Frumentius (Ge’ez: Frémnatos), also known as Abba Sälama I and Abba Sälama Käsaté-Berhan, was the first Bishop of Ethiopia and is widely regarded as responsible for the introduction of Christianity to Aksum. The received version of this is given by Rufinus, who heard it from Frumentius’ brother, Aedesius; the account is also carried by many other annalists, such as Socrates, Theodoret, Sozomen and Nicephoras Callistes. A merchant of Tyre, Meropius, undertook a voyage to “India”, accompanied by the brothers, then young boys. On the return journey their ship put in at a port on the coast of “India” (perhaps Adulis), which had suspended its treaty-relation with Rome. Meropius and the ship’s crew were massacred, but the boys were handed over to the ruler of the land, who was so impressed with them as to make Aedesius his cup-bearer and Frumentius his steward. When the ruler died, his queen, regent for her young son, asked the brothers, particularly Frumentius, to share the cares of government with her. In this he also availed himself to the opportunity to build churches for the Roman merchants in the country. When the young prince attained maturity, Aedesius managed to obtain leave to visit his relatives in Tyre and Frumentius to go to Alexandria, to obtain a bishop for the country. Athanasius, who had become Patriarch there in 328, was moved to consecrate Frumentius himself, whereupon he returned to Aksum to carry on with his work. The traditional date for this event is 333, when the people of Ethiopia were divided between pagan worship of the serpent and Judaism.
In 356 A.D., when the Arian schism had split Christendom, the pro-Arian Emperor Constantius, who had recently deposed Athanasius and sent him into exile, wrote a letter to the two tyrannoi or rulers of Aksum, Aezanas and Sazanas (Emperor ‘Ézana and Prince Se’azana), asking them to send Frumentius, Bishop of Aksum, to Egypt so that his faith might be tested. There is no record that they complied, and nothing is known of Frumentius’s further activities.
The Ethiopic version of these events is contained in the Synaxarium. It agrees substantially with Rufinus’s account, but adds that the ruler of Ethiopia when the brothers arrived was Emperor ‘Ellä-‘Alada or Emperor ‘Ellä-‘Améda, the latter form being attested in inscriptions as the name of Emperor ‘Ézana’s father. During his son’s minority, Emperor ‘Ellä-‘Azgwagwa ruled; his name too occurs in some King Lists, though for a different period. Finally, 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 had been applied to the brothers ‘Ézana and Se’azana.
A. K. Irvine
Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica, I. 9, Patrologia Latina, XXI, 478-80. Athanasius, Apologia ad Constantium Imperatorem, Patrologia Graeca, XXV, 632. C. Conti Rossini, Storia d’Etiopia (Bergamo, 1928), 146-48. F. Altheim, Geschichte der Hunnen, V (Berlin, 1962), 157-80. R. Basset, Etudes sur l’histoire d’Ethiopie (Paris, 1882), 96-97. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church (Cambridge, 1928), Vol. IV, 1164-5 (Synaxarium, 26 Hamlé).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from The Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography, Vol. 1 ‘From Early Times to the End of the Zagwé Dynasty c. 1270 A.D.,’ copyright © 1975, edited by Belaynesh Michael, S. Chojnacki and Richard Pankhurst, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All rights reserved.