By Stuart Munro-Hay
In producing their own coinage the Aksumite rulers would have had all sorts of considerations before them. The coinage must be, first of all, acceptable both externally and internally, to foreign traders and the Ethiopian population at large. Endubis, apparently the first of the kings to try the experiment of superseding the imported coinage of the time of Zoskales by one guaranteed with his own name, issued in all three metals; a good quality gold, silver, and bronze.
The value-relationships of the metals among themselves is not known; state control of the gold resources is indicated by the story of Kosmas, noted above, and doubtless, the supplies of other metals were also closely monitored. Endubis appears to have decided upon the half-aureus as the suitable weight for his gold issue, probably to provide a supplement to the Roman aurei already in current use. The weight of these coins, around 2.70 grams, indicates that they were issued at some time in the latter half of the third century AD. At first, the language selected for the coinage legends was Greek rather than the native Ge`ez. This is an obvious reminder that the purpose of the coins was to participate in the trade with the Graecised Orient. It is possible that the first coiners for Aksum came from the Roman world, perhaps Alexandria, where coins of a similar flan (though quite different design), were produced until 297AD (Hahn 1983).
King Kaleb 520 A.D. gold coin
Crowned, draped and right facing bust of the king flanked by wheat ears in a circle. Cross above the portrait. Legend V[I]OC QELNENA (Son of Thezena) in Ge’ez language. Reverse: Draped right facing bust of the king wearing a head cloth flanked by wheat ears holding a fly whisk inside a circle.
King Kaleb 520 Silver coin
Draped and right facing bust of the king wearing headcloth and holding grain ear. Legend “King Kaleb” in Ge’ez..
Reverse: Draped right facing bust of the king wearing a head cloth with cross above. Legend “He who is Fitting for the People” in Ge’ez.
The design of the coins was of primary importance and must have been very carefully chosen. The coinage for Endubis concentrated almost entirely on the king himself, as the representative of the state. The coins, with raised relief in all three metals, depict the king wearing the Aksumite helmet or headcloth on both obverse and reverse. The headcloth has rays, pleats, or perhaps a sunburst indicated at the front, rather like the aigrette at the front of the turban of some Indian prince. There is always a triangular ribbon, representing perhaps the ends of a fillet holding the headcloth in position, or the ends of the cloth itself after it was knotted into place, shown falling at the rear behind the king’s neck. The legend, in Greek, gives Endubis’ name, and the title `?? S????S ??O ? ??O? ‘ (always actually written BACI? EYC A?WMITW); basileus Aksomito(n), king of the Aksumites. There is also another title, `bisi Dakhu’, BICI ?AXY, meaning apparently `man of Dakhu’ which is sometimes referred to as the `ethnicon’ in the assumption that it represents some sort of tribal affiliation, every Aksumite king bearing a different version of it (Ch. 7: 5).
As well as the unusual emphasis on the king, there are one or two other indications as to those elements which Endubis deemed important enough to emphasize on this excellent propaganda medium for his kingdom. First of all, his religion. This is represented by a disc and crescent symbol set at 12.00 on both faces of the coins, in continuation of the earlier Himyarite custom. It is suggested that these symbols represent deities of the sun and moon, or perhaps the royal tutelary deity Mahrem. It could be that given the importance of this latter deity in the royal myth (see Ch. 10), it was he whom Endubis chose to put symbolically on his coins.
Silver coin c. 525-550 CE.
A second specifically Aksumite element of the design was the depiction of two ears of wheat or barley framing the royal bust on the obverse and the reverse of the gold coins only. Its depiction on the coins could have been intended to show the king as the provider and source of bounty, under the gods. Ears of wheat as central heraldic motifs had centuries previously appeared in similar position in the field on issues such as those of Metapontum in Lucania, Sardinia, Morgantina in Sicily, Ilipense in Spain, and others, and later as a group on cistophori of the Roman emperor Nerva, but never in the form found on the Aksumite pieces. Possibly the grain stalks were actually a symbol of the Aksumite state itself, since its position on the gold coins is so prominent, and so closely related to the king.
The basic elements of design, established by Endubis, appear to have satisfied the Aksumite rulers ever afterward, but for a few additions at different periods. Such changes doubtless result from specific intentions by the issuing authorities to achieve certain aims.
King Wazena 540 Bronze coin. c. 540 CE.
Draped and right facing bust of the king wearing headcloth and holding grain ear. Legend “King WZN” in Ge’ez language. Reverse: Cross-crosslet with X andgilt center. Legend “He who is Fitting for the People in Ge’ez”.
First of all, Endubis’ successor Aphilas added an even more imposing appearance to the gold coins, by causing his image on the obverse to be altered to show him crowned with the splendid Aksumite tiara. This was a high crown, whose lower part consisted of a colonnade of arches supported by columns whose capitals and bases are visible even on the tiny images permitted by the flan size of the coins (diameter c. 17mm). Above the arches rose spikes, separated by elements of an elongated oval shape surmounted by discs. It appears that the tiara rested upon the headcloth (retained on the reverse design) as the fillet-tie is still visible behind. Other items of regalia (Ch. 7: 2) appear with Aphilas’ issues. These include a spear, or sometimes a short stick, a branch with berries (?) — in later, less precise designs it looks rather like a flywhisk — tasseled fringes to the draperies, and, with the depiction of the arms, more jewelry in the form of armlets and bracelets. Aphilas, then, without abandoning any of the precedents set by Endubis, seems to have desired to show himself in the full magnificence of his state regalia, whilst retaining the simpler headcloth image as well. Several suggestions have been aired to explain this (Ch. 7: 2). Whatever the case, it was this design which fossilised as the traditional one for the Aksumite gold coinage until the last issues, with only a very few further alterations, such as the introduction of an inner beaded circle around the king’s image by Ezana after his conversion to Christianity, and king Gerson’s use of a frontal portrait.
Aphilas also instituted some less successful experiments. His quarter-aureus is only known from one specimen, and he also issued considerable numbers of very tiny gold coins whose weight seems to indicate one-sixth of the aureus. The weights of the surviving specimens are often, as might be expected, a little down on the theoretical weight; this is one of the means by which a coinage can be very profitable to an issuing authority. However, the Aksumites were reasonably careful over their gold weights, and sometimes a coin is found which is even a little over the theoretical weight. Perhaps due to archaeological accident at this stage, since very few coins have been available for analysis, but later very deliberately employed, is the very slight debasement with silver from the standard set by Endubis; the lowest gold content so far recorded for Aphilas has sunk to 90% (Oddy and Munro-Hay 1980; Munro-Hay, Oddy and Cowell 1988). The constant decline of the gold content, slow as it was at first, must eventually have been a severe blow to the credibility of the Aksumite coinage and would have set it at a disadvantage against the Roman gold, which was of very high purity and very reliable.
King Ioel Silver coin. 560 CE.
A shifting inter-relationship of value with the Roman gold may have been the reason why the Aksumites retained the heavier `tremissis’ of c. 1.60g when the Romans reduced the weight of their tremissis to the true third of a solidus, with a theoretical weight of about 1.51g under Theodosius I in c383. Only right at the end of the series, with Iathlia (= Hataz?) and Gersem are lesser weight coins issued, whilst Ella Gabaz, in the sixth century, issued some unusually heavy specimens. Weight variations could have emerged from a mint practice of striking a given number of coins from a given amount of metal — from Roman examples the weight of each individual coin could thus vary considerably, even at its emergence from the mint in the pristine state. The element of seignorage, the mint profit, or at least coverage of expenses, could be arranged by the retention of a small part per pound of metal — this has a corollary in as much as it would help to guard the coinage against destruction since each coin would represent a theoretical purchasing power slightly in excess of its real value, fractionally reduced vis-à-vis the correct proportion of the pound of gold.
To return to Aphilas’ innovations, it is apparent that, although the experimental fractions died out with him as far as the gold was concerned, he also experimented with fractions of silver and bronze. The silver half which he issued was retained as the norm for Aksum, the heavier silver being discontinued in the next reign or two. Presumably, the value it represented was too high for a single coin in the particular market situations to which it was exposed, and the half was instituted as a more convenient weight; Aphilas did the opposite with his bronze, issuing a very heavy (presumably double) type, weighing 4.83g in the only known specimen. Like the quarter-aureus, it may have been soon withdrawn, resulting in its rarity today. Interestingly enough, both of these issues showed the king from a frontal position (as also on one of his normal weight bronze issues), a style abandoned afterward until the sixth century, and used only by Gersem on the gold, as noted above.
King Hataz Bronze coin c. 575 CE.
The designs on Aphilas’ issues introduced two other features, which also did not last long. The tiny gold fraction had nothing on the reverse but the words `kin(g) Aphilas’, the only time a purely epigraphic reverse appears in the entire series. On one of his bronze issues, he placed the ear of wheat alone in the center. Only Ezana(s), in a pre-Christian issue, copied this design, which then died out.
All these innovatory issues were doubtless efforts by Aphilas to speed up acceptance of the use of the coinage within his kingdom, and to develop its use for trade, as well as to raise his own international prestige by the advertising medium which the coinage offered. Aphilas seems to have made further considerable efforts to encourage the use of his smaller silver fraction by recourse to a completely unique expedient. On the reverse of the coin, around the royal bust, the whole area delineated by the circle outside which the legend ran was covered with a thin layer of gilding. The result was both attractive, showing the king in a halo of gold, and impressive; it showed the wealth of the king of Aksum in an inescapable fashion. The work must have been costly, as well as difficult to execute, and indicates how earnestly the mint authorities viewed the need to impress a people unused to coinage with its real value. Whether the half-value silver coins were deliberately under-weight to counteract the value of the added gold is unproven, but very likely, since the heaviest surviving examples of Aphilas’ silver gilt issue weigh less than half of the lightest surviving specimens of the heavier issue without gilding.
King Israel Gold coin. c. 590 CE.
Crowned, draped and right facing bust of the king flanked by wheat ears in a beaded circle. Cross above the portrait. Legend BACILIAX WMI (King of the Axumites) outside. Reverse: Draped right facing bust of the king wearing a head cloth flanked by wheat ears inside a beaded circle. Legend IC AP AH L (Israel) outside the circle.
Aksum seems to have had considerable supplies of gold available for its coinage. As the number of coins available for study increases, it is becoming evident that numerous dies were employed. Although we cannot even estimate the numbers of coins which could have been struck from a single die before it became too worn for further use, it is evident that certain rulers at least issued gold pieces in impressive quantities.
The rulers who succeeded Aphilas, as well as abandoning gold fractions, appear to have slowly and very slightly reduced the weight of their half-aurei but to have more or less retained the level of purity of the gold. Perhaps the Aksumite sovereigns were trying to adjust their coinage to agree with the reform of the Roman monetary system from 1/60th of a pound of gold (5.45g) to 1/72nd of a pound before 312AD. The theoretical weight would have been 2.27g for the Aksumite issues.
Wazeba, very possibly Aphilas’ successor for a brief time only (one gold coin is known, and not too many silver), altered, for the first and only time on the gold issues, the language of the legend. His Ge`ez legend, and the monogram of South Arabian style which he employs on the same coin make one think that perhaps he aimed his gold coinage more towards Ethiopian users, and also possibly to those South Arabian regions which some of his successors claimed as part of their kingdom. After Wazeba, the use of Greek remained permanent for the gold, but gradually, starting with Mehadeyis (MHDYS) for the bronze and with Wazeba himself for the silver, the native language came to supersede the Greek, doubtless a reflection of its local circulation area. Greek, however, still remained prominent on silver and bronze throughout the fifth and into the sixth centuries.
King Gersem Bronze coin c. 600 CE.
With Ezana/Ezanas (his name is written sometimes in Greek with the euphonic `s’ ending) several important observations must be made with regard to the coinage. His reign embraces the period of the second quarter of the fourth century until at least 356AD. His first issues, following his predecessors’ example in most features, have only a very slight average weight reduction. The second phase is represented by his abandonment of the old disc and crescent symbol of the pagan period and the adoption of the cross. The report of Ezana’s conversion to Christianity is recorded also by his inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5), and this very vital change was signaled to a larger audience by his coins. Undoubtedly, whatever may have been the king’s personal commitment to the new religion, its political implications were very significant, aligning the kingdom with the Byzantine/Roman world by even stronger bonds. Reluctant though some authorities have been to accept it, it seems as if Ezana has very strong claims to be the first ruler anywhere to use the Christian cross on his coins, since some of his gold coins with the cross are of the weight used before Constantine the Great’s reform of the currency in 324.
Even if Aksum was a little tardy in following the Roman shift to the lighter weight, these coins seem unlikely to have been issued more than a decade or so after the change in the Roman system; perhaps in 333, the traditional date for the conversion of Ethiopia. Illustration 49. With the adoption of Christianity, King Ezana of Aksum abandoned the symbol of the disc and crescent on his coins, and replaced it with the cross; drawings of three gold coin types (d. c. 17mm) of Ezana, the first pre-Christian in date.
King Armah Bronze coin. c. 614 CE.
Draped, crowned bust of the king facing right and holding cross-scepter. The legend in Ge’ez ‘King Armah’.
Reverse: Gold inlaid cross flanked by wheat ears. The legend in Ge’ez ‘Let there be the joy to the people’.
A second Christian gold issue of Ezana is known, in which the weight is indeed reduced to around 1.60g, evidently in response to this change in the Roman gold. Constantine’s institution of the solidus, a pure gold coin weighing 4.54g, meant that the Aksumites followed with their `tremissis’ of a theoretical weight of 1.70g, basing their coinage system, as they did up to this point, on the Roman standard. It is this lighter `tremissis’ which has so far been found exclusively in South Arabia, while the gold types with the name Ezanas have so far been found solely in Ethiopia. Whether this is fortuitous or reflects some real intention to issue a gold coin for South Arabian regions still under Aksumite control, is unknown, but it may be significant since Ezana employs the title of `king of Saba and Himyar’ on his inscriptions. There is no conspicuous debasement for Ezanas reign, though the quality of the workmanship begins to decline.
King Armah Silver coin. c. 614 CE.
Bust of the king wearing a guided crown facing right and holding cruciform scripture. The legend in Ge’ez ‘King Armah’. Reverse: Gold inlaid cross on an arch with gold inlay at the bottom and flanked by two columns topped with crosses
Ezana did issue a bronze coin in his Christian period, but only one example has been found. However, both he and his predecessor Ousanas appear to have issued coins on which they abandoned the disc and crescent, replacing it with no other symbol, though in one case a gold inlaid disc with four points or rays is used. It has been suggested, plausibly enough, by Bent Juel-Jensen, that this could be a depiction of a shield with crossed spears (1986). Could these coins represent the period mentioned by Rufinus (see Ch. 10: 2) when the converter of Ethiopia, Frumentius, was already beginning to bring Christians together in Ethiopia, possibly even influencing the king towards Christianity? This king, Ella Amida (= Ousanas?), in due course died and left his son under the regency of his queen; Frumentius eventually converted Ezana and probably the court as well, but it is not clear how quickly this was announced publicly by inscriptions and coins. It is possible that in this period just before and during the conversion of the court and king, there was some uncertainty as to the best method of demonstrating the conversion to the people through the medium of the coinage, but the disc and crescent, were, as a start, suspended on some issues. Eventually, Christian symbolism appeared through the use of the cross.
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