Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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9. The Coinage 
 
1. Origins 
 
Aksum was the only African state in ancient times, outside the Roman dependencies, to 
issue its own national coinage (for references on coinage questions see Anzani: 1926, 
1928, 1941; Munro-Hay, loc. var: Hahn 1983; much of the following chapter is based on 
Munro-Hay 1984iv). The Aksumite coinage lasted from about 270AD, or a little later, 
into the early seventh century, and seems to have been used in both external trade and 
internal market transactions. How far the whole kingdom was able to employ a 
monetarised economy is still a matter for conjecture, but so far coin- finds have been 
reported from all excavated Aksumite sites.  
By the time of Aksum's first recorded military ventures to the Yemen, the coinage of the 
South Arabian kingdoms would seem to have been nearing the end of its use, if it was not 
already discontinued. This coinage, chiefly of silver in Saba and Himyar, and bronze in 
Hadhramawt, only very rarely seems to have included electrum or gold pieces. It is much 
more likely that the immediate origins of the coinage of Aksum were influenced by 
Roman trading in the Red Sea, though perhaps the awareness of Kushana and Persian 
coinages also inspired the Aksumites to emulation. The Aksumite coinage followed the 
Roman/Byzantine weight system, and this and certain other factors add probability to the 
suggestion that Rome was the primary region to which Aksum looked when the issue of a 
coinage was planned. At any rate, adoption of a coinage would have immensely 
facilitated exchange of products and all other public and private business in which it was 
employed, and must have given considerable impetus to the economy.  
Whilst the re is no actual proof, except for the tentative identification of a pottery object 
from the excavations as a coin- mould (Wilding in Munro-Hay 1989), it would seem very 
likely that it was at Aksum itself that the coins were minted. No other African state south 
of the Sahara issued coins until the sultanate of Kilwa began coinage-production possibly 
in the mid-tenth century.  
2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage 
 
Few African societies possessed a market or exchange system so evolved as to require a 
universally accepted form of currency; the need for such a currency stands in a direct 
ratio to the complexity of the society which has developed, and the ultimate expression of 
the requirement for currency in the ancient world was a coinage system. Use of a general 
purpose money evidently simplifies the system in representing the medium of exchange, 
the standard of value- measurement, a means of holding wealth at discretion, and a means 


of payment for services, all in one form. As Plato commented, `money reduces the 
inequalities and immeasurabilities of goods to equality and measure'. A coinage, 
fashioned from a precious metal, and of convenient size for representing large sums with 
little weight and bulk, was also much more broadly recognised than other types of 
currency in the international framework in which Aksum's trade became involved. 
Coinage gave the economy a central emphasis from which every aspect of the state's 
functions could spring. Wealth could pass easily in both local and external transactions, 
so long as the standard conformed, and Aksum accordingly linked its coinage with the 
Romano-Byzantine monetary system.  
Within the area of Aksum's control, circulation of the coinage could have been 
encouraged by the demanding of coinage payments for certain taxes, by state payments 
for military and other services in coinage, and by the gradual increase in the number of 
merchants in the markets using it as the standardised medium of exchange. Commodities 
formerly expressed in different values could be exchanged with this single easily-
controlled factor, and the rate of trade speeded up considerably. The traditional value of 
each object in relation to a complex variety of others was thus centralised, and inevitably 
the simpler system would gain, as long as the ultimate guarantor, the Aksumite ruler, was 
visibly apparent to support it. Gold and silver in the pure state are intrinsically valuable, 
but in a debased currency, or a currency where the value in spending power is above the 
real value of the metal it is of course only viable while the issuer represents the ultimate 
redeemer. With token currencies, like the bronze, (though in Aksum the gilding might 
have adjusted this to some extent) the real value of the coins was representative and not 
actual.  
Aksum's coinage was a successful experiment to judge from its continuance reign after 
reign for at least three hundred years. The combined factors of the power of the kings in a 
military context, improving and increasing the possible routings for goods and providing 
for their greater security, and the centralising of the spheres of commerce in a monetised 
economy, must have supplied to trade a steady climate of increase. It has been observed 
that the issue of a coinage generally stimulates an economy, and Aksum was no 
exception. The increasingly complex trade would have been much more easily dealt with 
after Aksum had entered the world of its trading neighbours with a monetary system on a 
par with theirs.  
At the time of the Periplus, the Aksumite state imported orokhalkos or brass "which they 
use for ornaments and for cutting as money", and "a little money (denarion) for 
foreigners who live there" (Huntingford 1980: 21-2). The use of metal as money before 
the issue of a minted coinage certainly hints that the Aksumites were aware even at that 
time of the advantages of a currency which did not require special care or maintenance 
and was divisible at need. Neither Zoskales, the ruler of the region at the time, nor his 
successors for well over a century, issued their own coins and it would seem as if the 
kingdom was only beginning to orient itself towards the use of coinage. The use of 
Roman money among foreign residents and merchants is not surprising, but the 
Aksumites' or Adulites' use of cut brass is; possibly brass was a relatively costly item in 
Ethiopia at the time. This comment in the Periplus, seeming to imply that Aksum was 



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