Salammbos are obscure pastries, mostly forgotten about now: choux puffs filled with kirsch-scented pastry cream and glazed with caramel and pistachios. They were created in Brussels for the 1890 premiere of Ernest Reyer’s opera Salammbô, which was an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gustav Flaubert. Here in the States we know Flaubert mostly for Madame Bovary. Salammbô was his next novel, a piece of historical fiction set in ancient Carthage. It was published in 1862.
Salammbô, like Bovary, was a blockbuster. Unlike its predecessor, however, it was not at all realistic, rather a semi-historical potboiler full of violence, wanton paganism and sex. Flaubert, it must be remembered, was something of a provocateur. Madame Bovary, the story of a country physician’s wife who has serial affairs, seems quaint to us now. In 1856 it was a scandal that led to Flaubert’s prosecution on obscenity charges. French authorities sought to land him in jail. Instead they made him a celebrity, and a wealthy one at that. Given that background it’s safe to say that Salammbô‘s tawdry sensationalism was as much a taunt to Flaubert’s critics and tormentors as it was a piece of literature.
The plot centers on the title character, Salammbô, a princess and high priestess of Carthage. She’s the daughter of Hamilcar Barca, general of Carthage during the First Punic War against Rome, and the sister of Hannibal, the general of Carthage during the Second Punic War, who famously crossed the alps on elephant back to slaughter the Romans on their own soil at Trebia and Cannae.
Salammbô is set during a conflict that occurred between those two wars against Rome, a little thing called the Mercenary War. Carthage, you see, was a trading city. Located in an ideal spot on the southern shores of the Mediterranean near modern-day Tunis, it didn’t have an organized standing army like Rome did. What it did have though was plenty of money, money it used to hire mercenaries on its behalf. It got some of its fighting units from what is now Spain, some from Greece, some from Libya, what-have you. These mercenary groups were composed of tough guys who were used to fighting together using their own weapons and tactics — and their diversity was key to the Carthaginians’ success on the battlefield. Like a marching Swiss army knife, such a force provided its operator with a broader choice of tools with which to solve a given military problem, and a decided advantage over opponents who fought in a uniform, single-minded way.
The Romans were nothing if not uniform, so Carthage gave them a lot of trouble when they challenged them in Sicily during the first Punic War. Still the Romans managed to eke out a victory. As punishment to Carthage, Rome took away most of their trading ships and made them pay a hefty tribute. That left Carthage in something of a pickle. They were deprived of both their wealth and the means to acquire more. Yet they owed a lot of money to some very dangerous people who might well turn on them if they weren’t paid their blood money. Which, as it turned out, is exactly what they did.
Salammbô is set at just this point in the Rome-Carthage drama. It opens during a great feast in Carthage, an attempt by Carthaginian nobles to assuage the anger of the mercenary leadership by getting them drunk and fattening them up. It doesn’t work and a riot breaks out during which the mercenary leader, Matho, falls in love with our title character. The gang of ruffians retreats vowing revenge, and shortly acts upon their threat by besieging the city. Somehow during the attack — wouldn’t you know it — Matho ends up in Salammbô’s bedroom. Romance ensues and Matho takes his leave of the city, but not before he makes off with a sacred veil called the zaïmph, which he steals from the temple of Salammbô’s patron goddess, Tanit.
Amid much intrigue and bloodshed, Salammbô contrives to infiltrate the mercenary camp to retrieve the treasure, which she does, her adventure culminating in an epic night of pagan lovemaking with Matho. She manages to steal back the zaïmph and return to Carthage and her father Hamilcar who has returned from Sicily to put down the insurrection. The famous general routs the mercenaries and gives Salammbô to one of his lieutenants as a wife. Soon thereafter her love Matho is paraded in humiliation before her during the victory celebrations in Carthage. He’s tortured and killed, and Salammbô dies from the shock of it all. The end.
This is a great reduction of course. In reality the whole thing is spiced up with plenty of idol worship, betrayal, child sacrifice and one a memorable sequence in which Salammbô has a tryst with a python. Queen Victoria, let’s just say, would not have been amused. Even so audiences lapped up copies of the book and flocked to see the operatic version which was, in all senses of the word, a sensation. Does the pastry do justice to the sensationalism of the opera for which it is named? I guess we’ll find out!