The First Dark Age

End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

Robert Drews – professor of classics and history at Vanderbilt University – thinks there’s a different reason for the first Dark Ages: technology. He’s written his ideas in The End of the Bronze Age, a scholarly (and somewhat technical) analysis of the evidence unearthed to date. His idea is that the development of iron-working allowed the introduction of weapons that proved overwhelming to the armies using the softer metal. This would be Hesiod’s fifth Age of Man – the Age of Iron, when, as Wikipedia tells us…

…humans live an existence of toil and misery. Children dishonor their parents, brother fights with brother and the social contract between guest and host (xenia) is forgotten. During this age might makes right, and bad men use lies to be thought good. At the height of this age, humans no longer feel shame or indignation at wrongdoing; babies will be born with gray hair and the gods will have completely forsaken humanity: “there will be no help against evil.”

Hesiod himself wrote of this age:

For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth (6). The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis (7), with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

Plus, Drews continues, recent changes in other areas of warfare – new techniques of infantry mass attack to counter the popular chariot-based armies, and the recurved bow for example – altered the balance of power of the battlefield. The history of warfare in the ancient period and region Drews writes about is thinly researched and generally what exists is in the academic realm, so his work is important to its historiography.

While some of his notions about the age’s warfare are well defined based on archeological evidence,others – particularly those on the tactics and techniques – seem more speculative. Perhaps, given the intervening millennia, speculation is really all we have, but I still wonder what sort of evidence of mobile, military tactics one can really gleam from an ancient battlefield or the ruins of a razed city.

His hypothesis about the prevalence and relative supremacy of the war chariot in contemporary armies is also open to debate. While the war chariot was clearly the “tank” of its day – records show they were well and heavily used – the role of the foot soldier cannot be so easily dismissed; too many records of large infantry armies (or contingents to armies) show that infantry was also important, not simply as secondary forces used where terrain prevent the chariot from operating.

It’s also a question of class: chariots were the weapons of the aristocracy: expensive to obtain and maintain. Swords and shields, or bows, were more accessible to the lower classes, and particularly to the hordes of barbarian invaders and raiders.

For the casual reader, it’s a difficult book at the best of times. Drews uses German and French quotes from papers and technical publications without bothering to translate them, assuming his readers are all comfortably tri-lingual.

He also uses technical terms without condescending to explain them or give a clear historical context to them (do you know what or when LH III was? Most lay readers won’t have a clue about this undeciphered reference to the Late Helladic period or its chronology).

The period itself is generally unknown among the public, one of complex and confusing nation-states, city-states, odd-sounding names, and shifting political allegiances. Drews’ dry, detailled writing and often picayune analysis doesn’t do anything to make it less obscure or more approachable. There is no easy summary of the period prior to the collapse to put the events into a clear, concise context for the average reader.

He also provides a paucity of graphic material to illustrate his theory. There is but a single, very uninformative (and rather primitive) map, and only a handful of drawings and photographs, which don’t appear in the text until after page 140 (of 225). This makes it a struggle at times for the reader lacking a scholarly background in ancient Near-Eastern history to keep track of all the places and peoples named.

This is especially frustrating because Drews pictures the collapse as a domino-like series of events that begin in the north of Greece with the movement of the aggressive Dorians into the more civilized areas after the Trojan War, and the cascade of movements, migrations (The Ionian migrations that began it) and raids that quickly rippled across the entire region following their invasion. It’s a complicated story of holocausts, or resistance, of resettlement, a breakdown of trade and economic links, and military opportunism that deserves a fuller graphic treatment.

Still, the idea is intriguing and I stumble through the book despite having to look up many of his references or locations in other sources.

Drews also deals with some of the other theories in a comprehensive way as to dismiss them as region-wide explanations, which helps clear up ideas about the historical outcomes. I would suggest Drews has added a large piece to the puzzle of why the “Catastrophe” occurred, but  nothing in human history is so simple as to have a single cause. Other factors played a role, probably in complex relationships. It’s more likely a combination of social, environmental, meteorological and cultural changes brought about the collapse, and the change in warfare expedited everything.

One study has shown that climate changes in the Late Bronze Age affected the region and could have caused severe social stress;

By combining data from coastal Cyprus and coastal Syria, this study shows that the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. The integration of environmental and archaeological data along the Cypriot and Syrian coasts offers a first comprehensive insight into how and why things may have happened during this chaotic period. The 3.2 ka BP event underlines the agro-productive sensitivity of ancient Mediterranean societies to climate and demystifies the crisis at the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition.

A similar crash occurred in Central America in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, when the Mayan agriculture collapsed, bringing down the whole civilization. But like the Late Bronze Age collapse, there are other theories and factors that affected the result.

Drews does not mention religious beliefs of changes in that period, or whether they played any role in the upheavals.However, after the collapse, the Hebrew bible was started (the first introduction of monotheism), and many of the earlier religions of the ancient Near East underwent change or even disappeared post-catastrophe.

So what does this mean for modern readers? There are historical parallels of which we should be aware (and beware). Empires and nations collapse, and can do so suddenly and unpredictably. Nothing collapses faster than a civilization smug in its fastness, when confronted by the barbarians.

As Thomas Bertonneau writes in his review of Drews’ theories:

Modern people assume the immunity of their situation to major disturbance or – even more unthinkable – to terminal wreckage.

Starting in the mid-1960s, our times saw a major shift away from the massed-army methods of the first half of the century (World Wars I and II, Korean War) to smaller battles and smaller units, and the increasing use – and supremacy of – of guerilla tactics. Plus the widespread use of new and more lethal and effective weaponry easily deployed among non-specialized and non-technical fighters (e.g. tribal warriors in Afghanistan using modern anti-airfare and anti-tank weapons). The abrupt rise and battlefield successes of the modern barbarian hordes like ISIS parallel in both method and location the barbarian sea raiders who helped overthrow the palace-states of the Near East, three thousand years past.

The migrations of the peoples displaced by the brutality and violence of ISIS looks eerily like the migrations that happened in the late Bronze Age. And who can argue we are not seeing environmental and meteorological changes these days that have a stressful impact on cultures, trade, economics and agriculture?

As George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason (1905),

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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Author: Ian Chadwick

Writer, editor, reviewer, communications consultant, former municipal politician, researcher, ukulele musician, media relations consultant, fan of Shakespeare and Chaucer, tequila aficionado, lay historian, chess player, PC gamer, avid reader, skeptic, website tinkerer, companion to two dogs and four cats, loving husband, harmonica & bass player, passionate about my small town, and perennially curious about everything.