Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay

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Illustration 48. The apogee of Aksumite coin production; a drawing of the sole known 
gold coin (d. 17mm) of king Wazeba of Aksum, the only gold coin issued with a Ge`ez 
With Ezana/Ezanas (his name is written sometimes in Greek with the euphonic `s' 
ending) several important observations must be made with regard to the coinage. His 
reign embraces the period of the second quarter of the fourth century until at least 
356AD. His first issues, following his predecessors' example in most features, have only 
a very slight average weight reduction. The second phase is represented by his 
abandonment of the old disc and crescent symbol of  the pagan period, and the adoption of 
the cross. The report of Ezana's conversion to Christianity is recorded also by his 
inscriptions (
Ch. 11: 5
), and this very vital change was signalled to a larger audience by 
his coins. Undoubtedly, whatever may have been the king's personal commitment to the 
new religion, its political implications were very significant, aligning the kingdom with 
the Byzantine/Roman world by even stronger bonds. Reluctant though some authorities 
have been to accept it, it seems as if Ezana has very strong claims to be the first ruler 
anywhere to use the Christian cross on his coins, since some of his gold coins with the 
cross are of the weight used before Constantine the Great's reform of the currency in 324. 
Even if Aksum was a little tardy in following the Roman shift to the lighter weight, these 
coins seem unlikely to have been issued more than a decade or so after the change in the 
Roman system; perhaps in 333, the traditional date for the conversion of Ethiopia.  

Illustration 49. With the adoption of Christianity, king Ezana of Aksum abandoned the 
symbol of the disc and crescent on his coins, and replaced it with the cross; drawings of 
three gold coin types (d. c. 17mm) of Ezana, the first pre-Christian in date.  
A second Christian gold issue of Ezana is known, in which the weight is indeed reduced 
to around 1.60g, evidently in response to this change in the Roman gold. Constantine's 
institution of the solidus, a pure gold coin weighing 4.54g, meant that the Aksumites 
followed with their `tremissis' of a theoretical weight of 1.70g, basing their coinage 
system, as they did up to this point, on the Roman standard. It is this lighter `tremissis' 
which has so far been found exclusively in South Arabia, while the gold types with the 
name Ezanas have so far been found solely in Ethiopia. Whether this is fortuitous, or 
reflects some real intention to issue a gold coin for South Arabian regions still under 
Aksumite control, is unknown, but it may be significant since Ezana employs the title of 
`king of Saba and Himyar' on his inscriptions. There is no conspicuous debasement for 
Ezanas reign, though the quality of the workmanship begins to decline.  
Ezana did issue a bronze coin in his Christian period, but only one example has been 
found. However, both he and his predecessor Ousanas appear to have issued coins on 
which they abandoned the disc and crescent, replacing it with no other symbol, though in 
one case a gold inlaid disc with four points or rays is used. It has been suggested
plausibly enough, by Bent Juel-Jensen, that this could be a depiction of a shield with 
crossed spears (1986). Could these coins represent the period mentioned by Rufinus (see 
Ch. 10: 2
) when the converter of Ethiopia, Frumentius, was already beginning to bring 
Christians together in Ethiopia, possibly even influencing the king towards Christianity? 
This king, Ella Amida (= Ousanas?), in due course died and left his son under the regency 

of his queen; Frumentius eventually converted Ezana and probably the court as well, but 
it is not clear how quickly this was announced publicly by inscriptions and coins. It is 
possible that, in this period just before and during the conversion of the court and king, 
there was some uncertainty as to the best method of demonstrating the conversion to the 
people through the medium of the coinage, but the disc and crescent, were, as a start, 
suspended on some issues. Eventually, Christian symbolism appeared through the use of 
the cross.  
Illustration 49a. Drawing of a silver coin (d. c. 13mm) of king Ousana(s) with no 
religious symbol.  
4. The Mottoes 
Illustration 50. Two gold- inlaid bronze coins (d. c. 17mm) of king Ouazebas of Aksum, 
bearing the Greek motto TOYTOAPECHTHXWPA, `May this please the people'; the 
coins are gilded around the king's head in the centre.  
Illustration 50a. Drawing of a gold coin (d. c. 18mm) of king Nezool of Aksum, bearing a 
Greek motto reading `By the Grace of God'.  
There emerges at this stage yet another unusual feature of the Aksumite coinage. Large 
numbers of bronze coins were issued, perhaps by Ezana or perhaps by an immediate 
successor, with no royal name, just the word `basileus', king. But on the reverse a 
prominent Greek cross appeared in the centre of the field, surrounded by the motto 
TOYTOAPECHTHXWPA, `May this please the people'. A silver issue with a similar 
reverse design bore a cross with its centre and arms hollowed out and gilded. This is the 

first example of the typical Aksumite numismatic motto (or, in a rather unfortunate 
translation from Kobishchanov (1979), the `demagogic slogan'). The mottoes are a rather 
attractive peculiarity of Aksumite coinage, giving a feeling of royal concern and 
responsibility towards the people's wishes and contentment, but they were also very 
practical; the Christian theme of the first of them shows how the kings exploited this 
useful propaganda instrument to proclaim their new faith throughout the country, or at 
least as far as the coinage itself spread. King Ouazebas, (c. late 4th - early 5th century) 
similarly used this motto, and also introduced the gilded halo on his bronze issue, whilst 
MHDYS employed the Constantinian phrase `By this cross you shall conquer' and had a 
spot of gold placed in the centre of the cross itself.  
Illustration 51. Drawing of a bronze coin (d. c. 16mm) of king Wazena of Aksum; on the 
obverse the king holds a grain stalk and is surrounded by a motto, while on the reverse a 
gold- inlaid cross-crosslet is depicted.  
The employment of these mottoes for political or religious themes continued until the 
collapse of the monetary system. Many fifth-century kings use the phrase `By the grace 
of God', or `Thanks be to God', and later rulers declared `Christ is with us', or asked for 
`Mercy and peace' and the like. Others emphasise certain aspects possibly of political 
importance. Kaleb (6th century) makes a point of the phrase `Son of Tazena' perhaps to 
affirm legitimate succession. Kaleb's emphasis on his paternity might be connected with 
some dynastic disturbance. The coins of Wazena similarly announce, around the royal 
bust, `He who is fitting for the people', which could also be an indication of difficulties in 
the succession. On the other hand the legend could mean `That which is fitting to the 
people', and would be a direct translation into Ge`ez of the old Greek motto still used on 
Kaleb's bronzes; `May this please the people'. Kaleb's silver already employed this motto 
in Ge`ez, but instead of `country' the word hgr or `city' was used, possibly referring to 
Aksum itself as the capital city.  
Illustration 51a. Drawing of a silver coin (d. c. 14mm) of king Kaleb bearing a Ge`ez 
motto which may read either `He who is fitting for the city (country)' or `May this please 
the city (country)'.  

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