Texts in Context:
The Late Bronze Age Collapse

By Gabriel Blanchard

All earthly things come to an end. The Late Bronze Age was no exception; and when it fell, it left a dent in literature.

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

They’ve Fallen And They Can’t Get Up

We have seen the Bronze Age learn to write and grow to maturity. It is now time to send it packing.

The crisis in which the Late Bronze Age ended is not well understood; thanks to the time scale involved, we do not even have all the pieces of the puzzle. More unusually, the decline seems to have been remarkably abrupt: it looks as though, within the span of a mere fifty years (1200-1150 BC), the wisdom of Sumer, the valor of the Hittites, and the glory of Mycenæ saw their last nightfall.*

Sumer crumbled with arresting finality. Beginning in the Iron Age, southern Mesopotamia was ruled by outside powers, and would be for millennia. First Assyria, then Babylon, then the Persians, then Alexander … the closest thing to self-rule Sumer has ever seen again did not come until the founding of the Kingdom of Iraq, in 1932.

Ironically, since they appear to have been the first people of the Ancient Near East to discover how to smelt iron, much the same is true of the Hittites. The Hittite New Kingdom, like its predecessors, had quarreled with Egypt for dominance over the Levantine coast, and won a major victory at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC; yet pressure from the waxing power of Assyria and internal dynastic disputes destabilized the Hittites in a surprisingly short period of time, and by about 1180 BC, their traditional capital of Hattusa had been burned to the ground. A handful of Syro-Hittite successor states lingered for a few decades, until they were absorbed by the Assyrians; but, unlike the Egyptians, the Hittites never rose again as a world power.

The House of Atreus

In the Ægean basin, it is believed that a large number of cities were, for unclear reasons, destroyed by fire. That is, the reasons are in most cases unclear: the Greeks had, or so they say, a very particular reason for burning Wilusa to the ground after a ten-year siege. As for the Greeks themselves, the Mycenæan palace economy** appears to have been ruined at this time, and its associated bookkeeping script, Linear B, fell into disuse accordingly. Greek would not be a written language again for four hundred years.

The Greeks of the classical era (ca. 500-300 BC) attributed the fall of Mycenæan Greece to an invasion by another branch of their own ethnicity, the Dorians. The archæological evidence for this is murky at best, but the literary tradition is sufficiently strong that it has not been altogether dismissed.

The Land of the Nile

Egypt fared better than most places. It too had a New Kingdom: powerful, illustrious, a high-water mark in their history. It lasted for three dynasties, beginning with the Eighteenth, which featured several of its most famous figures, including Hatshepsut, a rare female Pharaoh. (As Will Cuppy put it in his Decline and Fall: “There was an unbroken tradition that only a king could rule Egypt … She simply declared herself King of Egypt and that was that.”) One of the Eighteenth Dynasty’s later members, Akhenaten, is especially worthy of note: he had a private religion centered on the sun god, and worship focused principally on the Aten or sun-disc, which he regarded not as the deity itself but the deity’s vehicle—a little like the Ark of the Covenant. This much wasn’t so abnormal for a pharaoh, but Akhenaten went much further, eventually trying to suppress the worship of other deities, which from an Egyptian perspective was both ridiculous and an outrage. Aten-ism was rapidly extinguished after Akhenaten’s death, which is why his son and heir, Tutankhaten (“living image of the Aten“), had his name re-theophorized to reflect the more popular sun god Amun, making it Tutankhamun.

Regardless, Egypt too was doomed to recede for a time. After holding out for almost a century longer than Mycenæ or the Hittites, with the death of Ramesses IX in 1077 BC, in most historians’ view, the Egyptian New Kingdom gave way to a time of fractured, petty realms, known as the Third Intermediate Period.

Historians long blamed this wave of destruction on the Eqwesh, Peleset, Shekelesh, Sherden, Lukka, Karkiya, Teresh, Tjeker, Denyen, and Weshesh (as we surely all have done when put on the spot). Collectively, these groups are known as the Sea Peoples.

“By the Barbarous King So Rudely Forced”

We can only guess at who most of the Sea Peoples were. Indeed, there is some question as to whether they were all peoples, in the sense of ethnicities—some of these words may be names for particular types of mercenaries, for instance. A few identities are broadly, if tentatively, agreed upon: the Peleset are thought to be the same as the Philistines of the Biblical books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings; the Sherden and Shekelesh are speculated to have come from Sardinia and Sicily, respectively; Eqwesh and Denyen may be Egyptian adaptations of Achaiwoi [Ἀχαιϝοί]† and Danaoi [Δαναοί], or Achæans and Danaans, as these groups are called in Homer. But little can be discerned with confidence from a name alone.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.

Exactly how successful the Sea Peoples were in their attack on Egypt is also not known for certain. Ramesses II of the Nineteenth Dynasty claimed to have repelled a grand invading force of Sherden, Shekelesh, and Lukka pirates a few decades before the general crisis began; but this is the same Ramesses II who, after he got home from the Battle of Kadesh, set up lots of monuments back home in Egypt to tell everyone how gloriously he defeated the Hittites, while the Hittites recorded in their annals that what he had done was more along the lines of “narrowly survive and go home with a sheepish look on his face.” Still, his claims do suggest that these Sea Peoples were around already in the thirteenth century, and likely were natives of the Mediterranean.

Now’s Not Good, Yersinia Pestis, Can You Call Again Later?

More importantly, the Sea Peoples were not the sole cause of the Late Bronze Age collapse, any more than the smorgasbord of incoming Goths in the fifth century AD were the only cause of Rome’s. A catastrophic drought appears to have struck the region in the twelfth century BC: this in turn would have caused massive crop failures. Worse, it appears that this may have been not only a drought, but a general change in the regional climate, placing long-term stress on economies adapted to different conditions. The areas we’re concerned with became cooler, and therefore more arid: this may seem counterintuitive (since we tend to think of deserts as hot), but warm air is what causes the evaporation needed to form clouds and thus get rain from one place to another, so that cooling and drying frequently go together at a climatic level.

There are even signs that the Mediterranean’s favorite enemy, bubonic plague, put in an appearance. People weakened by thirst and hunger, many of them under the strain of travel, would get sick far more easily; and thanks to both migration and that active, sophisticated trade network we discussed last week, Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes plague, and which thrives in cooler temperatures) could get complimentary transport to the next big population center. In the changing weather, a now-extinct strain appears to have made its way around the Near East: something it would not return to do until the reign of Justinian, sixteen centuries later.

But We Were Throwing an Iron Age …

But what about iron? What was so special about it—could it cut bronze or something? No. That is, steel, which is developed from iron, might be able to cut bronze; but early wrought iron of the kind discovered in antiquity could not do so (and reliable techniques for making steel were still a few centuries away). Nor, to be clear, was iron totally unknown before the Late Bronze Age collapse; people had been using the rare specimens of meteoric iron that they found for generations. The advantage of bronze was that it could be worked without the extreme heat required to craft things from iron. But bronze, you will remember, is an alloy; you need copper and tin to make it, and tin is not very common—in the Near East, while there are some minor sources of tin ore nearby, the closest major sources to mine tin are the northwestern Iberian peninsula (now northern Portugal and northwestern Spain) and the Hindu Kush mountains (in the center of modern Afghanistan).

Iron, however, is an element—the fourth-most common in the earth’s crust. Once you have an iron mine, all one of the ingredients for ironmongery are at your disposal. This means that once a group learns to work it, iron is far easier and faster to make into weapons and armor than bronze, cutting down the process of forging or repairing weaponry and armor by months; and in a world where armies travel on foot, even saving a few hours can mean everything.

A Closing Teaser

One last note should be put in about the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, before we finish this chapter and proceed to the next. It concerns a people of the Near East—relatives, maybe, of the Amorite clan known as the Hyksos, who ruled Egypt as its fifteenth dynasty. There is a good deal of debate surrounding how they got to this little strip of land, which in any case spent much of its existence as a northerly province of Egypt. Many scholars think they were always there, and distinguished themselves from their Phoenician neighbors over time, primarily by cultural practices rather than being of different ancestry. Others point to a smattering of possible allusions in a handful of ancient documents, such as the Amarna Letters sent to Akhenaten, begging him to send military aid at once, lest the whole region be conquered by the Habiru.

Regardless, look closely just for a moment at the hilly region in between the easternmost shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. No later than about 1000 BC (likely far earlier), this country was inhabited by a people who called themselves Yiśr’elim [יִשְׂרְאֵלִים]; today, we pronounce this name “Israelites.” They will be important later.

*More recent scholarship has disputed this. The crisis of the Late Bronze Age remains the consensus, but whether it was really so rapid or total is less certain. The YouTube channel Invicta, which mostly creates videos about ancient historical topics, has one on this subject: its spicy title notwithstanding, the language is clean, but be aware, its runtime is almost an hour and a half!
**In a palace economy, resources produced in the surrounding countryside (primarily crops, but also metallic ores, etc.) were brought in to a central administrative authority (the palace), and redistributed from there to the populace, both urban and rural. In this way, palace economies may have somewhat resembled the mercantile-colonial system of the Early Modern period (ca. 1500-1800).
†The letter that looks like a misaligned capital f is the archaic Greek letter digamma, so named because it looked like a doubled gamma (capital gamma, the oldest form, being shaped like this: Γ, and digamma like this: Ϝ / ϝ). The w-sound it represented dropped out of most Greek dialects before Homer, so it is rarely encountered even by students of classical Greek.
‡Only oxygen, silicon, and aluminum are more abundant. A lot of earth’s crust is made up of silicon dioxide, better known by its stage name, “sand.” (However, this only applies to sand found inland. Beach sand is mainly the ground-down remains of corals and shells.)

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you liked this piece, and have just joined us for this look back through history, you might be interested in our earlier installment on prehistory and the Stone Age. Alternatively, you might prefer to take a look at some of the surviving literature of the Bronze Age, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, or of those Iron Age poets who preserve memories of the world before, like Homer, Hesiod, Æsop perhaps, and maybe even Confucius. Thanks for reading the Journal!

Published on 25th March, 2024. Page image of a ruined temple in Luxor, Egypt (known to the Greeks as Thebes, and often the capital of Egypt); Luxor contains one of several copies of a poem celebrating the “victory” of Pharaoh Ramesses II over the Hittite Empire at the Battle of Kadesh; photographed by Diego Delso in 2022, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license (source).

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