Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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High officials with `ministerial' rank are almost unknown. One most unusual example 
was Frumentius, the future bishop of Aksum. After his capture he rose by his intelligence 
and application to the rank of controller of the royal exchequer and correspondence; a 
sort of finance minister and secretary. Nevertheless, he remained a prisoner, if not 
actually a slave, in the royal household. Only when the king died, did he and his relative 
Aedesius gain their freedom to leave if the y wished, and he himself remained in Aksum 
to become more or less prime- minister to the queen-regent, according to the historian 
Rufinus (ed. Migne 1849). Rufinus got his information from Aedesius, who was with 
Frumentius at Aksum; but it is of course not impossible that he exaggerated Frumentius' 
importance. Frumentius is the only known figure who approaches the position occupied 
by the freedmen of the Roman Imperial government, who so often reached very high rank 
under certain emperors; but there may well have been other such men in the Aksumite 
administration.  
Frumentius' position had been resigned when he eventually left the country, and must 
have been completely transformed when he returned as bishop or metropolitan of Aksum. 
In later times the church  hierarchy may have included other bishops (such as Moses of 
Adulis, 
Ch. 10: 4
) and a number of local appointees to ecclesiastical posts. Doubtless 
these ecclesiastics represented the real power of the church, since its head, the 
metropolitan or abun, was traditionally a Copt from Egypt, and they may have been able 
to use the organisation of the church in helping the civil administration to function. 
However, we have no information save the lists of metropolitans, and a few isolated 
details from the hagiographies, about the progress and influence of the church in Ethiopia 
in Aksumite times (see 
Ch. 10
).  
Nothing is known of the other organs of government, except for inferences drawn from 
inscriptions and later literary references. For example, there seems to have been a body of 
traditional law, of which a few sections only survive. These are concerned with 
regulating the provisions due to the king on visits, according to the Safra inscription 
(Drewes 1962). This seems to date to the third century AD, and could refer to the negusa 
nagast or to a local king. It does at least indicate that there was some sort of written legal 
code available. Some references allude to nobles and ecclesiastics surrounding or 
advising the king (Malalas: ed. Migne 1860; Guillaume 1955: 151-2), and a council of 
notables would not be at all unexpected. Ibn Hisham, mentioning the visits by 
representatives of the Quraysh tribe to Aksum, says that officials surrounding the najashi 
bore the title shuyum, with a gloss to explain the equivalent in Arabic, al-aminuna; minor 
chiefs called shums have been concerned with the local administration of the country 
even into the twentieth century; the descendants of the Zagwé kings bore the title 
Wagshum.  
Other glimpses of the administration of law and justice may perhaps be inferred from 
various oblique references or archaeological finds. Kosmas, describing the Adulis throne, 
comments that those condemned to death were, up to his day, executed in front of the 
throne; perhaps it was considered the symbol of the royal presence there (Wolska-Conus 
1968: 378). The discovery of chained prisoners in dungeon- like rooms at Matara 
indicates punishment by imprisonment (Anfray 1963: 100, pls. LXI, LXXXI, LXXXII) 


and there is a note in Kosmas' work that the Semien mountains were a place of exile for 
those subjects condemned to banishment by the Aksumite king (Wolska-Conus 1968: 
378).  
There were certainly ambassadors, messengers and interpreters or translators to regulate 
the royal business, and they are mentioned by Malalas (ed. Migne 1860: 670; English 
translation in Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 138, after Smith 1954: 449-50). In addition, 
there must have been a corps of administrators, clerks, assessors and collectors of taxes, 
regulators of trade and market business such as weights and measures, and so forth, both 
at Aksum and other towns; but we know nothing about them as yet. From the 
extraordinary precision of the booty counts and prisoner tallies related in the inscriptions 
(
Ch. 11: 5
), the accounts clerks were evidently very efficient, and the inscriptions 
themselves reveal that some considerable pains were taken over recording precise details 
of chronology and events. The chronological details reveal that the Ethiopian calendar 
was in use by Ezana's time (
Ch. 11: 5
; Anfray, Caquot and Nautin 1970), and its use 
indicates that the inscriptions were meant to be very precise. Possibly, as in later times, 
there were official chroniclers for each reign.  
There must presumably have been some sort of information system, perhaps a corps of 
messengers who were sent out to the peoples of the kingdom as required. The preparation 
of inscriptions in three scripts seems to reflect a desire to disseminate the official versions 
of the royal achievements to both native and foreign readers. However, the inclusion 
amongst the inscriptions of a version in Ge`ez written in an elaborated form of the South 
Arabian script with, sometimes, quite inappropriate use of the `m' -ending (mimation) to 
the words to add an `Arabian' touch, seems to show that these inscriptions were rendered 
into this script solely for prestige reasons, perhaps in imitation of the trilingual (Greek, 
Parthian and Sassanian) inscriptions in use in Persia. It can be imagined that an official 
with very much the same status as Frumentius, supervising the royal correspondence, 
might have had the task of drafting these inscriptions and preparing the Greek 
translations.  
The coins were also part of the state propaganda. At first they were produced in all metals 
with Greek legends and were primarily aimed at foreigners who understood Greek. Later 
they became part of the bilingual efforts to disseminate information, many issues in silver 
and bronze being devoted to the Ge`ez-speaking ahzab (the peoples). By the fourth 
century the coins were used to convey messages from the central government in the form 
of mottoes, generally a different one for each issue (see 
Ch. 9
). Once again, some high 
official must have decided the policy to follow with each new issue, and have approved 
the text and design before instructing the mint officials and die-engravers accordingly.  
Later Ethiopian tradition supplied a whole administrative hierarchy for the Aksumite 
rulers from Menelik onwards, starting with those sons of the elders of Israel who came 
with the first emperor to Aksum. Their titles and functions are detailed by the Kebra 
Nagast (Glory of Kings; Budge 1922: 62) and include generals (of troops, foot-soldiers
cavalry, the sea, and recruits), scribes (a recorder, scribe of the cattle, assessor of taxes), 
various priests, household and administrative officials (chief of the house, keeper of the 



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