Monday, 7 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part III

Kudurru of one of the last Kassite kings
This is the third post of a series about the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Click here for the links to the first and second posts.

In the east, the troubles appear to have less to do with famines and earthquakes and more to do with human frailties. The difficult times may have prompted the assassination of the powerful Assyrian king, Tukulti-Ninurta I, but assassination was not uncommon. The wars that followed between Assyria and Babylon were pointless and persistent and the collapse of the Kassite Dynasty in Babylon was the perfectly natural result of being under attack from Assyria and Elam. But the fall of the Egyptian and Hittite empires had put events in motion. Free from imperial control the newly independent peoples in Syria and Palestine may have provided inspiration to others, or possibly the migrations of the Sea Peoples, despite probably being small in numbers, may have pushed other tribes further inland.

“…The people ate one another's flesh to save their lives. Like a flood's ravaging water the Aramean rulers became strong, plundered the crops of Assyria, conquered and took many fortified cities of Assyria.” Inscription by Tigleth-Pileser I describing the attacks of the Arameans. The translation is taken from here.

Tiglath-Pileser III
When Assyria next has a strong military commander (Tiglath-Pileser I in the year 1114BC) the Babylonian threat has passed but a new people, the Arameans, inhabit Syria. Tiglath-Pileser reported that he devastated them in retaliation for their attacks on Assyria but the Arameans were to be a threat for several hundred years and it was not until around 732BC during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III that the Arameans were finally crushed by Assyria.

After the chaos surrounding the end of the Bronze Age, the old empires had either fallen, gone into terminal decline or been locked in perpetual conflict. This allowed the areas at the edges of civilisation to gain their independence and for new ideas, cultures and peoples to thrive. While the stability of the Bronze Age was sometimes viewed as golden the new cultures of the Iron Age would go on to irrevocably shape the world as we know it. In the temporary absence of the great empires political entities such as the Greek city states or the Israelite kingdoms were able to flourish and create cultural legacies that last to this day.

Temple at Delphi: a centre of later Greek civilisation

Hundreds of years later, as Greece emerged from the “Dark Ages” after the Bronze Age Collapse, the poet Hesiod immortalised the traditions surrounding the events of times past by describing two ages that had preceded his own. I believe that these two ages reflect a cultural memory of the old Mycenaean empire and the overall structure of the Bronze Age and Hesiod’s writing sums up the fear and the splendour that was associated with this memory in later times, as well as the wish that such splendour would have a form of immortality and never truly pass away. I conclude the post by quoting Hesiod in full and leaving the reader with a speculative timeline for the events mentioned above.

“Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs.  Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron.  These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus, the son of Cronos, made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of heroes who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.  Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them.  But to the others father Zeus, the son of Cronos, gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth.  And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds.  And these last equally have honour and glory.

And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth. Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards.  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.” Hesiod, Works and Days, translation from here

Relief of Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu
Speculative timeline of events

1208BC: Simultaneous attack on Egypt by Nubians and Libyans with Sea Peoples allies

1207BC: Assassination of Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I

c.1200BC: Destruction of Mycenaean citadels at Tiryns, Mycenae and Pylos

c.1200BC: Destruction of Hittite capital of Hattusa

c.1200BC: Destruction of citadel at Troy

c.1192BC: Destruction of Ugarit

c.1178BC: Battle of the Delta: Ramesses III defeats Sea Peoples invasion of Egypt

c.1158BC: Sack of Babylon by Elamite king Shutruk-Nakhunte and end of Kassite Dynasty


  1. great read, wish I was more aware of the history when I visited some of the sites.
    You should do a live travel route/history blog of some kind :)

  2. Some quite spectacular sites in those regions for sure. A travel blog would be an excellent idea at some stage in the future!