Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Collapse of Civilizations or Rebellions against the Elite?

Between about 1250 and 1100 BC – some narrow this down to 1180 to 1170 – the civilizations of the Middle East "collapsed." Here is a good description of this era from archaeologist Israel Finkelstein:
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.

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.
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.

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.


G. Verloren said...


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.

...the Nile's water come from rain, no?

It rains upstream, flows downhill, collects into streams and tributaries that feed into the river, and eventually flows thousands of miles downstream. If there's less rain upstream to feed into the river, the river shrinks, the water level drops, flooding is less frequent and less extensive...

Now, obviously, if there wasn't also drought in East Africa at this time, the Nile would have remained unaffected by the drought further north. But that's not the same thing as the Nile not depending on rain.

"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?"

High demand means nothing if your potential customers can't pay. We have more than enough houses and apartments sitting around unoccupied in America to shelter all of our homeless if we wanted to, but obviously that doesn't happen.

If your major trading partners are all undergoing societal collapse, it doesn't matter how much grain you have, unless you're willing to give it away for free.

G. Verloren said...


"I can believe that famine contributed to a crisis atmosphere, but I don't accept that food shortages alone led to all those changes."

Well, let's take a moment to think through a possible scenario.

A drought hits Mesopotamia, they have grain shortages, and at first they just buy surplus Egyptian grain. But prices are high, and they remain high as the drought continues. This puts continual strain on Mesopotamian economies. Yes, they can buy grain, but it's costing them more and more. It's ultimately unsustainable.

Meanwhile, grain prices in Egypt are also high, and stay high. Sure, they're making a profit in trade, but where is that money going? Not to the common people, who are stuck paying high prices for grain for years and years. It might be good for the economy overall, but it's still creating a relative imbalance of resources that may have profound effects down the road. Also, profits may be nice, but they come at the cost of giving up grain - overall supply is lower than it otherwise would be, and the buffer against possible shortage is smaller.

Back to Mesopotamia, where people are struggling to afford high priced grain imports, and where the economy in general is struggling because they're having to export goods to Egypt at a value imbalance. The drought won't end. Things aren't getting better. The economy and the people are slowly bleeding dry. There's enough food to eat, but not at affordable enough prices. Unrest is brewing, and eventually it spills over into revolt.

Once again to Egypt, where news of said revolts is having its own effect. Egyptian traders are becoming hestitant to deal with Mesopotamia. There are thieves and brigands on the roads; there are pirates on the seas; there are riots in the cities; there are soldiers massacring rebels and trying to restore order with a bronze fist. It's bad for business, even with the high prices they command for grain.

What's more, as the drought has drawn on, the Egyptian economy has shifted to focus on producing more food for trade at the expense of other goods, because grain can be exported at a high price and other goods can be imported at a low price. Except now those exports and imports are becoming shaky.

Something happens - a major collapse in Mesopotamia. Egyptian markets suddenly lose a major trade partner they've been reliant on. That's a problem.

People abroad still need grain, but they can't afford to buy, so effective demand back in Egypt plummets, as do prices. Since Egypt has shifted toward growing extra grain, there is now a massive surplus of it, but they're struggling to sell it and it's next to worthless. Simultaneously, the imports of other goods they had been relying on crash to a halt, and the lack of local Egyptian production means there is now a critical shortage. Prices skyrocket.

Now, even if Egypt turns to a different trading partner, they're still in the same situation Mesopotamia faced, just reversed - they're selling off their surplus grain at a loss to try to buy the other goods they need but can't produce enough of themselves. And there are still thieves on the roads, and marauding bands of rebels, and general unrest, and oh by the way, there are tons of refugees pouring in from Mesopotamia seeking food, safety, and stability.

The economy can be corrected by reallocating production again, but that takes time, and in the meantime more and more stress is being piled on. Unrest starts to brew, and soon revolts will be inevitable...

And absolutely nothing happened to cause all this except regional drought and a shortage of grain in Syria and Palestine.

Knock on effects can be devastating, particularly when you have a rigid system that can't quickly adapt to changes. It's like a tree in a heavy wind, or trying to correct a skid on ice - if you can't adapt to changing stresses quickly, or if you accidentally overcorrect with massive inertia, it leads to catastrophe.

David said...

I would be less skeptical of this thesis if I could think of a single strong historical example of this kind of class-based civilizational overthrow. You get a turn to banditry and peasant rebellion as a trope in Chinese history, for example, but the movements always result in a more or less rapid reassertion of the elite cultural superstructure, not in a long-lasting anarchistic peasant utopia. The peasant movements can serve mainly as adjuncts to military/barbarian takeover, most clearly in the Ming-Qing transition. I would say that's the most that could be said for the Bagaudae of the 5th century in the west as well.

Genesis is an arguably good, or at least suggestive, piece of evidence for peasant-level attitudes toward the city-based monarchies of the ancient Near East, and there the dominant desires seem to be to cling to and manipulate the urban lords as sources of sustenance, or to imitate them (consider the way famine-struck Abram and Sarah act out the same manipulation of a monarch twice, and then later, as least as I remember it, there's a passage that runs, "Now Abram had become a rich man. And there was famine in the land, and so and so son of such and such came to him, and said, 'Feed me, and I will serve you.'").

Famously both the Incas and Aztecs were weakened by disaffection and division in the face of the Spanish, which indicates a fundamental inability to attract loyalty. But in both cases the disaffection was locally focused, rather than class-based, and led by the same sorts of lords who had led the empires the Spanish were attacking.

The whiff of James Scott-esque (not to mention Khmer Rouge) fantasy in the thesis also leaves me doubting.

John said...

As for the source of the Nile, yes, rain, but rain in central Africa, which has nothing to do with the rain in Syria. So far as I know there is no data at all to suggest a drought there, so no reason to think the Nile would have been low, and so far as I know no complaints in Egypt about famine.

Sure, under the right circumstances a famine might have all sorts of political effects. But a strong government with popular support can survive such a challenge, as can a strong commercial scene or a thriving culture. Consider that because of the Little Ice Age, the amount of arable land in Scotland fell by 20% over the course of the 1600s. But Scotland in the 1700s was thriving like never before.

So far as i can see, only the most total environmental disasters (e.g., the drying of the Sahara or the Tarim Basin) dooms a well-functioning society and state. States can and do respond to crises.

G. Verloren said...

"But a strong government with popular support can survive such a challenge, as can a strong commercial scene or a thriving culture."

Key word, "can" survive such a challenge. Not "will".

Bronze Age societies were extremely vertically integrated. Their continued operation depended on top-down decision making by a very small number of elites, with the effect that the impact of every choice made was amplified drastically.

In such a scenario, a strong government responding to a crisis in the wrong way could be utterly catastrophic. Just because a solution is possible doesn't mean the people in charge will manage to seize upon it before things go to pieces. Poor judgement, stubbornness, simple ignorance, logistical and communication failures... all kinds or mistakes could be made, and their costs could be much greater than you might initially imagine.

And of course, it doesn't help that a lot of the systems of thought we take for granted today simply wouldn't have existed back then. We know so much more about how the world works, and can display so much better judgement, and yet even we still make boneheaded mistakes that cost us dearly.

How much more prone to costly mistakes must superstitious and deeply conservative bronze age leaders have been? How much less well equipped must they have been to judge the proper course of action in the face of something like a decades long drought, or unexpected economic destabilization? How much harder must it be to manage an economy that hasn't yet invented minted currency, and is still operating on a goods driven barter and tax system?

Many challenges that would be considered eminently survivable to us today might have been utterly insurmountable obstacle to bronze age societies.

Susi said...

Factor in the rigidity that religion brings on top of the elitism that comes with an unequal society. I think of the French Revolution and the Egalitarian movement.
Even low level disease can foment unrest. I think of the frustration that raising many children with a low survival rate brings. Increase the death rate from unknown disease, blamed by religion, on the population not giving enough to the Religious Elite.
Perhaps gradually the workers left the cities and let the cities die. Robin Hood was a parable, warning the Elite and suggesting an alternative life for the lower classes.

David said...

I suppose one could say that the whole period from the dawn of civilization to the early Middle Ages represents a time of almost Darwinian struggle, in which the survivors were those civilizations that developed ideological systems that were capable of attracting loyalty/identification in a way that could survive upheavals, environmental, social, or otherwise. In this sense, the old clan/town gods and propitiation cults of the Bronze Age failed. But the Chinese were able to turn their old Bronze Age system into a system of ethics that experience proved was remarkably durable, and likewise Hinduism and Judaism were able to turn old cults of sacrifice and propitiation into a search for cosmic truth. Platonism, Hermeticism, Zoroastrianism, and others may represent gestures in the same direction from other sources that ended up getting swamped in the Abrahamic tide.

Whatever happened to the Bronze Age Near Eastern empires, these later systems were strong enough that lower/working class embitterment alone has rarely if ever succeeded in bringing them down. There needed to be some replacement ideology, and a ruling class ready to transform itself and/or be replaced in place, so to speak.

JustPeachy said...

I wish I could find it again, maybe it was in the book: Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, but I recall reading a fascinating account of the fall of the Roman Empire, focused on what happened to agriculture. From there at the bottom, things were pretty OK. The big cities collapsed, of course, and people moved out to the countryside. The big slave-worked farm estates also collapsed, and regular people got to own and work their own patch of land again.

Or perhaps I'm remembering it wrong?