Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Illustration 47. The augmented series of issues (excluding the bronze type already 
illustrated in fig. 44) of king Aphilas; three types of gold (d. c. 16mm, 12mm, and c. 
7mm respectively), two of silver (d. 17mm and c. 12mm), and two of bronze (d. 18mm 
and c. 15mm).  
Aphilas also instituted some less successful experiments. His quarter-aureus is only 
known from one specimen, and he also issued considerable numbers of very tiny gold 
coins whose weight seems to indicate one-sixth of the aureus. The weights of the 
surviving specimens are often, as might be expected, a little down on the theoretical 
weight; this is one of the means by which a coinage can be very profitable to an issuing 


authority. However, the Aksumites were reasonably careful over their gold weights, and 
sometimes a coin is found which is even a little over the theoretical weight. Perhaps due 
to archaeological accident at this stage, since very few coins have been available for 
analysis, but later very deliberately employed, is the very slight debasement with silver 
from the standard set by Endubis; the lowest gold content so far recorded for Aphilas has 
sunk to 90% (Oddy and Munro-Hay 1980; Munro-Hay, Oddy and Cowell 1988). The 
constant decline of the gold content, slow as it was at first, must eventually have been a 
severe blow to the credibility of the Aksumite coinage, and would have set it at a 
disadvantage against the Roman gold, which was of very high purity and very reliable.  
A shifting inter-relationship of value with the Roman gold may have been the reason why 
the Aksumites retained the heavier `tremissis' of c. 1.60g when the Romans reduced the 
weight of their tremissis to the true third of a solidus, with a theoretical weight of about 
1.51g under Theodosius I in c383. Only right at the end of the series, with Iathlia (= 
Hataz?) and Gersem are lesser weight coins issued, whilst Ella Gabaz, in the sixth 
century, issued some unusually heavy specimens. Weight variations could have emerged 
from a mint practice of striking a given number of coins from a given amount of metal — 
from Roman examples the weight of each individual coin could thus vary considerably, 
even at its emergence from the mint in pristine state. The element of seignorage, the mint 
profit, or at least coverage of expenses, could be arranged by the retention of a small part 
per pound of metal — this has a corollary in as much as it would help to guard the 
coinage from destruction since each coin would represent a theoretical purchasing power 
slightly in excess of its real value, fractionally reduced vis-à-vis the correct proportion of 
the pound of gold.  
To return to Aphilas' innovations, it is apparent that, although the experimental fractions 
died out with him as far as the gold was concerned, he also experimented with fractions 
of silver and bronze. The silver half which he issued was retained as the norm for Aksum
the heavier silver being discontinued in the next reign or two. Presumably, the value it 
represented was too high for a single coin in the particular market situations to which it 
was exposed, and the half was instituted as a more convenient weight; Aphilas did the 
opposite with his bronze, issuing a very heavy (presumably double) type, weighing 4.83g 
in the only known specimen. Like the quarter-aureus, it may have been soon withdrawn, 
resulting in its rarity today. Interestingly enough, both of these issues showed the king 
from a frontal position (as also on one of his normal weight bronze issues), a style 
abandoned afterwards until the sixth century, and used only by Gersem on the gold, as 
noted above.  
The designs on Aphilas' issues introduced two other features, which also did not last 
long. The tiny gold fraction had nothing on the reverse but the words `kin(g) Aphilas', the 
only time a purely epigraphic reverse appears in the entire series. On one of his bronze 
issues, he placed the ear of wheat alone in the centre. Only Ezana(s), in a pre-Christian 
issue, copied this design, which then died out.  
All these innovatory issues were doubtless efforts by Aphilas to speed up acceptance of 
the use of the coinage within his kingdom, and to develop its use for trade, as well as to 


raise his own international prestige by the advertising medium which the coinage offered. 
Aphilas seems to have made further considerable efforts to encourage the use of his 
smaller silver fraction by recourse to a completely unique expedient. On the reverse of 
the coin, around the royal bust, the whole area delineated by the circle outside which the 
legend ran was covered with a thin layer of gilding. The result was both attractive, 
showing the king in a halo of gold, and impressive; it showed the wealth of the king of 
Aksum in an inescapable fashion. The work must have been costly, as well as difficult to 
execute, and indicates how earnestly the mint authorities viewed the need to impress a 
people unused to coinage with its real value. Whether the half- value silver coins were 
deliberately under-weight to counteract the value of the added gold is unproven, but very 
likely, since the heaviest surviving examples of Aphilas' silver gilt issue weigh less than 
half of the lightest surviving specimens of the heavier issue without gilding.  
Aksum seems to have had considerable supplies of gold available for its coinage. As the 
number of coins available for study increases, it is becoming evident that numerous dies 
were employed. Although we cannot even estimate the numbers of coins which could 
have been struck from a single die before it became too worn for further use, it is evident 
that certain rulers at least issued gold pieces in impressive quantities.  
The rulers who succeeded Aphilas, as well as abandoning gold fractions, appear to have 
slowly and very slightly reduced the weight of their half-aurei, but to have more or less 
retained the level of purity of the gold. Perhaps the Aksumite sovereigns were trying to 
adjust their coinage to agree with the reform of the Roman monetary system from 1/60th 
of a pound of gold (5.45g) to 1/72nd of a pound before 312AD. The theoretical weight 
would have been 2.27g for the Aksumite issues.  
Wazeba, very possibly Aphilas' successor for a brief time only (one gold coin is known, 
and not too many silver), altered, for the first and only time on the gold issues, the 
language of the legend. His Ge`ez legend, and the monogram of South Arabian style 
which he employs on the same coin, make one think that perhaps he aimed his gold 
coinage more towards Ethiopian users, and also possibly to those South Arabian regions 
which some of his successors claimed as part of their kingdom. After Wazeba, the use of 
Greek remained permanent for the gold, but gradually, starting with Mehadeyis 
(MHDYS) for the bronze and with Wazeba himself for the silver, the native language 
came to supersede the Greek, doubtless a reflection of its local circulation area. Greek, 
however, still remained prominent on silver and bronze throughout the fifth and into the 
sixth centuries.  



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