Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay

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In producing their own coinage the Aksumite rulers would have had all sorts of 
considerations before the m. The coinage must be, first of all, acceptable both externally 
and internally, to foreign traders and the Ethiopian population at large. Endubis, 
apparently the first of the kings to try the experiment of superseding the imported coinage 
of the time of Zoskales by one guaranteed with his own name, issued in all three metals; a 
good quality gold, silver and bronze. The value-relationships of the metals among 
themselves is not known; state control of the gold resources is indicated by the story of 
Kosmas, noted above, and doubtless the supplies of other metals were also closely 
monitored. Endubis appears to have decided upon the half- aureus as the suitable weight 
for his gold issue, probably to provide a supplement to the Roman aurei already in current 
use. The weight of these coins, around 2.70 grammes, indicates that they were issued at 
some time in the latter half of the third century AD.  
At first, the language selected for the coinage legends was Greek rather than the native 
Ge`ez. This is an obvious reminder that the purpose of the coins was to participate in the 
trade with the Graecised Orient. It is possible that the first coiners for Aksum came from 
the Roman world, perhaps Alexandria, where coins of a similar flan (though quite 
different design), were produced until 297AD (Hahn 1983).  
The design of the coins was of primary importance, and must have been very carefully 
chosen. The coinage for Endubis concentrated almost entirely on the king himself, as the 
representative of the state. The coins, with raised relief in all three metals, depict the king 
wearing the Aksumite helmet or headcloth on both obverse and reverse. The headcloth 
has rays, pleats, or perhaps a sunburst indicated at the front, rather like the aigrette at the 
front of the turban of some Indian prince. There is always a triangular ribbon
representing perhaps the ends of a fillet holding the headcloth in position, or the ends of 
the cloth itself after it was knotted into place, shown falling at the rear behind the king's 
neck. The legend, in Greek, gives Endubis' name, and the title `?? S?? ? ? S  
? ? O ? ??O? ' (always actually written BACI? EYC A?WMITW); basileus Aksomito(n), 
king of the Aksumites. There is also another title, `bisi Dakhu', BICI ?AXY, meaning 
apparently `man of Dakhu' which is sometimes referred to as the `ethnicon' in the 
assumption that it represents some sort of tribal affiliation, every Aksumite king bearing a 
different version of it (
Ch. 7: 5
[The Greek capitals Sigma (S), Upsilon (?) and Omega (O) were written as C, Y and W by the 
Aksumites. — A. L., 1999.] 

Illustration 46. The first of the Aksumite coin issues; drawings of gold (d. c. 16mm), 
silver (d. c. 15mm) and bronze (d. 15mm) coins of king Endubis.  
As well as the unusual emphasis on the king, there are one or two other indications as to 
those elements which Endubis deemed important enough to emphasise on this excellent 
propaganda medium for his kingdom. First of all, his religion. This is represented by a 
disc and crescent symbol set at 12.00 on both faces of the coins, in continuation of the 
earlier Himyarite custom. It is suggested that these symbols represent deities of the sun 
and moon, or perhaps the royal tutelary deity Mahrem. It could be that, given the 
importance of this latter deity in the royal myth (see 
Ch. 10
), it was he whom Endubis 
chose to put symbolically on his coins.  
A second specifically Aksumite element of design was the depiction of two ears of wheat 
or barley framing the royal bust on the obverse and the reverse of the gold coins only. Its 
depiction on the coins could have been intended to show the king as the provider and 
source of bounty, under the gods. Ears of wheat as central heraldic motifs had centuries 
previously appeared in similar position in the field on issues such as those of 
Metapontum in Lucania, Sardinia, Morgantina in Sicily, Ilipense in Spain, and others, 
and later as a group on cistophori of the Roman emperor Nerva, but never in the form 
found on the Aksumite pieces. Possibly the grain stalks were actually a symbol of the 
Aksumite state itself, since its position on the gold coins is so prominent, and so closely 
related to the king.  
The basic elements of design, established by Endubis, appear to have satisfied the 
Aksumite rulers ever afterwards, but for a few additions at different periods. Such 
changes doubtless result from specific intentions by the issuing authorities to achieve 
certain aims.  

First of all, Endubis' successor Aphilas added an even more imposing appearance to the 
gold coins, by causing his image on the obverse to be altered to show him crowned with 
the splendid Aksumite tiara. This was a high crown, whose lower part consisted of a 
colonnade of arches supported by columns whose capitals and bases are visible even on 
the tiny images permitted by the flan size of the coins (diameter c. 17mm). Above the 
arches rose spikes, separated by elements of an elongated oval shape surmounted by 
discs. It appears that the tiara rested upon the headcloth (retained on the reverse design) 
as the fillet-tie is still visible behind. Other items of regalia (
Ch. 7: 2
) appear with 
Aphilas' issues. These include a spear, or sometimes a short stick, a branch with berries 
(?) — in later, less precise designs it looks rather like a flywhisk — tasselled fringes to 
the draperies, and, with the depiction of the arms, more jewellery in the form of armlets 
and bracelets. Aphilas, then, without abandoning any of the precedents set by Endubis, 
seems to have desired to show himself in the full magnificence of his state regalia, whilst 
retaining the simpler headcloth image as well. Several suggestions have been aired to 
explain this (
Ch. 7: 2
). Whatever the case, it was this design which fossilised as the 
traditional one for the Aksumite gold coinage until the last issues, with only a very few 
further alterations, such as the introduction of an inner beaded circle around the king's 
image by Ezana after his conversion to Christianity, and king Gersem's use of a frontal 

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