The end of the Bronze Age is a sudden, violent, disruptive, and largely unknown event in world history. Between 1200 and 1150 BCE, almost every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was destroyed, many of which would not be occupied for another thousand years. The New Kingdom of Egypt, the Hittite Empire, and the Mycenaean kingdom would all cease to exist in their historic form. Isolated village cultures would come to fill the void left by this event, and the Greek Dark Ages would begin.
This was the end of civilization as the world knew it. Trade collapsed, cultures disappeared, and the world grew more divided. It wouldn’t be until modern times, that a truly interconnected world would be reappear.
Setting the stage
Most of the written record for this period has been lost to time, but archeological evidence can still paint a picture of what was going on. The Bronze Age was characterized by war, diplomacy, and trade.
For much of the Bronze Age, The Egyptians, Hittites, Mycenaeans, and many other empires were in a state of constant warfare. In these palace economies, where wealth flows into a centralized authority before being redistributed to a population, conquest was the main driver of economic growth and, as such, there was an incentive to continually be expanding.
With increased warfare, came increased diplomacy. Often, these wars would end with a diplomatic marriage between families, uniting the different kingdoms. Overtime, these interconnected familial relationships grew and similar system of life emerged across the Near East.
With increased diplomacy, came increased trade. Archeologists have found goods from the Bronze Age empires scattered across the Mediterranean. In around 1300 BCE, a Turkish ship that sank near the Cape of Ulu Buren. When it was recovered, products from more than 7 different states were found aboard. This suggests a level interconnected trade that was unknown to history up until that time.
Archeologists have found evidence suggesting that, in around 1200 BCE, the empires of this region were drastically transformed. The Mycenaean, Minoan, and Hittite empires would all be destruction. Disruptions in Egypt were so great, that this marks the end of the New Kingdom. It would take another thousand years, before many of cities of this time were repopulated. Robert Drews, an American historian, described the collapse as:
The worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Some speak of this destruction as a lost golden age, and Plato’s story of Atlantis might have even been influenced by this collapse. But what happened?
The Bronze Age collapse is one of the great mysteries of history. So far, we have set up a world of large interconnected cities, ruled by powerful monarchs, which will all disappear over the course of 40 years.
One possibility is migration and warfare. Correspondence recovered from the period, suggests there were invasions by tribes of mysterious “Sea Peoples”. This is supported by evidence which shows the appearance of many new ethnic groups to the region. These invaders may have been benefited from the technological changes leading up to the Iron Age. Long swords and spears were mass produced, allowing running skirmishers to swarm the chariot armies of the time. Raiders could now conquer, loot, and sack cities with greater ease.
Another possibility is environmental turmoil. As we talked about in the last post, we like to see history as the result of human agency, but what if war and migration were simply a symptom of the collapse and not the cause? There is evidence of climate change, drought, volcanic eruptions, and earthquake swarms during this period. Natural disasters have a tendency to cause peasant uprisings, since any claim of divine rule tends to be questioned when the earth starts spitting lava at you. These environmental factors could have led to migration, conflict, and the toppling of governments.
Another possibility is that the complex structure of the time was inherently unstable. War and environmental destruction are common occurrences in history, but they rarely cause an existential crisis. What was different about the late Bronze Age civilizations? The critical flaws might have been its centralization, specialization, complexity, and top-heavy political structure. Complex systems, in order to function, require many different things to be working in unison. If one thing breaks, the whole system could collapse. Historian Eric Cline put it this way:
If late Bronze Age civilizations were truly globalized and dependent upon each other for goods and services, even just to a certain extent, then change to any one of the relevant kingdoms, such as the Mycenaeans or the Hittites, would potentially affect and destabilize them all.
Analogies to today
That last possibility is especially pertinent to us. We are living at the most interconnected time in history: a credit crisis in America or China can cause mass unemployment in Greece or Australia, a viral outbreak can spread across the planet overnight. Has this made our society stronger or weaker? Is there even a right answer? As with everything in life, there are always trade offs.
We should always be wary of projecting the past on our current situation or of projecting our current situation on the past. It is completely possible that the invading Sea People or a Volcano eruption was what caused the end of the Bronze Age and not globalization. History isn’t about finding the right answer, it is about putting all the answers into context to better inform our future decisions.
Is our Civilization going to end the same way the Bronze Age did? Probably not. We survived two world wars, multiple pandemics, and Y2k. But history does remind us to never get too complacent.