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The Ash Heap of History

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06/02/2011Peter C. Earle

For over half of a millennium, the lands encompassing present-day Ethiopia and portions of both Sudan and Somalia have been a source of deep and abiding mystery. It is a land steeped in religious and mystical significance, said by some to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the home of one of the biblical magi.1 In addition, many archeologists and explorers have independently uncovered evidence that a complex civilization — the kingdom of the Aksumites (or Auxumites) — once thrived there, but disappeared suddenly.

Much about them remains obscure to this day. Investigative efforts have been undertaken throughout the last century, a recent one culminating in the publication of Dr. Stuart Munro-Hay's comprehensive Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity in 1991. In the foreword of the book, he affirms that a good number of contemporary archeologists knew nothing of the Aksumites, and even many African history books don't have a chapter on them, dedicating at most a few pages to the subject.2

As is so often the case with disremembered segments of human history, it is to mankind's collective detriment that the story of the Aksumite kingdom remains largely unknown. Applying aspects of the Austrian School framework to the facts that Munro-Hay and others have disinterred admits a resounding study of the perils that even brief incursions into statism may carry.

The Aksumite civilization began coalescing approximately 400 years before the birth of Christ, with the aggregation of a number of tribes and clans in present-day Ethiopia. It can first be considered a single society by approximately 100 CE, as a number of other social groups, in particular large portions of the declining Kush and Meroë empires, were absorbed into it.3

The principle asset of the Aksumite civilization was its location straddling the Red Sea, the great aortic byway of global commerce in its time. It also sat at the hub of trade routes bringing numerous raw commodities, finished goods, and luxury items through northern and central Africa. In the middle of the 1st century, the first references to Aksum appear in a shipping tome called The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, noting an expansive list of goods being sold and purchased in the port city of Adulis.4

For nearly half a millennium, the Aksumites facilitated trade in goods from all corners of the then-known world — Africa, the Mediterranean, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Asia — ranging from the mundane (animal skins, iron, salt), to the precious (gold, silver, obsidian, and emeralds), to the exotic (ivory, leather, spices, wild animals). Success in trading brought a high standard of living for the Aksumites; they developed innovations in ceramics and engineering, the latter demonstrated by massive obelisks that festoon the ruins. The high quality of the Aksumite diet also hints at their affluence; remnants of glassware and foodstuff containers that once held wine, beer, and olive oil have been found in the ruins of many habitations.5

As early as 77 CE, in fact, Roman author and magistrate Pliny the Younger referred to the kingdom of Aksum as having a "window on the world" in light of their heavy involvement in global trade.6 The Persian prophet Mani opined in 250 CE that the most important empires in history to date were the Persian, the Roman, the Sileos (China), and that of the Aksumites.7

But in contrast to these other empires, Aksumite prosperity did not rise by device of conquest, territorial strangleholds, or luck; neither did they offer shipping and trading services in the hope that sea and land trading would simply arrive. Their prosperity was built upon two informal but core tenets: noninterventionism and the maintenance of a broadly accepted, market-dictated currency standard. These codes, even beyond their enviable geographic location, proved critical in the ascendancy of the Aksumites, quickly bringing them to prominence as a preferred trading center.

Cultivating and maintaining cooperative trading relationships requires diplomacy, and the Aksumites were evidently expert negotiators and intermediaries. Policy decisions seem to have been made with painstaking care, as evidenced in part by their having never experienced a Persian or Roman punitive expedition, unlike Egypt, their northern neighbor, Arabia to the east, and Meroë to the south.8 Hay-Munro additionally theorizes that to have avoided being drawn into the swirl of intrigues plaguing the fiefdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Aksumite officials had likely "learned to play off the Arabian kingdoms and tribal allegiances against each other."9 Disputes are inevitable, but open conflict with trading partners seems to have been studiously, and successfully, avoided.10 Until the 6th century, in fact, the Aksumite military was only deployed internally or on the borders of its territory, to address unrest or to police trade routes when raiding parties attacked trade caravans.11

Their citizens moved freely; St. Jerome (c. 400 CE) tells of Aksumite subjects traveling to Rome, Syria, and elsewhere in the world as missionaries, pilgrims and trade agents.12 Immigration policies were permissive as well: even as the Aksumite civilization began to adopt Christianity between 300 and 400 CE, the practice of Judaism was permitted, and later on Islamic dissidents from across the Middle East were allowed refuge. The Islamic prophet Muhammad, in fact, is said to have exempted the Aksumite lands from jihad owing to their kindness to his followers.13 The writings of the Nine Saints (late-5th century) additionally describe Christian Romans who were followers of the unpopular Monophysite interpretation of the nature of the Messiah settling peacefully in Aksum.14

A rigid, monolithic centralization of power doesn't seem to have been a goal of the Aksumites. The kingdom was instead composed of a fairly loose union of independent tribes, clans, and territories, with each retaining its local leaders ("district kings") and thus most of its individual culture and customs.15
As archeologist Joseph Michels wrote, the kingdom was essentially a "confederacy" of "petty kings."16

"Their prosperity was built upon two informal but core tenets: noninterventionism and the maintenance of a broadly accepted, market-dictated currency standard."

In their patchwork civilization, specialization flourished as disparate communities contributed a spectrum of expertise and talents ranging from stevedores, customs agents, and maritime technicians in the port city of Adulis; to quarrymen, carvers, engineers, and craftsmen in other urban centers; to the foraging, hunting, and mining skills of self-sufficient tribes on the hinterlands.

Munro-Hay additionally cites, as tangible evidence of their internally peaceful and internationally neutral stance, the discovery that in and around their sprawling urban centers, virtually no fortifications existed — no walls, turrets, or parapets — strongly suggesting little fear of either social unrest or foreign invasion.17

Furthermore, the Aksumites realized that an economy contingent upon the voluntary exchange of disparate goods and services arriving from far-flung locations requires a reliable, broadly accepted currency. This currency must simultaneously provide a medium of exchange, be composed of a universally recognized standard of value, and be small and light enough to allow significant financial transactions without undue bulk. So Aksum became the first civilization in Africa to issue their own coinage: specifically, a coin currency of gold, silver, and bronze denominations.18 This allowed convenience, fungibility, and liquidity to trading clients and counterparties — an obviously appealing practice when dealing with merchants from across four continents. And, again pointing to their mandate of neutrality, Aksumite coins bore inscriptions in both in the Aksumite tongue, Ge'ez, and Greek, the broadly-accepted lingua franca of sailing, trading, and shipping in that era.19

With respect to their regard for property rights, we can only make assumptions. Suggestive, though, is a 1972 discovery by archeologist Francis Anfray: a pot in the capital city of Aksum, which was probably displayed in the entrance to a shop or bazaar. Humorously, it reads: "He who breaks it, pays!"20

Overall, the Aksumite civilization is a counterexample to a host of pseudoscientific, ethnocentric, and sometimes blatantly racist assertions regarding the social history of Africa. They erected a vibrant and complex civilization from a loose assemblage of social groups, forming a peacefully amalgamated, economically robust society. It would, of course, be misrepresentative to characterize them as "libertarian" by any stretch of definition: slavery was as much an unfortunate fixture of the Aksumite world as it was of most societies of their era, and we know that the nobility occasionally sent the military on "tribute-gathering rounds."21 But notably, without citing philosophy or employing explicit rationalizations, the Aksumites were distinct from the other great social agglomerations of their day in their implicit selection of policies and practices emphasizing civilization over state.

Unfortunately, the observation that political "leaders" only lead assaults upon liberty and prosperity was no less true in ancient Aksum than it is today. Whether to combat piracy in the Red Sea or to access one of the few trades they did not participate in — incense, travelling through the northern portion of the Arabian Peninsula to Rome — starting in the mid-4th century, passive attempts were made to influence South Arabian political affairs. And in 520 CE, the Aksumite king Kaleb broke with centuries of tradition to pursue a course of action that would forever seal the kingdom's fate.

Upon receiving reports that across the Red Sea, the Jewish king Yusuf Asar was persecuting Christians, the Kingdom of Aksum launched a military invasion of Asar's territory in South Arabia. Asar's forces were defeated and an Aksumite client government installed under a viceroy, Sumfaya Ashwa.22 But, as these things often go, within half a decade the puppet Ashwa was overthrown by Aksumite troops who had remained garrisoned in South Arabia after the initial invasion, raising Abreha, a Persian-leaning figure, to the throne. This triggered a second Aksumite invasion: this force defected and pledged loyalty to Abreha. Infuriated, Kaleb sent a third invasion force, which was summarily decimated. It was, in all, a disastrous affair accompanied by "over-expenditure in money and man-power, and a loss of prestige."23

Archeological evidence reveals that the quality of the Aksumite coins — both in terms of their metal content and sharpness of production — declined markedly during this period.24 It's a clear sign that in addition to having abandoned centuries of largely nonpartisan policies, the Aksumites had also, in the process, reneged on their commitment to a sound currency in favor of inflationary war finance.25

Munro-Hay's hypothesis that the "constant decline of the gold content [in Aksumite coinage] … must have eventually been a severe blow to [Aksumite] credibility" is borne out by evidence of a steep decline in trade: in the decades following Kaleb's series of ill-fated aggressions, references to Aksum in shipping logs and manifests of former trading partners become fewer and further between.26

The last mintings of degenerate Aksumite coins are not only debased of content but suggest increasing domestic unrest, bearing "demagogic" and "militar[istic]" legends on them, some so hastily stamped as to contain misspellings.27 Other late Aksumite coins resemble the coins of Byzantium, which this author theorizes was an attempt to siphon credibility from a less abased currency. Aksumite coins appear to have disappeared entirely between 615 and 630 CE.

Not only was the military expedition in South Arabia costly in terms of reputation and economics, it likely hastened the end of the Aksumite dominance over trade in the Red Sea. Persian forces swept into the formerly disputed South Arabian territories in 575 CE, which brought a hostile empire to the Aksumite doorstep and became the staging ground for the Persian conquest of Egypt in 619 CE.28

The waning days of the once mighty, globally influential Aksumites were at least chaotic, and probably violent: scattered entries on walls and columns read like the broken radio squawking of a military camp under siege, illuminating scenes of rolling combat, declining fortunes and abandonment. In one, a mysterious chronicle of an apparently high-ranking military officer named Danael reports that the Aksumite king has been subdued; another inscription reports that in about 630 CE, amid food-supply deficiencies and environmental difficulties, the formerly comfortable residents of some urban areas were reduced to barter.29 Elsewhere we ascertain that the capital of Aksum was abandoned and the bulk of the population moved to the west, into the harsher, less economically viable highlands, signifying the final, definitive abandonment of the center of the once lucrative, globally influential trading and shipping empire.30 Finally, apocryphal reports tell of a campaign of genocide and cultural extermination waged by a tenebrous (and perhaps only mythological) figure, Gudit, against what was left of Aksum in the 10th or 11th century.31

As Munro-Hay wrote, Kaleb's military intervention turned out to be "Aksum's swan-song as a great power in the region."32 With a single fateful decision, wheels were set in motion that led to the destruction of a thriving civilization. Aksum was destroyed and so thoroughly forgotten that today even many experts have not heard of it. A few centuries after Kaleb's forces landed on the shores of modern-day Yemen, only mere attestations of the Aksumites remained.33 Intrepid wayfarers, from 16th century missionary-explorer Fr. Francisco Alvares to the late Dr. Munro-Hay, have been forced to piece together scattered clues and formulate theories.

Perhaps the most telling comment comes in 1776 — over a millennium after Kaleb's belligerence — in Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "encompassed on all sides … the Æthiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten."34

Our world bears little resemblance to that of the Aksumites, but human social orders are no less frail today, and with every decision that carries us closer to statism and away from civilization, we tempt a similar fate.35 Echoes of other choices made by other peoples are all around us: an Ottoman, today, is only a piece of furniture, and fragments of the once-impregnable Berlin Wall are being sold as paperweights.

In small staccato steps and great bounding leaps, governments propel our cultures toward the concluding mists of extinction. In our own country, after a century of ceaseless warfare and welfarism, the once-periodic arrival of social, political and economic "hard times" is becoming ominously persistent, looking suspiciously like the pall cast by the lengthening shadows of our errors: international conflict and social decay, amid withering inflation and stagnating growth. Will we, too, join the Aksumites — and so many others — atop the ash heap of history?

  • 1. The Ethiopian-Sudanese borderlands were, and remain to this day, one of the primary global sources of frankincense.
  • 2. Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (London: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), pp. 1–2.
  • 3. Ibid, p. 13.
  • 4. Ibid, p. 21.
  • 5. Ibid, p. 142.
  • 6. Ibid, p.21.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid, p. 10.
  • 9. Ibid, p. 65.
  • 10. Ibid, p. 53.
  • 11. Ibid, p. 12.
  • 12. Ibid, p. 20.
  • 13. Ibid, p. 52.
  • 14. Ibid, p. 175.
  • 15. Ibid, p. 39.
  • 16. Ibid, p. 40.
  • 17. Roberto Paribeni, Richerche Nel Luogo Dell'Antica Adulis (Milan: Reale Accademia dei Lincei, 1907), p. 444.
  • 18. Robert Friedberg, Gold Coins of the World, Fifth Edition (New York: The Coin and Currency Institute, 1976), pp. 93–4.
  • 19. Ibid, p. 154.
  • 20. Ibid, p. 209.
  • 21. Ibid, p. 72. Interestingly, although some evidence of tolls has been discovered on the various trade routes, to this point no information has been uncovered suggesting that a system of taxation was in place.
  • 22. Ibid, p. 81.
  • 23. Ibid, p. 82.
  • 24. So deeply committed were the Aksumites to a reliable, per-coin standard metal content — before the South Arabian invasion — that at times coins have been discovered which are actually above the stipulated weight.
  • 25. Ibid, p. 219.
  • 26. Ibid, p. 158.
  • 27. Ibid, p. 207.
  • 28. Ibid, p. 62.
  • 29. Ibid, p. 88.
  • 30. Ibid, p. 14. The location of the subsequent Aksumite capital is still somewhat in dispute; there were perhaps several. Some archeologists have theorized that environmental difficulties also affected the declining kingdom.
  • 31. Ibid, p. 19.
  • 32. Ibid, p. 82.
  • 33. Whether out of shame, guilt, or perhaps simply feeling that he had done his Christian duty, Kaleb retired to a monastery after his reign ended. He was canonized St. Elesbaan, King of Ethiopia in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and his holiday falls on October 24th.
  • 34. Edward Gibbons, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 4 (London: Lackington, Alley & Co., 1777), p. 530.
  • 35. The disparate tribes and clans composing the former Aksumite social matrix arguably regained civilization after this episode. As Munro-Hay writes: "The kingdom, though almost always regarded by Arab writers during this period as a powerful and extensive state … lost the use of the coast, and areas formerly under a tribute relationship … became completely independent" (p. 88)

Contact Peter C. Earle

Pete Earle is an economist at the American Institute for Economic Research and a longtime financial markets professional. He has spent nearly two decades trading in and studying global equity, derivative, commodity, and currency markets, and regularly engages in consulting with trading, cryptocurrency, and online/mobile gaming firms. Pete has published numerous articles on economic history, spontaneous order, and liberty, including A Century of Anarchy: Neutral Moresnet through the Revisionist Lens, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He is also editor of Coronavirus and Economic Crisis. He resides in the Greater New York area.