Hanno Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Carthaginian explorer{$I[g]Carthage;Hanno} Hanno founded the first trading colonies along the western African coast and then pushed on to explore the coast at least as far as modern Sierra Leone. His account of his journey provided the only reasonably accurate account of Africa until the time of Prince Henry the Navigator.

Early Life

Hanno (HAN-oh) belongs to that lamentably large class of ancients whose names have survived the centuries for a single history-shaping deed but about whom little else is known. Apart from scattered, confused references to his voyage in a few ancient works, the main source of information on Hanno is his text known as the Periplus (The Voyage of Hanno, 1797; best known as Periplus). Consisting of just under 650 words of Greek, it purports to be a translation of the public inscription Hanno erected in the temple of Kronos at Carthage to commemorate his voyage.

The introduction to the Periplus calls Hanno a king. The Carthaginian constitution had no kings but placed supreme power in two suffetes. In any case, Hanno was surely of the ruling nobility of Carthage. The dating of his life depends on the dating of his voyage. Pliny the Elder asserts twice that the voyage was undertaken when the power of Carthage was at its peak; modern scholars have suggested a date just prior to 480 b.c.e. Before this time, Carthage enjoyed a period of prosperity and expansion in the western Mediterranean region. Just at the time the Persians were losing their war with the Greeks at Thermopylae and Salamis, so did the Carthaginians, led by Hamilcar Barca, fall decisively to Gelon of Syracuse at the Battle of Himera. Subsequently, it took several decades for Carthage to regain its former strength and influence. This fact, together with philological evidence dating the Greek text to the fifth century, makes it seem best to place Hanno’s exploits prior to the Carthaginian defeat at Himera.

There are two men named Hanno known from this period, one the father and the other the son of the Hamilcar who died at Himera. The birth dates given above result from adding the probable age of a magistrate and state-sponsored explorer (between thirty and forty) to the upper limit of the date of the voyage (480). With this date, evidence seems to lean toward the younger Hanno, but there is ample room for doubt.

One can easily understand what may have inspired Hanno’s career. As a member of the ruling class, he viewed at first hand the cosmopolitan activity of the trading town of Carthage. A young man could have been readily lured by the possibility of travel and exploration as he walked along the busy docks and through the hectic markets of Carthage, which traded with Etruria, Phoenicia, and countless Greek city-states and African nations. It can be assumed that Hanno received the best Punic education of his day. His inscription, translated though it is, remains the longest bit of Punic literature available to modern scholars.

Life’s Work

The Periplus begins by stating that the Carthaginians instructed Hanno to sail “beyond the Pillars of Heracles” (the Straits of Gibraltar) to found Lybyophoenician cities. Modern scholars suggest plausibly that these cities were to serve as bases for trade with inner Africa, perhaps in precious metals.

The narrative claims that Hanno left with thirty thousand colonists and sixty oared ships. As such ships were small fighting craft, they must have served as a convoy for the colonists in transports. Two days beyond Gibraltar, Hanno founded his first city; five others followed in rapid succession. He then pushed along the western coast of Africa, stopping at Lixus River (now Wad Dra) to recruit interpreters before sailing along the coast of the Sahara Desert. He thereupon came to an island, which he named Kerne and on which he founded his seventh colony.

From there, his colonizing done, Hanno became an explorer. The Periplus tells of two excursions south from Kerne. On the first, Hanno encountered wild, skin-clad savages who pelted his crew with rocks. He discovered a river, filled with crocodiles and hippopotamuses, which he called the Chretes. On the second, apparently longer exploration, he eventually came to forests from which his crew heard the sounds of pipes, cymbals, and shouting. Terrified, they fled until they came to a burning country, filled with fragrant odors and from which burning streams flowed to the sea. In the midst of it stood a towering, blazing mountain that Hanno called the Chariot of the Gods, from whose summit fire shot up almost to the stars. Three days later, he reached an island inhabited by small, hairy “wild men” who threw rocks at the Carthaginians. The nimble males escaped, but Hanno’s crew managed to capture three scratching, biting females, who were promptly skinned. According to Pliny the Elder, two of these skins were on display in the temple of Juno at Carthage until its destruction by the Romans in 146 b.c.e. Hanno’s interpreters informed him that these creatures were called “gorillae.” Following the account of this incident, the Periplus notes rather abruptly that Hanno ran out of supplies and returned home.

There is no persuasive reason to believe that the Periplus is either a forgery or a literary exercise. It is exactly what it purports to be—a public version, probably abridged, of an actual voyage. Its few sentences, however, have caused rivers of ink (and no small amount of vitriol) to flow,...

(The entire section is 2296 words.)