Ezana Expands Aksum, Later Converts to Christianity Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under Ezana’s leadership, Aksum became a major power in the ancient world, developing international commercial routes and firmly establishing Christianity in the Ethiopian area.

Summary of Event

When Ezana (also known as Ēzānā, Ezanas, Aezana) ruled Aksum, the state was considered to be one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. The kingdom was named after the city of Aksum, its ceremonial and secular capital. Because Aksumite kings’ titles listed many of the regions they ruled, it is known that Ezana controlled or had political bases in an enormous territory that included most of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. His titles and the circulation of his coins indicate an Aksumite foothold across the Red Sea in South Arabia. His titular claim to be “king of Kasa” (Kush) suggests suzerainty over the Upper Nile River Valley. Ezana Frumentius, Saint

Historical information on Ezana’s reign, although incomplete, has been gleaned from studies of coins, references from ancient classical and Christian literature, modern archaeology, and inscriptions. Ezana most likely assumed power sometime in the 320’s c.e. A letter addressed to him by Roman emperor Constantius II shows that he was still on the throne c. 350. According to inscriptions, he was the son of Ella Amida (Ella Allada), who was probably his royal predecessor. Based on early Christian writing, it is believed that Ezana succeeded to the kingship as a child and was guided in his minority by his mother, the queen regent. Although it has been suggested that Ezana shared his throne with his brother, contemporary inscriptions on coinage indicate a single ruler. No portraits or personal descriptions of Ezana have been uncovered.

Fourth century c.e. Aksum was a prosperous and sophisticated civilization, noted for its stone buildings and monuments. It had its own language and system of writing. Official inscriptions appeared in two languages and three scripts: Ge’ez (old Ethiopic), written both in its own cursive and South Arabian script, and Greek, the common language of the Hellenized world. The kingdom issued its own coinage. At this time, Aksum occupied an important position in international commerce that incorporated overland trails and Red Sea routes to link the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, sub-Saharan Africa, and kingdoms across the Red Sea. Through its major port city of Adulis, the Aksumite kingdom diverted commerce from Meroë and supplanted its western neighbor as the main exporter of African goods such as ivory, animal skins, ebony, gold, tortoise shell, incense, and spices. Imports included pottery, glassware, textiles, silver and gold vessels, iron, and brass.

Achievements of the period—especially military capability, the issuance of coinage, and monumental construction—indicate a consolidation of power rather than a loose political configuration. Ezana’s additional title “king of kings” suggests a quasi-federal system of government with the Aksumite monarch ruling over a number of vassal states. Aksum’s kings oversaw military operations aimed at pacification, subjugation, and payment of tribute. Descriptions of these royal campaigns were inscribed on stone slabs, which were displayed on the sides of public commemorative thrones or mounted beside major roadways.

Such inscriptions indicate that in the early years of his reign, Ezana undertook a series of military campaigns to reestablish control that perhaps had been challenged during his minority. According to these texts, he suppressed separatist groups one by one. He defeated and relocated the nomadic Beja people. He led a punitive expedition against the Afan who had raided and destroyed an Aksumite trading caravan. The inscriptions generally followed a formula listing the king’s credentials, justifications for war, Aksum’s diplomatic endeavors to avoid hostilities, details of the war itself, results of the conflict, a credit to the deities, and finally, a warning about vandalism. Although they sometimes mention groups and locations that can no longer be identified, these descriptions of campaigns and spoils provide important glimpses into fourth century c.e. Aksumite culture.

After consolidating his power in the Ethiopian highlands and subjugating neighboring desert cultures, Ezana launched a large-scale expedition against the territories of the Meroitic Empire (Kush) c. 350 c.e. In the second and third centuries, Aksum’s westward expansion led to conflicts between these two African rivals. The discovery of fragments from two earlier Aksumite victory inscriptions at the city of Meroë and references to Ezana as “king of Kasu” (Kush) suggest that Aksum had already established suzerainty over its western neighbor sufficient to justify a campaign to maintain authority. The Upper Nile Valley’s fertile lands, wealth, and trade routes into the African interior made it a valuable asset. According to Ezana’s lengthy victory inscription, the Noba had insulted his ambassadors and refused to submit to Aksumite authority. Although this campaign has been cited as the coup de grâce to the Meroitic Empire, it is noteworthy that the inscription made no actual mention of the kingdom or its rulers. The enemy was described as the Noba. This indicates that Meroë already had been overtaken by this nomadic group and was in decline.

A recent theory suggests that the Ethiopian highlands, rather than the Nile Valley, was the theater of operations against the Noba; it is generally held, however, that Ezana’s armies defeated the Noba in former Meroitic territory along the Nile. Although people and place-names are not clearly identifiable, it is believed that after a battle at the confluence of the Nile and Atbara Rivers, Aksumite troops went upstream, where they destroyed the trading cities of Alva and Daro. As some of the remaining Kushites had attempted to block Aksum’s advancing forces, Ezana’s troops moved downstream to remnant Meroitic territories in central Nubia. The resulting devastation was vividly described: Leaders were killed, and temples and buildings were destroyed.

Of more lasting importance than his territorial expansion was Ezana’s conversion to Christianity, c. 333 c.e. Saint Frumentius, a Syrian Christian who rose to a position of influence in the Aksumite court, was involved with the conversion of the local populace and laid the foundation of the region’s Christian community. It is likely that Frumentius converted Ezana, but it remains unclear how quickly this was publicly proclaimed. Roman historian Tyrranius Rufinus recounted that Frumentius visited the Alexandrian patriarch Athanasius in the 330’s and was appointed Aksum’s first bishop. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria later described the Roman emperor Constantius II’s unsuccessful attempt c. 356 to enlist Ezana’s support against Frumentius in an ecclesiastical dispute. It seems the emperor’s request was ignored, as Frumentius is still revered as the founder of the Ethiopian church.

Ezana’s conversion to Christianity was indicated by changes in his inscriptions and coinage. Halfway through his reign, the crescent-and-disc symbol of earlier Aksumite religion was replaced by the Christian cross. Whereas early inscriptions were dedicated to traditional gods, with Ezana identified as the son of Mahrem (counterpart to the Greek Ares, god of war), the inscription celebrating victory over the Noba denoted a shift in religious ideas. This monotheistic invocation to the “lord of all,” and the “lord of the heavens” suggests that Ezana was by then indebted to a single god and appeared as that god’s deputy on earth. As the role of deputy to a single, all-powerful god added significance to the monarch’s status, the introduction of monotheism possibly strengthened Ezana’s political position. Although many have stressed that this inscription is monotheistic but not unambiguously Christian, it is important to note that the Greek and South Arabian scripts describing Ezana’s victory make specific references to Christ.

Significance

Although Aksum was one of the most powerful empires of its time, its greatness and cultural richness have not been fully considered in accounts of Africa or the ancient world. Aksum was certainly connected to the decline of the Meroitic Empire. The Aksumite kingdom took control of the Red Sea trade and supplanted its western neighbor as the main supplier of African goods. Ezana’s campaign has been cited as the official end of the Meroitic Empire as an independent political entity, but Aksum’s role in regional commerce had already pushed the Upper Nile Valley into economic decline.

Regardless of Ezana’s personal commitment to his new religion, his conversion to Christianity had significant political and cultural implications. It forged links with Christianized Rome, Egypt, and the Byzantine world that were key components of Aksum’s commercial prosperity. It also weakened Aksumite links with South Arabia. From the time of Ezana and Frumentius, Christian ideas were tightly woven into the fabric of this area’s culture. The city of Aksum came to be venerated as the religious center of Ethiopia, the oldest Christian state in Africa.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burnstein, Stanley, ed. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener, 1998. A compilation of primary sources including geographic and ethnographic texts, secular and church histories, inscriptions, and commercial documents. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Surveys the history of Ethiopia from prehistory to the present. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munro-Hay, S. C. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. A good overall history of Aksum. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munro-Hay, S. C., and B. Juel-Jensen. Aksumite Coinage. London: Spink, 1995. Shows how the study of coins reveals historical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David W. Ancient Ethiopia: Aksum—Its Antecedents and Successors. London: British Museum Press, 1998. Applies recent research to develop understanding of ancient Ethiopia. Notes, bibliography, and index.
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