Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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fourth century AD the Aksumite king Ezana, in his long list of titles in a bilingual 
inscription (see 
Ch. 11: 4
), uses the word `Ethiopia' in the Greek version as the translation 
for `Habashat'. The original use of the Greek designation `Ethiopia' was either as a 
general designation for the black peoples south of the Egyp tian border (as the Arabs later 
used `al-Habasha' or its plural `Ahabish' for groups like the Zanj, Beja, and Nubians as 
well as the Abyssinians; Tolmacheva 1986), or more specifically as a reference to the 
kingdom of Kush or Kasu, with its capital at Meroë on the Sudanese Nile. But after the 
eclipse of this state, the kings of both Aksum and Nubia (Munro-Hay 1982-3) used the 
name `Ethiopia' to refer to their own countries and peoples. Thus the mentions of Kush in 
the Bible have been attributed to Aksumite `Ethiopia', instead of Meroitic/Kushite 
Ethiopia, by those Christian interpreters determined to bestow a long and prominent 
tradition, beginning with Kush, grandson of Noah, on their country.  
By the fourth century AD Aksumite pilgrims began to appear in Jerusalem, and St. 
Jerome noted their presence (Cerulli 1943: I, 1). A few fourth-century Aksumite coins 
have been found there and in Caesarea (Barkay 1981; Meshorer 1965-6). Later the 
Ethiopians had a religious house at Jerusalem (Meinardus 1965) which helped to spread 
the growing interest in Ethiopia in subsequent centuries, and also played its part in 
disseminating the legendary history of Ethiopia in the west.  
The Ethiopian traditional king- lists and chronicles are important in that, late as they are in 
their present form, they show how vital the legends concerning Aksum have been to the 
Ethiopians throughout their history. They are unquestionably erroneous, since there are 
widely differing versions both of the king- lists and the lists of metropolitan bishops of 
Aksum starting with Frumentius. They also fail to name those kings and bishops who are 
known from inscriptions, coins, and other sources except in a very few cases. Although it 
has been suggested that, in the case of the kings, this could be in part due to the Ethiopian 
rulers' custom of employing several names (as, for example, a personal name, a throne 
name, a `tribal' name and so on; see 
Ch. 7: 5
), the differences in the lists are not to be so 
simply explained. Nevertheless, the compilation of the lists, the collection of anecdotes 
and chronicles, and the attempts to root Ethiopian tradition in the remote past connected 
with eminent persons, places and events, clearly indicates the importance of the country's 
past history to mediaeval and even to more modern Ethiopians. Such texts remain a 
testimony, whether their contents be partly legendary or not, to the efforts of Ethiopian 
scholars over the centuries to understand and interpret their own history.  
  
2. Aksum in Ancient Sources 
 
Some details about the political and military history of Aksum have been preserved in 
ancient documentary sources, some Aksumite and some foreign. A number of Greek and 
Roman geographers and scholars noted small snippets of information about contemporary 
Aksum, and certain travellers, merchants, ecclesiastics and ambassadors added various 


facts about the country in their writings. None of them seems to have acquired any really 
substantial knowledge about the kingdom — certainly no-one appears to have left us 
more than the briefest accounts — but at least we are afforded some slight glimpses from 
time to time.  
The Roman writer Gaius Plinius Secundus — Pliny the Younger — whose notes on 
Ethiopia in his Naturalis Historia were probably completed in their present form in 
AD77 (Rackham 1948: 467-9), mentions only Aksum's `window on the world', the Red 
Sea port of Adulis, through which the kingdom's international trade passed. Another 
document, called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, notes the `city of the people called 
Auxumites' (Schoff 1912: 23) or `the metropolis called the Axomite' (Huntingford 1980: 
20), or `the metropolis itself, which is called Axômitês' (Casson 1989: 53), and gives 
details of the trade goods imported and exported. This anonymous report, which modern 
scholars view as either an official report, or a merchants' and sailors' guide to the known 
Red Sea and Indian Ocean ports, dating perhaps somewhere between the mid- first and the 
early second century AD, also describes the ruler of this region. This monarch, almost 
certainly the Aksumite king himself (but see Cerulli 1960: 7, 11; Huntingford 1980: 60, 
149-50; Chittick 1981: 186; Casson 1989: 109-10), was called Zoskales; he is represented 
as a miserly man, but of good character, who had some acquaintance with Greek 
literature. The famous Greek astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolomaeus — 
Ptolemy — of Alexandria, describes Aksum in the middle of the second century AD as 
the seat of the king's palace (Stevenson 1932: 108); and the existence of a prospering 
trading centre at Aksum at about this time is confirmed by the latest archaeological 
investigations (Munro-Hay 1989).  
The Persian religious leader Mani, founder of the Manichaean religion, who died in 276 
or 277AD, is reported by his followers to have described the four most important 
kingdoms of the world as comprising Persia, Rome, Aksum and Sileos, the latter possibly 
China (Polotsky 1940: 188-9). This remark shows that Aksum's repute was spreading in 
the contemporary world. It was about this time that the Aksumites produced their own 
coinage, an excellent way of bringing their country into prominence abroad, since only 
the greatest of contemporary states issued a gold coinage.  
Around 356AD, the Roman emperor Constantius II wrote a letter to Ezana, king of 
Aksum, and his brother Sazana, on an ecclesiastical matter. The letter has been preserved 
in the Apologia ad Constantium Imperatorem of the famous Alexandrian patriarch 
Athanasius (Szymusiak 1958). Aksum is also mentioned in the account (Philostorgius; 
ed. Migne 1864: 482ff.) of the travels of an Arian bishop, Theophilus `the Indian', who 
was sent by Constantius to try to convert the Arabian kingdoms; he later seems to have 
visited Aksum. It has been suggested that possibly it was he who carried the letter from 
Constantius to the Aksumite rulers, but Schneider (1984: 156) points out that according 
to Philostorgius Theophilus returned from his mission not long after 344AD. The 
ecclesiastical historian Rufinus (ed. Migne 1849: 478-9), writing at the end of the fourth 
century, gives an account of the conversion of the country, apparently taken directly from 
bishop Frumentius of Aksum's erstwhile companion, Aedesius of Tyre.  



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