Whereas Madame Bovary charted the agonisingly mediocre tragedy of a bored housewife and her hapless husband in early 19th-century France, Salammbo is a richly exotic war epic set in ancient Carthage. The scale is vast, the imagery opulent and intense, and the battle scenes brutal enough to make Leonidas and his boys look like... well... a bunch of fairies.
After an exhausting war with Rome, the city of Carthage finds itself incapable of paying its vast mercenary army. Increasingly desperate attempts to fob them off spark a full-on rebellion, and eventually a destructive total war between the powerful but self-destructively disorganised mercenaries and a Carthage at but a shadow of its former strength.
In the midst of all this, the mercenary leader Matho falls obsessively in love with the beautiful Salammbo, daughter of Carthage's most fearsome general. His maniacal desire for her drives him to unprecedented lengths to obtain her, unleashing a conflict like no other upon the Carthaginian empire.
While just as popular as Flaubert's works in most of the world, Salammbo has never really caught on in the Anglosphere. (In fact, the only exposure most Americans have had to the name is through the film Citizen Kane - an opera based on the book is the one Kane's wife badly performs during the course of the movie.)
This book provides examples of:
- Army of Thieves and Whores: The Mercenaries, whose ranks are eventually expanded with tribes from all over Africa.
- Bad Boss: Hamilcar Barca is this to his domestic staff. He notably has his slave master drowned in manure and his chief steward crucified after hearing about the Mercenaries' trashing of his house, even though they couldn't have done anything to stop them.
- Badass Bookworm: Spendius can speak every language in the mercenary army, snipe a man with a longbow from an enormous distance, infiltrate Carthage not once, but twice, and operate (and build) siege engines like a pro.
- Body Horror: The ravages of Hanno's leprosy are chronicled in truly sickening detail. Matho's final fate is also pretty horrifying.
- Contemptible Cover: Publishers tend to like putting topless Belly Dancer types on the front.
- Crapsaccharine World: Carthage is a grand city, filled with beautiful public buildings, magnificent temples and gorgeous artefacts, all described in loving detail... and the site of a hideous all-out war with unbelievable cruelty on both sides.
- Dehumanization: The priests of Baal-Moloch make throwing Carthaginian children to be burned alive as Human Sacrifice easier by getting the crowd to yell with them "They are not men but oxen!".
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Possibly one of the best-done examples ever, because it doesn't contain a word of allegory, moralising or the slightest nod from the narrator - who, for all that the reader knows, might as well have been from the time period. Nobody bats an eyelid at the most horrible cruelties or the most fantastical beliefs.
- Fat Bastard: Hanno is not a nice person at all.
- Fat Idiot: He's also not much of a military leader.
- Future Badass: Hannibal Barca, although such is the deliberate absence of any Lemony Narrator that you'd have to have heard of him to realise it.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Matho used to just be an ordinary soldier in the mercenary army (even lower than most, set to carry the other's luggage and firewood) before he saw Salammbo and basically seized control of it by sheer force of willpower. Spendius was a slave for years, but pretty much the first things he did upon being freed were grab the Dragon-in-Chief spot and incite the war.
- Gorn: Tons of it. A faithful adaptation of the book would almost certainly be unmakeable even now, in any medium. Even more shocking when you remember that this was published in 1862. Notable instances include: extreme animal cruelty, including cutting the trunks off elephants, lighting fires under cauldrons of fish to slowly cook them alive and covering pigs in burning pitch; numerous crucifixions, including one of a man with advanced leprosy whose limbs are then torn off by his own bodyweight; mass child sacrifice via roasting alive; friends forced to fight and kill each other, and a man being literally flayed to death by an angry mob who have been ordered to do so scratch by scratch. This list does not include the 'fight scenes'.
- Historical Villain Upgrade
- Historical Character's Fictional Relative: Downplayed. While Salammbo is a fictional daughter of Hamilcar Barca, it is traditionally believed that Hamilcar had several daughters aside from his male sons Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, so the novel could get away with this if we interpret that Salambo is meant to be one of them.
- Human Sacrifice: And that includes children!
- Improvised Weapon: Narr'Havas nails Matho's hand to a feasting bench with a javelin in the first chapter. Matho throws the bench back at him.
- Innocent Fanservice Girl: Salammbo.
- Kill 'Em All: Very few named characters are left by the end.
- Kill It with Fire: The statue of Moloch is hollow with a great pyre inside, and children are shoveled into it by the dozen.
- Leeroy Jenkins: The Mercenaries are almost a whole army of them, which loses them a lot of battles.
- Lemony Narrator: A resounding aversion.
- The Load: Hanno and the Carthaginian elite completely botch the first part of the war and have to bailed out by Hamilcar at every turn.
- Manipulative Bastard: Spendius, who kickstarts the whole war to get back at Carthage for enslaving him.
- Morality Pet: Hannibal is one to Hamilcar, although horrifically subverted. To save his life, Hamilcar sends a slave's child to be roasted alive as a human sacrifice in his place.
- His elephants also serve as a twisted version - it's when he sees the injuries the Mercenaries inflicted on them that he orders his chief steward crucified.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: Hamilcar to Salammbo.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Several of the battles. Since Carthage was completely subjugated by Rome within forty years of this war and completely destroyed less than a hundred years after it, the whole story is one!
- Serial Escalation: The scale, and bodycount, of the war just keeps going up and up.
- Slobs vs. Snobs: Obviously, Hamilcar and Senate of Carthage as Snob and The Mercenaries as Slob.
- The Starscream: Almost everyone of note. Hamilcar leads the Carthaginian war effort while scheming to monopolise food supplies and come out of it even richer than he already is. Meanwhile, Hanno and all the city Elders are openly trying to undermine him and increase their own power. Spendius uses Matho as a puppet leader to try and carve himself out a comfortable niche, and Narr'Havas betrays the Mercenaries entirely for the sake of Salammbo's hand in marriage.
- Suffer the Slings: A common weapon on both sides, and it's made very clear just how dangerous they were. Some of the mercenaries inscribe jokes and insults on their bullets to imprint them on the skin of their victims.
- War Elephants: The Carthaginian army's trump card, and the deciding factor in several battles. However, they also end up killing their own side more than once.
- We ARE Struggling Together: Hamilcar and Senate of Carthage doesn't get along even in front of danger which can destroy their Empire.
- Weapons Kitchen Sink: Justified, since the Mercenary army comes from all over Africa and beyond, and a lot of their best equipment is stolen or scavenged.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: "They are not men but oxen!"