By Stuart Munro-Hay
1. The King and the State
It appears that to all intents and purposes, the Aksumite king was himself the embodiment of the state. This is emphasized on the coinage (see Ch. 9) where the image of the king appears on both the obverse and the reverse of the gold coins accompanied by his name and the title `king of the Aksumites’. This sort of concentration on the king is most unusual, other coinages generally showing some symbolic representation of the state such as the image of Roma or specially chosen gods and goddesses, national symbols, or certain heraldic animals or birds. The only symbols permitted by the Aksumite kings to share their prominent position on the coins were the disc and crescent in pre-Christian times, and the cross after the conversion, unless the wheat or barley stalks which appear on all gold coins and on some bronzes (Munro-Hay 1984i) may be regarded as some sort of badge representing the state.
In the Pre-Christian period, the king was considered to be the son of Mahrem, who was identified with Ares, the Greek god of battles. He was probably the special dynastic or tribal god of the Aksumites. This relationship would have enhanced the kings’ position in the eyes of his subjects, raising him to a quasi-divinity which set him in a special category, apart from and above all other men. The Aksumite royal inscriptions emphasize the king as a dynamic figure, son of a deity, member of one of the Aksumite clans (see below, the `Bisi’-title), the leader of his people as war-hero and conqueror, but also as judge and lawgiver.
It has been suggested that the title negus or nagashi originally denoted an official who was little more than a tax-gatherer for Sabaean colonial rulers. However, the whole concept of the Sabaean period in Ethiopia is now generally altered (Ch. 4: 1), and it seems that there was a true Ethiopian kingship as early as the time of the mukarribs of D`MT and Saba (Drewes 1962; Schneider 1976i). The connecting links between these early rulers and the Aksumite kings are unfortunately missing from the archaeological record.
The pivotal position of the Aksumite king in the machinery of government must have meant that the personality of each individual who occupied the office had a strong influence on the character of the reign. There are very few glimpses of anything so personal; but we may perhaps suggest that Zoskales’ interest in commercial profit and Greek literature, Ezana’s predilection for military exercises and his qualities as a leader in war, and Kaleb’s religious bent, do at least give some hints as to individual rulers’ concerns.