The Aksumites first began producing coins around 270 CE, under the rule of king Endubis. Aksum was the first African civilization, not including African cities under the Roman Empire, to produce coins (Pankhurst 26).
The creation of a system of currency is related to the intricate society that had evolved in Aksum. Use of currency made trade more efficient and government taxation and collection of other payments more standard. The rate of trade increased significantly, consequently stimulating Aksum’s economy (Munro-Hay 181).
Aksumite coins were issued in gold, silver, and bronze. King Endubis used Roman weighting standards to issue his coins. The first Aksumite coins used had writing in Greek. This explains why the Aksumites began to use coins; to participate in the highly influenced Greco-Roman trade of the Red Sea.
The first coins of Endubis bore depictions of himself. On both sides of the coin, his head, facing left, is covered with a head cloth with a triangular riband hanging on the back. It usually had Greek writings such as BACIΛΕΥС ΑΞWΜITΜ, read ‘basileus Aksomitō(n)’, meaning king of the Aksumites. In between ‘BACIΛΕΥС’ and ‘ΑΞWΜITΜ’, above the king’s head, there usually was a disc or a crescent symbol. The symbol likely represents the sun or moon god, as it was before the time Aksumites had adopted Christianity. Also on both sides of the coins two ears of wheat or barley surround the head. This could have served the purpose of showing “the king as the provider and source of bounty.” Or it could have been a trend adopted from other foreign coins or it could also have been “a symbol of Aksumite state (Munro-Hay 184-6).”
Aksum was the first civilization anywhere to use the cross of Christ on its coins (Pankhurst 27), even before the Romans. King Ezana (also known as Abreha) was the first to do so around 330 CE (Pankhurst 27). Ezana became king sometime between 320-325 CE and as a child, he and his court, were converted to Christianity by Frumentius (Prouty and Rosenfeld 65). Ezana began to use the coins as propaganda to spread his religion by replacing the crescent symbols with the cross. Later rulers from late 4th and 5th centuries incorporated on the coins phrases such as ‘By the grace of God’ and ‘Christ is with us (Munro-Ray 190-2).’
The Aksumites continued to use the coinage system until about early 7th century (Pankhurst 26). The end to the coinage was around the same time Islamic Persians took over the Red Sea (Munro-Ray 195) and the Aksumite state began to decline.