Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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of it in the royal family, though impossible to guarantee, must usually have seemed the 
safest course.  
Delegation of authority was an evident necessity as the state expanded, and royal 
responsibilities for defence and administration became strained. The custom of 
confirming local rulers was one way of responding to this. Kirwan saw the `archons' 
known from a sixth century account of Aksum as indicating an organised civilian 
administration on the Byzantine model, in contrast to the regime of petty kings under a 
supreme monarch (Kirwan 1972: 171). They may, in fact, be those same kings under a 
new title, and it is, after all, only the Byzantine subject Kosmas who gives them the 
Byzantine title `archon'. Malalas' use of the title, as a comparative term when describing 
the chariot of king Kaleb, seems to refer to the Byzantine archons, rather than to 
Ethiopian ones (Kobishchanov 1979: 220; Munro-Hay 1980: 151). It is not known 
whether Aksumite soldiers formed garrisons in the provincial towns, but in cases where 
there was some uncertainty it would seem a likely form of check on the local rulers' 
loyalty.  
Kosmas Indikopleustes mentions two archons or governors in his comments about 
Aksum during the reign of Kaleb Ella Atsbeha (Wolska-Conus 1968: 360, 368). These 
rulers both held extremely important posts in the political structure of the state, since they 
controlled vital links in the country's trade-system. The archon of Adulis, Asbas, was in 
charge of the port city, and the archon of the Agaw region controlled the gold trade of 
Sasu (perhaps Fazugli in modern Sudan) and was responsible for forwarding the 
caravans. These officials, if not members of his own family, or hereditary local `kings', 
were certainly highly- trusted administrators in Kaleb's government. It may even be that 
Aksumite officials of this rank were appointed to supervise specifically `Aksumite' 
interests in the regions alongside the hereditary local rulers themselves.  
In general, then, the Aksumites arranged for the administration of the lands under their 
hegemony by appointing or confirming local rulers, and exacting tribute as a sign of 
dependence. Failure to pay this was an act of rebellion and a declaration of war against 
the negusa nagast. One inscription bluntly outlines the Aksumites' political philosophy 
on the matter; "those who obeyed, he spared; those who resisted, he killed" (
Ch. 11: 5
).  
In the titulature of the Aksumite monarchs, the king is called the `king of kings' (negusa 
nagast in Ge`ez, and basileus basileon in Greek). He claims authority over many other 
regions, some of which were not only far distant but evidently under strong governments 
of their own controlled by their own kings. These can scarcely have been under the 
authority of the `king of kings' to any great degree. These kingdoms, such as Saba, 
Himyar, the Hadhramawt in South Arabia, and African states such as that of the Noba, 
may have submitted in theory to Aksum, but very little, if any, real control can have been 
exerted except during actual campaigns, or where garrisons were left. This actually was 
the case in some South Arabian districts at times (a certain Sabqalum was possibly the 
resident of the nagashi in Najran; Jamme: 1962, 79, 319) but certainly not in all the three 
Arabian kingdoms mentioned.  


The lesser chiefdoms or kingdoms nearer to the core of the Aksumite empire were 
controlled by the king's peripatetic expeditions. These seem to have been designed as 
tribute-collecting tours combined with a parade of the king's military might to overawe 
anyone inclined to withhold their dues. Oddly enough, `rebellions' seem to have been 
quite a frequent feature (see 
Ch. 11: 5
 for the texts of the inscriptions which mention 
these), but the Aksumite cities and towns show no apparent concern with defence. 
Possibly these rebellions were extremely localised, and for a good part of the time were 
easy to deal with. Aksumite military organisation seems to have been mobile and 
efficient, and very likely the occupants of the Aksumite heartland had little to fear from 
these rebels against the state. Some, like the Agwezat, appear in the fourth century as 
dutiful subjects under their king SWSWT, bearing gifts to the Aksumite king Ousanas (? 
DAE 8), then as rebels against Ezana (? DAE 9) under king Abba `Alkeo, and later in the 
sixth century needed to be `pacified' by Kaleb as well in a campaign which he undertook 
against both them and the Hasat people (Schneider 1974). The inscription of Kaleb, later 
revered as both a Christian king and saint, proudly details the numbers of men, women 
and children captured or killed. Ezana is supposed to have boasted — if the inscription is 
correctly translated (see 
Ch. 11: 5, DAE 9
) — that he seized the Agwezat king and 
chained him, naked, with his `throne-bearer'. In many cases these rebellions are recorded 
as being led by the local kings, who, of course, failed in their bid for independence in all 
the instances recorded by the pro-Aksumite writers of the inscriptions. The Tsarane tribe 
of Afan was among those who were the object of one of Ezana's campaigns, ostensibly as 
a punishment for interfering with a trade caravan. Their ruler was captured with his 
children and his people were severely dealt with. Punishment for rebellion could be 
death, captivity (resulting possibly in sacrifice — or presentation to the gods as a gift — 
or slavery), and sometimes transportation to another area. Ezana transported six Beja 
kings and their tribes, but the numbers given (a total of 4400) show that these tribes were 
relatively small units (DAE 4, 6 & 7 and Geza `Agmai). The many lesser chiefdoms or 
kingdoms mentioned in the inscriptions were not considered to be of sufficient 
importance to warrant inclusion in the king of kings' titulature. The Aksumite system of 
ruling through existing tribal authorities must, in its way, have simply encouraged the 
spirit of independence among the subject peoples. Since their identity as separate peoples 
was not lost, weaknesses in the Aksumite state, or difficult moments such as the death of 
an Aksumite king and a disputed succession could always give rise to attempts to shake 
off the yoke. The inscription DAE 8, with its preamble referring to the king's `re-
establishment' of his emp ire, may have resulted from a new king's need to demonstrate 
visibly his assumption of power. Possibly the regency of Ezana's mother explains why 
Ezana had to spend some time in re- integrating his kingdom after attaining his majority; 
regencies for child-rulers were often dangerous periods in the life of a kingdom. 
Nevertheless, eventually the smaller population groups lost their former separate 
identities, became absorbed in the larger polity, and with this assimilation disappear from 
Ethiopian history.  
2. Officials of the Government 
 



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