Aphilas, circa 310-325.
Chrysos (Gold, 18 mm, 2.81 g, 12 h). ΑΦΙΛΑC - ΒΑCΙΛЄΥC Draped bust of Aphilas to right, wearing tiara and circular earring, holding spear in his right hand; to left and right, ears of barley; above, pellet in crescent; all within decorated border. Rev.
ΑξⲰΜΙΤⲰΝ - ΒΙCΙ ΔΙΜΗΛΗ Draped half-length bust of Aphilas to right, wearing long garment, tight-fitting head cloth and circular earring, holding branch in his right hand; to left and right, ears of barley; above, pellet in crescent. Hahn, Aksumite, 4 (this coin cited
). Hahn & Keck, MAKS, 4, a
and p. 172, 4 = Anzani (1926), 10 = Anzani II (1928/9), 10, pl. N, 3 = Vaccaro 5 = Phaidra 1189214 (this coin
). Munro-Hay, AC, type 4 (this coin cited
). Extremely rare, just ten examples recorded by Hahn & Keck, of which only five in private hands. An impressive piece of beautiful style with an excellent pedigree. The flan slightly wavy and with minor die rust, otherwise,
From the Dr. Stephan Coffman Collection, the Maekelay-Tigray Collection, Roma XXII, 7 October 2021, 5, from the collection of Francesco Vaccaro (1903-1990) and that of F. Cinnirella, formed in the 1920s.
Aphilas' extremely rare chrysoi portray the king on the obverse with a tiara and spear, and on the reverse with a head cloth and branch, each time between two ears of barley, thus setting the tone for the iconography of the Axumite gold coins for the next 300 years. The tiara, firstly, is multi-tiered and tipped with rays. From the reign of Aphilas' successor, Ousanas I, onwards, curious cone-like design elements can be found between the rays, which have been interpreted as uraei, perhaps inspired by Meroitic examples. The spear likely refers to the king's prowess in battle - in pagan times, the Axumite rulers were, after all, worshipped as sons of the war deity, Marhem.
More baffling is the head cloth, which was likely meant to cover the hair in order to protect the king from black magic. It would remain a royal symbol in Ethiopia long after Axum's demise, even into the 20th century. The object the king is holding has variously been described as a whip, a fly-whisk, or as an olive or laurel branch, the latter a potent symbol for peace. This, in fact, may be the key to interpreting the iconography: one side presented the king's capacity for war, while the other stressed his sacred, peace-bringing character. The ears of barley, finally, are likely a fertility symbol.
Interestingly, several of these design elements appear in a description of the Axumite royal regalia by the early Byzantine chronicler, John Malalas, based on information from a Roman embassy (Chron. 18.457). The king (Kaleb) wore a garment of gold cloth reaching down to his backside, bands of pearls over his shoulders and stomach, golden bracelets on his arms, a gold necklace, and a turban of gold cloth, while holding a shield and two javelins. All this is a clear testament to the endurance of these royal symbols and the importance of tradition in Axumite society.