Ancient History & Civilisation

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We have seen that for more than three hundred years during the Late Bronze Age—from about the time of Hatshepsut’s reign beginning about 1500 BC until the time that everything collapsed after 1200 BC—the Mediterranean region played host to a complex international world in which Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.

However, even after all that has been said, we must acknowledge our inability to determine with certainty the precise cause (or multitude of causes) for the collapse of civilizations and the transition from the end of the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, or even to definitively identify the origins and motivations of the Sea Peoples. Nevertheless, if we pull together the threads of evidence that have been presented throughout our discussions, there are some things that we can say about this pivotal period with relative confidence.

For instance, we have reasonably good evidence that at least some international contacts and perhaps trade continued right up until the sudden end of the era, and possibly even beyond (if recent studies are any indication).1 This is shown, for instance, by the last letters in the Ugarit archives documenting contacts with Cyprus, Egypt, the Hittites, and the Aegean, as well as by the gifts sent by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah to the king of Ugarit just a few decades, at most, before the city was destroyed. At the very least, there is no evidence of a discernible decrease in contact and trade—except perhaps for momentary fluctuations in intensity—across the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean until the troubles began.

But then, the world as they had known it for more than three centuries collapsed and essentially vanished. As we have seen, the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, an area that extended from Italy and Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, was a fluid event, taking place over the course of several decades and perhaps even up to a century, not an occurrence tied to a specific year. But the eighth year of the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III—1177 BC, to be specific, according to the chronology currently used by most modern Egyptologists—stands out and is the most representative of the entire collapse. For it was in that year, according to the Egyptian records, that the Sea Peoples came sweeping through the region, wreaking havoc for a second time. It was a year when great land and sea battles were fought in the Nile delta; a year when Egypt struggled for its very survival; a year by which time some of the high-flying civilizations of the Bronze Age had already come to a crashing halt.

In fact, one might argue that 1177 BC is to the end of the Late Bronze Age as AD 476 is to the end of Rome and the western Roman Empire. That is to say, both are dates to which modern scholars can conveniently point as the end of a major era. Italy was invaded and Rome was sacked several times during the fifth century AD, including in AD 410 by Alaric and the Visigoths and in AD 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals. There were also many other reasons why Rome fell, in addition to these attacks, and the story is much more complex, as any Roman historian will readily attest. However, it is convenient, and considered acceptable academic shorthand, to link the invasion by Odoacer and the Ostragoths in AD 476 with the end of Rome’s glory days.

The end of the Late Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron Age is a similar case, insofar as the collapse and transition was a rolling event, taking place between approximately 1225 and 1175 BC or, in some places, as late as 1130 BC. However, the second invasion by the Sea Peoples, ending in their cataclysmic fight against the Egyptians under Ramses III during the eighth year of his reign, in 1177 BC, is a reasonable benchmark and allows us to put a finite date on a rather elusive pivotal moment and the end of an age. We can say with certainty that the far-reaching civilizations that were still flourishing in the Aegean and the ancient Near East in 1225 BC had begun to vanish by 1177 BC and were almost completely gone by 1130 BC. The mighty Bronze Age kingdoms and empires were gradually replaced by smaller city-states during the following Early Iron Age. Consequently, our picture of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world of 1200 BC is quite different from that of 1100 BC and completely different from that of 1000 BC.

We have firm evidence that it took decades, and even centuries in some areas, for the people in these regions to rebuild and reclaim their societies, and to forge new lives that would bring them back up out of the darkness into which they had been plunged. Jack Davis of the University of Cincinnati has pointed out, for instance, that “the destruction to the Palace of Nestor ca. 1180 BC was so devastating that neither the palace nor the community subsequently recovered…. The area of the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos remained, as a whole in fact, severely depopulated for nearly a millennium.”2 Joseph Maran, of the University of Heidelberg, has further noted that, although we don’t know how contemporaneous the final destructions actually were in Greece, it is clear that after the catastrophes were over, “there were no palaces, the use of writing as well as all administrative structures came to an end, and the concept of a supreme ruler, the wanax, disappeared from the range of political institutions of Ancient Greece.”3 In terms of literacy and writing, the same holds true for Ugarit and the other entities that had flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, for with their end came also the end of cuneiform writing in the Levant, replaced by other, perhaps more useful or convenient, writing systems.4

In addition to the artifacts, it is through writing that we have tangible, concrete evidence for the interconnectedness and globalization of these regions during those years, particularly in terms of explicit relationships between the specific individuals named in the letters. Especially important are the archive of letters at Amarna in Egypt, from the time of the pharaohs Amenhotep III and Akhenaten in the mid-fourteenth century BC, the archives at Ugarit in north Syria during the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries, and those at Hattusa in Anatolia during the fourteenth–twelfth centuries. The letters in these various archives document the fact that numerous types of networks were in simultaneous existence in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean region during the Late Bronze Age, including diplomatic networks, commercial networks, transportation networks, and communication networks, all of which were needed to keep the globalized economy of that time functioning and flowing smoothly. The cutting, or even partial dismantling, of those related networks would have had a disastrous effect back then, just as it would on our world today.

However, as was the case with the fall of the western Roman Empire, the end of the Bronze Age empires in the Eastern Mediterranean was not the result of a single invasion or cause, but came about because of multiple incursions and manifold reasons. Many of the same invaders responsible for the destructions in 1177 BC had been active during the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BC, thirty years earlier. Earthquakes, drought, and other natural disasters had also ravaged the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean for decades. Therefore, no single incident can really be imagined to have brought about the end of the Bronze Age; rather, the end must have come as the consequence of a complex series of events that reverberated throughout the interconnected kingdoms and empires of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and eventually led to a collapse of the entire system, as we have seen.

In addition to the loss of populations and the collapse of ordinary buildings and palaces alike, it seems likely that there was a loss, or at least a significant decline, in the relationships among the various kingdoms of the region. Even if not all of the places crashed and collapsed at exactly the same time, by the mid-twelfth century BC they had lost their interconnectedness and the globalization that had existed, especially during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. As Marc Van De Mieroop of Columbia University has said, the elites lost the international framework and the diplomatic contacts that had supported them, at the same time as foreign goods and ideas stopped arriving.5 They now had to start afresh.

When the world emerged from the collapse of the Bronze Age, it was indeed a new age, including new opportunities for growth, particularly with the demise of the Hittites and the decline of the Egyptians, who, in addition to ruling their own regions, had also between them controlled most of Syria and Canaan for much of the Late Bronze Age.6 Although there was a certain amount of continuity in some areas, particularly with the Neo-Assyrians in Mesopotamia, overall it was time for a new set of powers and a fresh start with new civilizations, including the Neo-Hittites in southeastern Anatolia, north Syria, and points farther east; the Phoenicians, Philistines, and Israelites in what had once been Canaan; and the Greeks in geometric, archaic, and then classical Greece. Out of the ashes of the old world came the alphabet and other inventions, not to mention a dramatic increase in the use of iron, which gave its name to the new era—the Iron Age. It is a cycle that the world has seen time and time again, and that many have come to believe is an inexorable process: the rise and fall of empires, followed by the rise of new empires, which eventually fall and are replaced in turn by even newer empires, in a repeated cadence of birth, growth and evolution, decay or destruction, and ultimately renewal in a new form.

One of the most interesting, and fertile, fields of current research on the ancient world lies in the consideration of what happens after civilizations collapse, “beyond collapse,” but this is a topic for another book.7 An example of this research is the work of William Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Lycoming College, who said of the ensuing period in the region of Canaan: “Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn about the ‘Dark Age’ … is that it was nothing of the sort. Gradually being illuminated by archaeological discovery and research, [this period] emerges rather as the catalyst of a new age—one that would build upon the ruins of Canaanite civilization and would bequeath to the modern Western world a cultural heritage, especially through the Phoenicians and Israelites, of which we are still the benefactors.”8

Moreover, as Christopher Monroe has stated, “all civilizations eventually experience violent restructuring of material and ideological realities such as destruction or re-creation.”9 We see this in the constant rise and fall of empires over time, including the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, and others, and we should not think that our current world is invulnerable, for we are in fact more susceptible than we might wish to think. While the 2008 collapse of Wall Street in the United States pales in comparison to the collapse of the entire Late Bronze Age Mediterranean world, there were those who warned that something similar could take place if the banking institutions with a global reach were not bailed out immediately. For instance, the Washington Post quoted Robert B. Zoellick, then the president of the World Bank, as saying that “the global financial system may have reached a ‘tipping point,’ ” which he defined as “the moment when a crisis cascades into a full-blown meltdown and becomes extremely difficult for governments to contain.”10 In a complex system such as our world today, this is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to a collapse.


The period of the Late Bronze Age has rightfully been hailed as one of the golden ages in the history of the world, and as a period during which an early global economy successfully flourished. So we might ask, would the history of the world have taken a different turn, or followed a different path, if the civilizations in these regions had not come to an end? What if the series of earthquakes in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean had not taken place? What if there had been no drought, no famine, no migrants or invaders? Would the Late Bronze Age have eventually come to an end anyway, since all civilizations seem to rise and fall? Would any of the developments that followed have eventually come about no matter what? Would progress have continued? Would additional advances in technology, literature, and politics have been made centuries earlier than they actually were?

Of course, these are rhetorical questions, and ones that cannot be answered, because the Bronze Age civilizations did come to an end and development did essentially have to begin completely anew in areas from Greece to the Levant and beyond. As a result, new peoples and/or new city-states like the Israelites, Aramaeans, and Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean, and later the Athenians and Spartans in Greece, were able to establish themselves. From them eventually came fresh developments and innovative ideas, such as the alphabet, monotheistic religion, and eventually democracy. Sometimes it takes a large-scale wildfire to help renew the ecosystem of an old-growth forest and allow it to thrive afresh.

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