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Frumentius
fl. in the 4th century
Orthodox
Ethiopia

Frumentius (F'ré Menatos), who flourished in the 4th century AD, also known as Abba Salama I, or Abba Salama Kasata Berehan, was the first bishop of Ethiopia, and is widely regarded as the man who introduced Christianity to Aksum.

The first version of this claim comes from Tyrannius Rufinus (circa 345-410/11), the Roman-trained writer and theologian, who heard it from Frumentius' brother, Aedesiu. The account is also carried by many other analysts, such as the Byzantine church historian Socrates (circa 380-450), the theologian bishop Theodoret of Gyrrhus near Antioch (circa 393-circa 458), the Greek church historian Sozomen (circa 400-circa 450), and the Byzantine historian Nicephoras Callistus Xanthopolous (circa 1256-circa 1335).

The story goes that a merchant of Tyre, Meropius, traveled to India, accompanied by his young brothers. On the return journey, the ship put in at a port on the coast of "India" (evidently Eritrea), which was perhaps the Aksumite port of Adulis (modern Zula, a village 30 miles, or 48 km, south-southeast of Massawa), and which had suspended its treaty relations with Rome. Meropius and the ship's crew were massacred, but the boys were handed over to the ruler of Aksum, who was so impressed with them that he made Aedesius his cup-bearer and Frumentius his steward. When the ruler died, his queen, who was the regent for her young son, asked the brothers, particularly Frumentius, to join her as co-regents. Frumentius used the opportunity to build churches in the country.

When the young boy reached his majority, Aedesius obtained leave to visit his relatives in Tyre, while Frumentius was permitted to go to Alexandria in Egypt to obtain a bishop for the country. Saint Athanasius (circa 293-373), the ecclesiastical statesman, who was to defend Christian orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, had just become Patriarch of Alexandria, in 328, and decided to consecrate Frumentius himself as the bishop.

Frumentius then returned to carry on his work at Aksum, the traditional date for this event being 333. When Frumentius returned to Aksum as bishop, the Emperors Abreha and Asbeha were on the throne, and it seems reasonable to suppose that these names referred to the brothers Ezana (q.v.) and Sayzana (q.v.).

In 356, when the Arian schism had split Christendom, the pro-Arian Emperor Constantius II, sole ruler of the Roman Empire from 353-61, who had recently deposed Athanasius and sent him into exile, wrote a letter to the two rulers of Aksum, Ezana and Sayzana. In the letter he asked them to send Frumentius, bishop of Aksum, to Egypt, for his faith to be tested. There is no record that they complied with his request, and nothing is known of Frumentius's later activities.

The Ethiopian version of these events is contained in the Sinkessar ("Synaxarium"), the collected biographies of Ethiopian Orthodox saints, compiled in the fourteenth century. It agrees substantially with Rufinus's account, but adds that when the brothers arrived, the ruler of Ethiopia was Emperor Ella Alada, or Ella Ameda, the latter form being attested in inscriptions as being the name of the father of Ezana.

A. K. Irvine


Bibliography:

F. Altheim, Geschichte der Hunnen ("History of the Huns"), vol. 5, Berlin, 1962; r. Basset, Etudes sur l'histoire d'Ethiopie ("Studies in Ethiopian History"), Paris, 1882; E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of Saints of the Ethiopian Church, Cambridge, 1928; C. Conti Rossini, Storia d'Ethiopia ("History of Ethiopia"), Bergamo, 1928.


This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.