Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Classics, The University of Illinois
“Skinning for Proof and Power in the Periplus of Hanno and its Imperial Tradition”
The Periplus of Hanno, an ancient Greek prose description of a (probably imagined) colonization voyage King Hanno the Carthaginian made around western Africa, ends with a scene of human flaying. Hanno and his crew encounter the Gorillai, a community of “wild human beings.” Hanno captures some of the “hairy” women, kills them, skins them, and takes their skins back to Carthage. In this article, I trace a cultural history of flaying in ancient Greece and Rome to interpret this scene and its reception by later Roman authors. While modern scholars have wanted to see the hairy Gorillai as a species of nonhuman primate, especially gorillas (whose name the Gorillai inspired in the 19 century), I argue that the we must take seriously the Gorillai as human beings and understand their flaying within a Greco-Roman worldview. I show that Greek and Roman writers co-construct ethnicity and hum/animality through the treatment of mortal remains. Greeks and Romans believed that human corpses deserve respect after death whereas animal corpses do not. Likewise, Greek and Roman writers often assume that ethnic Others do not respect human corpses as they should. Thus, when Hanno skins the Gorillai, he performs his alterity. Yet Roman writers who rework the flaying scene also celebrate the skins as proof of Hanno’s encounter with the amazing Gorillai. This tension between Hanno the cruel barbarian and Hanno the heroic producer of marvels made it possible for ancient readers to evaluate Hanno’s actions, and the Gorillai themselves, in different ways.
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