Aksumite elites electively identified themselves as “black” in relation to the paler integument of other Mediterranean peoples. Prior to the fourth century CE, the proper noun Aithiopía referred to the area of northern Sudan. Aksum, however, deliberately appropriated the Greek term for its own geopolitical purposes, partly as a way to write itself both into the grand narratives of Graeco-Roman history, where “Ethiopians” recurrently figure as morally “blameless,” as well as—with their conversion to Christianity—into Old and New Testamental eschatologies that consistently position “Ethiopians” as first in the sight of God. This process of self-definition—achieved under the formative gaze of Hellenic, Roman, and Levantine Others—ultimately allowed ‘Ityȯpyā to become a key, if nonetheless still liminal and rogue, player in the post-Constantinian politico-religious arena, in such a way that both economic and cultural capital accrued to the benefit of Aksum.
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