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St. Aphilas the Great

What if Christianity was introduced in Aksum earlier? muses Tom Bornholdt

Mani had said that there were four great powers: Rome, Persia, China and Aksum. Unhappy with being excommunicated for his unusual theology (Jesus was neither fully divine but the incarnation of a created Logos with a human soul) St. Lucian of Antioch had decided to leave Antioch. In the year 285 he arrived at the port of Adulis which was part of the Kingdom of Aksum and began to preach. The next year he moved to the capital city of Aksum where he proceeded to build a substantia1 congregation despite narrowly avoiding being murdered on two occasions. In the year 301 he achieved his greatest success when he converted St. Aphilas the Great, the King of Aksum. Aphilas was very zealous in his new faith and early next year made it the official religion of Aksum.
Aphilas was very distressed when he learned about the persecution of Christians that the Roman Emperor Diocletian was conducting. In the spring of 303 he decided to do something about it. He had increased the size of his army because he planned to expand his nation's dominion starting with a campaign against the Himyarites that was already underway. He would use his army to save the Egyptian Christians from Roman persecution.

The first step in his campaign was to invade the Kingdom of Kush which was between Aksum and Egypt. Kush had once been a minor power. It had fought the legions of the Roman Republic on more than one occasion but had been in decline for nearly two centuries. Aphilas found it easy to defeat the Kushite Army and captured its capital of Meroë in September. The bulk of his army remained there for 6 weeks to rest while bringing up supplies and reinforcements. Aphilas was pleased to find that there is a sizable Christian population in Kush. As he was getting ready to resume his march north he told them that he intended to rescue the Christians in Egypt which earned their support. There were pagan Kushites that were unhappy with the Romans as well. A few years ago Diocletian had invited the Nobatae to invade the northern part of their country because he thought the Nobatae would make a good buffer between Egypt and Kush. Because of this Aphilas feels comfortable leaving behind a relative small garrison to occupy Meroë.
As they advanced north the Aksumite army encountered the Nobatae and defeated them in a series of relatively minor engagements. The Nobatae eventually warned the Romans. In January a small Aksumite advance force reached the Egyptian border where it was quickly defeated by the I Maximiana Legion. This easy victory made the Romans underestimate both the quantity and quality of the Aksumite army. Three weeks later the Aksumite main force overwhelmed and annihilated a small Roman army at Syene. Aphilas then spends only 9 days resting his army at Syene before continuing north. He captures the prestigious city of Thebes after a relatively brief siege. Meanwhile the Aksumite navy has captured the Roman port on the Red Sea at Berenice.
The Egyptian Christians viewed St. Aphilas as someone sent by God to rescue them in their hour of tribulation. Up until this point Egyptian Christianity was increasingly accentuating monasticism but there was now a sudden turn towards militarism as many Christians volunteered to fight for King Aphilas. However it wasn't only Christians who were pleased by this development. For one thing Diocletian had persecuted Manicheans as well as Christians. A short distance downriver from Thebes was the small city of Coptos which had revolted against Roman rule in 292. This revolt ended only after a lengthy siege of Coptos which resulted in its almost total destruction. Then in 297 Domitius Domitianus tried to exploit Egyptian anger over Diocletian's recent tax edicts in an unsuccessful attempt to usurp Diocletian. This discontent begins to reemerge.
Aphilas soon continues his march north and in July he engages another Roman army. This one is stronger than the one he destroyed at the border but it is still badly outnumbered. The Roman general is more cautious this time. He is defeated but avoids annihilation. He retreats into the fortified provincial capital of Ptolemais Hermiou. A siege begins which lasts until the city is captured by the Aksumites on December 17. While the siege is going on the bulk of the Aksumite army is unable to advance any further. However the Aksumites scouts report that there is no significant Roman presence left in Upper Egypt. Aphilas sends small parties of cavalry raiding as far north as the large city of Oxyrhyncus. However he gave officers leading these raids orders not to harm Christians but rather to spread the word that the persecution was over. They were to kill any Romans they find persecuting Christians. These raids caused the revolt to spread. Meanwhile the Aksumite navy has continued to dominate the Red Sea and captured the important port of Myos Hormos. This effectively cuts Rome's trade with India.
While this was going on Diocletian was campaigning against the Capri near the Danube. While he was receiving reports of the Aksumite incursion he initially hoped it was only a large raid and regarded the Capri as being the greater threat. In the late summer his opinion changed and he began to see the Aksumite invasion as posing a grave threat to the empire. However the emperor's health has been deteriorating badly which interferes with his ability to make key decisions. As a result he puts his Caesar Galerius in charge esp. when it comes to the Egyptian campaign.
In December General Constantine, the son of the Caesar Constantius Chlorus arrived in Egypt to take command. He brought substantial reinforcements with him and Galerius was pressuring him to defeat the Aksumites as quickly as possible. For not the first time Constantine had the feeling that Galerius was hoping he would fail and die. By this time the rebellion has spread into parts of Lower Egypt with the rebels being disproportionately Christian. Constantine had been becoming increasingly sympathetic to Christianity and had opposed their persecution. Before leaving for Egypt he had recommended to Galerius that stopping the persecution might makes things easier but this recommendation was ignored. Constantine initially concentrated on quelling the rebellion in Lower Egypt. As he did so his attitude towards Christians became less favorable as he started to see how they could pose a threat to the Roman Empire. He is quite severe with the rebels.
While it was besieging Ptolemais Hermiou the Aksumite army began to experience some problems with the Nobatae attacking its supply caravans. Immediately after the capital fell Aphilas decided to rush a piece of his army south to counter that. He then lets the bulk of his army rest there for nearly a month before continuing upriver. It was only when he enters Lower Egypt and approaches Oxyrhyncus that he encounters Constantine resulting in a battle on February 24. Once again the Aksumite army possessed a numerical advantage though not an overwhelming one. It proved to be a lengthy battle of attrition which was something that Constantine could ill afford. However late in the day the best of his cavalry was finally able to defeat the Aksumites but they were able to make a reasonably orderly retreat as night fell. Constantine was not very satisfied with his victory. What his scouts reported next morning indicated that the enemy was retreating but not broken. He reluctantly decides not to pursue and instead turns his attention back to quelling the Christian rebels in Lower Egypt.
Prior to this battle Aphilas was beginning to feel that liberating all of Egypt was going to be relatively easy. Afterwards he pulls back to Hermopolis then ponders his next move. While this is going on Diocletian has been very seriously considering resigning as emperor and going into retirement due to his poor medical condition. Galerius has been strongly encouraging him to do that. Diocletian is willing to let Galerius make most decisions but is unwilling to step down while Egypt remains in grave danger. Because of this Galerius is deeply upset when he learns that Constantine did not pursue the Aksumites after his victory at Oxyrhyncus and demands that he immediately advance into Upper Egypt. Constantine carries out these orders even though he has a significant fraction of his army tied down at Memphis fighting rebels.
After the capture of Syene, St. Aphilas began forming military units with Egyptian Christians. After a while the Aksumites assigned to train them found that more than a third of these soldiers were fanatically brave being all too willing to suffer martyrdom on the battlefield. They were also intensely loyal to Aphilas. These Christians were separated from the others and were given more intensive training and better quality weapons and shields. The small fraction of these that were cavalry had seen some action but the infantry had only been used for garrison duty. When he returned to Hermopolis Aphilas decided to move the elite Christian Egyptian infantry to Antinopolis which was very near Hermopolis but on the opposite bank of the Nile.
Constantine's strategy was to split his forces with the one piece on west bank of the Nile and the other on the east. Each piece was roughly equal in terms of cavalry but the portion on the east bank was much stronger in infantry. On May 2 Constantine made a diversionary attack on the west bank trying to convince Aphilas that Hermapolis was his objective. He was largely successful in this so Aphilas' forces were concentrated on the west bank. The following morning Constantine's forces on the east bank started marching hard towards Antinopolis. They engaged the Aksumite forces north of the city and this time it was the Romans who had the numerical advantage. However the Roman infantry were fatigued from their hard march and were therefore unable to quickly rout the enemy as Constantine had hoped. However they did have some success grinding down the Axumites pushing them back towards the city.
Meanwhile King Aphalis was ferried across the Nile escorted by his personal guard. Upon arriving at Antinopolis he found the elite Christian Egyptian infantry had not yet been committed but was being held in reserve. His senior Aksumite officers were worried that their troops were on the verge of breaking. They advised the king to quickly pull them back inside the city.
Aphilas rejected that advice. He addressed the Christian Egyptians. As he did he showed them a Roman spear. He claimed that the Archangel Michael had visited him last night and gave him the spear telling that it was what the Roman soldiers had used to stab Jesus while He was on the Cross. St. Aphilas told these soldiers that they would now become the spear that God would use to stab the Romans back. He was naming them the Holy Spear of God. He then ordered them to counterattack the Romans. This counterattack came at the moment when Aksumite resistance was starting to weaken. By this time the day was getting hot which was taking its toll on both the Romans and the Axumites. The Holy Spear of God entered the battle fresh and in their intense religious zeal seemed impervious to the heat. They fought with a ferocity that stunned the Romans and lifted the sagging morale of the Aksumites.
Meanwhile some of the Aksumites on the west bank were slowly crossing the Nile using the ample fleet of rafts and boats that Aphalis had at his disposal. The tide of the battle shifted and before long it was the Romans legionaries who broke. Unfortunately most of the Roman infantry had the river behind them. Many of them ended up drowning including General Constantine who had been at the forefront of the fighting. Lactantius discerned some poetic irony in that fact because Emperor Hadrian had founded Antinopolis to commemorate the tragic drowning of his lover, Antinous near there. Many believe that grief caused by the news of his son's death contributed to the death of Constantius a year later.
In a few hours Aphalis had destroyed most of the Roman infantry on the east bank along with their charismatic leader. The Roman cavalry were able to avoid being trapped. There was also the smaller piece of Constantine's army on the west bank. However these would not be able to stop King Aphalis who was soon advancing north again. On June 5 he captured Oxyrhyncus after a relatively brief siege. While that siege was going on he was able to rekindle the revolt in Lower Egypt. That soon included Alexandria which been previously spared. Galerius rushed additional legions to Egypt but by the end of September Aphalis had taken Memphis, won 2 major battles and was besieging Sais. In both of those battles the Holy Spear of God played an important role in his victory but had also suffered heavy losses in the process. By this time the Christian revolt has spread into Palestine and Cyrenaica.
On October 4 the Romans tried to lift the Siege of Sais but were again soundly defeated. Once again the Holy Spear of God played a key role in the victory but again paid a heavy price. Aphalis was starting to believe he could win any open field battle by using them. The defeated Roman army then retreated to Alexandria. When Sais finally fell on 30 November the Aksumites controlled all of Egypt except for Alexandria. The Romans expected that Aphalis' next move would be to besiege Alexandria. Instead the kings splits his army. The smaller portion he kept in Egypt to keep the Roman pinned down inside Alexandria. Aphalis personally led the rest in an attack into Palestine, the Holy Land where Our Lord had lived and died then rose from the grave.
However despite his religious fervor Aphalis failed to plan this campaign very well. His army had serious logistical problems while crossing Sinai. As he approached Beersheba on 12 February 306 he engaged a large Roman army that Galerius was leading in person. Aphalis was convinced that he could prevail yet again by using the Holy Spear of God but this time that elite unit which had been badly depleted by its losses in the earlier battles failed to deliver victory. Nevertheless it did temporarily check the Roman advance making it easier for the Aksumites to escape.
Galerius' impulsive nature impeded his pursuit. At times he thinks he can toy with what he regards as a doomed enemy and when they demonstrate they still have a bite he becomes furious. Though deeply discouraged by what happened Aphilas managed to keep his army from disintegrating. Meanwhile Roman reinforcements have arrived by sea at Alexandria. Diocletian believes that if the army at Alexandria attacks in concert with Galerius they can obliterate the Aksumites in a pincer attack. However Galerius believes he can accomplish that all by himself. He does not want to share the glory and so orders the army at Alexandria to stand fast.
When his army reaches Clysma Aphalis makes his stand. By this time he has received reinforcements from the units he had left behind in Egypt. Previously he had become intoxicated with the Holy Spear of God but was reluctant to use the other Christian Egyptian units for much more than garrison duty. When Galerius attacked on 9 March these units were finally allowed to show that could fight. It was a grueling battle that started at dawn and went on for hours at the temperature steadily climbed. This was contrary to Galerius' expectations of an easy slaughter and before long his mounting frustration made him angry enough to issue some rash orders.
Aphalis waited until late in the battle to commit the Holy Spear of God using them to plug a dangerous gap that had emerged. Galerius finally gave up and withdrew. The next day he finally gave the order for the army at Alexandria to attack. When it did so it found only very weak opposition in front of it. It soon retook Sais which the Aksumites had abandoned. It then took Arsinoe which had been abandoned as well but when it approached Memphis on 5 April it found that Aphalis had moved much of his army there. The Romans were quickly defeated and forced to make a hurried retreat to Arsinoe.
When Galerius learned of this he believed that could now easily take Clysma but was proven wrong and suffered another costly defeat. One reason for this is that after defeating the Romans near Memphis, Aphalis had hurriedly moved back to Clysma with the bulk of his army anticipating that Galerius would again attack. Furthermore after his defeat at Beersheba he had decided to remove the Aksumite army in Himyar, which had been hunkered down in fortified positions since the beginning of the war with Rome. The Aksumite navy which continued to dominate the Red Sea transported this army directly to Clysma. Lastly Aphalis had replenished the Holy Sword of God with qualified Christian replacements.
During the summer Aphalis was content to defend a line that ran from Memphis to Clysma and enjoy the advantages of interior lines of communication. The Romans wore themselves out with their attacks. Meanwhile the Christian revolt continued to spread. Aphalis built up his Christian Egyptian units and not just the Holy Spear of God. He made careful preparations for a fall offensive.
Meanwhile the Romans had other worries. After several years of war Diocletion had been able to impose a harsh peace on the Sassanid Emperor Narseh in 299. While the current emperor Hormizd was known to be troubled by some internal unrest they still worried that he might see the Aksumite invasion as an opportunity too good resist. Ironically another of the problems was Armenia which the Romans had considered a reliable ally against the Sassanids. The problem was that King Tridates III of Armenia had converted to Christianity and made it his country's official religion around the same time that King Aphalis doing the same in Aksum. Diocletian and Galerius were worried that Aphilas' campaign would inspire Tridates into doing something similar.
So in July Diocletian began negotiating with Aphalis, offering to let him keep Upper Egypt and to end the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Galerius did not care for the terms but he went along as he saw it as a way to get Diocletian to finally step down as Emperor. Aphilas had his own worries. In June he learned from his son, Prince Wazeba that a cabal which included pagan priests and some prominent merchants had tried to seize power in the capital. The merchants were upset the war had dried up their lucrative trade with the Romans. So the Peace of Leontopolis was concluded 26 August. Aphilas then moved south to Upper Egypt. When he was sure that the persecution had indeed ended in the Roman Empire he returned to Axum and clamped down hard on his political enemies. He also tried to make the controversial theology of St. Lucian of Antioch the standard within his expanded empire.
Maximian, the Augustus of the West, had been shocked that Diocletian had agreed to let Aphilas keep Upper Egypt. It so upset him that when Diocletian discussed his plans for both of them to retire together in early November Maximian initially refused to resign. In order to placate him Diocletian agreed to make Maximian's son, Maxentius a Caesar after the joint resignation. Galerius was unhappy with this but did not want the joint resignation which would elevate him to Augustus put off any longer. When Constantius had died he had persuaded Diocletian to appoint Severus as his replacement.

Author's Note: in reality Lucian of Antioch remained at Antioch. He was executed in 312 as one of the victims of persecution Maximinus II. Christianity was introduced into Aksum around 320.





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