The movie is based very loosely on Gustave Flaubert's exotic novel Salammbo. Set in ancient Carthage during the period of the Second Punic War, it treats the conflict between Rome and Carthage through the eyes of Cabiria, the title character, who is kidnapped by pirates, sold as a slave in Carthage, and rescued from being sacrificed to the god Moloch by a Roman nobleman and his muscular slave Maciste. Hannibal and his elephants fit into the convoluted plot of this epic film.
Italian author Gabriele d'Annunzio contributed to the screenplay and wrote all of the placards. The movie was quite inventive and innovating in its cinematography for the time, and was a major influence on Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith. The film also marked the debut of the Maciste character, who went on to have a long career in Italian sword and sandal films.