Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Axumite perspectives: Inscription by the king of Axum on the Ethiopian and Arabian peoples he conquered (late-second or early-third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=15458.
Ancient authors: King of Axum or Axoum (perhaps king Gadara), OGIS 199 = Bernand, Recueil des inscriptions de l’Ethiopie 277 (link to Greek, with scholia), as copied at Adoulis / Adulis (about 40 km south of modern Massawa) near the Red Sea by the anonymous author (ca. 520s CE) known as Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography 2.60-63 (link).
Comments: Most ancient perspectives on “Ethiopians” come to us from Greek or Roman outsiders who took notice of the darker-skin (the term literally means “burnt-faced”) of those south and east of Egypt. We seldom have a somewhat internal picture of the diversity of peoples inhabiting eastern Africa, including areas that are now known as Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. However, a fascinating inscription in Greek by a ruler of the kingdom of Axum (centred on what is now Aksum in northern Ethiopia, near the border with Eritrea) does provide a brief internal glimpse at a variety of groups (ca. 200 CE〉. So although a king is involved and Greek language is used, in certain ways this is a non-dominant (in the sense of non-Greek) perspective on local peoples. The inhabitants of Axum itself would likewise often be obscured by Greek outsiders under the rubric of “Ethiopians;” nonetheless, here we have an Axumite perspective, so to speak.
This inscription was copied at Adoulis (port city of Axum, near the Red Sea, now the Gulf of Zula in Eritrea) by an anonymous Christian merchant from Alexandria (on behalf of a later king of Axum) in the 520s CE and later compiled within that merchant’s work called a Christian Topography. This throne-shaped monument is sometimes known (pretentiously) as the “Monumentum Adulitanum,” in other words, the Adoulis monument.
The text of the inscription itself, which likely dates to the late-second or early-third century CE (see Bowersock), details the conquests of the king of Axum to the south, north and east of his own kingdom. In the process many specific peoples are named with some details about where they were located or what terrain they lived in (e.g. mountains or plains).
The king’s conquests went north along the western coast of the Red Sea and west towards the edges of Egypt (with a road for trade established), southeast into “Barbaria” (the incense-producing area now known as Somalia), and to the northeast as far as Arabia Felix on the other side of the Red Sea, in what is now Yemen. All of this would benefit trade of incense and other goods for the kingdom, of course. The Kushite or Nubian kingdom centred on Meroe at this time is never expressly mentioned (beyond the reference to “Ethiopia” as a territory). But that kingdom was likely a key adversary to avoid during these conquests, and the conquests seem to work around that kingdom centred on Meroe (see Bowersock). Identifications of the geographical regions where these peoples were likely located was aided by both Kirwan’s and Bowersock’s studies (see below).
Works consulted: E. Bernand, Recueil des inscriptions de l’Ethiopie des périodes pré-Axoumite et Axoumite, 3 vols (Paris: de Boccard, 1991), 44-62, no. 277 (link); G. W. Bowersock, Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford: OUP, 2013) (link); L. P. Kirwan, “The Christian Topography and the Kingdom of Axum,” The Geographical Journal 138 (1972): 166–77 (link); W. Wolska-Conus, Cosmas Indiopleustes: Topographie chrétienne, vol. 1 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1968) (link).
Source of the translation: J.W. McCrindle, The Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk (London: Hakluyt Society, 1897), public domain, adapted by Harland in consultation with the Greek text in Wolska-Conus.
[Introduction with missing name of the king (possibly Gadara) of Axum (most likely)]
. . . after I grew to be a man and forced the peoples (ethnē) bordering on my kingdom to live in peace, I made war upon the following peoples, and by force of arms reduced them to subjection. First I fought with the Gaze people [Agazi], then with Agame [both immediately north of the Axum kingdom] and Sigyene. After conquering them, I exacted a payment of half of everything they possessed.
[Peoples south of Axum]
Next I crossed the river to attack and subjugate the peoples of Aua [south of Axum], Zingabene, Aggabe, Tiamaa, Athagaoi, Kalaa, and Samene [Simen mountains southwest of Axum], people who lived beyond the Nile on mountains that are difficult to access and covered with snow, where the year is all winter with hailstorms, frosts and knee-deep snow.
[Peoples north of Axum, whose territories allow a trade route from Egypt to the Red Sea]
I next subdued Lasine, Zaa and Gabala [heading north], those inhabiting mountains with steep slopes abounding with hot springs. I subjugated the Atalmo and Bega [perhaps the same people known by Greeks as the Blemmyes or Blemmyians, south of the Red Sea port of Berenike]. And I subjugated all the peoples of the Tangaitians [subset of the Bega] in the same region along with them, adjoining the boundaries of Egypt. After subjugating them, I made a road giving access by land into Egypt from that part of my kingdom.
[Peoples further southeast (?) of Axum]
Next I subjugated Annene and Metine [all now unknown locations], those inhabiting precipitous mountains. My arms were next directed against the Sesea people. They had ascended to a high mountain that was difficult to access [perhaps southeast of the Simen mountains in what is now Somalia]. However, I blockaded the mountain on every side and forced them to come down and surrender. I then selected for myself the best of their young men and their women, with their sons and daughters and everything else they possessed. I next brought to submission the peoples of the Rhauso who live among incense-gathering Barbarians [i.e. inhabitants of a region called “Barbaria” in this case, as described in the anonymous Periplous of the Erythraian Sea] spread over wide waterless plains in the interior [likely overlapping with modern Somalia and Djibouti]. I encountered the Solate people, whom I subdued and left with instructions to guard the coast.
(62) I conquered all these peoples even though they were protected by mountains that were very close to unreachable, and I was present at battles myself. After their submission, I restored their territories to them, subject to the payment of tribute. Many other peoples besides these submitted of their own accord, and likewise paid tribute.
[Peoples in Arabia across the Red Sea]
And I sent a fleet and land forces against the Arabitians (Arabitai) and Kinaidokolpitians (Kinaidokolpitai) [in Arabia Felix, likely modern Yemen; cf. Ptolemy, Geography] who live on the other side of the Erythraian sea [i.e. in this case the modern Red Sea proper]. After subjugating the rulers of both, I imposed on them a land tribute and charged them to make travelling safe both by sea and by land. In this way, I subdued the whole coast from Leuke Kome (literally: “White Village”) to the country of the Sabaians [in southern Arabia].
(63) I was the first and only of the kings who came before me to subjugate all of these peoples (ethnē). For this success I now offer this as my thanks to my mighty God, Ares [Greek interpretation of the Axumite god Maher or Maḥrem], who begat me, and by whose aid I subjugated all the peoples bordering on my own country: on the East to the incense-gatherers [i.e. Barbaria, now modern Somalia and Djibouti] and on the West to Ethiopia [i.e. the Kushite or Nubian kingdom centred on Meroe may be in mind] and Sasu. Of these expeditions, some were conducted by myself in person and ended in victory. Other expeditions I entrusted to my officers. Having brought peace to all the world under my authority, I came down to Adoulis and offered sacrifice to Zeus, to Ares, and to Poseidon, whom I appealed to in order to befriend everyone who goes down to the sea in ships. Here also I reunited all my forces, and setting down this throne [i.e. the monument itself is in the shape of a throne] in this place, I consecrated it to Ares in the twenty-seventh year of my reign.