Introduction to Part I: Modern people assume the immunity of their situation to major disturbance or – even more unthinkable – to terminal wreckage. The continuance of a society or culture depends, in part, on that very assumption because without it no one would complete his daily round. A man cannot enthusiastically arise from bed as the sun comes up and set about the day’s errands believing that all undertakings will issue vainly because the established order threatens to go up in smoke before twilight. Just as it serves this necessity, however, the assumption of social permanence, that tomorrow will necessarily be just like today, can, when it becomes too habitual through lack of reflection, lead to dangerous complacency.
It is healthy, therefore, to think in an informed way about the possibility that our society might break down completely and become unrecognizable. Such things are more than mere possibility – they have happened. Societies – and, it is fair to say, whole standing civilizations – have disintegrated swiftly, leaving behind them depopulation and material poverty. In the two parts of the present essay, I wish to look into one of the best documented of these epochal events, one that brought abrupt death and destruction to a host of thriving societies, none of which survived the scourge. I have divided my essay into two parts, each part further divided into four subsections.
I. Archeologists, historians, and classicists call it “the Catastrophe.” It happened more than three thousand years ago in the lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither geological nor climatological but rather sociological in character, this chaotic enormity erased civilization in a wide swath of geography stretching from the western portions of Greece east to the inner fastnesses of Anatolia, and all the way to Mesopotamia; it turned south as well, overrunning many islands, finally swamping the borders of Egypt. It left cities in smoking ruin, their wealth plundered; it plunged the affected regions into a Dark Age, bereft of literacy, during which populations drastically shrank while the level of material culture reverted to that of a Stone Age village. Echoes of the event – or complicated network of linked events – turn up in myth and find reflection in early Greek literature. The Trojan War appears to be implicated in this event, as do certain episodes of the Old Testament. Recovered records hint at this massive upheaval: diplomatic letters dictated by Hittite kings and tablets bearing military orders from the last days of the Mycenaean palace-citadels. Places like Sicily and Sardinia took their names in the direct aftermath of the Catastrophe.
A distant but still piquant awareness of the Catastrophe’s effects inspired one of the earliest theories of history. In his Works and Days, mostly consisting of common sense advice to the humble peasant farmers of Boeotia, the Eighth Century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod declared that humanity could count five phases. The first three belong clearly to myth, but the fourth and the fifth boast a more realistic or historical character in the poet’s description. The fourth men, Hesiod says, generated the heroes whose deeds the riveting lays of the Trojan War enshrine, but the war itself amounted to the last, lusty cry of a warrior caste that, while pouring blood and treasure into a ten-year siege, ignored sinister developments back home. The prolonged absence of the baron-kings in their enterprise of glory led to a domestic power vacuum. The Greek adventurers would pay dearly for the costly vanity of their Asian victory. In Hugh Evelyn-White’s translation of Hesiod: “Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of [the heroes], 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.”
Homer’s Odyssey, which precedes Works and Days by a generation, gives another hint of the debacle through its constant invocation of Agamemnon’s fate when he returned from Troy to Mycenae and by its main storyline of the squatters in Odysseus’ palace who have taken advantage of the king’s absence to make a blatant attempt on his kingdom. The legend of Idomeneus hints at similar troubles in Crete. In light of the Catastrophe, Homer’s emphasis on the gluttony and loutish behavior of the suitors acquires a provocative meaning. The suitors resemble Hesiod’s fifth men, the phase of humanity to which Hesiod sees himself as belonging: this is the age inaugurated by the “race of iron.” Envy or resentment, disregard for law and civilized achievement, and a strong proclivity to violent expropriation of other men’s chattels constitute the chief traits of the Hesiodic “Iron Age.”
Hesiod says that the successors to the heroes brought forth a degraded way of life inherently violent and unjust, so much so that in a prophecy he foresees divine retribution:
Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. [Neither will] the father… agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime… They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city… The wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them.
Homer’s suitors resemble the Hesiodic savages closely, being oath-breakers, flouters of custom, and plotters of assassination, who scheme with criminal invidiousness to appropriate Odysseus’ wealth and royal authority for their own. Homer, of course, identifies the suitors not as invaders who have come to Ithaca with a piratical intention but rather as spoiled sons of local aristocrats, thwarted at home in their ambitions, who constitute a kind of insurgency. The suitors seek illegitimate upward mobility in the presumptive widowhood of Penelope and the patent inexperience of Telemachus.
Homer makes it abundantly, thematically clear that the suitors despise orderly existence, labeling them with the same pejorative formulas that he applies to the inarguably primitive Cyclopes, who are actual cave dwellers. The disintegration of the heroic polities all across the Greek world is what provides the often-invoked backdrop of Odysseus’ adventures. The fate of Troy at the hands of the Achaean expedition foretells the fate of many a heroic kingdom on its monarch’s return. Homer thus grasps acutely that he lives in a time of providential revival. Homer knows that between his own brightening day and the last sunlit era stretches a prolonged twilight commencing with abrupt destruction and consisting in fallow centuries. The heroic sagas follow the generations far enough to say that Orestes avenged the death of Agamemnon and that Odysseus quelled the insurrection in his palace, but after that they fall silent. No contemporary of Homer tells us about the reign of Telemachus or that of Nestor’s eldest son. Apollodorus does record, at a late date, a story that after the events in Odyssey foreigners indeed descended on Ithaca and drove Odysseus into exile.
II. Hesiod’s characterization of the fifth men as a race of “iron,” the emblematic metal of moral degradation, signifies a good deal. In his metallic succession of ages, the poet had identified the heroes with the metal bronze. Archeologists have long spoken of the phase of civilization, from about 2000 B.C. down to 1100 B.C., as the Bronze Age, on account of its primary metallurgical achievement. The Bronze-Age polities were also the first literate societies, not in a sense of general literacy, but rather of administrative literacy. The mastery of elaborate syllabary writing systems by royal bureaucracies made possible for the first time in history the organization of complex principalities and even empires, while the bureaucratic character of such regimes perhaps also limited their adaptability in emergent conditions. As Robert Drews points out in his masterly End of the Bronze Age (1993), a providential access to iron weaponry endowed on “uncivilized populations that until that time had been no cause for concern to the cities and kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean” a capacity for “a new style of warfare” that the existing societies never anticipated and could not rally themselves to meet.
Rapidly moving foot soldiery armed with novel iron swords broke the back of aristocratic chariot-and-archery armies on every occasion. The tempest of plundering and burning commenced in the northern areas of Greece, with raids on the tempting granaries and treasuries of the palace-citadels, around the time that the heroes of Troy undertook to wend their way home. Drews, correlating the mass of evidence and the many interpretations, writes, “the Catastrophe seems to have begun with sporadic destructions in the last quarter of the thirteenth century [B.C.], gathered momentum in the 1190s, and raged in full fury in the 1180s.” In its whirlwind celerity as well as in its incendiary result, Drews reckons the Catastrophe as “arguably the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the western Roman Empire.”
One glimpses the urgency of those remote and foreign days in the “Linear B” tablets recovered from the burnt remains of the Mycenaean palace – identified by archeologists not without cause as “Nestor’s Palace” – at Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese in the Messenia district. In Odyssey, Homer records how Telemachus visited Pylos in search of intelligence about his long-absent father. For Homer, Nestor’s city represents the ideal of an intact heroic society, at peace with itself, aware of no external threat, its common people reconciled to the ruler by his justice and generosity. Pylos, unlike Mycenae, lacked fortifications. The obvious inference is that its builders and occupiers never thought it needed any.
Drews argues that whatever the vices of the Bronze Age societies, whether Greek or Levantine or Anatolian, they all give abundant evidence of working in proper order until the last days although there are signs of alarm here and there in the record. For example, in the final decade of the Thirteenth Century B.C. or in the initial decade of the Twelfth, someone – we might guess at a consortium of Peloponnesian principalities, with Pylos or perhaps Mycenae taking the lead – undertook construction of an ambitious defensive wall across the Isthmus of Corinth. The builders of this Achaean equivalent of Hadrian’s Wall can only have embarked on the project hastily when they saw an imminent, potentially lethal menace developing rapidly to the north. The wall, incomplete, failed its purpose.
At Pylos, shortly before the enemy sacked and burned the city, the king through his lieutenants busied himself in issuing abrupt and desperate orders to his field officers. We know this because the scribes wrote these orders on clay tablets for later copying in a more “permanent” medium, such as papyrus or vellum. Ordinarily, the janitor threw out the clay tablets. The conflagration, however, destroyed the “permanent” records and providentially baked the raw clay into a form that burial beneath the rubble then fortuitously preserved. It is a snapshot of the end.
The best account of these military orders, as issued in a distraught hour by desperate men, comes from Leonard Palmer’s invaluable Minoans and Mycenaeans, published more than forty-five years ago. Palmer considered the geography implied by the tablets, which direct military commanders to send soldiers and weapon-makers hurriedly to different locations. Palmer came to the conclusion that the leaders of Pylos expected attacks from the north, primarily along the shoreline – and therefore from a ship borne, Viking-like raid – but also over various inland routes. The enemy must have been numerous and mobile. The Cretan writing system used by the Mycenaean scribes ill fitted the Greek language, so Palmer, like every other decipherer of “Linear B,” whether in the case of the Pylos tablets or others, must tease out much by guesswork. Nevertheless, Palmer can actually identify by name at least two of the line officers, Echelawon and Lawagetas, whom the inscriptions indicate as commanders of the coastal and border guards.
Like Crockett and Bouwie at the Alamo, Echelawon and Lawagetas were doomed heroes. As the crisis loomed, headquarters exerted itself to send additional oarsmen to a naval station on the Gulf of Messenia. The defenders, as Palmer reports, were sufficiently desperate to have ordered votive statuettes of Potnia or “the Mistress” to be removed from temples and melted down to make weapons. The Pylians much revered this Mycenaean goddess antecedent to Athene. In Odyssey, Athene figures as the hero’s divine patroness. She fights beside Odysseus and Telemachus in their battle against the suitors. Metaphorically Potnia was fighting beside Echelawon and Lawagetas at Messenia and at the unfinished wall.
It did not go as well in Pylos a generation after the heroic returns as it went for Odysseus in his time. The commanders of the Pylian defense ordered the hasty transfer of soldiers described as “willing to row” from army to navy postings. To the “farther provinces” went the foundry workers whose job it would have been to melt down the images of Potnia for the casting of arrowheads and javelin points. “Masons” accompanied these smiths. One immediately thinks of fortifications in need of bolstering or defensive walls in need of repair. The tablets also make reference to women who work as “grain pourers.” These had been convened en masse in Pylos itself and at Leuktra, a northerly regional settlement, where they undoubtedly helped to prepare field-rations for the line. “The overall picture of emergency… is unmistakable,” Palmer writes; “the archive is permeated with this sense emergency.” Palmer concludes: “Thus alerted and organized, the Pylians awaited the attack from the sea. The ruin of the palace and the fire that preserved the archives are eloquent testimony that the attack was successful. Pylos was blotted from the face of the earth and its site was never again occupied by human habitations.”
III. “One man will sack another’s city.” So wrote Hesiod. In a chapter of The End of the Bronze Age entitled “The Catastrophe Surveyed,” Drews systematically tallies up the wave of early Twelfth-Century incendiary activity in Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, the Southern Levant, Greece, the Aegean, and Crete. Borrowing a phrase from the German scholar Kurt Bittel, Drews remarks that, “at every Anatolian site known to have been important in the Late Bronze Age” one finds a “destruction level” significant of a universal “Brandkatastrophe.” Thanks to Homer, posterity remembered the Mycenaeans although for a long time intellectual opinion considered the events of Iliad and Odyssey to be pure fancy. In the absence of a Homer, however, the Anatolian victims of the Catastrophe vanished from memory. The Hittites ran a formidable empire with monumental cities for three hundred years and were perhaps the greatest diplomatists of their age, but in classical times no one remembered them; they emerged from millennia of oblivion only through the efforts of archeology in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Hattusas, the capital city of the Hittite Empire, went up in flames shortly after the destruction of Troy VI, which the Hittites knew under a double name as the kingdom of Taruisa-Wilusa (Troy-Ilios). The last effective Hittite king, Suppiluliumas II, had actually helped his Syrian and Cypriote allies vanquish a pirate flotilla, with its embarked marine soldiery, near Cyprus, swiftly raising his own navy for the purpose. This sea battle signified the military last hurrah of the once formidable Hittite empire. With his northern trade routes already cut by the disaster at Troy and his attention drawn to the south, Suppiluliumas could not overcome powerful pressure from an age-old barbarian enemy, the Gasga or Kaskians. It was not only Hattusas that collapsed amidst fire and smoke, as Drews says, but also the cities at Alaka Höyük, Alishar, Maşat Höyük, and Karaoglan, whose old names vanished with their inhabitants so that we must nowadays identify them by the nomenclature of Turkish geography. Milawanda (classical Miletus), where Achaean colonists maintained a trading polity under Hittite license, also perished in the general rout.
The architects of the Cypriote cities built according to a sophisticated aesthetic, influenced by the old Cretan civilization. These exquisite towns met their death at just about the same time as the Anatolian cities met theirs. At one Cypriote site, the fleeing citizens hid their valuables in cubbyholes, imagining that they might soon return. Cyprus, like Attica, evidences a modicum of cultural continuity in the aftermath of the Catastrophe. The new style compares with the old, however, in an impoverished way. The people resettle not so much in the old places as in difficult-to-reach mountain fastnesses. The new architecture is – defensive. Refugees from the Peloponnese certainly arrived in Cyprus following the destruction in their homeland. A form of “Linear B,” the Eteo-Cypriote Syllabary, remained in use among the Cypriote Greeks, who spoke an Achaean-derived Ionian dialect, well into historical times.
In the Levant, the best-attested site of the Catastrophe is ancient Ugarit (now Ras Shamra in Syria), a wealthy and culturally sophisticated Bronze Age city, with an attendant petty empire. Ugarit derived its prosperity from its middleman position in the Eastern Mediterranean trading economy; the kingdom could make war but it preferred to make treaties of exchange. As at Pylos, the onslaught accidentally preserved written documentation of the final panic. In Drews’ words, “when Ugarit was destroyed some hundred tablets were being baked in the oven, and so we have documents written on the very eve of its destruction.” Hammurapi, the Ugaritic king, reported on the news to his ally the king of Alashia (Cyprus). His words register his sense of shock and helplessness: “Behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities (?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country.” Manuel Robbins, in his Collapse of the Bronze Age (2001), quotes Hammurapi’s letter of appeal to the Hittite king, not yet driven down but already in dire straits on his own. Says Ugarit: “The enemy advances against me and there is no number… our number is… send whatever is available, look to it and send it to me.”
The phrase “no number” means numberless or innumerable. The image of a multitudinous swarm or horde represents the Catastrophe essentially. But the Hittite king – it might be Suppiluliumas II although it might also be Arnuwanda, his obscure successor – had already written to Hammurapi requesting grain by urgent transport to offset the effects of a devastating famine. This food shortage might have stemmed from tentative depredations in the northern provinces of Hatti (the Hittites’ name for their country), or social collapse driven by crop-failure might have signaled to a piratical conscience that plundering raids could safely commence. “Look, lads – the guard is down,” as some cunning brigand might have said. With Hatti already embroiled, no aid came. Ugarit died. A large number of arrowheads excavated from its ruins suggest to Robbins a systematic slaughter of those inhabitants who could not escape. In addition to Ugarit, the cities of Alalakh, Hamath, Qatna, and Qadesh also fell to “the hordes” (Hammurapi’s phrase) that launched themselves on the Levant.
IV. In the east, Assyria proved a bulwark against the tide. In the south, Egypt likewise held out, in its qualified way. Pharaoh Ramesses III erected stelae celebrating his victory over “the Sea Peoples” who poured into the Nile delta in the 1180s. Yet as Drews and Robbins and many other commentators have pointed out, the defeat of the invaders, while it prevented the destruction of the New Kingdom, portended the stultification of Egyptian culture and the end of Egypt’s role as an international power. From the Eleventh Century B.C. onwards the Pharaohs largely minded their own business until first the Persians and then the Macedonians incorporated them. That aside, the victory stelae provide useful information about the identity of the mischief-makers. Among the identifiable ethnic components of this marauding conglomerate, the Egyptian scribes listed (following Drews’ summary) Ekwesh, Denyen, Lukka, Shardana, Shekelesh, Tjekker, Tursha, and Weshesh. According to the scribes, these mixed peoples came from “the islands” or “the coastal lands.”
Some of these names retain meaning for modern researchers. The Ekwesh and Denyen, for example, are probably Achaeans and Danaans – that is Greeks, dubbing themselves, as they do in Homer. The Lukka are Lycians, an Anatolian people who lived more or less at peace with the Hittites as allies or vassals; they were still a nation in classical times. The Shardana, Shekelesh, and Tursha adorn the roster somewhat unexpectedly. The first two names have connections with Sardinia and Sicily, but the evidence cannot tell us whether they came from those places bearing the name of their origin or went on to them subsequently to christen them. The Tursha are the Tyrrhenians or Etruscans, a people associated with Italy. Again, it remains unclear whether they came from Italy or went on to that place. The Tjekker are hill tribes from the Levantine interior. The name Weshesh might be a variant, hence also a duplicate, of Ekwesh. Why are these exotic philological matters important?
These items of linguistic esoterica warrant attention because they bring up the problem of catastrophic agency. Archeologists and historians have known about the Catastrophe for a century although their sense of it has become more acute in the last fifty years. Several theories have arisen to explain the near-universality of the Catastrophe in its region. The earliest and in some ways the most tenacious is the Migration Theory. This theory posits that a single ethnically uniform people, reaching a point of crowded numbers in their Balkan homeland and arming themselves with novel iron swords, poured into Greece and then into the Aegean; they would also have crossed the Bosporus into Asia Minor where they continued their rampage, driving all before them. In a kind of domino process, they displaced others, some of whom joined them in the train of rapine and arson until the madness spent itself in Egyptian sands. Various minor sequelae to this Völkerwanderung account for the redistribution of old nationalities, the disappearance of others, and the appearance of novel nationalities that differentiate one end of the catastrophic epoch from the other.
[To be continued: Part 2 is here]