruction, were Flaubert’s chief sources, but he also relied on Herodotus, Xenophon, Cornelius Nepos and Procopius. For geography and fortifications, he turned to Appian and Diodorus of Sicily, and to Aelian for military tactics. He mined Pliny, Theophrastus and others for Carthaginian magical lore and religion. Athenaeus provided the description of Tanit’s fabulous veil, while the image of babies being burned in Baal’s fiery furnace appeared in Strabo, Cicero, Plutarch, St Augustine, Eusebius and Tertullian. (Salammbô’s pet python was probably inspired by Valerius Maximus’ account, based on Livy, of a battle between a Roman legion and a monstrous snake in the First Punic War, as well as the snake-charming traditions of North Africa.) These sources are also the ones that Miles relies on in his 18-page description of the Mercenary War.
Miles holds up the Greek and Roman emphasis on Carthaginian cruelty as an example of casting the ‘Other’ as savage and exotic. But in his own discussion of the atrocities reported during the Mercenary Revolt, he acknowledges the hair-raising violence of this ‘war without pity’, and echoes the words of Polybius: this war ‘far excelled all wars we know of in cruelty and defiance of principle’. Flaubert selected this episode because it allowed him to present Carthage in a purely Carthaginian context, with Rome and even Hannibal relegated to the background. But Miles, too, wants us to understand the importance of Carthage in its own right, without assimilating it to the victor.
Other than artefacts and enigmatic inscriptions, very little survived Rome’s devastation of Carthage. Miles, who has directed excavations there, gives an excellent survey of the current state of our knowledge about the city, from its origins as a North African trading post (the Phoenicians moved there in response to pressure from the Assyrian Empire) up to its defeat. Shards recovered from the ash layer, for example, suggest that pottery from southern Italy was in vogue when Scipio burned the city. The ‘stunning’ Sabratha mausoleum reveals an ‘exciting fusion’ of Egyptian, Greek and unique Punic styles. Miles weaves modern archaeological discoveries in with the threads of the ancient discussions, teasing out controversies embedded in Greek and Roman discussion of Carthage. By paying attention to ‘contradictions and differences of opinion’, he uncovers realities hidden within their ‘heavily biased accounts’.
Lavish colour plates illustrate artefacts like those that enthralled Flaubert when Punic treasures were first shipped to France in the 1850s. Miles makes fine use of the great collection of steles now in the Louvre to reconstruct Carthaginian culture, though he doesn’t say how these valuable artefacts came to be available to modern scholars. In 1875, the French flagship Magenta exploded in the port of Toulon. Its precious cargo of 2080 steles and inscriptions from Carthage sank in the harbour. They remained submerged for 125 years. In 1994, French divers and archaeologists finally located the wreck and started to recover its cargo.
The ‘thousands of monuments recording votive offerings to Baal [and] Tanit’ are crucial to Miles’s analysis of one of the enduring questions about Carthage: whether aristocratic children were really sacrificed to the god Baal (or Moloch, from mlk, ‘offerings of children’). Mlk, a Near Eastern rite, is described in the Old Testament and many Greek and Latin writers accused Carthage of practising it. Did they really do so routinely? Or was it only a desperate last resort? When, in Salammbô, Baal’s priests order the Carthaginians to burn their children alive to turn the tide of the Mercenary Revolt, Flaubert suggests that the young Hannibal (‘Grace of Baal’) survived because his father sent a poor boy in his place (the suggestion comes from Plutarch).
The precinct of the tophet (the site of child sacrifice) was found by French archaeologists in the ruins of Carthage in the 1920s. (There are also tophets in Punic colonies such as Sardinia.) Thousands of urns containing the burned remains of young children, stone tablets carved with the letters ‘MLK’, Punic inscriptions dedicating sons to Baal and a stele with the inscribed image of a priest holding out an infant confirmed the identification. Centuries after child sacrifice had faded away in the Near East, Carthage’s elite continued the ritual, most often in order to avert calamity, and not in secret but as a matter of civic pride and preservation. The accusations of child sacrifice in the ancient sources can no longer ‘merely be brushed aside as anti-Punic slander’, Miles concludes. Controversy persists, however: since his book was published, some of the scholars who have examined tophet remains have disputed their meaning.
According to Livy, Hannibal’s father held him over Baal’s great furnace and compelled the boy to dedicate his life to fighting the Romans. Miles ignores this myth, but it supports his thesis, based on many other examples, that Carthage was essential to Rome’s own development and self-image. According to legend, both great powers were founded in the same year, 753 BC. By insisting that Carthage inculcated its children with eternal hatred of Rome and made them vow to destroy it, Romans justified their own compulsion to crush Carthage as their most dangerous enemy. As Miles makes clear, and some Romans recognised, Carthage was ‘the whetstone on which Rome’s greatness had been sharpened’.
Both Rome and Carthage understood the importance of mythology, as demonstrated in Miles’s brilliant analysis of the tug of war over possession of Hercules. Rome liked to claim the Greek champion as an ancestor; his exploits around the ancient world, from the Caucasus and Scythia to Greece and Italy, across North Africa to the Pillars of Hercules, reflected their own imperial ambitions (curiously, Miles’s map of ‘the Heraclean Way’ omits the hero’s route across North Africa, where he defeated the giant Antaeus). The Roman Republic’s imperialism was driven by military invasion, occupation, looting, slavery and harsh taxation of defeated subjects. Exploration for its own sake was not valued, as it was in Carthage, whose peaceful voyages of discovery led to mutually beneficial trade relationships. The Carthaginians assimilated Hercules to the Punic god Melqart. Miles recounts how Hannibal, a master propagandist, turned the tables on Rome by appropriating Hercules as his own guardian-guide: to Rome’s consternation, Hannibal’s conquests retraced Hercules’ mythical steps, justifying Carthaginian dominance in North Africa, Spain and Italy itself.
Miles sees Carthage as a city of ‘extraordinary eclecticism and openness to new influences and ideas’. The seafaring Phoenicians had invented the alphabet and the dominant warships of classical antiquity. As early as the eighth century BC, they established colonies in the western Mediterranean (Sicily, Sardinia) and North Africa, and sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic, establishing the trading city of Gades (Cadiz, where garum, Rome’s notorious rotten fish sauce, originated). Carthage continued to be ‘the pacesetter in naval technological innovation’ and perfected the use of elephants in warfare. As sea adventurers, they had no equals. One of the most fascinating sections of Miles’s book discusses the ancient evidence for two fifth-century BC Carthaginian expeditions along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and West Africa. Himilco’s voyage went north, to Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland and Cornwall. Hanno’s expedition, a ‘flotilla of 65 oared ships with 30,000 men and women’ and supplies, travelled from Carthage to Morocco and Mauritania, establishing settlements, then continued south past the Canary Islands, modern Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Gabon.
The purpose of Carthage’s Atlantic expeditions is hotly debated, but it seems clear that trade was involved. Miles cites a striking passage in Herodotus (c.450 BC), describing the unique system of barter based on mutual trust and fair exchange developed by the Carthaginians to facilitate trade with West African tribes. On reaching land, ‘the Carthaginians unload their goods, arrange them in orderly fashion along the beach, and send a smoke signal.’ The natives, Herodotus writes, come to examine the goods, ‘place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange’, then retreat. The Carthaginians ‘come ashore and assess the gold. If it is a fair price for their wares, they collect it and depart. If the gold seems too paltry, they go back to their ships and wait for the natives to add more gold.’ The system is ‘perfectly honest’, he adds, ‘for the Carthaginians do not touch the gold until it equals the goods’ value and the natives never touch the wares until the gold is taken’. Miles questions the regularity of such trade, but Herodotus’ report suggests that the Carthaginians and Africans expected repeat visits. At any rate, Miles’s conclusion is convincing: Carthage’s foreign relations ‘stand in stark contrast to the power politics’ of Rome – its habit of plunder and subjugation. Carthage created a ‘middle ground on which Phoenician, Greek and indigenous populations interacted and co-operated’.
The symbolism each assigned to fire may offer some insight into the cultural gulf dividing Rome and Carthage. For Romans, fire was negative, destructive – hence the immolation of Carthage by Scipio. For the Phoenicians, it was restorative, purifying, necessary to generate rebirth. In his thoughtful conclusion on the legacy of Carthage, Miles finds multiple ironies in the ways that Rome itself maintained the memory of the city it torched, the great empire whose legend would continue to smoulder and flicker for more than 2000 years. ‘As long as the Romans needed proof of their greatness, the memory of Carthage would never die.’