Texts in Context:
The Age of
the Bronze Men

By Gabriel Blanchard

The atmosphere of the Bronze Age, alien as it is to us today, may appear savage at first glance; but this belies a very different quality that can be discerned in its literature ...

This post is part of a series on history and historiography. Prior installments include:
How to History (the nature of history as a field of study)
The Crocodile of Chronology (how to divide history into periods, and why it doesn’t matter)
History & Its Discontents (how to recognize pseudo-history)
The Age of Saturn (prehistory and the Stone Age)
Now We’re Getting Somewhen (the earliest Bronze Age legends and the invention of writing)

The Epic Ethos

So! The Bronze Age proper—the third age of Hesiod, the last one during which a few of the gods lingered on earth, and the next-to-last one that was any good (if cranky old men are to be believed, which they are not). What was its deal?

Certain self-styled advocates of a return to Bronze Age values would have us believe that its deal was one of violent, unreflective self-glorification—something reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian: “What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.” Now, daily life probably was more permissive about violence in the Bronze Age than it is today. But even so, it seems worth saying in so many words: Conan the Barbarian is just pretend. Looking to him as a guide to how ancient European societies lived is like trying to form an idea of modern policing from Batman.

Those who wish to cling to egoistic violence as a positive value may protest at this, claiming genuinely Bronze Age figures like Gilgamesh or Achilles as their exemplars. Momentarily passing over the fact that most of the works we have about Bronze Age heroes were composed during the Iron Age, these may seem promisingly id-affirming: Gilgamesh is never really punished directly, not even for insulting the gods, and the central theme of the Iliad, expressed in its first word, is mēnis [μῆνις], “wrath.”* However, these readings are shallow; they really only betray an insensitivity to the texts in question. Let’s take them one at at time.

The Wrath of Achilles

The Iliad is indeed about the wrath of Achilles. But what does that wrath produce, and how does it conclude?

The Iliad consists in twenty-four books. For the first twenty-three, the turns in the Iliad all come through some type of transgression. As Book I opens, the Greek general Agamemnon shames Chryses, a suppliant priest of Apollo, by refusing to let him ransom his daughter from concubinage; this is not only cruel, but borderline sacrilege, first against Apollo but also against Zeus (the protector of suppliants). When Apollo curses the Greeks and the ransom is allowed after all, Agamemnon then humiliates Achilles, who in response refuses to fight with the Greeks as he is supposed to. In Book IV, a new offensive against Troy begins, prompted by a Trojan archer disgracefully shooting Menelaus (Helen’s lawful husband) during what was supposed to be single combat. After a Greek advance, the Trojans rally under Hector and press their advantage, until Book XVI.

At this point, Patroclus deceives both sides to revive the Greeks’ morale: he pretends to be Achilles, disguised in his armor. But Patroclus then breaks a promise he made Achilles in exchange for the use of the armor, and is killed by Hector. Devastated, Achilles’ wrath is now aroused (Books XVII-XVIII): he avenges Patroclus, killing Hector and disgracing his corpse, dragging it behind his chariot for days, another religious outrage (Books XIX-XXIII). Both the circumstances that provoke Achilles’ wrath, and the wrath itself, are offenses against the gods that produce nothing but misery and bloodshed—including the foreshadowing of Achilles’s own rapidly approaching death.


Book XXIV is different, and closes the action of the epic. Priam, the King of Troy and bereaved father of Hector, steals into the Greek camp and begs for the body of his son from Achilles—if begs is the right word:

Think of thy father, and this face behold!
See him in me, as helpless and as old;
Though not so wretched: there he yields to me,
The first of men in sovereign misery.
Thus forced to kneel, thus grovelling to embrace
The scourge and ruin of my realm and race:
Suppliant my children’s murderer to implore,
And kiss those hands yet reeking with their gore!

The parallels to Agamemnon’s refusal of Chryses in Book I (and for even less cause than Achilles could now claim) seem irresistible. Surely the Bronze Age brute will, at best, send Priam back with mockery, “hearing the lamentation” …

But great Achilles different passions rend,
And now his sire he mourns, and now his friend.
The infectious softness through the heroes ran;
One universal solemn shower began;
They bore as heroes, but they felt as man.

Achilles receives Priam honorably, dines with him, and grants him Hector’s body. The conclusion of the epic is the defusing of the hero’s all-but-divine wrath and his return to the law, not endless self-assertion against the law. And it is a law that is, if anything, both more demanding and more gracious than our modern theory of just warfare.** If any of us had the opportunity to witness a few days of Bronze Age life in Mycenæ or Pylos or Thebes (and were, ex hypothesi, fluent in Mycenæan Greek), it seems likely that what would strike us most about people’s behavior would not be its violent barbarity, but its elaborate courtesy.

Shūtur Eli Sharrī

Alright; what about the older story, the Gilgamesh? Apparently even the Greeks weren’t immune, but surely the Sumerians, worshipers of inhuman monstrosities like Tiamat and Ereshkigal, would display a little more steel.

... the withered men that saw
From their pedantic Babylon
The careless planets in their courses,
The stars fade out where the moon comes.
And took their tablets and did sums ...

The figure of Gilgamesh does seem like a good place to start (and is properly Bronze Age rather than Iron Age). He had some sort of historical antecedent, but had become a character all his own, a little like King Arthur; two-thirds god,† he appears in an epic that was once titled Shūtur Eli Sharrī, “Surpassing All Other Kings.” This predates the Iliad by hundreds, perhaps a thousand years.

Gilgamesh was the King of Uruk, one of the city-states of Sumer. Due to his arrogance, the gods created a wild man, Enkidu, who was caught and tamed by a sacred prostitute in order to challenge Gilgamesh as the people’s champion. Gilgamesh narrowly won the fight, and the two became fast friends. The pair went on to defeat Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest where the gods dwelt; impressed, Inanna, goddess of love and violence (later blended with Ishtar), offered to be Gilgamesh’s wife, but he scorned her. Furious at the humiliation, Inanna demanded the Heavenly Bull from her father to punish them, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed this as well. At this point, the gods collectively determined that something had to be done, and decreed that Enkidu should die; after a twelve-day sickness, he expired.

“Enkidu Whom I Love Is Dust”

What follows, for all its alien idiom, is surely one of the most human and moving passages in literature. In his grief, Gilgamesh seeks out Siduri, a divine alewife; when she sees him, he looks so drawn and desperate she takes him for a criminal, and goes to bar her door against him. Gilgamesh thrusts his foot in the door before she can get it completely shut, and tries to threaten her, boasting of his feats of strength against Humbaba and the Bull—but then:

Then Siduri said to him, “If you are that Gilgamesh who seized and killed the Bull of Heaven, who killed the watchman of the Cedar Forest, why are your cheeks so starved and why is your face so drawn? Why is despair in your heart?” Gilgamesh answered her, “And why should not my cheeks be starved and my face drawn? My friend, my younger brother, who seized and killed the Bull of Heaven and overthrew Humbaba in the Cedar Forest, my friend, who was very dear to me and who endured dangers beside me, Enkidu my brother, whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him. I wept for him seven days and nights, till the worm fastened on him.”

She answered, “Gilgamesh, when the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained. As for you, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” But Gilgamesh said to Siduri, “How can I be silent, how can I rest, when Enkidu whom I love is dust, and I too shall die and be laid in the earth for ever?”‡

Go as far back as you please: you will not find celebrations of selfishness, cruelty, or coldness anywhere; and, contrary to widespread belief, you will find excuses for callousness to the poor and the stranger less and less the more deeply you plumb the annals of history. Nor will most modern ideas of masculinity as unemotional pass muster among the ancients—if anything, extravagant melodrama is their baseline of sincerity. Unreflective celebrations of war and conquest, yes, you will find those. But when a warrior was expected, not only to receive the commander of the enemy forces as a guest of honor, but to grieve with him for the son that he the warrior had just killed? Well, suffice it to say, war apparently meant something very different when it was fought with brazen spears.

*This term is occasionally translated “rage.” In the present author’s opinion, “wrath” is the best English equivalent, as μῆνις is no ordinary kind of anger but typically describes the wrath of the gods.
**Not that our Bronze Age forebears lived up to their society’s ideals, any more than we live up to ours. But, at the risk of advancing a controversial thesis, skillful depictions of characters who live up to such ideals at least some of the time can be an effective rebuke of injustice; questioning or attacking the ideals themselves, while sometimes necessary, is more easily used to foster mere cynicism.
†How a person could contrive to have an ancestry that called for measurement in multiples or fractions of three, instead of the more usual two, is beyond the scope of this piece.
‡This translation was offered online, unfortunately without specifying the name of the translator. The passage has been abridged.

Gabriel Blanchard has worked for CLT since 2019 as its Shūtur eli Tupsharrī, “surpassing all other editors” (more conventionally rendered “editor at large”). He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to tune in to our podcast, Anchored. You might also enjoy our profiles of Thucydides, Marie de France, Søren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Jorge Luis Borges, and the other men and women of our Author Bank. Thank you for reading the Journal and for supporting CLT.

Published on 11th March, 2024. Quotations from the Iliad come from Alexander Pope’s translation. Page image of the Trundholm sun chariot, a bronze sculpture with partially preserved gilding on one side; it was discovered in 1902, sunk in a peat bog in Denmark, and dated to between 1500 and 1300 BC (used under a CC BY SA 3.0 license—source). Though this is not confirmed, some scholars believe that the sculpture also contained encoded information on the Metonic cycle. This is a nineteen-year cycle, typically used by cultures with lunisolar calendars (e.g. the Hebrew calendar): it predicts when to insert the thirteenth “leap month” that keeps the calendar from falling too far out of step with the seasons. The Metonic cycle is so well designed that it produces a surplus of just over two hours per cycle, thus amounting to less than half a day of error per century—not bad for people working over two thousand years before the invention of the calculator!

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