Gustave Flaubert (1821 to 1880) wrote two of the greatest novels of all time. In 1857 he published his ice cold work of perfection Madame Bovary and in 1869 Sentimental Education, worthy of comparison with the greatest novels in the world. In between he wrote Salammbô (1862) which is the weirdest 19th century novel I have yet read. It is set in the third century BC at the start of the first Punic Wars. On one side was the North African city state of Carthage, on the other a besieging Roman army.
The book is pretty much one long descriptions of battles, fights, soldiers of all sorts and exotic maidens. It is full of blood, torture and sexual fantasies played out. The descriptive power and imagination of Flaubert as he produced endless descriptions of the multi-ethnic army assembled by the Romans to take Carthage are marvelous. The women are fantasy figures of the standard sort. If you like descriptions of torture and creative methods of execution you will find a lot to like in this book. This book sold very well, probably Flaubert in his descriptions of exotic women pushed the limits in 1862.
The title character Salammbô is a She Who Must Be Obeyed and Worhshipped for her Beauty straight out of your fantasies figure. There is little or no character development. You don't care who wins or loses you just keep going thinking ok a literary genius wrote it so I guess I should finish it. She is depicted as in love with a very large snake. A video game was based on it and a movie.
It was fun to read just to see how "whacked out" Flaubert would get. My post read research says he spent years researching the history from the best sources of the time.
My wild guess is that if this book were not written by an ultra-high status author, very few would read it, fewer than those who do even now. It was fun, it got a bit boring at times but the sheer imagination of Flaubert made me glad to have read Salammbô. It is a "boy's fantasy book". It could be castigated as Orientalism run wild if you wanted to tear it down. My advice of course is to read his big books first, then read them again, then venture on with his other novels. I also have read his The Temptations of Saint Anthony and it was iñdeed very strange.