Texts in Context:
Irons in the Fire

By Gabriel Blanchard

Having disposed of the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, it is time for us to enter upon the annals of the Iron Age.

This post is part of a series on the historical context of our Author Bank; it includes introductory posts on historiography, periodization, and pseudohistory.

What Do an Iron Age?

So! While historians debate whether it was right at 2:15 p.m. or a bit closer to half-past, on Wednesday, October 16, 1077 BC, everybody’s new calendars arrived in the mail. They put all their old bronze things in the recycling, put the new calendar that said “IRON AGE” at the top up on the wall, and opened the complimentary brochure that had come with it titled So You’re Smelting a New Metal! Top Five Things to Know—yes?

Well, no, certainly not. Brochures wouldn’t be invented for hundreds, if not dozens of years.*

The transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age was slow, both because societies took their time to adjust (iron is more plentiful than tin, but it isn’t everywhere), and because different societies discovered ironsmithing at different times. The Fertile Crescent may have begun experimenting with iron as early as the third millennium BC, but by contrast, Iron Age Japan didn’t start until late in the Yayoi period of 300 BC-300 AD. Moreover, it is in here that our three-age model of history starts to give way. In the form of steel, iron has remained the “dominant” metal down to the present day, so there’s a sense in which we’re still in the Iron Age; but changes just as momentous as the bronze-to-iron transition have happened since!

It thus behooves us to speak of the Early Iron Age specifically. We can describe this as lasting from around the twelfth or eleventh century BC, up till roughly the middle of the eighth (i.e., ca. 1100-1000 BC to ca. 750 BC). This is the period of the Greek Dark Age, following the apparent collapse after the Trojan War but before the early revival of Greek literacy.

This was also the time when much of what Christians call “the Old Testament” took place; the materials in question are often hard to date, but the reign of Solomon may date to the early or mid-tenth century, while the other Near Eastern powers were in eclipse. Let’s have a glance round first.

(Most of) the Fertile Crescent

The Neo-Assyrian Empire was the most important player throughout almost the whole of the Early Iron Age. Founded in 911 BC, Neo-Assyria gained dominance over Mesopotamia, the southeast of Anatolia, and most of modern Syria in less than a hundred years. By the early seventh century, under a long succession of cunning, powerful, and excellently-named rulers—Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon—they had conquered Israel and the Phoenician city-states of the Levantine coast, and subjected the little realm of Judah to tribute, yet all this was nothing. Neo-Assyria had taken on the Egyptians, more or less the “final boss” of the Ancient Near East at one time, and not only defeated them but conquered them.

And the fourth kingdom shall be as strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.

Yet in the end, the Neo-Assyrian Empire proved even quicker to collapse than it was to rise. Ashurbanipal, the successor of Esarhaddon, is widely considered the last great Assyrian king; he died in 631 BC, and his realm outlived him by barely twenty years. Around 610 (chronologies vary slightly), the Assyrians collapsed before the upstart King Nabopolassar of Babylon, a realm that had been of no importance for nearly a millennium. This Neo-Babylonian Empire would not be long-lived either; as a matter of fact, it only lasted about seventy years. Even in the harsh world of the Early Iron Age, it would have been possible for someone who was a young boy when the Babylonian Empire began to be an elderly but still living man when it ceased to exist. In an ironic twist, the chief lasting legacy of the Neo-Babylonians was arguably their importance to the development of Judaism, a topic which we shall circle back to.

The Nile Valley

Egypt experienced an episode of uncharacteristic stagnation during its Twenty-first through Twenty-sixth Dynasties, lasting from the death of Ramesses in 1077 to Bakenranef’s in 720—with a few temporary improvements under exceptionally competent pharaohs. One of these exceptions was Shoshenq I of the Twenty-second Dynasty, thought to have reigned from 943 to 922, and identified by many authorities with “Shishaq,” the pharaoh with whom Jeroboam took refuge after offending Solomon, returning in the reign of Solomon’s successor Rehoboam to found the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel (see I Kings 11.28-12.20). The Egyptians never really recovered their international stature to the fullest, but they did enjoy another temporary epoch of prosperity under the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Its rulers came from the region of Nubia, also known as the Kingdom of Kush, further south along the Nile even than Upper Egypt; the Twenty-fifth Dynasty is also called the Kushite Empire, as it reunited Upper and Lower Egypt yet again, but this time by combining both with Kush. The Kushites, however, were also the dynasty that endured the humiliating subjection to Assyria, and Egypt barely had time to recover before the Achæmenid Persians were—but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Greeks, Gauls, Goths, and More

Turning northwest, we will continue to find little we recognize and yet much that would excite us if we were told or figured out what it would one day become. Most Greeks, and most parts of Greece, appear to have reverted to a fairly simple, village-based social structure and a predominantly agrarian life, in contrast to the stratified, centralized, and commerce-heavy Mycenæan period. Literature existed, but it was composed, recited, and retained orally, by memorization.

Not a lot else seems to be happening, further out in the same direction. Centered in what is now Austria, southern Germany, and the north of Switzerland, the Hallstatt culture is thriving, and will for another thousand years or so. In the north of the long, slender Italian peninsula it is the heyday of the mysterious Etruscan people, while a little to their south, just before the very end of our period, lies a town called Roma. Like the Hebrews, this place will be important later.

But for the moment, we must look east again, and deal with two peoples we’ve said precious little about so far. One is the Persians. They are about to become an important influence on the said Hebrews; and to the Hebrews let us turn …

*Don’t forget we’re back in BC, so the time effectively has a minus sign—I assume this means the magnitudes work the wrong way round as well.**
**This is not how maths work. Please do not listen to this author about maths.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He is a proud uncle to seven nephews, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to also check out the CLT podcast, Anchored. The Journal updates on Mondays with our “Texts in Context” series, on the history behind the men and women of the Author Bank, and on Thursdays with our “Sorting Through Sophistries” series, on how to identify fallacies and think critically.

Published on 8th April, 2024. Page image of the Arslan Taş amulets, dating to the sixth century BC, discovered at Arslan Taş, Syria, in 1933. These amulets depict on one side a lamassu (a winged, human-headed lion, similar to the Egyptian sphinx and possibly also the Biblical cherub) above a scorpion-tailed wolf, and on the other a humanoid figure (perhaps a god or other tutelary spirit) brandishing an axe.
The name of Arslan Taş means “lion stone” in Turkish. C. S. Lewis’s Aslan is known to be named for this Turkish word; given the dates, it’s also possible that the malevolent deity he devised for his Calormene antagonists, Tash, was consciously or unconsciously lifted from the word
taş and possibly even inspired by the name of this city.

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