Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Illustration 11. A gold coin (diameter c. 18mm) of king Ousanas of Aksum with the pre-
Christian disc and crescent symbol above his head.  
Ousanas seems very likely to have been the king to whom the two captive Tyrian boys, 
Frumentius and Aedesius (see 
Ch. 10: 2
), were brought after the killing of their shipboard 
companions. This king is called Ella Allada or Ella A'eda in the traditional account, and 
Budge (1928: 1164-5) interpreted this name as Alameda, Ella Amida; a reasonable 
enough suggestion, since from the numismatic point of view Ezana, the king who 
adopted Christianity, seems to follow Ousanas, while the tradition relating the 
circumstances of Ethiopia's conversion states that the converted king was the son and 
successor of Ella Allada/A'eda, though under the regency of his mother (but see also 
Dombrowski and Dombrowski 1984: 131-3). The name is testified later as Alla Amidas 
(
Ch. 4: 7
); Ousanas may have adopted it as his throne-name, and it is not impossible that 
one of the inscriptions published by the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition (Littmann 1913: IV, 
DAE 8) actually belongs to Ousanas rather than Ezana; its `Bisi' title certainly includes 
the letter `s' and whatever identity, such as `Ousanas Bisi Gisene', is accepted, `Ezana 
Bisi Alene' is definitely precluded (Munro-Hay 1984ii: 108).  
Ezana is the most famous of the Aksumite kings before Kaleb. Several inscriptions of his 
are known, which tell a good deal about his military exploits and furnish many other 
details about fourth century Aksum. His most significant contribution to Ethiopian 
history was his official adoption of Christianity around 333AD, which he signalised by 
putting the cross on his coins (it also appears on one of his inscriptions; Schneider 1976ii: 
fig. 4), and by dropping the claim to be the son of the god Mahrem.  


 
Illustration 11a. Drawings of two silver and three bronze issues (d. c. 10-16mm) of king 
Ezana of Aksum, some with the disc and crescent symbol, and some with no religious 
symbol at all.  
In Ezana's time intercourse with the Roman empire continued, but even if the conversion 
to Christianity (
Ch. 10: 2
) was designed to bring Aksum closer to Rome or 
Constantinople, it was not a policy which he followed slavishly. There seems to have 
been little response to Constantius II's suggestion (c356AD) that Frumentius, by now 
bishop of Aksum (to whom Mommsen (1886: 284, n. 2) referred in his phrase `an 
Axomitic clergyman'), should be sent for examination for doctrinal errors to the 
emperor's bishop at Alexandria (Szymusiak 1958). Constantius, leaning towards the 
Arian heresy, was currently at loggerheads with patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria, who 
had consecrated Frumentius for his new see probably around 330AD. Athanasius had 
been sent into exile, and an Arian bishop installed in his stead. It was to this man, George 
of Cappadocia, that Constantius, declaring himself fearful for the Christian faith in 
Aksum, wanted Ezana and his brother to send Frumentius. But since Frumentius remains 
revered as the founder of the Ethiopian church, which does not follow Arianism, it may 
be assumed that the request was ignored, and that, as the Ethiopian Synaxarium says, he 
`died in peace' (Budge 1928). In any event, the Arian emperor and bishop did not last 
much longer, and delaying tactics might have avoided the necessity to give a definite 
response to the request before the emperor's death in 361.  


Ezana's titles (see 
Ch. 11: 5
) show that he considered himself to be at least theoretically 
the ruler of very large areas of present-day Yemen, Ethiopia and the Sudan. Interestingly 
enough, his use of the title `king of Saba (Salhen) and Himyar (Dhu-Raydan)' is similar 
to only the most modest of those used in the Yemen itself; around 300AD the title `king 
of Saba and Dhu-Raydan and Hadhramawt and Yamanat' came into existence, and was 
used by rulers such as Shamir Yuhar`ish and Karibil Watar Yuhan`im, whilst by the end 
of the fourth century, under Abukarib As`ad, it developed into `king of Saba and Dhu-
Raydan and Hadhramawt and Yamanat and the Arabs in the Tawd (highlands) and the 
Tihamat (coastal plain)'. It seems certain that Ezana did not actually control any of the 
Arabian kingdoms, but his use of only the attenuated Arabian title and the apparent 
circulation of some of his coins in Yemen perhaps indicate that some sort of arrangement 
was reached between the two regions, or even that a coastal foothold was still retained by 
Aksum on the other side of the Red Sea. If predecessors of Ezana, like the `king of kings' 
Sembrouthes, had claimed the Arabian titles, they might simply have rema ined in the 
least expanded form by tradition; the Arabian kings themselves never used the 
parallelism Saba/Salhen, Himyar/Raydan in their own titles, though Shamir Yuhahmid 
was referred to as `of Dhu-Raydan and Himyar'.  
In Africa, though most of Ezana's military expeditions were more or less tribute-
gathering rounds in his own kingdom, pacifying any unrest in transit, he mounted at least 
one large-scale campaign against the Sudanese Noba and Kasu which his inscriptions 
(see 
Ch. 11: 5
) claim as a major victory. Two fragmentary Aksumite inscriptions found at 
Meroë itself may be traced to this campaign, or perhaps to a similar one by a predecessor 
(Sayce 1909, 1912; Hägg 1984; Burstein 1980; Bersina 1984). It appears that Ezana's 
campaign was celebrated by Christian inscriptions, while some of the interpreters of the 
Meroë inscriptions believe that they were dedicated to the pagan Ares/Mahrem; if so, 
they probably belong either to an early campaign of Ezana, or to some predecessor.  
At some uncertain point in our Periods 2 and 3, comes one of the best known of all 
Aksumite inscriptions; the `Monumentum Adulitanum' (
Ch. 11: 5
). The inscription itself 
has been lost, but its Greek text detailing the campaigns of an unnamed Aksumite king 
was preserved by the merchant Kosmas in the sixth century when he copied it for king 
Kaleb at the behest of Asbas, archon or governor of Adulis (Wolska-Conus 1968: 364ff). 
It was inscribed on a stone throne, behind which lay a fallen and broken inscription of 
king Ptolemy III of Egypt, who reigned in the third century BC. Unfortunately, Kosmas, 
copying the two inscriptions, simply carried on from the end of Ptolemy's inscription to 
the Aksumite one without including the section (if it still existed) with the Aksumite 
ruler's name and titles.  
Certain details put the inscription broadly into context. It is of a pre-Christian ruler, 
whose campaigns took him from the Nabataean port of Leuke Kome (`White Village' — 
the exact position of which is still uncertain, Gatier and Salles 1988) at the limits of the 
Roman possessions on the east coast of the Red Sea, to the country of the Sabaeans in 
South  Arabia, and to extensive African territories, apparently ranging from the lands 
bordering Egypt to the Danakil desert. Huntingford (1989) gives the latest of many 
attempts to outline the historical geography of the text. The author refers to himself as the 



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