Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Collapse of Empires: The First Dark Ages

The 1200 BC Mediterranean Collapse was historically one of the most impressive collapses.  The two bi-polar powers of Egypt and Hittite Empires (possible candidate for the Trojans)  both collapsed, along with Crete, and the Dark Age Greeks of the Trojan Wars.  Massive dimly understood migrations of large groups of people crossed borders and attacked the larger wealthier lands.

An epoch of prosperity and comparative stability throughout the East Mediterranean and the Near East had depended upon an equilibrium that held between the two major powers, Egypt and Hittite Anatolia [what Turkey was called before the Turks showed up]; and it virtually ended with the death of Pharaoh Ramesses II around 1224, and of Tudhaliyas IV, the last really powerful Hittite king, a few years later.  The years from around 1220 to 1150 BC saw the collapse of Egyptian influence in the Levant, the total ruin of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, with the abandonment of their capital Hattusas (modern Bagazkoy), and widespread destruction of cities in the Levant, Cyprus and mainland Greece. A long period of absolute decline and comparative isolation, whose ferocity is hard to explain, had set in. 
In the Aegean the Dark Age lasted till the end of the 9th century, and in Anatolia very nearly as long.  Egypt, though enfeebled, maintained a semblance of civilization.  In the Levant the eclipse was less prolonged but none the less real, while Israelites, Philistines, and Aramaeans were fighting for the old Canaanite strongholds.  The evidence is easy to see in sacked cities, tumbled walls, broken communications, depopulation, and deprivation.
Why did this happen?  Many explanations have been tried and few have stood.  Unparalleled series of earthquakes, wise spread crop failures and famine, massive invasion from the steppe, the Danube, the desert-all may played some part; but they are not enough.  Catastrophes punctuate human history but they are generally survived without too much loss…(p11).
Economic Danger Points
There was a large increase in population in Messenia [speaking here of Crete in particular] …during the Middle Helladic period.  A peak was reached in the later 13th century just before the troubles…This lead to the use of marginal land instead of good land and to reclamation work like the drainage of Lake Coppais in Boetia.  Some of the new Late Helladic sites in Messenai are on very poor land indeed.  This must have been followed by the division of estates into ever smaller lots.  The tablets tell of the diminutive size of many holdings and quarrels over ownership…
We find in Mycenaean Greece a dangerous concentration of a single crop, grain in Messenia, flocks and wools in Crete…the long period of prosperity and stability seems to have encouraged the production of high-yield crops like wheat, barley and the raising…of sheep.  Government was highly centralized, depending on a network of roads connecting with distant and  peripheral areas which are essential to its survival.  Strict accounting was also essential so that records could be kept of surpluses in one area to be set against deficits in another.  The tablets are this accounting system…
The rulers of Pylos and Mycenae lived in a luxury that is a reflection of the greater luxury of Memphis and Hattusas, of Ugarit and Enkomi.  Such wealth renders the possessor highly vulnerable, particularly when it depends on foreign relations and the availability of certain raw materials such as tin and gold…The fact is that the Mycenaean kingdoms were over-specialized, over-Dependant on central bureaucracies.  Three danger-points were to become acutely sensitive as the years of the 13th century ran out: the high population, dependence on the palace, and over-specialized economy (p77-78).
From William J. Burroughs' Climate Change in Prehistory
The climate upheaval appears to have had widespread ramification for ancient civilizations, occurred between 3.5 and 2.5 kya. Across Europe colder wetter weatherer  set in around 3.4 kya and the glaciers in the Alps started to expand.  In the northern Scotland there is distinct and large scale shift to wetter climatic conditions.  The transition appears to have occurred abruptly, possibly over a decadal to century timescale.  broad correlations with deep-sea sediment records suggests that the transition may reflect colder sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic.  At the same time the eastern Mediterranean cooled markedly, initially in the form of colder inters, which probably led to an increasing incidence of drought in the region, and ushered in the next Dark age.

The changes appear to have triggered large-scale demographic movements that are usually associated with the "Sea Peoples"
The Trojan Wars themselves are sometimes linked this movement of peoples.  The last major battles of a collapsing society are very likely to be immortalized in song, and we simply have the luck to have a record of it.  The various tales of Odysseus wandering through a collapsing world would correlate closely with the Arthurian Knight's adventures in a much later collapsing world.
Odysseus and Ajax (Louvre)

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