Kingdom of Aksum

Peace to the People

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 23

The second and third centuries of the modern era saw the rapid rise of a new African power: Aksum.

The city of Aksum, and the kingdom of the same name, is thought to have started off as a small regally-controlled territory that, over time, developed into the capital of this great empire.

From the close of the second century up to the beginning of the fourth, Aksum took part in military and diplomatic excursions to establish its power over neighbouring states. This approach served as the basis on which the Aksumites built an empire that extended over the rich cultivated lands of northern Ethiopia, Sudan and southern Arabia.

The empire was divided into Aksum proper and its vassal kingdoms, i.e. subordinate states with a mutual obligation to the greater Aksum empire. The rulers of these vassal states were recognised as subjects of the Aksum ‘king of kings’ and, as such, had to pay formal tributes.

The histories contain little information on the administrative system of the Aksum Empire. Still, it appears that tributes were collected with either the vassal rulers sending a yearly tribute to Aksum, or the king of Aksum, accompanied with a retinue of attendants, travelling around his domains gathering tributes along the way.

It also appears that close relatives of the king assumed an essential role in stately affairs. In one instance, the Roman emperor Constantine II addressed his letter not only to contemporary Aksum monarch King Ezana but also to Saizana, his brother.

Our limited knowledge of Aksumite civilization comes from various sources, such as authors of antiquity, from whom’s writing we know that Aksum enjoyed a great reputation in the third century. According to contemporary text attributed to Persian writer Mani, Aksum was viewed as one of the four greatest empires of the world.

However, despite a number of literary sources, archaeological observations are undoubtedly a key source. Many archaeological materials have been discovered, which has given us greater insight into ancient Aksumite culture.

One important archaeological discovery is that of ancient coinage. Several thousand Aksumite coins have been found. The significance of these coins are twofold:

First, the evidence of the minting of their own gold, silver and copper coinage highlights the Aksum kingdom’s position in world commerce as a first-rate trading power. These coins, especially the gold ones, showcase the status of Aksum as an independent and prosperous empire.

Second, these coins provide a rich history of the Aksum rulership. A score of kings are recognised to have succeeded one another on the Aksum throne. It is through Aksumite coins alone that the names of at least eighteen kings of Aksum are known.

These coins depict the kings, often showing the head and shoulders, sometimes with and sometimes without a crown. The coins also have text generally written in Ethiopic with messages such as: ‘By the grace of God’, ‘Health and happiness to the people’ or ‘Peace to the people’.

It is hoped that further archaeological excavations will reveal even more about life within the Aksum Empire.