Mani, the third-century Persian founder of the Manichaean religion, listed the four empire of the world as he knew it: Sileos (China?), Rome, Persia, and Aksum. Based at its capital city of the same name, Aksum had emerged from obscurity (the first mention of Aksum ca be found in Claudius Ptolemy’s work) to empire in barely a century. In the fourth century Aksum’s most famous emperor, Ezana (303-350), would expand the empire’s borders and influence even farther through a series of conquests, made in the name of his new religion: Christianity. Aksum was thus one of the first two nations to convert, after Rome.
THE EMPIRE OF THE RED SEA
The second-century reference to Aksum mentions Adulis, a port on the Red Sea, and the primary source of the kingdom’s wealth. Trough it flowed the goods of Africa, Arabia, and even India, linking these places with the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean and Persia. Yet this coveted commercial role was not without competition: for centuries it had been played by the Sabaeans, a Semitic people whose kingdom of Saba (the Biblical Sheba) operated on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Mani’s assessment of Aksum as a mighty empire corresponds with Aksum’s third-century conquest of Saba, followed in the fourth century by Emperor Ezana’s western conquests of a people called the Noba and the kingdom of Meröe, the successor state of ancient Kush.
To control these distant regions, the Aksumite emperors established tributary kingdoms, collecting tribute and demanding submission from their leaders, and settled their most warlike loyal tribes among the border regions. Such precautions did not always produce the necessary results, however; each new emperor might have to spend some time reestablishing his control over his fractious subjects. Even at the height of Aksum’s power from the fourth through sixth centuries ad, the extent of Aksum’s direct control is debatable: during the interminable wars of South Arabia, the Himyar people conquered Saba in the fifth century and although the Aksum emperors continued to call themselves kings “of Aksum and of Saba and of Himyar,” for some time it was the Himyar who exercised real control over the peninsula, at least until Aksum sent another conquering army in 525.
The army was divided into sarawit. Sarawit were groups. They could have been named after districts or ethnic designation. Each sarawit was under a general called a nagast. The army was called upon when needed. Aksumite army numbers have been noted at its lowest number 3,000 , to 100,000 at its highest, account of Aksumite army size varies.
The capital had a standing army that served guard duties in the palace, treasury, and as the king’s personal body guard.
Aksumite warriors fought with iron spears. They were re-known for being spear throwers. They also fought with round shields. Shields could have been made from buffalo hide. They also did battle with a “broad-blade, flat-ended sword” secured behind the back. Other weapons included poniards or iron knives, “tanged spear-heads.”
Aksumite army made use of pack animals to transport items on the battle field. The donkey was made use of. In desert warfare, Aksum made use of camels. Elephants might have also been used in battle.
Aksum had a fleet of ships that guarded the Red Sea ports. Aksumite ships were put together by rope fibers. It did not use iron nails to bind wood. Ships sailed as far away as India and possibly China.
By the first century c. e., the powerful state of Aksum, centered in the Tigrayan highlands, emerged as the dominant player in the commercial contest, but Aksum acted more as a monitor over a feudal system of trade than as a monolithic state. Aksumite Ethiopians gradually expanded their dominance over the southwestern littoral of the Red Sea, attempting to dominate even the caravan trade to the north. They also established a considerable presence on the Arabian side of the Red Sea. Trade with the Roman Empire was considerable, and with the success of Christianity in that empire, it was only a matter of time before Aksumites also began to embrace the Christian faith in the third and fourth centuries. Tradition maintains that during the fourth century Christianity was more firmly established by the shipwrecked Syrian Frumentius (fl. c. fourth century). Frumentius later became bishop and successfully evangelized much of the Aksumite kingdom, which maintained a largely peaceful domination of Ethiopia and neighboring regions until its displacement from the Arabian coast by Persians in the mid-sixth century. The Aksumite kingdom was further weakened in the seventh and eighth centuries by the spread of Islam throughout Arabia, into North Africa, and along the lowland regions of the Eritrean and Somali coasts. The Aksumite Empire, deprived of its links to the Mediterranean and to lucrative trade, could no longer maintain large armies, nor rely on seabased or caravan trade. In growing isolation from the rest of the world, the Aksumites moved south into the mountainous interior of the Abyssinian highlands, where they dominated Agau-speaking agriculturalists, assimilating much of the local population through intermarriage, cultural transplantation, and religious conversion. Still, Agau-speaking peoples fought back in peripheral areas that the centralized but by now weakened Aksumite state could not control during the tenth and eleventh centuries.
By then, however, less than seventy-five years remained before Persia invaded Arabia, and in the seventh and eighth centuries Aksum’s power vanished for good in the face of the Arabian invasions (previously, the aggression had been the other way around-an Aksumite army attacked Mecca itself in 570). These invaders carried Islam across the whole of Northern Africa and established deep cultural ties there with the Muslim Middle East; but in the former kingdom of Aksum, Christianity-in the Egyptian form called Coptic-retained its followers, and indeed still does.