By Stuart Munro-Hay
1. The Origins
Aksum was the only African state in ancient times, outside the Roman dependencies, to issue its own national coinage (for references on coinage questions see Anzani: 1926, 1928, 1941; Munro-Hay, loc. var: Hahn 1983; much of the following chapter is based on Munro-Hay 1984iv). The Aksumite coinage lasted from about 270AD, or a little later, into the early seventh century, and seems to have been used in both external trade and internal market transactions. How far the whole kingdom was able to employ a monetarized economy is still a matter for conjecture, but so far coin-finds have been reported from all excavated Aksumite sites.
Gold coin, c. 270-300 C.E., gold, Aksumite, Obverse showing head and shoulders bust of King Endubis facing right, wearing headcloth with rays at the forehead and triangular ribbon behind, framed by two wheat-stalks. Disc and crescent at the top.
By the time of Aksum’s first recorded military ventures to Yemen, the coinage of the South Arabian kingdoms would seem to have been nearing the end of its use, if it was not already discontinued. This coinage, chiefly of silver in Saba and Himyar, and bronze in Hadhramawt, only very rarely seems to have included electrum or gold pieces. It is much more likely that the immediate origins of the coinage of Aksum were influenced by Roman trading in the Red Sea, though perhaps the awareness of Kushana and Persian coinages also inspired the Aksumites to emulation. The Aksumite coinage followed the Roman/Byzantine weight system, and this and certain other factors add probability to the suggestion that Rome was the primary region to which Aksum looked when the issue of a coinage was planned. At any rate, the adoption of a coinage would have an immensely facilitated exchange of products and all other public and private business in which it was employed and must have given considerable impetus to the economy.
Whilst there is no actual proof, except for the tentative identification of a pottery object from the excavations as a coin-mould (Wilding in Munro-Hay 1989), it would seem very likely that it was at Aksum itself that the coins were minted. No other African state south of the Sahara issued coins until the sultanate of Kilwa began coinage-production possibly in the mid-tenth century.