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 Egypt (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 Hebrews.

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.

Examples include:

Aqaiwasha 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.

Lukka people = the ancient Lycians, who dwelled along the south coast of Anatolia, and were notorious during the late Bronze Age as pirates.

Tursha 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 (Virgil's Aenead). 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 neighboring Libya (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.