The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 27th March 2007

An Introduction to Axumite Coinage

Given by - Vincent West

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


Julian Kay, our esteemed Vice-President, has long held that if there is anything you want to know about Ethiopia, one or another of our members can be found to tell it to you — so great is the cumulative body of knowledge of Ethiopia within the membership of our Society.

If you want to know about Axumite coinage, then Society member Vincent West is your man. Through the coinage, Vincent was able to tell us a great deal about an important period of Ethiopian history for which other sources are few and far between. This is the period of the Axumite empire between AD 300 and 600.

This empire, our speaker told us, covered much more than the modern day city of Axum. The Axumite empire comprised Sudan, northern Ethiopia and Eritrea (with its major port of Adulis on the Red Sea just south of Massawa), as well as Saba (Sheba) across the Red Sea in south Arabia.

These may be the contours of the Axumite empire, but its influence spread far beyond. How do we know? Axumite coins, we were told, have been found in India. This contact was obviously reciprocal as 103 Indian gold coins have apparently been found in 1940 at Debre Damo.

Gold coin of pre-Christian king Ousanas (about AD 320) diameter 17 mm.
Gold coin of king Ezanas after conversion to Christianity (mid 4th century AD) diameter 15 mm.

Both coins were found in India and, like most Aksumite coins found there, are pierced.
Photos - © Vincent West

There are nearly twenty kings for whom Axumite coinage is the only source for our knowledge of their existence. Fame, even the fame of kings, is fleeting and ephemeral.

The most famous Axumite king is Ezanas (reigned c330 – c356). He, at least, is attested beyond his head’s appearance on an Axumite coin. It was Ezanas who led Ethiopia into Christianity after conversion by the shipwrecked Syrian Frumentius. It was Ezana’s father, Ousanas, and his predecessors who raised the stelae and built the tombs at Axum.

Axumite coins are the size of 1p and 5p pieces – i.e. not very large. In the field of numismatics however, they are, we were told, unique: on some silver and copper coins, there is an inlay of gold. This, our speaker said, would have to have been effected by hand on each coin individually. Only three contemporary ancient civilisations, besides Axum, are known to have produced a coinage in the three metals, copper, silver and gold: Roman, Persian and Indian. There are, so far discovered, 150 varieties of coins from the Axumite period. Metal to produce them was available locally. The coins were struck by hammer. The first dies must have been prepared, Vincent West said, by foreign craftsmen.

Inscriptions on Axumite coinage are in Greek and Ge’ez.

Axumite coinage has developed its own scholarship, two major contributors to which, besides Vincent West himself, were Society members Bent Juel-Jensen and Stuart Munro-Hay who both died recently. Juel-Jensen has bequeathed his collection of 500 Axumite coins, including 100 gold ones, to the Ashmoleum Museum in Oxford.

Talking of Oxford, readers who consult Vincent West’s website (www.vincentwest.org.uk) will quickly see that his knowledge extends well beyond Axum into Nabatean coinage, cuneiform tablets and …… 19th century postage stamps issued by Oxford and Cambridge colleges!

It is obvious that our members know a thing or two about more than just Ethiopia!

His talk certainly illustrated how the study of coinage is a useful tool for historical analysis. The coinage trail also throws unexpected light on inter-cultural contact. We thank Vincent West very much.

First Published in News File Summer 2007

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
Information is offered in good faith but the Society does not warrant the status or reliability of the information contained.

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