By Stuart Munro-Hay
From the reign of king Endubis, we are fortunate in having the newly issued coinage, in gold, silver, and bronze, to guide us in tracing out a framework for the history and chronology of Aksum (Munro-Hay, loc. var.; Hahn 1983). The issue of a coinage (Ch. 9) is of very great importance in itself, and for Aksum, the issue of an independent gold-based currency was a move which announced that the state considered itself on a par with its great neighbors at least in so far as sovereignty was concerned. It further enabled the rulers to employ a powerful propaganda instrument, simplified trade, and, not to be forgotten, was profitable.
As far as publicizing themselves and their state was concerned the Aksumite rulers were highly successful from our point-of-view; most of the Aksumite kings are known to us only from the legends on their coins, all other evidence for their existence having perished or disappeared among the ruins of Aksum. The main features and significance of the coinage are dealt with in Ch. 9 below. From the evidence presented through a study of the coinage (Munro-Hay 1978), it can be inferred that Endubis employed the Roman monetary system as a model, but used his own selected designs to maximize the impact of his coinage as a vehicle to convey the official propaganda. The subsequent kings added or removed motifs and other elements of the design as the current situation recommended.
Illustration 10a. Drawing of a silver coin (d. 12mm) of king Wazeba with its alternative reverses, the right-hand example belonging to king Ousanas and perhaps indicating joint tenure of the throne.
A new title, not met with before in Aksumite records, first appears in the coin-legends of the pagan rulers. This consists of the word `Bisi’, from `be`esya’, `man of . . .’ in Ge`ez, followed by a name. It could be perhaps a tribal or clan designation, or perhaps a military title, and it remained in use until the sixth century AD (see Ch. 7: 5), and possibly even on into the eleventh and later centuries (Conti Rossini 1901).
Endubis and his successors all included the pre-Christian disc and crescent symbol on their coins, until, with Ezana’s conversion in c333AD it was replaced by the cross. This enables us to group the five kings Endubis, Aphilas, Wazeba, Ousanas and Ezana at the head of the coinage sequence. Although the first four of these pre-Christian kings are not mentioned anywhere else, the archaeological record, in so far as it can be interpreted, almost certainly leads to the conclusion that at least some of them were responsible for the erection of the series of largely decorated stelae in the central necropolis of the capital (Ch. 5: 5). Some of the tombs marked by these stelae must also be theirs, but in most cases, the tombs belonging to the various stelae have not yet been identified. Very little political information can be extracted from the coins for this period, but it may be that Wazeba and Ousanas ruled for a time conjointly (see Ch. 7: 3), since there is one issue which combines obverse dies of Wazeba with reverse dies of Ousanas. The scarcity of Wazeba’s coins may hint at a short reign. His unique use (at this period) of Ge`ez for his coinage, instead of the usual Greek, may betray an interest in encouraging the use of the coinage in Ethiopia itself, rather than mainly for external trade.
It may have been during the reigns of Endubis or Aphilas that the last events we know of during the first Abyssinian involvement in Yemen occurred. By the 270s Yasir Yuhan`im of Himyar and his son and co-ruler Shamir Yuhar`ish seem to have ended the Abyssinian danger, and, in addition, to have triumphed to such an extent that they could annex Saba itself. About 290AD Hadhramawt fell in its turn, and Shamir Yuhar`ish adopted, by 295, the longer title of king of Saba, Dhu-Raydan, Hadhramawt, and Yamanat. If the Ethiopians retained territory on the east side of the Red Sea, it must have been at most some minor coastal districts; at any rate, the inscriptions of Shamir no longer mention them.
In the fourth century, after the reign of Shamir Yuhar`ish, another South Arabian inscription alludes to Karibil Water Yuhan`im, king of Saba, Dhu-Raydan, Hadhramawt and Yamanat, sending ambassadors to the “land of Habashat and Aksuman, to the nagashi . . . and he (the nagashi?) sent with him as emissaries `HQM and ZLNS”.
Illustration 11. A gold coin (diameter c. 18mm) of king Ousanas of Aksum with the Pre-Christian disc and crescent symbol above his head.
Ousanas seems very likely to have been the king to whom the two captive Tyrian boys, Frumentius and Aedesius (see Ch. 10: 2), were brought after the killing of their shipboard companions. This king is called Ella Allada or Ella A’eda in the traditional account, and Budge (1928: 1164-5) interpreted this name as Alameda, Ella Amida; a reasonable enough suggestion, since from the numismatic point of view Ezana, the king who adopted Christianity, seems to follow Ousanas, while the tradition relating the circumstances of Ethiopia’s conversion states that the converted king was the son and successor of Ella Allada/A’eda, though under the regency of his mother (but see also Dombrowski and Dombrowski 1984: 131-3). The name is testified later as Alla Amidas (Ch. 4: 7); Ousanas may have adopted it as his throne-name, and it is not impossible that one of the inscriptions published by the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition (Littmann 1913: IV, DAE 8) actually belongs to Ousanas rather than Ezana; its `Bisi’ title certainly includes the letter `s’ and whatever identity, such as `Ousanas Bisi Gisene’, is accepted, `Ezana Bisi Alene’ is definitely precluded (Munro-Hay 1984ii: 108).
KINGS of AXUM. Ousanas. Circa 350-400 AD. AE18mm. Small draped bust right in circle; the interior of the circle gilt. Munro-Hay 54; BMC Aksum 245.
Ezana is the most famous of the Aksumite kings befothe re Kaleb. Several inscriptions of his are known, which tell a good deal about his military exploits and furnish many other details about fourth century Aksum. His most significant contribution to Ethiopian history was his official adoption of Christianity around 333AD, which he signalized by putting the cross on his coins (it also appears on one of his inscriptions; Schneider 1976ii: fig. 4), and by dropping the claim to be the son of the god Mahrem. Illustration 11a. Drawings of two silver and three bronze issues (d. c. 10-16mm) of King Ezana of Aksum, some with the disc and crescent symbol, and some with no religious symbol at all.
In Ezana’s time intercourse with the Roman empire continued, but even if the conversion to Christianity (Ch. 10: 2) was designed to bring Aksum closer to Rome or Constantinople, it was not a policy which he followed slavishly. There seems to have been little response to Constantius II’s suggestion (c356AD) that Frumentius, by now bishop of Aksum (to whom Mommsen (1886: 284, n. 2) referred in his phrase `an Axomitic clergyman’), should be sent for examination for doctrinal errors to the emperor’s bishop at Alexandria (Szymusiak 1958). Constantius, leaning towards the Arian heresy, was currently at loggerheads with patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria, who had consecrated Frumentius for his new see probably around 330AD. Athanasius had been sent into exile, and an Arian bishop installed in his stead. It was to this man, George of Cappadocia, that Constantius, declaring himself fearful for the Christian faith in Aksum, wanted Ezana and his brother to send Frumentius. But since Frumentius remains revered as the founder of the Ethiopian church, which does not follow Arianism, it may be assumed that the request was ignored, and that, as the Ethiopian Synaxarium says, he `died in peace’ (Budge 1928). In any event, the Arian emperor and bishop did not last much longer, and delaying tactics might have avoided the necessity to give a definite response to the request before the emperor’s death in 361.
Ezana’s titles (see Ch. 11: 5) show that he considered himself to be at least theoretically the ruler of very large areas of present-day Yemen, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Interestingly enough, his use of the title `king of Saba (Salhen) and Himyar (Dhu-Raydan)’ is similar to only the most modest of those used in Yemen itself; around 300AD the title `king of Saba and Dhu-Raydan and Hadhramawt and Yamanat’ came into existence, and was used by rulers such as Shamir Yuhar`ish and Karibil Water Yuhan`im, whilst by the end of the fourth century, under Abukarib As`ad, it developed into `king of Saba and DhuRaydan and Hadhramawt and Yamanat and the Arabs in the Tawd (highlands) and the Tihamat (coastal plain)’. It seems certain that Ezana did not actually control any of the Arabian kingdoms, but his use of only the attenuated Arabian title and the apparent circulation of some of his coins in Yemen perhaps indicate that some sort of arrangement was reached between the two regions, or even that a coastal foothold was still retained by Aksum on the other side of the Red Sea. If predecessors of Ezana, like the `king of kings’ Sembrouthes, had claimed the Arabian titles, they might simply have rema ined in the least expanded form by tradition; the Arabian kings themselves never used the parallelism Saba/Salhen, Himyar/Raydan in their own titles, though Shamir Yuhahmid was referred to as `of Dhu-Raydan and Himyar’.
In Africa, though most of Ezana’s military expeditions were more or less tribute-gathering rounds in his own kingdom, pacifying any unrest in transit, he mounted at least one large-scale campaign against the Sudanese Noba and Kasu which his inscriptions (see Ch. 11: 5) claim as a major victory. Two fragmentary Aksumite inscriptions found at Meroë itself may be traced to this campaign, or perhaps to a similar one by a predecessor (Sayce 1909, 1912; Hägg 1984; Burstein 1980; Bersina 1984). It appears that Ezana’s campaign was celebrated by Christian inscriptions, while some of the interpreters of the Meroë inscriptions believe that they were dedicated to the pagan Ares/Mahrem; if so, they probably belong either to an early campaign of Ezana or to some predecessor. At some uncertain point in our Periods 2 and 3, comes one of the best known of all Aksumite inscriptions; the `Monumentum Adulitanum’ (Ch. 11: 5). The inscription itself has been lost, but its Greek text detailing the campaigns of an unnamed Aksumite king was preserved by the merchant Kosmas in the sixth century when he copied it for king Kaleb at the behest of Asbas, archon or governor of Adulis (Wolska-Conus 1968: 364ff). It was inscribed on a stone throne, behind which lay a fallen and broken inscription of king Ptolemy III of Egypt, who reigned in the third century BC. Unfortunately, Kosmas, copying the two inscriptions, simply carried on from the end of Ptolemy’s inscription to the Aksumite one without including the section (if it still existed) with the Aksumite ruler’s name and titles.
Certain details put the inscription broadly into context. It is of a pre-Christian ruler, whose campaigns took him from the Nabataean port of Leuke Kome (`White Village’ — the exact position of which is still uncertain, Gatier and Salles 1988) at the limits of the Roman possessions on the east coast of the Red Sea, to the country of the Sabaeans in South Arabia, and to extensive African territories, apparently ranging from the lands bordering Egypt to the Danakil desert. Huntingford (1989) gives the latest of many attempts to outline the historical geography of the text. The author refers to himself as the first and only king of his line to subdue so many peoples, but this could be mere hyperbole. The gods he mentions, and the ritual of setting up a victory throne, are also known from Ezana’s inscriptions. In short, he could be situated chronologically almost anywhere between Gadarat and Ezana. His inscription is of immense value, since it supplies a sort of gazetteer for the limits of the contemporary Aksumite empire; or at least the limits of the sphere of influence since it is not very likely that some of the more far-flung areas could ever have been retained as Aksumite possessions.
It is notable that this inscription has a year-date 27, while Sembrouthes’ inscription has 24 years and one of the inscriptions from Meroë has the date of year 21 or 24. Sembrouthes or Ezana (whose reign spanned at least a quarter century) are therefore both candidates for the Monumentum Adulitanum and Ezana (who campaigned in the Meroitic region) may, as mentioned above, be responsible for the Meroë 1 inscription. But Sembrouthes, if he really fits as we have suggested in the mid-third century, would have reigned at a time when just such activities in Arabia as are detailed in the Monumentum Adulitanum are to be expected. He also gives himself the titles of Great King and king of kings, perhaps suitable to one who had campaigned, like the unknown author of the Adulis inscription, so vigorously to establish his kingdom’s power in new regions. It now seems very unlikely that Ezana could have set up an inscription dedicated to pagan deities so late as his 27th year. It is not beyond hope that future excavations may actually find the famous Monumentum Adulitanum, which Kosmas saw set up outside the port-city on the Aksum road.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell