Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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map, and the enemies or allies and their environment are also sometimes the object of a 
brief description.  
Finally, the results of the campaign are noted. Men, women, and children killed or 
captured, and plunder in the form of animals and goods, are all proudly recorded with 
meticulous figure and word accounting. Any settlements are noted, usually expressed as 
`giving laws' to vassal kings and sending them back to their territories after payment of 
tribute. In some cases the settlement involved retaining land, property and prisoners or 
transporting tribes to new lands by force. Offerings to the gods, or later the construction 
of Christian sanctuaries, are the usual acts of gratitude to the deity after these campaigns. 
Accounts of these form the closing part of the inscriptions. The setting up and 
consecration of the inscription itself, apparently often as part of a throne, manbar — 
Monumentum Adulitanum, DAE 10, DAE 11 (two thrones, one in Shado in Aksum, the 
other at the confluence of the Seda (Blue Nile) and Takaze (Atbara)) — seems to have 
been a customary ceremonial act to mark the victory. The inscriptions often terminate 
with a formula which curses anyone who defaces them. The trilingual inscriptions, 
(actually written in two languages, Greek and Ge`ez, using three scripts, Greek, Ge`ez 
and Epigraphic South Arabian) were designed to present the kings' deeds to the local and 
foreign populace in the best possible light. Two different versions of the Beja campaign 
inscription of Ezana, in both cases `trilingual', were set up in different parts of the capital; 
unless we are missing duplicate copies of other inscriptions as well, this presumably 
indicates that Ezana was particularly proud of his victory over these people, and also 
wanted to emphasise his subsequent treatment of them.  
Kaleb's inscription (see below) in the South Arabian script alludes to events in Himyar. 
Another, Ge`ez, inscription carved in alabaster was found at Marib in the Yemen (Kamil 
1964; Caquot 1965). This latter inscription was fragmentary but was of exceptional 
interest as being only the second Ge`ez inscription ever found there (the first was on an 
alabaster lamp, Grohmann 1911). The inscriptions may mention Kaleb's famous Himyar 
war against king Yusuf, but what details are known about this campaign come from 
outside reports.  
2. The Military Structure 
 
The military establishment was undoubtedly one of the key institutions of the Aksumite 
monarchy, and as such was closely associated with it. The king himself was the 
commander-in-chief, but royal brothers and sons, and perhaps other relatives, were 
frequently put in charge of campaigns when the king was occupied elsewhere. The semi-
sacred character of the monarchy may have been one of the bases of its domination, but 
the control of its military arm by members of the ruling family must also have been a 
source of strength and security. It is possible that the brothers of Ezana who were in 
theoretical charge of the Beja campaign described in the inscription from Geza `Agmai 
(Bernand 1982) and in DAE 4, 6 & 7 (
Ch. 11: 5
) were in fact very  young at the time 
(Munro-Hay 1990), and that experienced military leaders accompanied them. 


Nevertheless, credit for the victory went to the royal brothers under the supreme authority 
of the king.  
There seems to have been at least one remarkable war- leader king (Ezana), though the 
achievements of Gadarat earlier in the third century could hardly have been accomplished 
without some military skill. Kaleb, too, managed to organise a major overseas expedition, 
and to win an initial success even if the results were, in the long run, negative (see 
Ch. 4
).  
The Aksumite army was organised into sarawit (sing. sarwe), groups or `regiments' of 
unknown numerical strength, each with a name (possibly  a provincial district name, or a 
`tribal' name, see 
Ch. 7: 5
), under their own commanders or generals. The generals of 
these groups were referred to in the inscription DAE 9 by the title nagast, the plural of 
negus or king, exactly the same as the word used in the royal title negusa nagast, king of 
kings, in the same inscription. This indicates the importance of their office, and was 
possibly a reminiscence of the former sub-kingdoms now part of Aksum. The troops were 
presumably levied as needed, though there must surely have been some kind of 
`Praetorian Guard' at the capital for ordinary guard duties about the palace, treasury and 
the king's person. In mediaeval times such troops were designated by the name of the part 
of the palace which they guarded. If the troop-names were related to provinces, perhaps 
the local rulers had to send contingents on demand to their overlord in Aksum. Sergew 
Hable Sellassie (1972: 95) suggested that the troop-names referred to function, 
identifying commando, elephant-fighter, and infantry units.  
The inscriptions speak of specific troops being sent on certain missions, and thus have 
preserved several of these Aksumite troop or `regiment' names. It may transpire that these 
names are reflected in the `Bisi' -title of the kings, as one or two have a close resemblance 
to those of individual kings. The `regiment' names known include Hara, Halen, Damawa, 
Sabarat, Hadefan, Sabaha, Dakuen, Laken, Falha, Sera, Metin, Mahaza; they have been 
referred to by different modern authors as detachments, Truppe, armies, corpi di militzia
colonnes, and troupes, all translations from the Ge`ez word sarwe. Unfortunately, as yet 
we do not have the Greek translation of this from any of the inscriptions. From the known 
`Bisi' -titles of Aksumite rulers we can find parallels as follows: Halen for Halen; Hadefan 
for Hadefan; and Dakuen for Dakhu.  
When on campaign, encampments were set up, possibly in some cases in recognised 
military stations or garrisons, or traditional muster-points. Certain provisions were 
requisitioned where necessary from the enemy's country. Others were brought on beasts 
of burden or by human portage. Mention is made of the water-corvée, and the provision 
of water must have been particularly important when the campaigns reached the more 
arid areas. Camels were certainly used in transport, and are sometimes specified among 
the plunder taken.  
There is no hint as to the size of the regiments or the armies, but in various inscriptions 
the dead and captured are noted as follows; DAE 11 — killed 758, prisoners 629; DAE 
10 — killed 705, prisoners 205; Kaleb inscription; killed, more than 400 men (figure lost 
for women and children). Fifty of the captives in DAE 10 were given to Mahrem as an 



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