In a short period of time the entire world of the Bronze Age crumbled. The Hittite empire, Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Mycenaean culture in Greece, the copper producing kingdom located on the island of Cyprus, the great trade emporium of Ugarit on the Syrian coast and the Canaanite city-states under Egyptian hegemony – all disappeared and only after a while were replaced by the territorial kingdoms of the Iron Age, including Israel and Judah.Robert Drews wrote,
Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.But what did this crisis actually entail? Well, the fall of governments, certainly, and the abandonment or near-abandonment of certain royal capitals. The sacking of cities. From the years that follow we find fewer extravagant royal tombs, fewer big cities, fewer luxurious imported goods. There are hints of people moving around, but these are not entirely convincing and there does not seem to be any really large-scale migration or invasion. A few places, including mainland Greece, saw real economic catastrophes and a decline in population, but in most places the lives of the peasants seem to have gone on pretty well. One change is that archaeologists find much less evidence of writing; fewer royal archives, and no great caches of letters between merchants.
Of late there have been two theories about what happened. One is climate change, in this case a severe, long-lasting drought. The other is revolt. My readers know that I am skeptical of climate change as an explanation for everything. It does seem like the rains failed for years in Syria and Palestine, but the crisis also profoundly affected Egypt, which depends on the Nile rather than the rain and where there was not food shortage at all. How, exactly, did a famine in Palestine weaken the government of Egypt, which suddenly found its major export (grain) in great demand across the region? I can believe that famine contributed to a crisis atmosphere, but I don't accept that food shortages alone led to all those changes.
Egyptian relief showing attack by the Sea Peoples, c. 1200 BC
So let me give a hearing to the other theory, as expressed in a NY Times Op-Ed by Annalee Newitz.
The Bronze Age was also a time of extreme inequality. Cities were ruled by wealthy urban aristocrats who controlled trade, relied on various kinds of forced labor, and placed heavy tax burdens on their client states and agricultural villages. When times got hard, the commoners in Ugarit and Mycenae felt the squeeze.I would understand this explanation in terms of a base/superstructure model. Under this model, the lives of most people had little to do with the luxurious civilization of the aristocrats and merchant princes. We call it the Bronze Age, but in fact most tools were still made of stone, bone, or wood, and the elaborate trade networks set up to transport tin and copper hundreds of miles never even touched the average peasant.
Historians and archaeologists don’t know all the reasons these cities collapsed. But there is evidence that both burned to the ground in the 1100s B.C.E., their sumptuous palaces toppled and abandoned. There are signs of earthquakes, too. For centuries after these events, there are almost no written records. It was if literacy and culture evaporated along with the kingdoms themselves.
Until recently, historians blamed this collapse on marauders known as the Sea People. Supposedly these Sea People sacked the cities, leaving the once-great kingdoms of the Mediterranean to be menaced by pirates or worse.
New research has challenged this whole story. Eric Cline, a classicist at George Washington University and author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, explained that there’s no evidence of invaders coming from the outside at Mycenae, so violence must have come from within. Given what’s known about these societies, he concludes that the city’s lower classes may have gotten fed up and burned it all down. Josephine Quinn, an archaeologist at University of Oxford, agrees. “The whole Bronze Age system produces a lot of discontent,” she told me.
The best way I know of to understand what such a society might have been like is Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, in which ordinary Maya peasants regard the great cities as terrifying places where they might be sacrificed, and the elites who live in them as foreign predators. Maya civilization rose, thrived for more than a thousand years, and then collapsed, without so far as we can tell having the slightest impact on the lives of many ordinary farmers. Some years ago now I wrote this about the mound cities of ancient North America:
But not all Indians built mounds. At some times the habit was confined to a small area, at others it was widely distributed. But in every case the habit eventually faded away, and by 1720 it had completely disappeared. It seems that Indians embarked many times on experiments in “high” civilization, with big towns, massive earthworks, elaborate celestial observatories, and workshops of professional artisans turning out fabulous regalia for a powerful elite, and then a few generations later just walked away from it. They not only didn’t seem to regret giving up civilization, they proudly embraced life in the woods. One wonders if there was a long-standing tension between the power that the elites of a mound city could amass and the desire of others to live free. When disease wiped out the last of the mound cities in the late 1500s, only the freedom-loving, anti-city people remained. And not only did they hate cities and central power, they forgot about their existence as quickly as they could.One way to imagine the Bronze Age collapse is to suppose that most people had very little investment in the great palaces and temples, or the records kept by their scribes. When things got bad, they decided that they had had enough of paying taxes to support the elite they despised, so they rose up and burned the citadels. Perhaps some of them joined robber bands and attacked other towns; perhaps warlords were able to organize some of this anger into armies that went on sprees of destruction. Some people certainly turned pirate, bringing seaborne commerce to a near standstill and sacking many coastal places. Some of these pirates even attacked Egypt; the Egyptians called them the Sea Peoples and gave them tribal names, but so far as we can tell they were just regular folks from Cyprus or Palestine who had gone rogue.
In a world where the elite controlled all the official, sanctioned levers of power, the only way for the poor to fight back was by turning criminal: piracy, banditry, rebellion. If the Bronze Age elites had had never had much legitimacy in the eyes of many people, and whatever they had was shredded by famine or defeat, widespread rebellion seems perfectly plausible to me. Whether that is enough to explain all the chaos and change of this period is another question.