Saturday, October 21, 2017

Not the Last Dark Age- the One Before That

Review of 1177 B.C., by Eric Cline, about the decline and fall of the Bronze age around the Eastern Mediterranean

In this time of cultural and political decline, it is useful to contemplate previous cultural cataclysms. While "the Dark Ages" typically denotes the roughly five hundred year hiatus between the fall of Rome and the resurgence of wider cultural ties and development in Western Europe, that was hardly the only extended collapse of high level civilization. A previous Dark Age had followed the collapse of the Bronze Age circa 1200 BCE, leading to the several historically empty centuries before we hear about the classical Greek civilization rising from the ashes in the 700s BCE.

The Greeks cherished their dramatic sagas dating from that prior, heroic epoch, much as the English later looked backwards romantically via the Arthurian saga, going do far as to send Arthur to defeat the Romans in battle. But the battle of Troy was no fantasy- it really happened. The only question is whether it was part of the destruction of the Bronze age, or part of its normal, competitive, affairs.

In fact, it is astonishing what we do know about this age, given its distance from us and the ensuing civilizations. Eric Cline has assembled an excellent guide to this period, the late Bronze age, dredging up a great deal of scholarship old and new on the many civilizations clustered around the Eastern Mediterranean from Italy to Egypt. We owe particular debts to the writing developed earlier in this age, both the hieroglyphic style in Egypt, and the cuneiform style from Babylon, which was adopted by the Hittites and others. The clay tablets so amenable to preservation (especially after fires) have been a gold mine of knowledge about the affairs and attitudes of the time.

Hittite writing from about 3300 years ago, using cuneiform script.

We have correspondence between kings as well as more mundane accounts. We have in some cases both sides of a diplomatic exchange, even a momentous peace treaty between Egypt and the Hittite empire. It is quite amazing. These unearthed records paint a picture of extensive contacts and trade between the states of Cyprus (Minoans), the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, the Hittites of Anatolia, the Assyrians, the Ugaritic state in what is now the northern Syrian coast, the Canaanites, and Egypt. It is easy to get carried away with globalization analogies and complexity theory. But unfortunately, we have very little to go on when it comes to what ended this period. The Egyptians record enormous battles with "the Sea Peoples", which seems to have been a coalition of several enemies. But they also say they won this war, and the pharoah, Ramses III, was laid to rest in high style, though murdered in an internecine plot. Cline goes through a large amount of archealogical evidence, which shows earthquakes, drought and climate change, internal revolt as well as external invasions during these times. It is, in sum, hard to finger any single cause for the eventual decline of all these cultures into several hundred years of relative silence and decreptitude, (not to mention tomb-robbing), though there may have been a combination.

It was once fashionable to cite the Sea People as the instigators, in an orgy of rapine and destruction, as is related in the Iliad, and the Egyptian annals. It is not clear who the Sea Peoples were, however. They may have been Myceneans, but evidently encompassed other groups as well, maybe even free-booting pirates. And the various destroyed cities of this age were not all invaded, let alone by these groups. The Hittites were sacked by other enemies.

Ramses III mortuary relief showing prisoners from battles with the "Sea Peoples". Note the diverse head-dresses.

Cline resorts to the decline of trade, and complexity theory in his speculations. But a problem is that, despite the excitement of finding trade relations between these states, and royal correspondence, it is highly unlikely that a state like Egypt was substantially dependent on outside trade or other assistance. Such relations were icing on the cake, but hardly fundamental to its perpetuation. The cause has to be found elsewhere, either in general theories of cultural sclerosis and decline, or perhaps in disease or technological innovation. Also, if invasions or revolts were at issue, why did some other state not take advantage of them? The preceding centuries had seen a constant tug-of war between Egypt and the Hittites for control up the Levant, indicating that, were one weakened, others would rush to take up the slack. Yet both went into decline, and the Hittites vanished completely. It may indeed just be a coincidence that many cultures had reached a high level simultaneously, and then at similar times were overcome by ruder powers less inclined to leave historical traces.

The stage of the Bronze age was originally set by the migration of Indoeuropean peoples into the Middle East, founding the Mycenean and Hittite cultures, among others. Their earlier spread was enabled by a suite of decisive technological innovations like horse riding, wheeled carts and chariots, mobile warfare, and herding, which enabled mobility and military success. By the late Bronze age, these were no longer novel and had diffused all over the region. But perhaps some other innovation, like improved and larger ships or nascent iron working, may have tipped a critical balance. Secondly, herding and livestock domestication generated a variety of new diseases, which eventually played such a large role in the destruction of the native peoples of the New World. Perhaps one of these diseases had yet to burn its way through the late Bronze age Mediterranean. It must be said, however, that such an event would probably show up in the Egyptian annals, and also that other cultures managed to recover within a generation or two from devastating plagues, such as the black plague.

Lastly, cultural decline might be inevitable after a long period of stability. Stability breeds complacency and a cultural dynamic where the powerful stay powerful, with ever less merit and justification as time goes on. Their corruption, combined with the resentment of the powerless, can lead morons into power, a bad sign in any age and a sure path to decline, for all their protestations of greatness.