Emperor of Ethiopia

The Emperor of Ethiopia (Amharic negus negust, "King of Kings") was the hereditary ruler of Ethiopia until the abolition of the monarchy in 1975. The Emperor was not only the head of state, but the ultimate executive, judicial and legislative power in that country. As noted in a National Geographic Magazine article, Ethiopia is "nominally a constitutional monarchy; in fact [it is] a benevolent autocracy."1

The style "King of Kings", which is usually translated in English as "Emperor", dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, but was used in Axum by king Sembruthes. Yuri Kobishchanov dates this usage to the period following the Persian victory over the Romans in 296-297.2 Its use from at least the reign of Yekuno Amlak onwards meant that both subordinate officials and tributary rulers received the title of negus or "king".



Succession to the throne at the death of the monarch could be claimed by any male blood relative of the Emperor: sons, brothers, uncles or cousins. As a result, two steps were taken: the first was to intern all of the Emperor's possible rivals in a secure location, which drastically limited their ability to disrupt the Empire with revolts, or to dispute the succession of an heir apparent; the second was that with increasing frequency Emperors were selected by a council of the senior officials of the realm, both secular and religious.

Ethiopian tradition contradicts itself over exactly when rivals to the throne were imprisoned on a Mountain of the Princes. One tradition credits this practice to the Zagwe king Yamrehana Krestos, who is said to have received the idea in a dream;3 Taddesse Tamrat discredits this tradition, arguing that the records of the Zagwe dynasty betray too many disputed successions for this to have been the case.4 Another tradition, recorded by Thomas Pakenham, states that this practice predates the Zagwe dynasty, and was first practiced on Amba Damo, which was captured by the 10th century queen Gudit, who then put 200 princes isolated there to death; however, Pakenham also notes that when he asked the abbot of the monastery on Amba Damo about this tradition, the abbot responded that he knew of no such tale.5 Taddesse Tamrat argues that this practice began in the reign of Wedem Arad, following the struggle for succession that he believes lies behind the series of brief reigns of the sons of Yagbe'u Seyon.

These potential rivals were incarcerated at Amba Geshen until Ahmed Gragn captured and destroyed that site; then, from the reign of Fasilidos until the mid-18th century, at Wehni. Rumors of these royal mountain residences were part of the inspiration for Samuel Johnson's short story, Rasselas.

Although the Emperor of Ethiopia possessed unlimited powers over his subjects, his councilors came to play an increasing role in governing Ethiopia because many Emperors were succeeded either by a child, or one of the incarcerated princes, who could only successfully leave their prisons with help from the outside. As a result, by the mid-18th century the power of the Emperor had been largely transferred to his deputies, like Ras Mikael Sehul of Tigray, who held the actual power of the Empire and elevated or deposed Emperors at will in their struggle for control of the entire realm.


The Emperors of Ethiopia claimed their right to rule based on two claims: their descent from the kings of Axum, and their descent from the son of Solomon and Makeda, Queen of Sheba, Menelik I.

The claim to their relationship to the Kings of Axum derives from Yakuno Amlak's claim that he was the descendant of Dil Na'ob, through his father, although he defeated and killed the last Zagwe king in battle. His claim to the throne was also helped by the fact he married that king's daughter, even though Ethiopians commonly do not acknowledge claims from the distraff side.

The claim of descent from Menelik I is based on the assertion that the descendants of Menelik I were the kings of Axum. While the surviving records of these kings fail to shed light on their origins, this genological claim is first documented in the 10th century AD by an Arab historian. Interpretations of this claim vary widely. Some, including many inside Ethiopia, accept it as evident and undisputed fact. At the other extreme, some understand this as an expression of propoganda, attempting to connect the legitimacy of the state to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Some scholars take an approach in the middle, attempting to either find a connection between Axum and the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, or between Axum and the pre-exilic kingdom of Judah. Due to lack of primary materials, it is not possible as of 2005 to determine which theory is the more plausible.


The Solomonid dynasty ruled Ethiopia until 1974, with only a couple of usurpers. The most significant usurper was Kassa of Kwara, who in 1855 took complete control over Ethiopia and was crowned Theodore II. Solomonic Emperors were restored following his death.

The most famous of the post-Theodorean Emperors were Yohannis IV and Menelik II. Emperor Menelik II struck a major military victory against Italian invaders in March of 1894 at the Battle of Adwa, the first major victory of an African nation against a colonial power. His successors ruled the country until the military coup in 1974 with the exception of the years 1936 - 1941, when the country was under Italian occupation and Victor Emmanuel III claimed the title, a claim not entirely undisputed in the international community.

The position of the Emperor was defined in both of the constitutions adopted during the reign of Haile Selassie: the one adopted on July 16, 1931; and the one of November, 1955.

The last Solomonid monarch to reign over Ethiopia was Amha Selassie, who was offered the throne by the Derg after his father Haile Selassie's deposition September 12, 1974. When Amha Selassie, understandably mistrustful of the Derg, refused to return to Ethiopia to rule, the Derg announced that the monarcy had come to an end March, 1975. The Ethiopian constitution of 1995 confirmed the abolition of the Emperorship. However, in 1993 a group called the "Crown Council of Ethiopia", which includes several descendants of Haile Selassie, claimed that the negus negust was still in existence, and was the legal head of Ethiopia.


  1. Nathaniel T. Kenney, "Ethiopian Adventure", National Geographic, 127 (1965), p. 555.
  2. Yuri M. Kobishchanov, Axum, translated by Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, and edited by Joseph W. Michels (University Park: University of Pennsylvania State Press, 1979), p. 195.
  3. Francisco Alvarez, The Prester John of the Indies, translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley, revised and edited with additional material by C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, (Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1961), p. 237ff.
  4. Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia (1270 - 1527) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 275n.3
  5. Thomas Pakenham, The Mountains of Rasselas (New York: Reynal & Co., 1959), p. 84.
  6. Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia, p. 275n.3, citing Hiob Ludolf, A New History of Ethiopia.

See also

External link

nl:negus pl:negus


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