St. Frumentius (?-c. 383) and King Ezana of Axum (r. 330-c. 360)


Christians Who Changed Their World

Slaves in Axum
Although we often think of the Roman Empire as occupying the entire known world, Rome had active trade and diplomatic contacts well outside the Mediterranean basin. They had relationships with states in Asia, including the Persian Empire, Arabia, India, and even China, and with Africa, notably with the kingdom of Axum, south of Egypt in modern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Axum was a powerful and advanced kingdom that served as a trading nexus between the Roman Empire and India. The kingdom exported ivory, tortoise shell, gold, and emeralds to these lands, and imported silk and spices.

In about 316 AD, two Syro-Phoenician Greek brothers named Frumentius and Edesius left their home in Tyre to accompany their uncle Meropius on a trading voyage to Axum. They stopped at a port city on the Red Sea. A brawl broke out, and the locals ended up slaughtering everyone on board the ship except Frumentius and Edesius, who were given to Ella Amida, the king of Axum, as slaves.

The two brothers evidently had received a very good education at home, because they rapidly gained the king’s favor and became influential figures at court even at their young age. Shortly before his death, Ella Amida freed them. The king’s son and heir Ezana was a minor, so the widowed queen Sofya was named regent. She convinced Frumentius and Edesius to stay in Axum to help her educate her son and prepare him for the throne.

Witnesses for Christ
Along with educating the prince, the brothers did their best to encourage the growth of Christianity in Axum. Most Christians in the kingdom were foreign merchants, though there were a small number of native Christians as well. Tradition says that the Apostle Matthew introduced the Gospel to Ethiopia, and the “Ethiopian” (literally “dark-skinned”) Eunuch converted by Philip may have been from Ethiopia as well, though some scholars think that the Queen Candace whom he served was actually in Nubia (modern Sudan) rather than Axum.

The brothers began their efforts to spread Christianity by encouraging foreign Christian merchants to practice their faith openly. They also engaged in evangelism and made some converts among the Ethiopians.

At about the time Ezana came of age, the brothers left court. Edesius returned to Tyre, where he was ordained as a priest; he later told the brothers’ story to the historian Rufinus, who is our best source for their lives. Frumentius accompanied Edesius as far as Alexandria. He had a burning desire to see Axum converted to Christianity, so he appealed to Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, for missionaries and a bishop for the kingdom. Athanasius decided that Frumentius was the best man for the job, so he consecrated him as bishop in 328[i] and sent him back south to work on converting the kingdom to Christianity.

Frumentius1Bishop of Axum
When Frumentius returned to Axum, he baptized his former pupil King Ezana as a Christian. With the king’s support, Frumentius spread the Gospel throughout Ethiopia and built many churches. He is also credited with translating the New Testament into Ge’ez, the language of Ethiopia. In the process, he also developed a more advanced writing system for the language.

Frumentius’ work bore fruit. King Ezana made Christianity the official state religion of Axum, making it the third kingdom to embrace Christianity after Armenia and Rome. Not surprisingly, the church in Axum tied itself closely to the Coptic Church in Egypt, looking to the Patriarch of Alexandria as their spiritual leader. The people accepted Christianity willingly, and were so grateful for Frumentius’s work that they called him Kesate Birhan (Revealer of Light) and Abba Salama (Father of Peace); King Ezana also named him the first Abune, the head of the Ethiopian Coptic church.

For his part, King Ezana also worked hard to promote Christianity in his kingdom. One example is found in Axum’s coinage. About a century before, Axum had become the first African kingdom to mint coins, probably due to the influence of trade with Rome. At the beginning of Ezana’s reign, his coins were decorated with a disk and crescent moon, which were symbols of pagan astrological deities. He replaced these symbols with a Christian cross, making Axum the first African state to use the cross on its coinage. (In a sign of Axum’s widespread trade connections, Ezana’s cross-emblazoned coins have been found as far away as India.)

Some of King Ezana’s coins also include the legend, “May this please the people.” S. C. Munro-Hays comments that this inscription is “a rather attractive peculiarity of Aksumite coinage, giving a feeling of royal concern and responsibility towards the people’s wishes and contentment.”[ii] This may also have been an expression of the king’s insight to a Biblically-based understanding of a king’s responsibilities to his subjects in the sight of God.

The Arian controversy
Frumentius’s work as bishop did cause one diplomatic problem for King Ezana. Decades earlier, a dispute arose within the church over whether Jesus was God. On the one side, a presbyter named Arius argued he was not, that he was the highest created being, but not God incarnate. He was opposed by Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria who had consecrated Frumentius. Athanasius supported what would become known as the orthodox position, that Jesus was fully God. This conflict became so intense that the Roman Emperor Constantine summoned a church council in the city of Nicea in 325 to debate this point. The council decided in Athanasius’s favor, and Arianism was declared a heresy.

Arianism did not go away, however, even within the Empire. About thirty years after the Council of Nicea, an Arian named Constantius II was Emperor of Rome. He was displeased that Axum had an orthodox bishop, and so he sent a letter to King Ezana asking him to replace Frumentius with Theophilus, an Arian, and to send Frumentius to Alexandria to be examined for doctrinal errors. Ezana ignored or rejected the request, however, so Frumentius’s position was secure.

Axum and the world
Like other kingdoms that were rising in power, Axum engaged in conquests of neighboring states. In the second century AD, Axum had conquered the Himyarite Kingdom in modern Yemen and extended its control through much of the southwestern region of the Arabian Peninsula. King Ezana set his sights on Kush, the kingdom of the Nubians. Kush was already in decline when King Ezana conquered the kingdom in about 350 AD. The King Ezana Stone, found in Meroe, the capital of Kush, bears an inscription in Greek, Sabaean (the language of Axumite territories in southern Arabia), and Ge’ez describing Ezana’s conversion to Christianity and his conquest of Kush.

The efforts of Frumentius and Ezana made Ethiopia the first and for centuries the only independent African kingdom to embrace Christianity. Unfortunately, the rise of Islam cut Axum off from the rest of the Christian world, though the fact that Axum had sheltered Mohammed gave them a certain degree of protection from Muslim conquest.

Christianity remained the primary religion in Ethiopia from Frumentius’s day to the present. The Ethiopian Church remained tied to the Coptic Church in Egypt until 1959, when the head of the Ethiopian Church was named a patriarch in his own right. Nearly 1700 years after Frumentius and Ezana, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox churches, with 40-45 million members. This is a very impressive legacy for a young man who started as a merchant apprentice, became a slave, then a tutor to a prince, before being ordained in the church, and for a young king who converted the Christianity and set himself to building a Christian culture for his kingdom.

[i] Some sources date this to 340-346, but the traditional date of 328 seems more likely.
[ii] S. C. Munro-Hays, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), 192.

Next Steps

What does the experience of Frumentus and Ezana suggest about the roles of Church and State in the Kingdom of God? Share this article with some friends, then get together to talk about this question.


Be sure to order a copy of Glenn’s book, Portals: Entering Your Neighbor’s World, from our online store. You might also enjoy reading the article, “Persecution Brings ‘Oriental Christianity’ Back into Limelight,” by Robin Phillips.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.

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