11-1. The Inscriptional Record
By Stuart Munro-Hay
An important aspect of the Aksumite kings’ responsibilities was the conduct of military campaigns, the main theme of almost all the Aksumite royal inscriptions which have survived (see Ch. 11: 5). The significance of this element for the kings is emphasized by Ezana’s identification in the pagan period as the son of Mahrem, whose parallel in Greek was the war-god Ares. In most of the inscriptions, we are given a fair amount of detail about the campaigns which the Aksumite rulers conducted throughout the Aksumite sphere of influence. Similarly, the South Arabian inscriptions mentioning Habasha t and Aksum deal with Ethiopian military activities on the east side of the Red Sea. We, therefore, have a considerable amount of information about the Aksumites’ methods and tactics in warfare. It is very probable that the Aksumite system of controlling subject peoples through their own rulers had the effect of encouraging these to try the strength of their overlords at each succession or other crisis. This might explain the `revolts’ which occurred at places apparently quite near to the center of the kingdom. The inscriptions and coins often use the word `peace’, but we gather that the `Pax Aksumite’ was, if not apparently seriously challenged, in need of continuous repair.
The Aksumite inscriptions are rather stereotyped in style and content, being the official records of the campaigns. In general, they commence with the reasons for the campaign; these included damage to a trading caravan, DAE 10; rebellion of vassal kings or tribes, DAE 4, 6 & 7, Geza `Agmai; and a combination of rebellion and a plea for assistance from subjects under attack, DAE 11, Anfray, Caquot and Nautin 1970.
Other reasons, implied in a general way by the Monumentum Adulitanum inscription, but certainly important, were the need to deal with such questions as frontier security, piracy in the Red Sea, and the security of land routes for trade. After the justifications for war, the inscriptions next recount any diplomatic efforts towards achieving a peaceful settlement (DAE 11) and, these failing, there finally came the decision to make war.
The next stage in the inscriptions is the account of the campaign itself. Details are supplied as to the routes and encampments, provisioning, the strategy, the troops or regiments used at different phases of the campaign, and the eventual inevitable victory. Geographical information abounds, though it is often difficult to place on the modern map, and the enemies or allies and their environment are also sometimes the object of a brief description.
Finally, the results of the campaign are noted. Men, women, and children killed or captured, and plunder in the form of animals and goods, are all proudly recorded with meticulous figure and word accounting. Any settlements are noted, usually expressed as `giving laws’ to vassal kings and sending them back to their territories after payment of tribute. In some cases, the settlement involved retaining land, property, and prisoners or transporting tribes to new lands by force. Offerings to the gods, or later the construction of Christian sanctuaries, are the usual acts of gratitude to the deity after these campaigns. Accounts of these form the closing part of the inscriptions. The setting up and consecration of the inscription itself, apparently often as part of a throne, manbar — Monumentum Adulitanum, DAE 10, DAE 11 (two thrones, one in Shadow in Aksum, the other at the confluence of the Seda (Blue Nile) and Takaze (Atbara)) — seems to have been a customary ceremonial act to mark the victory. The inscriptions often terminate with a formula which curses anyone who defaces them. The trilingual inscriptions, (actually written in two languages, Greek and Ge`ez, using three scripts, Greek, Ge`ez and Epigraphic South Arabian) were designed to present the kings’ deeds to the local and foreign populace in the best possible light. Two different versions of the Beja campaign inscription of Ezana, in both cases `trilingual’, were set up in different parts of the capital; unless we are missing duplicate copies of other inscriptions as well, this presumably indicates that Ezana was particularly proud of his victory over these people, and also wanted to emphasize his subsequent treatment of them.
Kaleb’s inscription (see below) in the South Arabian script alludes to events in Himyar. Another, Ge`ez, the inscription carved in alabaster was found at Marib in Yemen (Kamil 1964; Caquot 1965). This latter inscription was fragmentary but was of exceptional interest as being only the second Ge`ez inscription ever found there (the first was on an alabaster lamp, Grohmann 1911). The inscriptions may mention Kaleb’s famous Himyar war against king Yusuf, but what details are known about this campaign come from outside reports.