By Stuart Munro-Hay
Few African societies possessed a market or exchange system so evolved as to require a universally accepted form of currency; the need for such a currency stands in a direct ratio to the complexity of the society which has developed, and the ultimate expression of the requirement for currency in the ancient world was a coinage system. Use of a general purpose money evidently simplifies the system in representing the medium of exchange, the standard of value-measurement, a means of holding wealth at discretion, and a means of payment for services, all in one form. As Plato commented, `money reduces the inequalities and immeasurabilities of goods to equality and measure’. A coinage, fashioned from a precious metal, and of convenient size for representing large sums with little weight and bulk, was also much more broadly recognised that other types of currency in the international framework in which Aksum’s trade became involved. Coinage gave the economy a central emphasis from which every aspect of the state’s functions could spring. Wealth could pass easily in both local and external transactions, so long as the standard conformed, and Aksum accordingly linked its coinage with the Romano-Byzantine monetary system.
King Endybis:- Silver coin. c. 270-290 CE.
King Endybis:- Gold coin. c. 270-290 CE.
Within the area of Aksum’s control, circulation of the coinage could have been encouraged by the demanding of coinage payments for certain taxes, by state payments for military and other services in coinage, and by the gradual increase in the number of merchants in the markets using it as the standardised medium of exchange.
King Aphilas Silver coin. c. 300-310 CE.
King Aphilas Gold coin. c. 300-310 CE.
Commodities formerly expressed in different values could be exchanged with this single easily-controlled factor, and the rate of trade speeded up considerably. The traditional value of each object in relation to a complex variety of others was thus centralised, and inevitably the simpler system would gain, as long as the ultimate guarantor, the Aksumite ruler, was visibly apparent to support it.
c. 310-320 CE
Gold and silver in the pure state are intrinsically valuable, but in a debased currency, or a currency where the value in spending power is above the real value of the metal it is of course only viable while the issuer represents the ultimate redeemer. With token currencies, like the bronze, (though in Aksum the gelding might have adjusted this to some extent) the real value of the coins was representative and not actual.
King Ousanas Gold coin. c. 320-333 CE.
King Ousanas Silver coin. c. 320-333 CE.
King Ousanas Bronze coin. c. 320-333 CE.
Aksum’s coinage was a successful experiment to judge from its continuance reign after reign for at least three hundred years. The combined factors of the power of the kings in a military context, improving and increasing the possible routings for goods and providing for their greater security, and the centralising of the spheres of commerce in a monetised economy, must have supplied to trade a steady climate of increase. It has been observed that the issue of a coinage generally stimulates an economy, and Aksum was no exception. The increasingly complex trade would have been much more easily dealt with after Aksum had entered the world of its trading neighbours with a monetary system on a par with theirs.
King Ezanas Gold coin. 330-356 CE
King Ezanas Silver coin. 330-356 CE
King Ezanas Bronze coin. 330-356 CE
At the time of the Periplus, the Aksumite state imported orokhalkos or brass “which they use for ornaments and for cutting as money”, and “a little money (denarion) for foreigners who live there” (Huntingford 1980: 21-2). The use of metal as money before the issue of a minted coinage certainly hints that the Aksumites were aware even at that time of the advantages of a currency which did not require special care or maintenance and was divisible at need. Neither Zoskales, the ruler of the region at the time, nor his successors for well over a century, issued their own coins and it would seem as if the kingdom was only beginning to orient itself towards the use of coinage. The use of Roman money among foreign residents and merchants is not surprising, but the Aksumites’ or Adulites’ use of cut brass is; possibly brass was a relatively costly item in Ethiopia at the time. This comment in the Periplus, seeming to imply that Aksum was already using metal pieces as money, was one of the points which made Jacqueline Pirenne’s suggestion (1961) that the Periplus was of third-century date seem plausible. Now, however, the accumulation of evidence for an earlier date seems conclusive, and it must be accepted that the conditions preparatory for Aksum’s move to production of their own coinage existed long before they were put into action. Eventually, however, Aksum, with its outlet to the Red Sea at the port of Adulis, decided to produce its own coinage instead of importing it; both Roman (Anfray and Annequin 1965: 68-71) and Indian (Mordini 1960, 1967) gold reached the country, as attested by archaeological evidence.
King Mehadeyis Bronze coin 330-356
The Indian material consisted of a hoard of Kushana gold coins of kings Vima Kadphises II, Kaniska, Huviska, and Vasudeva I found at the monastery of Dabra Damo, and dated to around 220AD, while the most dramatic find of Roman gold consisted of coins and jewellery of the time of the Antonines found at Matara. A number of Himyarite coins have also been found at Aksum (Munro-Hay 1978). Archaeological finds of this sort are rare, and the amount of foreign money circulating was probably relatively restricted. Prior to the introduction of the coinage, the primitive economy doubtless worked on the barter system, which remained the customary method of dealing with trade in certain areas of the Aksumite trade network, even during the existence of the coinage. It is almost inconceivable to imagine that money was used very much in the remoter countryside, or that money taxation could have been levied outside limited urban areas or at special toll points. The archaeological evidenc e is meagre, owing to lack of exploration, but coin finds have been reported from Arato to Lalibela (Munro-Hay 1978), and they are plentiful on all excavated town sites (see below). Much of the population doubtless lived in a more or less self-sufficient rural setting, where contacts with foreign trade were minimal, and money was scarcely needed in day to day exchange. Aksum continued to deal with non-monetised economies in, for example, the gold trade with Sasu in the Sudan (Wolska-Conus 1968: 360), and doubtless also in other African regions.
King Ouazebas Bronze coin 356-400
In the reign of Kaleb the Sasu gold trade was conducted through the medium of salt blocks (later known as amole), iron, and cattle (imported on the hoof, and killed on arrival). Whether other products were employed as a standard for measuring relative values, as the amole or salt block was until comparatively recent times (Pankhurst 1961: 260-5), is not known. The amole, though used as a currency, in later times varied in value as one travelled further from the centres of production in the eastern lowlands, but its transport to Sasu shows that even in ancient times it was an important element in the trade of Aksum. Other goods were directed towards the more sophisticated trade of the Red Sea, with its outlets to the Graeco-Roman world and the East. These valuable exports, whose trade routes fell under Aksumite control, helped the original development of the state towards the more evolved market system which eventually induced it to issue its own coinage.
King Eon 400
The Aksumite coinage-province is very little known. At the cities on the route from the coast to the capital, as expected, there have been archaeological finds of coins. The excavations at the port of Adulis, the inland town of Matara and Aksum itself have yielded coins, and others have come from lesser sites in Tigray and Eritrea, but in very small numbers. Coins, including one of king Armah, were found at Arato in Eritrea, and a coin of Ouazebas came from Lalibela (but not from an archaeologically attested context). Other coinage finds from South Arabia (by far the richest source for the gold coins of Aksum so far) consist of gold coins dating only from the time of Ezana to Kaleb. This has been construed as indicating a certain Aksumite control in the area, and such a theory may indeed be valid. But it may also be that some of the coins represent hoards deposited at the time of Kaleb’s Arabian war; to this category may belong the coins now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the extremely important al-Mudhariba hoard (Munro-Hay 1989ii). If this is so, the theory that the Aksumites retained some control in South Arabia must depend more on the mention of South Arabian kingdoms in the Aksumite royal titularies, the Epigraphic South Arabian inscriptions, and the hint in a Greek text that the Aksumite kings appointed the Himyarite rulers (Ch. 4), than on coinage evidence. Such information is only available in and before Ezana’s time, and later in the reign of Kaleb. Taxes in sixth-century Himyar were, interestingly, computed according to weights of gold coins which were last used at the time of Ezana (Boissonade 1833; Munro-Hay 1978).
King Ebana 456
King Ebana 456
It would seem not unlikely that Aksum’s armies in South Arabia would have been paid in coin from the military chest, and it is therefore notable that the king whose wars with South Arabia are best documented, Kaleb, has many more gold issues than other kings, perhaps reflecting an increase in production to pay his armies. The provenance of the majority of these issues is South Arabia. Possibly the hoards mentioned above represent coin gathered in Kaleb’s time from all the issues still current in Aksum, and taken over with the armies. Alternatively they could have been collections of foreign coins belonging to Himyarites deposited during the advance of Kaleb’s forces or in subsequent disturbances, or simply capital sums buried for security by Aksumites or Arabs who were never able to disinter them.
King Nezool Gold coin 420
King Nezool Bronze 420
Since the Aksumites claimed control over parts of South Arabia for a very long time (from perhaps the early 200’s to the second quarter of the sixth century, whether intermittently or not), finds of coins there are not surprising. It is surprising, however, that neither the silver nor the bronze fractions are found there — save for one silver coin of Ebana found at the Hadhrami capital, Shabwa — and also that many of the gold issues have as yet no reported find spots from Ethiopia itself. Apart from the South Arabian gold finds, Aksumite coins are rarely met with elsewhere; only a few bronze coins have come to light outside Ethiopia, in Israel (Caesarea, Beth Shan and Jerusalem), Meroë and at Qaw and Hawara in Egypt (Barkay 1981; Meshorer 1965-6; Munro-Hay 1978: 81ff). So, by and large, the coinage in silver and bronze, with its unique addition of gilding, appears to have been designed for use within the borders of Ethiopia. The gold was primarily aimed, as its Greek legend specifying `king of the Aksumites’ indicates, towards the outside world, and seems to have been used either for specialised purposes such as paying soldiers in Arabia, or for general trading capital in relatively large sums. In contrast, given its local use, much of the silver and bronze coinage mentions only the king’s name with the word `king’, and does not need to specify `of Aksum’.
King Ousas Gold Coin 500c
King Ousas Bronze Coin 500c
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