Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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impossible that such a breach in relations was caused by the death of one king and the 
succession of another, since in traditional Hellenistic monarchies (some elements of 
whose organisation we can detect in Aksum) treaties would lapse until confirmed by the 
ruler who next came to power. In this case, we might conceivably suggest that king 
Wazeba of Aksum had died, and Ousanas (Ella Amida) had just come to the throne (
Ch. 
4: 5
). The lapse of the treaty might also reflect the uncertain conditions in the Roman 
world after the retirement of Diocletian in 305 until 323 when complete order was 
restored by Constantine's defeat of Licinius.  
Apart from this story, there are no signs of anything but peaceful trade and occasional 
diplomatic activity. With the new order in the Roman empire, and no challenges on the 
frontiers between Roman and Aksumite ambitions, Aksum had nothing to look for from 
Rome/Constantinople but peaceful and profitable trading relations. There was a certain 
amount of diplomatic activity in the reign of Constantius II, with the mission of 
Theophilus the Indian. This ecclesiastic may also have delivered the letter of Constantius 
preserved in the Apologia of the patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria (
Ch. 4: 3
). During 
and after the Himyarite war which Kaleb conducted in the sixth century, there was an 
increase in recorded diplomatic activity, and several missions were sent by Justinian. 
Two of the ambassadors, Julian, and Nonnosus son of Abrames, are mentioned by 
historians of the period, together with some details as to their instructions from the 
emperor (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1924: 192-5; Photius, ed. Henry 1959: 4-5).  
Palmyra
 
The suggestion (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 86) that Aksumites were taken prisoner by 
Aurelian (270-275AD), the Roman emperor who conquered Queen Zenobia of Palmyra's 
armies, is unfounded. Zenobia's forces had benefited from the weakness of Rome under 
its ephemeral military emperors in the late third century, and she was in control of Syria 
and the great city of Antioch. In 269AD, she successfully invaded Egypt; by 270 her 
interest was turning to Asia Minor. In 271 she proclaimed her son Wahballat as 
Augustus. In spite of this widespread success, the Roman empire was at last recovering 
from its unhappy condition under a new emperor, Aurelian, and Palmyrene hegemony 
lasted only a few years; and in August 272 Palmyra itself fell to the emperor's armies.  
The Aksumites mentioned in the (rather suspect) Latin `Life of Aurelian' attributed to 
Flavius Vopiscus in the so-called Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Magie 1932: 258-61), 
seem to have been among the foreign envoys present at the celebration of Aurelian's 
triumph rather than defeated allies of Zenobia being led with the queen in the procession. 
They are included in a separate section with other representatives from different countries 
bearing gifts, and not among the captives from peoples against whom Aurelian is known 
to have conducted campaigns. There is no evidence that Zenobia was able to open any 
diplomatic relations with Aksum during her brief period of dominance, and none to 
indicate that she enlisted the support of the Aksumites in her wars.  
Persia


 
Towards the end of Aksum's period of power, the Persians conquered both Egypt (in 
619AD, holding it until 628) and South Arabia (in 575 and again, after a rebellion in 
Himyar, in 598), and it may have been this that began to destroy Aksum's trade in the 
Red Sea rather than the later Arab expansion. There is only a little information about 
Persian relations with Aksum. John of Ephesus, in his `Life of Simeon the Bishop', states 
that when Simeon and his companions had been for seven years in the prison at Nis ibis, 
the king of Ethiopia heard of it and made a successful request, through his ambassadors 
to king Kawad (d. 531AD), that they should be freed (Brooks 1923: 153). Kosmas 
mentions that merchants from Adulis and Persia both met in Taprobane (Sri Lanka), and 
that ivory was exported from Ethiopia to Persia by sea (Wolska-Conus 1973: 348, 354). 
Also in the sixth century, the emperor Justinian is supposed to have tried to use Aksum 
against Persia in both an economic war over silk supplies and a military tentative through 
Aksum's South Arabian possessions (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 192-5). The inference 
is that Aksum would be ready to act against the Persians because of their community of 
religion with the Roman/Byzantine empire. After the loss of Aksum's direct influence in 
South Arabia, and the death of the negus Kaleb, the historian Procopius (ed. Dewing 
1914: 190-1) informs us that the leader of the rebel government in Arabia, Abreha, 
agreed to pay tribute to Aksum. The Persian conquest would have terminated this 
arrangement if it still applied to Abreha's successors. It may be supposed, then, that after 
575 Aksum had not only lost its tribute, but was also faced with a more or less hostile 
Persian dependency just across the Red Sea. Already there may have been an increase in 
the movement of hostile shipping in the sea- lanes on which Aksum depended for its 
foreign commerce.  
A few links with Persia have been suggested at different times. It may be that certain 
figures, robed and with curly hair, depicted on the monumental staircase of the Apadana 
at Persepolis, are Ethiopians. They are shown presenting a giraffe, a tusk, and a vase. 
Some details of their appearance resemble the more-or- less contemporary Ethiopians as 
known from their statues and throne reliefs from Hawelti (Leroy 1963: 293-5). At a much 
later date, certain glazed wares, blue- green in colour, found at Aksum and Matara, have 
been classified, rather vaguely, as Sassanian-Islamic or Gulf wares (Wilding in Munro-
Hay 1989; Anfray 1974: 759).  
India and Sri Lanka
 
Aksum also had trading relations with India and Sri Lanka (Pankhurst 1974). A find of 
Indian gold coins, issued by the Kushana kings (who ruled in north India and 
Afghanistan) in the earlier third century, at the monastery of Dabra Damo on  the route 
between Aksum and the coast, confirms the contact from the Ethiopian side (Mordini 
1960, 1967). There are also occasional allusions to ships from Adulis sailing to or from 
the sub-continent. Such instances occur in the accounts of the arrival of the future bishop 
Frumentius in Ethiopia (
Ch. 10: 2
), the journey of bishop Moses of Adulis (Desanges 
1969) and in the Christian Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes. Kosmas (Wolska-



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