Lecture 8 – The Fall of Bronze Age Civilizations
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A fragmentary mosaic of ancient source material
describes in outline the collapse of urban civilizations throughout the eastern
Mediterranean region, c. 1250 - 1090 BC. Most likely this was caused by a
breakdown in trade links that had helped to sustain distant urban populations.
These populations had otherwise surpassed the subsistence capacity of their
local agricultural resources.
In 1274 BC, the Hittites (Hattusilis) and new Kingdom
(Ramses II) fought a fierce battle at Kadesh, to a
standstill. In 1258 they agreed to the Treaty
of Kadesh (records of which survived at
Tel el Amarna and at Hattusas)
marking the cessation of conflict between these two regional powers. One likely
consequence was the demobilization of large standing armies of mercenaries.
This also meant a reduction in the expense of maintaining large military
establishments. But the evidence suggests a heightened focus as well on rising
internal threats to security. The Hittites confronted accelerating border
attacks of the Mycenaeans, and the Egyptians faced numerous
revolts in Canaan, including the flight of the
Around 1250-1220 the destruction of Troy Level VIIA
occurred. The assemblages of this layer at the site appear associated with a
late Bronze Age settlement, apparently at that time a meager garrison town with
barracks and soup kitchens by the walls and bodies of warriors found lying in
streets. The Hittite Archive, c. 1250 BC, mentions a client King named Alexander of Wilusa, requesting
aid from the Great King at Hattusas. Hittite Kings
claim to have led several punitive expeditions against Aegean Ahhijawa = Achaeans or Mycenaeans.
In New Kingdom Egypt,
the reign of Ramses II is associated with the Exodus of Moses. In addition to
the Treaty of Kadesh, Ramses constructed a large
garrison town, the Ramseion, at the eastern edge of Nile delta facing the Sinai desert. Ramses is likely to
have conscripted forced labor for this operation; for example, the Hebrews who had
possibly inhabited the eastern delta region ever since their migration into Egypt with the Hyksos. The Hebrews were perhaps now enslaved to construct Ramseion and fled, according to their tradition into the Sinai.
According to the Old Testament Book of Exodus,
they migrated for 40 years before invading the "promised land" of Canaan.
Dated to 1220 BC, the Stele of Pharaoh Merneptah at Karnak records the first mention of the
Israelites that is external to the Old Testament. Merneptah
claims to have defeated these among others, during a punitive expedition into Canaan. An associated wall relief appears to exhibit the Israelites
living in tents (as opposed to walled cities of Canaan),
and warriors riding camels. Thus the migrating Hebrews
were conceivably still pursuing a nomadic, pre-agricultural lifestyle. Counting
back forty years hypothetically places the Exodus precisely at the time of
Treaty of Kadesh and the construction of Ramseion. In short, the Stele of Merneptah
appears to place the Israelites where they were supposed to be, doing what they
were supposed to be doing, when they were supposed to be doing it (recall the
tradition for Joshua at Jericho).
In c. 1200 BC, the construction of Cyclopean Walls
occurred at Mycenae and Tiryns. These offer clear indication that
Mycenaean palaces came under assault. The collapse of the Hittite Empire and
the destruction of Hattusas are also dated to this
time. The ancient Greek tradition for this collapse focused on the invasion of
the Dorians, led by the sons of Hercules from Macedonia.
However, there is no archaeological evidence to support the argument for a wave
of new invaders from the North. Conceivably migrations of peoples occurred
beyond the horizons of Bronze Age Aegean civilizations (in central Europe, for
example) and interrupted Mycenaean and Hittite trade connections to crucial
sources of metal (Carpathian Mts. in Romania) and amber from Baltic. This may
have precipitated an economic crisis, but again such a scenario remains beyond
the burden of proof.
In 1191 BC, Ramses III recorded his defeat of the "Sea Peoples", a migrating horde of
armed peoples that attacked cities along the eastern Mediterranean coast.
Centers such as Ugarit, Carchemish,
and Sidon on
the Syrian coast were clearly destroyed at this time. Canaan
was ravaged. Egyptian naval forces were able to repel these invaders at the
delta of the Nile
River. A second wave of
invasions occurred slightly later. Egyptian sources name the various tribal
components of these naval hordes, suggesting that they were already familiar
with them, possibly because they had recruited them previously as mercenaries to
serve in the Egyptian army.
sounds like Ahhijawa, or Achaeans, that is, the tribe
ruled by Agamemnon of Mycenae
Peleset (Pulisati) sounds
like the Philistines who settled on south coast
of Canaan (giving their name to the region, Palestine). The Philistines later
became the inveterate foes of the Hebrews. They used iron weapons and
prohibited the Hebrews from manufacturing metal tools and weaponry. They
organized their cities according to a "Greek" style tetrapolis. Their pottery, including stirrup jars, shows
Mycenaean continuity in form. According to the Old Testament, the Philistines
claimed to have come from "Kaphtor", the
biblical word for Crete. The Peleset offer our most certain example that the Sea Peoples
ultimately originated from the Bronze Age Aegean world.
people = the ancient Lycians, who dwelled along the
south coast of Anatolia, and were notorious during
the late Bronze Age as pirates.
people possibly were identical with the Tyrsenoi, the
Greek word for the Etruscans, who were the inhabitants of northwest Italy in the
early Iron Age (the Etruscan empire is dated c. 800-500 BC). This highly
tentative association suggests that the Etruscans migrated at Fall of Bronze
Age from the Aegean region to Egypt.
Defeated there, they continued on to western Italy where they settled, bringing
Bronze Age technology to a Stone Age environment. The Etruscans later assumed a
dominant position in the Italian peninsula, conquering the urban areas of the
west coast, including the city of Rome
c. 660 BC. Although the Etruscan script has not been deciphered, it is neither
Italian nor Indo-European. There is disputed epigraphical
evidence for a similar script found in the vicinity of Troy (a nearby island). From the Etruscans
the Romans acquired the legend of the traditional founding of the Roman royal
dynasty by Aeneas, a warrior prince from Troy
At the Fall of Troy, Aeneas took his aged father, his young son, and the urn
bearing the ashes of his ancestors in search of a new homeland. He voyaged to Carthage where he fell in
love with Queen Dido, but his religious obligation to his family (‘Pius
Aeneas’) compelled him to move onward in search of a new homeland. He
settled at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy
where he married a native princess, Lavinia, and
founded the future royal dynasty of Rome.
Other associations remain equally tentative but suggestive. The Sheklesh people sounds like Sikeloi, the natives of Sicily encountered by Phoenicians and
Greeks. The Sherden sounds like Sardinoi,
the natives of Sardinia. In both instances
warrior elites dominated the islands using Bronze Age technology.
In any event, by 1100 BC, there was a complete collapse of urban civilizations in
the Mycenaean and Hittite regions of the eastern Mediterranean.
There was also widespread destruction of cities along the Syrian coast - Ugarit, Carchemish, Sidon (soon to be
rebuilt, however). The provincial communities of Canaan
collapsed under the invasions of the Hebrews and the Philistines. Egypt alone
survived another century because of its strategically defensive geography, but
the cost of its defensive effort left that population isolated. By 1000 BC, the
New Kingdom Pharaohs (20th dynasty) were defeated by Bedouin warriors from
(the Psammitic Pharaohs of the Old Testament).
1) We need to recognize the inherent risk posed by the
highly urban character of Bronze Age Greece and eastern Mediterranean
basin. Local populations throughout the basin apparently surpassed the locally
available subsistence levels of agricultural production and survived by
producing surplus commodities to be traded overseas. They thus grew dependent
on overseas sources of food for survival.
2) As a result, the Late Bronze Age of the eastern Mediterranean basin was
characterized by economic interdependency among civilizations separated by
hundreds of miles of water. The clearest examples remain the evidence of
Mycenaean and Canaanite maritime trade – the Mycenaean stirrup jars
and Canaanite jars
of wine and oil that were transported overseas in exchange for Egyptian grain.
These remarkably integrated economies ultimately became dependent on highly
instable lines of communication. If the eastern Mediterranean trade lines
collapsed (regardless of whether as a result of Mycenaean raids, Lukka piracy, or attacks by demobilized mercenaries from
within), populations would have faced starvation or migration in order to
survival. The evidence of chaos, fortress construction, fire damage, famine and
destruction in Mycenae,
for example, point to such a scenario.
3) Most significantly, the Late Bronze Age reveals evidence of a cultural
integration of Aegean and Near Eastern (Indo-European and Semitic)
civilizations. The Homeric tradition records the legendary movement of Bronze
Age Greek heroes to the southern coast of Anatolia, Syria and beyond (Aeneas),
and similar movement meanwhile of Near Eastern heroes to Aegean. Thebes in central Greece,
for example, was supposedly founded by princes of Tyre, and Argos
and Erythrae (Iron Age Greek cities) were allegedly
settled by the same. The strands to this tradition have recently been seized
upon by M. Bernal's controversial work, Black Athena.
Regardless of where scholars stand on the question of Mediterranean cultural
assimilation, there can be no question that throughout its history Greece remained the gateway to the Middle East.
4) Regardless of true cause of the collapse of Bronze Age civilization, evidence
for a westward migration of Bronze Age peoples appears to have laid the
foundation for the diffusion of technology throughout the Mediterranean basin.
Iron Age culture would emerge as a widely dispersed urban culture from Spain and North Africa to Syria, Egypt,
Anatolia, and the Black Sea region. All
regions became accessible to one another by maritime transport, insuring a
broader, more sustainable foundation to urban civilization in following era.