Last week, I bought two books: one – 1177 BC: the Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline — regarding the fall of the great Pagan Bronze Age empires of three millennia ago, the other – The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert – lamenting the mass die-off of species now under way, due to humanity’s impact on the natural environment. Two entirely different topics, it would seem, but when I brought the books home and started leafing through them, I quickly saw the connection.
I’ve finished the book about the Bronze Age, so I’ll write about that now; I’m still reading the other book, and I’ll get to it next time.
One of the earliest historical reflections I ever made – I must have been in high school – came when I noticed that there was a general breakdown of ancient political structures about 1500 years before the fall of the Roman Empire, which itself occurred about 1500 years ago. The periodicity was suggestive, and the thought that our world might be on the cusp of a new Dark Age seemed very exciting. I drew a chronological chart of Western civilization, indicating three peaks, two of them followed by abrupt declines, and the third – our present time – perhaps starting to trend in a downward direction. The image has stayed with me.
Cline’s book does nothing to discourage such speculations.
The fact of Bronze Age breakdown is undeniable. At the beginning of the twelfth century BC, several mighty kingdoms – Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, and Mycenean Greeks – had established an interconnected system of trade and commerce, centered on the eastern Mediterranean area, that supported an impressive degree of prosperity and opulence. Yet by the end of the century, the Hittites and Myceneans had vanished, the Babylonians had been subdued, Egypt was gravely weakened, and very little opulence was in evidence anywhere. Hundreds of archaeological sites throughout the area reveal signs of death and destruction about this time.
What happened? And why?
There’s no clear answer to either of those questions. We’ve three relevant ancient accounts. The first of these is an inscription on a temple wall by the Pharaoh Ramses III, telling of how he defeated an invading force of “Sea Peoples,” who had already overrun various other kingdoms in the region. Egypt maybe staved off the worst, but its victory must have been costly, since its days of imperial greatness ceased at that point. Some of the Sea Peoples seem to have settled in Canaan, in territories formerly subject to Egypt, and become the Philistines, known from the Bible.
The other two pertinent accounts, neither truly contemporary, are the Greek tales of the Trojan War and the Biblical narrative of the conquest of Canaan. While they may not be reliable in detail, both reports seem to record a tradition that cities and kingdoms were biting the dust at about the appropriate time. Yet combining these stories doesn’t yield a consistent version of events, nor does it enlighten us concerning the reasons why civilization proved so vulnerable at that conjuncture.
The best Cline can do is suggest a multiplicity of causes. There’s some evidence for wars, population movements, internal rebellions, earthquakes, drought, and famine. The empires seem to have lost control over international trade, which possibly dried up. Climate change (not human-caused in this case) had a role. Putting it all together, Cline diagnoses a “systems collapse” – and that might be the lesson for us.
Over a period of some centuries, the Bronze Age powers had built up a complex web of treaties, alliances, spheres of influence, royal intermarriages, and interlocking trade relationships that sustained the prosperity of all the participants, and maintained a stable balance of power. Shortages in one land could be made up with the surpluses of another. But as the empires became increasingly more interdependent, a problem in one place – which might have been locally contained in a simpler time – now became a problem for everyone. A small setback in a minor province might have a domino effect on the rest. We don’t know exactly what occurred at the end of the Bronze Age to bring everything crashing down, but it had to be something like that.
As Cline notes, this isn’t good news for the twenty-first century AD. We’ve the same vulnerabilities as our ancestors.
Ever since Columbus “discovered” the New World, the human race – especially the European part of it – has been actively constructing a globalized economy, in which the capitalists of every country can all become wealthy together. This has produced an age of affluence and ostentation, in which we’re living. But the neo-liberal structure is showing some obvious cracks, and as a good Pagan – that is, a believer in cycles, natural and historical – I can’t help being apprehensive.
Spiritually speaking, I’m of the Bronze Age – my religious views would’ve been mainstream around the reign of Hammurabi the Great. Consequently, I don’t perceive these antique societies as crude or unsophisticated. They were more into myth, and less into theory, than we are – but that’s not entirely a disadvantage, is it? They had schools of practical wisdom; they had able administrators, charismatic leaders, and courageous warriors; they had proven ways of dealing with crises, which ordinarily sufficed – yet all these suddenly, catastrophically, failed, with so far as can be told, no warning. Why couldn’t that happen to us?
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