Bronze Age > Late Bronze Age

Late Bronze Age

Background

During the Late Bronze Age the major civilizations in the Near East all vied for political, economic and military hegemony and yet, not one empire managed to reign supreme in the region. Between 1500 BCE and 1100 BCE, the major regional kingdoms of the Hittites, New Kingdom Egyptians and Mycenaean Greeks all developed an increasing reliance on the bronze, wheeled chariot for use in warfare which also became a social, economic and political status symbol during this time.

Known as chariot aristocracies, these Bronze Age kingdoms were also ruled characteristically by a single autocratic king who commanded divine or semi-divine religious, political, cultural and social power. Generally they also engaged in annual military campaigns to expand territories, legitimize rule and acquire wealth through plundering.

There is an abundance of archaeological evidence to showcase the high status that chariots held in ancient society. From Assyrian tablets, reliefs and Egyptian paintings to golden chariots such as the one found in Tutankhamun's tomb, it is clearly represented that this was a symbol of wealth and power in the ancient Near East. This was likely also because owning horses in this time was very expensive and resource intensive and could only be afforded by the richest class. This was the case even into the Roman time period. However, following the collapse of the Bronze Age the chariot aristocracies and their presence in the historical and archaeological record actually disappear altogether.

One of the themes introduced by Homer's epics the Iliad and the Odyssey was one of constant warfare and major regional conflicts. However, this account is also limited as it is written down hundreds of years after the fact and is one of the only surviving accounts of this time period. One of the main reasons for the collapse of the Mycenaeans leading to the illiterate Dark Ages of Greece was that likely the scribes who were protected may have fled or killed during either the natural disasters or warfare as Cline suggests.

At this time the ability to read and write was reserved for upper social classes of society and this was not widespread knowledge. Evidence for this is given by the fact that the Linear B tablets that were recovered are more of an economic inventory and likely record the lists of plundered loot or tribute. If these kings either died or there was major warfare this economic aspect of the chariot aristocracy would have ceased.

Yet archaeological evidence suggests that the stories of widespread conflict in this region are true and much of the Levant was destroyed and Greece plunged into an illiterate Dark Ages following the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Likely this constant conflict and ancient Bronze Age arms race not only strained the economies of the day but would have left the civilizations and entire region vulnerable to any external uncounted variables such as a massive population migration from the western Mediterranean or Northern Eurasia possibly as a result of multiple natural disasters.

Also a scarcity of a vital resource such as tin, which was the major limiting reactant in this entire economic operation possibly as a result of collapsed trading networks would have resulted in a shortage of available bronze. Scarcity over required resources in a confined geographic region is generally grounds for cultural and ethnic conflict. During this time there was a major advanced trading network that existed from the steppes of Asia to the isles of Britain into Africa and all the day to the Indus Valley region of modern day Pakistan and India.

However, not one of these theories is adequate enough to explain the complete collapse of civilization during the end of the Late Bronze Age. It was a culmination of all these factors, known as a systems collapse which strained the existing political, economic, social, religious and cultural structures to the point of breaking. While the Egyptians could have normally repelled an invasion of the Sea Peoples with ease, factors such as a drought, regional earthquakes and the constant warfare would have significantly weakened their ability to mobilize and respond.

Overall the development and increasing reliance on the chariot as a main military implement due to the feedback loop caused by its social, political and economic impacts likely contributed to the collapse of civilization at the Late Bronze Age. The resources necessary to maintain and provision vast chariot armies required major infrastructure such as stables, craftsman and more. The increasing need for specialized workers to maintain the chariots and soldiers to field them was resource intensive and if these needs were not met due to natural disasters, low crops or not getting enough wealth from raiding any major cities or acquiring tribute from subjugated cultures the the people could rebel against the king very easily. The masses could have easily justified as the Gods were reflecting poorly on the king and were punishing them with natural disasters or losses in war.

Another factor that contributed to the decline of the Bronze Age and a likely collapse of the existing civilization was the widespread use of iron as a resource for tools and thus weapons. The techniques for smelting iron were first acquired by cultures living in Anatolia and Asia Minor and this likely was a technological innovation of the Bronze Age arms race which had catastrophic results. Not only did it negate the use for the scarce material tin but iron was stronger than bronze.

In regards to this, bronze based chariots would hardly stand up to a fully provisioned army using iron swords, shields, spears, arrows and more. Not only would the development of iron as a major resource have caused a massive disruptive innovation but completely overturned the regional political, social, economic, cultural and religious status quo as well.

Recurring losses in war and repeated natural disasters would have also lead to internal social and religious strife within cultures who viewed these as acts of the Gods possibly punishing leaders for failure or the masses for not being devout enough. As a result of the technological innovations, massive population movements, constant warfare, disruption of trade routes, scarcity of resources and natural disasters like drought and earthquakes this created the perfect atmosphere to bring about a complete upheaval of civilization. In fact, it only needs a precipitating catalyzing event like the one described in Homer's epics where the forbidden romance of a Trojan prince with a Mycenaean queen ignites a major regional conflict that involves entangling alliances between the major competing chariot aristocracies of the Near East.

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