The Late Bronze age: A ‘pleasant’ collapse?

by Edward Pegler on 25 June, 2016

I listened to ‘In Our Time’ the other day, as they discussed the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was nice to hear about something so dear to my heart as they rambled through the usual stuff and some stuff I didn’t know. It was a shame that they didn’t spend a bit more time on some of the more offbeat theories of collapse, (e.g. military tactics, germ warfare, plague, drought, earthquake storms, bad dating of the archaeology) even if just to give them a beating. Whatever, I’d like to hear an In Our Time on ‘Collapses, dark ages and myths’ at some point.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, occurring between about 1200 BC and 900BC, is – depending on which serious academic you talk to – either:

  1. A major disjuct in Mediterranean history, leading to famine, population decline, migration, warfare, the disappearance of whole civilisations, etc, etc, or
  2. A minor affair resulting from the failure of despot kings and their retinue to prevent history moving on, resulting in the freeing up the oppressed masses, and the rise of the small capitalist.

I’d say the opinions were evenly split in this episode of In Our Time, with Prof John Bennet tending more to view 1, Dr Simon Stoddart firmly in view 2, and Dr Linda Hulin accepting a bit of both. Melvyn Bragg definitely wanted 1 to be true. If the long view is taken, then I think it’s reasonable to see aspects of both views as quite reasonable.

However, where I take issue is with the part about the ‘freeing up of the oppressed masses’, or a ‘more pleasant way of living’ as expressed by Simon Stoddart 28 mins 33 seconds into the program. To be fair, his view is from the central Mediterranean, where the collapse wasn’t centred.

Whatever, I’ve read this view elsewhere. It’s been expressed about the end of the Roman Empire and the end of the Classic Maya. Joseph Tainter’s ‘Collapse of Complex Societies’ summed up the argument best. Complex hierarchy leads to increased workloads for the majority of the population. Further increase in complexity leads to diminishing returns and finally to a catastrophic reverse. The hierarchy collapses and the people at the bottom, relieved of taxes, return to simple farming and having more fun.

For me, what this argument fails to take into account is the evidence for notable population declines during collapse events (as can be seen in both Greece and Turkey during the Late Bronze Age). These imply that either people are dying or that they’re moving out. Neither situation suggests that life is better in the area once collapse has happened (Syria anyone?). Personally, I’d take my chances on being rich during a collapse rather than poor; at least I could afford to escape with an armed guard.

I do sometimes wonder whether some archaeologists simply find it difficult to get over their basic Marxist beliefs as they search the dirt for a fairer, more egalitarian world. Perhaps we should just strive for that world in the future rather than trying to find it in the dirty old past.




{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Maju October 13, 2016 at 1:07 pm

I’m sorta Marxist and I do tend to support an explanation that is rather like #1, i.e. it was a major affair, with emphasis in wars. However we do not understand well enough the how and why it happened. I suspect that there are both “material” (socio-economic) and “immaterial” (mostly political) reasons in this most intriguing episode that shattered the whole Mediterranean region from the Levant to Iberia, albeit with quite different and often regionally-specific processes and outcomes.

First we need to understand the late Bronze Age (middle Bronze in the West) and its most intriguing pan-Mediterranean interactions, best evidenced maybe in the Mycenean cultural influences on El Argar B (pythos burials) and vice-versa (tholos burials sometimes in Mycenaean contexts). Why did this happen: a very “materialist” reason is that quality bronze needs tin and tin mines were heavily concentrated in Atlantic Europe (Galicia, Cornwall and Brittany, with the first region being maybe the most relevant in that time). The early Greeks, the Myceanaeans, seem to have got ongoing trade with El Argar (SE Spain) because of that reason primarily; this is reflected in Heraklean myths like the “apples” of the Hesperides or the fight against Geryones, and arguably also in the Platonian “legend” of Atlantis, which may refer to a civilization in what is now Portugal (VNSP or Castro de Zambujal, its main site). It is probably also reflected in the archaeological record in the attempt of colonization of La Mancha (which means “the arid land” in Arabic) with the so-called “motillas” (extremely similar to Sardinian nuraghi but ultimately what we would call castles or ottle-and-bailey forts), which would probably allow for an overland route to Galicia and its valuable tin, bypassing VNSP-controlled shores.

Of course the Late Bronze Age is much bigger a landscape than Iberia and Greece but this pan-Mediterranean interaction cannot be disregarded, as it seems to be a major clue. We also see the Shardana (very apparently Sardinians with their horned helmets) present in the Eastern Mediterranean since early in the period, first as raiders, then as Egyptian mercenaries, then as part of an invading coalition again. This is another East-West link that we cannot ignore, as we cannot ignore the Berber (or Libyan) tribes crossing from Tunisia (Amazhigh = Massagetes = Meshwesh) to Cyrenaica in order to raid Egypt and eventually even conquer part of it, more so as these peoples, of late Megalithic tradition, were partly in the Western civilizational sphere, as were El Argar, VNSP, Sardinia, etc.

My interpretation is therefore that there were major complex economic, political and even in some cases military interactions between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, partly based on the tin trade, which seem to have favored primarily Mycenaean Greece (which evolved into a “Viking-like” seafaring warmonger). In fact, in the Late Bronze collapse we do see those Mycenaeans raiding and meddling in Asia Minor (Hittite inscriptions, culminating in the Trojan War) and then also in the Levant (Ugarit) and even Egypt (last “Sea Peoples” invasion).

The really perplexing thing is that the Mycenaeans themselves also collapsed but this may well have been a product of internal Greek warfare, with predominance of the more barbaric Northern Greeks (Dorians?), who were less interested in civilization as such.

One key issue is that probably the tin routes were broken at that time. We don’t know if this is because of the collapse of Mycenaean Greece or because of the almost simultaneous collapse of El Argar (that nevertheless keeps existing as a plurality of city-states, the post-Argaric culture, that eventually evolved into the Iberian culture of early History). In any case this trade disruption must have accelerated the implementation of steel (known to Hittites since much earlier) and the arrival of the Iron Age in full.

Another question is why several groups invade from the North at that time: it’s not just the uncertain “Northern Greeks” but also the Phrygians (Bryges?) into Anatolia up to Armenia and the early Celts into Languedoc and Catalonia. It is also the Italics marching south from Northern Italy, a move that might have been countered by a Sardinian-led coalition of some Sea Peoples, leading to the establishment of Etruscans in the center-north and Siculi (Shekelesh?, a Semitic mercenary group maybe) in Sicily and Calabria (after a brief time in Central Italy).

So why did the collapse happen? Well, we cannot definitely exclude climate pressures, particularly affecting the Northern barbarians, but we must first of all consider why the thriving and militarily powerful southern civilizations became open to those invasions (an issue particularly important in Greece and Anatolia but also in Egypt, even if their final vanquishers came from Libya and Tunisia). Also, was the tin trade collapse a cause or a consequence? It seems to me that the civilizations were becoming exhausted by war itself but we should also consider a better known case: that of the fall of Rome, where it is clear that social revolutions against ever-growing impositions (bagaudae vs early feudalism) played a major role, not just in detaching some areas (Greater Basque Country) from the Empire but also in supporting “friendly” barbarians like Vandals and Swabians (or Sueves?). Uprising “Basques” (the exonym was not yet in use) allowed them to cross into Iberia in 409 and later allied with the Swabians against the Goths sent by Rome. So it’s not impossible (although very hard to confirm) that some rebellious populations, tired of being burdened with war taxes and the growing power of a militaristic aristocracy, may have facilitated here and there the invasions by barbarians, which were perceived maybe as “not worse” or even as “a bit better” than the previous elites. Conjectural but not too unlikely.

This may link a bit with explanation #2, although I’m not saying that, in general terms the result was any better. There may and probably are other factors anyhow, such as natural catastrophes (drought, epidemics and even surely a tsunami in Western Iberia, which should have destroyed VNSP) and the already mentioned tin trade issue, but we cannot exclude popular rebellions tired of so much militaristic oppression from their own traditional elites being an helping factor in the “perfect storm”.

Nothing of this is more or less “Marxist”, what it is surely is less “Disneyist”, i.e. it doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. We cannot exclude that in some areas it did imply an improvement (Arcadia?, the newly independent Iberian city-states?, Sardinia?) but it’d be at best localized and limited, not the general outcome. The general outcome was new elites, which were usually not a bit better than the previous ones.


Edward Pegler October 13, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Dear Maju

What a fine reply to a post, possibly longer and considerably more informative than the actual post. For anybody else who’s reading this you’re giving us quite a nice Western Mediterranean view on things. Here you’ve certainly got a case with Sardinia for things improving.

The trouble with the Bronze Age collapse is that there are so many theories and there’s not really enough evidence for any of them, as you’ve rightly pointed out. I’m currently not a particular fan of the trade argument though. There are probable examples of ‘trade-failure collapse’, such as the Maya of Mesoamerica or the Khmer in Cambodia, or of quite a few west african empires, but these are relatively small scale, and everybody around about them tends to move on. It’s the extensive effects of this collapse that make me doubt such a case.

By the way, did you see that report on a battle from northern Europe about 1200BC?

I think the comparison with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is fair. Invaders who are sometimes mercenaries all sounds strangely familiar. It could well be another ‘volkwanderung’ although I always want a reason for those things too.

As for the Marx point, it was just me getting mildly annoyed with another academic mentioning any of the following:

1) It’s the ‘longue duree’
2) It’s a ritual landscape/settlement/fortification
3) It’s a core-periphery relationship
4) Normal people’s lives weren’t affected (this particular case)

Society does, of course, reorganise at times. Technology and other pressures cause this.



Maju October 14, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Glad that you liked my comment, I was worried it could be way too long.

Before I get to other things, I must add that the transition to trading networks (barring the ones that probably existed already in the Bronze Age but collapsed) happens only some time after the BA collapse, already well in the Iron Age, and it’s part of the “recovery” process and not a direct outcome of the crisis, which is the Dark Ages (the Greek ones but actually affecting almost every single Mediterranean area, and probably also others).

“I’m currently not a particular fan of the trade argument though.”

I didn’t mean it was probably the cause of the collapse but that it was the cause of the Iron Age, i.e. of the generalized adoption of steel (which had been lurking in the sidelines for some time). Another area where steel was developed very early was Niger and then again it is probably because it was much easier for them to gather the resources for steel (iron is abundant in Tropical Africa) than for bronze. So maybe the BA collapse was the reason behind the destruction of the tin trade routes or maybe they are parallel stories but in any case the destruction of the tin trade must accelerated the transition to what was initially seen probably as “ersatz bronze”, i.e. steel.

As for the battle of Tollense, I was unaware (or I had forgotten?): it seems a major battle indeed, and I would think it is related to the Nordic Bronze and Jastorf culture genesis, i.e. to the early Germanic expansion at the expense of continental Indoeuropeans (Celts and relatives). The references to climate crisis I read in relation to all that would suggest that the climate was a driving factor, particularly when similar issues (long droughts) have been reported (if I recall correctly) in Egypt and Iberia also.

“I think the comparison with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is fair”.

And this is also quite “Marxist”; I actually gained a lot of initial knowledge and interest on the late Roman Empire collapse because I had an excellent self-proclaimed Marxist teacher of history back in High School, who explained that very well. Actually, I used to think that there are two main history schools: the Conservative one, focused on individuals (kings, generals, etc.) and events (battles, treaties, etc.), and the Marxist one, focused on underlying “materialist” (socio-economic) factors, to which the individuals are just “puppets” or almost. I think the latter has a lot to say. Of course a natural catastrophe like a persistent chill/drought (caused maybe by some unidentified super-volcano?) beats them all: maybe there is also an “ecological” aspect that is not always subservient to human action after all.

In any case it’s clear that an exploited and abused people will not be loyal to their rulers forever, rather it will eventually rebel and/or cooperate with the enemy. However we don’t know with any certainty if this was a factor in the BA collapse. Let’s just leave it as a possibility.

“As for the Marx point, it was just me getting mildly annoyed with another academic mentioning any of the following…”

Yeah, they don’t seem to make much sense. There were possibly long term (that’s what “longue duree” means, right?) factors, particularly a clear exhaustion of the various traditional powers (visible particularly in the Hittites but maybe more widespread, El Argar, Sardinia, Egypt and Greece itself may well have suffered from “war exhaustion” and the related “exploitation exhaustion”).

A core-periphery relationship is only visible in some relations (Greece-Iberia, Egypt-Levant) and it might not have been so unequal because they all had access to the same basic tech of bronze metallurgy. The wider “North” (the barbarian lands) was basically not there in any sort of relation: they just popped up when the time was “right”, either pushed by famine or greed (or both).

Normal people were definitely affected. We don’t know exactly how in most cases but power relationships, more so after war (enslaving, ethnic cleansing maybe, etc.), must affected them. An issue we cannot ignore here is that in civilized areas “normal people” were not anymore warriors but subjugated peasants (whatever the exact legal frame): a key trait of the Bronze and Iron ages is the rise of military elites. As we see in Antiquity, in many cases the common “citizens” were often still relevant for the military but there were specialist elites with great power of their own (aristocrats of one type or another) and also large sectors of dispossessed peasants (serfs or slaves), which were almost merely “booty” for the conquerors. Active enslaving was surely part of the crisis and cause of wars, as we see in the Hittite records about Ahiyawa (Greek) meddling in West Anatolia, for instance. So yeah, “normal people” were indeed affected.

As for the “ritual” thing, well, everything had probably a ritual aspect. Medieval guilds had their rituals, yet they were embedded in very practical affairs — and that applies to everything. Rituals and practical matters were almost never fully separated. IDK, you see the coastal hermitages in the Basque country? Very spiritual and ritual, right? Well, they were established following a plan so that they could transmit signals to each other in a telegraphic way (and could even act as improvised forts), so they were military-administrative outposts also. The aspect may be ritual but the purpose is double. In this case, I don’t think you should blame the “Marxists” but rather the “conservatives” (this obsession with religion and rituals is very very conservative, really).


Edward Pegler October 15, 2016 at 4:06 pm

Dear Maju

On that basis I probably am probably a marxist, but with a small ‘m’. I like the big history and patterns stuff, I just don’t always believe in class struggle as a major force for change in the ancient past. And, like it say in ‘Animal Farm’, after a few years the revolution often doesn’t make a lot of obvious difference that you can see, especially in the archaeological record. Social changes often seem to be quite gradual (longue duree indeed!) with lots of short-lived events getting the attention of history that they don’t deserve (gawd, this sounds like Fernand Braudel).

However, I’m prepared to make exceptions for catastrophe. There’s nothing like a pandemic or a sudden major climate change to give history a huge kick. I think that climate change is overused by academics though. There are clearly events in the holocene (8.2kBP and the end of the climatic optimum in the 4th millennium BC), but the number of subtle events being used to explain big social changes is starting to look excessive. If anything, there’s never been an interglacial so stable.

Also, just to explain, I’m not anti Fernand Braudel or Immanuel Wallerstein or even ritual. Me mowing the lawn is ritual. It’s just that I sometimes feel it’s laziness on the part of some archaeologists to overuse these terms, as they can be an excuse for not trying to work out what was actually going on.

Finally, to normal people (or the mass of peasants). As the least mobile, least educated and most poor, you’re absolutely right. They have little say in the great decisions of history but wind up victim to them. To turn to Ahhiyawa (sp?), it does seem to me that if it was the origin of such people as the Peleset (future Philistines), then I’d love to know whether they were peasants, merchants or military during their time back in Greece.

loving the chat



Maju October 18, 2016 at 11:51 am

In my understanding, the Marxist current or school in the discipline of History is not just or even mainly about class struggle, and even when it is it is much more complicated than just “vini, vidi, vici” of the anti-system implosion explanation for civilization decline. Actually “orthodox Marxists” (you know: Marxist-Leninists with a strong Jacobine-Blanquiste streak) to this day often deny that any sort of successful social revolution could take place before Capitalism, an interpretation that I do question to some extent based on facts such as the Basque Bagauda. Similarly they question that nations could exist before the Modern Era and its growing idealization of the nation-state, something I do again question very strongly because nations (regardless of statehood, people-nations: self-recognizing ethnicities with a tendency to internally solidarity) did exist in the past: Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians, etc. but also Medieval Basques, Welsh, Polish, Saxons, Armenians, etc. Ethnicity/nationality is of course something complex, so I’m underlining some of the most apparent and unquestionable cases only.

The Marxist school (with or without that name, but with a socio-economic approach in any case) is pretty mainstream nowadays but the Conservative school still has a big hold, particularly in transmission or education, and keeps overemphasizing the importance of leaders while downplaying the underlying socio-economic factors as if it was almost background noise. So we can still find many simplistic versions of the Fall of Rome, a key as if it was a mere issue of “moral decline” and randomized barbarian success (with big emphasis in personal names like Alaric, Atila or Clovis) and most people don’t seem to know, for example, that Feudalism (importantly including the degradation of free peasants to slave/serf status) was invented and largely implemented by Rome soon before its collapse, aiding it by eroding social cohesion and loyalty to the state/regime. Probably the field in which Marxist thought has been most influential has been History in fact but still a lot to do. It’s not in any case “dogmatic Marxism” but rather “critical Marxism”, probably more akin to the way the founders of the current, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels actually practiced it.

“And, like it say in ‘Animal Farm’, after a few years the revolution often doesn’t make a lot of obvious difference that you can see”…

At least in some cases you do see it. The case I know best is the Basque one and I think it is a prime example: even today a lot of what makes Basques distinct comes from that ancient anti-feudal revolution known as the Bagauda: not only it allowed the Basque language to survive “miraculously” but, maybe more importantly, it forged a legal framework (Pyrenean or Navarrese law, distinct from Roman or Germanic ones) which favored family-sized viable farms in the long run and was rather hostile to feudalism. In the apogee of the Middle Ages this worked against Basque states such as Navarre, which were not pro-landowners, so many aristocrats betrayed them in favor of more feudalist ones like Castile, but later on this yeoman-cracy (among the oldest democracies of Europe) favored industrialization and capitalist entrepreneurship, first at small scale (widespread scattered iron works and weapons industries) and later (after the forced abolition of most communal lands and mining rights) at much larger scale. Basically you had a lot of people with viable middle sized farms on which they could (and in many cases they actually did) build other enterprises: they had a base capital and also the mentality of managing your own business.

For most purposes Basques skipped Feudalism thanks to an ancient social revolution. It’s an exceptional case but maybe not so exceptional after all, Switzerland being another one: they did have a bagauda but that one failed, however it must have left some sort of legacy because in 13th century they did succeed in establishing a very dynamic confederacy that anticipated much of what the rest of Europe and the World would be doing centuries later. And again to this day that revolution of so long ago has major effects.

Of course nobody can fully avoid the sign of their time, so you see late Navarre turning growingly feudal and you see Switzerland turning into a tax heaven and even cooperating with Nazism. Neither lives in a bubble, but still the long term effects of the respective “founder revolutions” are clearly visible and undeniable. Compare with much worse off places, where feudalism and slavery before it was mainstream, places like Sicily or Andalusia, and you get totally different situations in which social tensions are much more patent but, being unresolved in a constructive way, they keep those countries down and backward. Much of Europe, particularly towards the Northwest, experienced these “pro-Capitalist” social revolutions beginning with Protestantism and the Dutch Revolution. It was complex but it’s clear that many areas fell behind: France had to do their own revolution 200+ years ago (major effect: agrarian reform and the consolidation of a new French yeomanry), Russia had it 99 years ago with some different undertones and effects that I’d rather not analyze here (suffice to say that Lenin thought that they probably had not brought communism to Russia but at least they had made a belated bourgeois revolution of sorts). Each case is unique but they all have effects, including too often the negative effects of lack or failure of needed revolutions or comparable reactionary policies: consider for instance the Ming anti-naval reaction that left China almost defenseless against the European challenge for so many centuries, or how Spain is right now struggling to put an end to more than 2000 years of “caciquismo” and systemic corruption, implemented at least to some extent by the Roman conquest in the 2nd Punic War and perpetuated for lack/failure of social revolutions and a very reactionary state policy from the Inquisition to Franco.

Revolutions do matter: even if they often fall short of the expectations, they do respond to real major challenges and, to some extent, do address them rather effectively. The USSR may have collapsed after a sharp decline but for several decades it was a very clear success, kickstarting Russia into the technological and industrial era in very few five years’ plans: in 1917 it was a hopeless backwater rural tyranny, in 1956, just 40 years later, it was leading the space race and competing with the USA for global hegemony after having defeated Germany almost single-handedly — it was still a tyranny but a much more efficient one. And not just that: the people did live much better in general terms (quality jobs, education, healthcare, housing…) There was indeed some parasitism, as depicted in Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, but nothing compared to the failed state that Tsarist Russia was. At some point (Fordism-Toyotism transition in the 1960s or 70s) the system became stagnant and growingly inefficient but initially and for many decades it was a very clear success, and one which has left a legacy even after its dismantling: if nothing else, no aristocracy anymore and a brand new “technocratic” national bourgeoisie.

“Social changes often seem to be quite gradual”…

There is gradation but we cannot downplay the impact of revolutions. Often this impact is only seen clearly after some time, when they consolidate. Not every revolutionary idea does but we do use (unless you’re from the USA) the metric system implemented by the French Revolution or we have come to consider normal the “sans-coulotte” clothing fashions, even for etiquette (nobody except cyclists wear coulottes anymore). These are just apparent and “harmless-enough” examples but there are many more, some of which I have mentioned above.

“There’s nothing like a pandemic or a sudden major climate change to give history a huge kick.”

It depends. Take for example the Black Death: what effect did it have other than wailing? Nothing in the short term other than a stronger negotiating position by the (rural) workers and a weaker one by the landowners, who suddenly found themselves competing for the much reduced workforce. It did help therefore to end the Middle Ages and Feudalism but it was not at all a sudden collapse. And that’s the worst epidemic we know of in Europe.

What effect did have the Year Without a Summer (1816)? Nothing particular actually. What effect had the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755? Again nothing special in the most affected area (Portugal) but it did help some intellectuals like Voltaire to question “God’s wisdom” or even the very idea of “Deus ex machina” that pervaded the pre-modern thought, helping to bring out Illustration, scientific thought and the bourgeois revolutions – but only in the mid or long run.

It has to be something really huge to be determinant and that may well have been the case in the Bronze Age collapse. Or probably disease also played a major role in European conquest/genocide in America but it was clearly not the only factor: there was a clash, not so much of “civilizations” but of “technologies”, that was decisive. Otherwise, the natives would have recovered after the initial shock (many actually did survive in more or less admixed or “creolized” form in spite of all but not quite the same).

“I think that climate change is overused by academics though.”

Probably. We cannot discard it in some cases as the one at hand but we should be wary, cautious. In most cases I’d say it was a co-factor rather than single cause. Usually societies are ready for a challenge but maybe not for many piling up challenges (a so-called “perfect storm”), in some cases it may be just the straw that broke the camel’s back, you know. It’s like Neanderthals: they had survived many climate crises but they did not survive in practical terms (some pockets still here and there but that’s it) the HE-4. Why? Because there were other factors such as ongoing Homo sapiens pressure (actually several H. sapiens cultures were also wiped out at that point but one particularly, the Aurignacian proper, did survive and expand very vigorously).

“If anything, there’s never been an interglacial so stable”.

May we be over-reading the data we know? I mean: maybe it’s just a matter of not knowing everything well enough. I can’t say but something that puzzles me is that, while previous interglacials were associated to full pluvial periods (Abbassian, Mousterian), ours is only associated to a semi-pluvial one (a much weaker pluvial), which ended long ago anyhow.

In any case we do see that subtle climate changes seem to have an effect. For instance, the establishment of the Danubian Neolithic is coincident with the climate optimum and afterwards, when it becomes a bit cooler again, we do see a marked fall of the density of findings, signaling surely a demographic crisis. They expanded to the limit of their subtropical crops’ package but then the limit fell on them. Sometimes “you” (a society) stretches their limits a bit too much to the limit and that has consequences.

We don’t have enough data, I think, but it’d be a good question to ask: did the Hittites, Mycenaeans, Egyptians, Argarians, etc. extend their limits a bit too much in a favorable context and then had to face a brutal reality check?

Or was mainly a matter of environmental bad luck? One important detail here is that, we do not just have some evidence for this climate setback in many places, but also, in the case of Castro de Zambujal (VNSP, Portugal), we see a sudden silting of the “marine branch” or natural canal that linked the city/town/castro to the ocean. This happened c. 1100 (a bit unsure because the data is not readily available anymore, but from memory), what is coincident with the Bronze Age collapse epoch. I fear that, because of the budgetary crisis or “austerity” measures, this key site is not being researched nowadays but it’d be a very interesting site to understand better, particularly in relation to possible catastrophic events (I imagine it was a tsunami) and also to the possibly central issue of disruption of the tin routes, which, almost without doubt, triggered the generalization of the Iron Age in the Eastern Med.

So it’s possible that we could get a bit more nuanced chronology of the events that happened in the Bronze Age collapse if more research was done and/or readily available. But I’d dare say that 12th century BCE seems key: it begins with the major Greek overseas raids and ends with every single Mediterranean civilization collapsed one way or another and the beginning of generalization of steel. However the collapse surely did not happen in a single year or decade but was rather a piling up of wars and disasters, some of them natural and unavoidable. It would have been interesting times to live, if you can enjoy a harsh and probably short life.

“Finally, to normal people (or the mass of peasants). As the least mobile, least educated and most poor, you’re absolutely right. They have little say in the great decisions of history but wind up victim to them.”

Well, that’s not exactly my point. I actually make a point above for common people being sometimes important and decisive. The key detail is “sometimes” (and more commonly towards our era, when the socio-economic landscape changes radically). Where Metal Ages’ warrior aristocracy was strong and people was forced into submission, these lost usually the capacity of having a say. But there are many exceptions and we do see in early Antiquity, for example, how more-or-less democratic republics (from Pericles’ Athens to early Rome) were at times very successful — this may have to do with the importance of infantry, which came and went but should be more relevant in general in the rough European Mediterranean landscape than in the Northern or Middle Eastern flatlands. Similarly we do see a rise in the importance of infantry related to the Modern revolutions. We do see also a relevance of various types of infantry or otherwise “commoner” warfare style related to Pyrenean, Welsh (and later English too) or Swiss peculiar developments. The Pyrenean almogavars were perfectly able to fight and defeat knights one-on-one (they began by killing the horses, forcing the knight to fight on foot) and so were the Welsh/English longbowmen when fighting in more organized formations in about the same period. When you consider all this, it is not surprising that Basque and Welsh regional parliaments were the first ones in Europe to have (a few years ago) a female majority. It has ancient roots that do have to do with commoner power of various types, never fully destroyed. In some periods this commoner power was more generalized, in others it was rarer, pushed to the mountains but never completely destroyed.

Back to the Bronze Age, it was surely a quite “aristocratic” period in most areas. However infantry was always important. The mercenary Shardana may have been just “runners”, with chariots taking all the glory, but they were all the time there and even were part of the Pharaoh’s guard. So we cannot fully discard that commoners had here and there a say backed by some military relevance.

We do see in the long run some relative rise of the commoners in the city-states (Phoenicia included but this civilization relied too much on mercenaries, unlike the Greeks and Romans, which were citizen-based forces) but I do agree that nothing says that this was the primary issue in the BA collapse.


Edward Pegler October 19, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Dear Maju

Thanks for these extensive replies.
1) Fine on modern Marxism – point taken.
2) Very interesting about the Basque and Swiss reactions to feudalism. Did anything similar happen in the coastal regions to the west or in the Pyrenees?
3) I take your point about revolutions, although I might argue that revolutions are analogous to earthquakes in a process of gradual movement along a faultline. They are releases of pressure, ‘tipping points’ but are not the cause of the changes, just symptoms. Yes, things can change but these could be catch-ups in the system due to a lag in what should have happened if change were allowed to happen more gradually.
4) The Black Death’s consequences do indeed seem quite limited for Western Europe (almost ‘free-market’ re-equilibration) but appear to be quite significant for Eastern Europe (e.g. neo-serfdom) and this had longer term consequences for Western Europe in terms of cheap grain supplies from the East. I think I’m going to have to write a post on this.
5) I guess I’m not much of a fan of the climatic cause thing. I think it’s effects on the creation of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian states and the birth of agriculture are huge. I think it had significant effects in the Iron Age of NW Europe. It clearly had effects on Greenland and Iceland in medieval times. However, I generally just think it’s overused because we see the past through a prism of our own (justifiable) worries.
6) Again, I can now see that you’re point about the peasantry is exactly the opposite of what I was thinking. Sorry about that.

Overall, what I suspect is that you and me have views of history which are individual and difficult to discern just from our comments. This probably makes it difficult for you to see where I’m coming from and, likewise, for me to see your position. But I enjoy the discussion. I’m not sure that I ever really understand what anybody but me is saying when the sentence is longer than four words. But I often think that misunderstanding is part of the fun. (by the way, one of my habits is the dogmatic statement – it’s not that I believe what I’m saying, it’s just my mode of speaking).

best wishes Ned


Maju October 20, 2016 at 12:43 pm

“2) Very interesting about the Basque and Swiss reactions to feudalism. Did anything similar happen in the coastal regions to the west or in the Pyrenees?”

What we know from the very few historical references on the Bagaudae (see for instance the reasonably good Wikipedia article on them) is that they were concentrated in what is sometimes called “Gaul” or “Armorica”. The term “Armorica” (Celtic for land by the sea) sometimes refers to the Western part of Gallia Lugdunensis (modern Brittany and the lands between the low Loire and Seine rivers) but in other cases it refers to all “Gaul” from the Loire to the Pyrenees. These Western Bagaudae or peasant or “rabble” uprisings happened several times, while the Helvetian one only happened once.

From archaeology however we know that since the mid 5th century there is an “inner limes” along the Ebro river, betrayed by the many mints and coin findings in a time when coins were almost only used to pay troops, as well as some burnings of “villae” (rural households of landowners) in what is now Navarre. So when the limited Roman mentions to Bagaudae talk of “Gaul” or “Armorica”, they probably mean an area loosely between the Loire and the Ebro, i.e. the greater Basque Country or greater Aquitaine.

We know that they were successful eventually on several reasons, among others that they allied with the Sueves (Swabian?) kingdom based in Gallaetia. This alliance was probably founded in previous pacts: in 407 Romans (Basque troops under Roman command) stopped the Vandals, Sueves and Alans from crossing the Pyrenes, in 409, with the Roman commanders recalled to Italy to fight off the Visigoths, nobody opposed the Vandal et al. invasion of Spain. However these tribes never settled the Basque area but went further south and west, so there was surely some deal going on between Basques and the Germanic invaders, that was later relived to fight against the Visigoths (which Rome had sent West in a “federation” or “alliance” pact to fight against the Bagaudae and the various “illegal” Germanic invaders).

It is known that the Sueves, upon conquest, made deals with Gallaecian local tribes or chieftains, giving them rights and so on, so they were surely perceived as “friendly barbarians” by the natives, friendlier than Rome. So in general the whole process of Bagaudae and the Vandal-Sueve invasion seems a clear case of “disloyal Romans” rebelling against the burdensome and explotative late feudalizing Empire in various ways: Basques and allies directly, others by making deals with benevolent invaders.

NW Africa may have gone through a similar process, particularly after the Vandals crossed the sea. At that time we see the Berber tribes becoming independent, adopting “heretic” (non-Catholic) beliefs like Arianism or even sometimes traditional Judaism, while the Vandals secured for themselves only the core romanized area of “Africa” (Tunisia and surroundings). Incidentally the Vandals were not quite “vandalic”, I recall a wise armchair historian who claimed vehemently and documentedly that the Vandal sack of Rome, which is what caused the word “vandal” to come to our languages with the common meaning, was extremely well organized and even humanitarian almost, that we should use “Venetian” instead, for what he considered to be the most brutal plunder of history: the sack of Constantinople in the 4th Crusade. Beware of the Venetians!, my Italian family branch comes from over there… XD

“I might argue that revolutions are analogous to earthquakes”

I must agree: the process is both gradual and punctuated. The punctuations do matter anyhow, they matter a lot. This is also true for biological evolution, full of sudden changes, probably in response to environmental crises of various types. However the full consolidation of a radical change may only happen long after the critical punctuation or revolution happens; take for example Homo sapiens: the punctuation or revolution that shaped the species happened some 200 Ka ago but we only talk of the Anthropocene now. Or, going historical, the ideals of the French Revolution may be now quite consolidated but for most of the 19th century and even into the early 20th it was an uphill battle for them against the still powerful reactionary forces. Maybe a better image is a tug-o-war between the two camps, with the progressive one making gains sometimes and losing terrain at others, only winning in the long run. But without the French Revolution (and others like the 1848 one) there would not have been anyone in the progressive team to pull the rope. So the “earthquake” does matter: it is the event that sets up the new landscape in which the “gradual evolution” (itself marked by many lesser “earthquakes”) completes the job.

“The Black Death’s consequences (…) appear to be quite significant for Eastern Europe (e.g. neo-serfdom)”.

Was that caused by Black Death or rather by Hanseatic trade pushing those areas into semi-colonialism, with “cash-crops” being primarily grain? First we must acknowledge that slavery was important in the Middle Ages (some sources claim that in Carolingian Germany and Italy most people were slaves, not so in Gaul, where yeomanry was more important) and that there was a flourishing slave trade that preyed largely on Eastern Europe (the very word “slave” comes from “Slav”) via Prague and later Krakow, major slave markets of the time. It is known that Muslims also imported Eastern European slaves, some of which managed to raise to power later on (Mamluks in Egypt, Slavic dynasties in Spanish taifa kingdoms). So there was a background of exploitation of the Eastern European peoples, often pagan and less organized, that goes well behind.

But let’s take the example of Eastern Germany (Brandenburg and such), which is maybe the best known and useful here. First those were pagan Slavic areas conquered by the Germans, who established marches (same in Austria), then, after the Black Death, they became hotspots for colonization by farmers looking for better working conditions. And only later they became serfdom grain-producing areas integrated in a regional “market” economy via the Hansa and other trading powers. So it was not directly the Black Death which caused the development but it was a secondary evolution only (unless I’m missing something: not my field of expertise). Poland for example was pretty much spared by the Black Death, as were most Basque areas, and they had very different developments thereafter. My impression in any case is that it was the development of the Northern trade (Hansa particularly but with precursors in the Vikings and the Medieval slave-trade) and early manufacturing (Flanders) what organized Eastern Europe as a semi-colonial region that provided raw materials, notably grain. Also there was a gradual displacement of this role towards the East (East Germany → Poland → Russia), as the western parts became more developed and this process took centuries. It was not only Eastern Europe which was marked by this new Flandrian economic centrality: Castile and England were also put to serve the cloth industry by producing largely wool (England would develop its own industry later, but initially it was just another “semi-colony” of Flanders). This caused conflicts, like those in Castile between the herder magnates and the farmers for the use of the land, or the very conquest in 1200 of my part of the Basque Country in order to provide good, easily accessible, harbors for Castile to export its wool to Flanders; this city and port of Bilbao was founded in 1300 with that primary purpose and is still the main mercantile port of Spain, as the centrality of NW Europe in the economy has only increased since then. In the other extreme of the trading network, Riga and Danzig (now Gdansk) were founded/consolidated by the Teutonic Knights (the armed branch of the Hansa) for the same kind of purpose at around the same dates.

This process of consolidation of NW Europe as economic center around Flanders and the subsequent integration of Europe’s periphery as raw materials exporters and consumer markets (semi-colonies) for it, is, very roughly, coincident with the Black Death (c. 1350), but it’s actually older and continues later, up to this very day. We can surely consider it as the ultimate cause of both European integration and the tensions it causes nowadays and also in the past. Both the historical and ongoing situations in Spain and Russia no doubt are rooted in that Medieval process that set them as “semi-colonies” of a NW European economic center. Russia with its revolution sought, and to some degree achieved, to gain autonomy for development, backed by its immense natural and human resources, Spain on the other hand never really made any such attempt, at least not any successful one, and had to limit itself to lesser development subsidiary of the NW core, at various points led by Britain, France or more recently Germany. Even when proto-Spain was politically hegemonic (under Charles V and Philip II) it did not manage to produce an autonomous development, maybe because it was all the time obeying the diktats of the Flemish (and German) early bourgeoisie and their Castilian aristocratic allies. On the other hand England, as I mentioned before, did manage to break up with their secondary role since Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, in a “nationalist revolution” of sorts with the pretext of religion (the process of English “Great Divergence” is more complex but began then no doubt, see: ). At some point the English elites decided that they’d rather be like Flanders than like Castile or Russia — and they made it happen.

So, in brief: I don’t think we can blame the Black Death for this long-term development of European socio-economy. It was rather just an incident along the way.

“I’m not much of a fan of the climatic cause thing.”

I’m not either by principle but we often find indications of climate shifts being at least coincidental with major decline events particularly, like the Germanic invasions of Rome. In this well-studied case, it was surely not the main factor (Rome’s internal problems were instead) but it was probably a co-factor, pushing maybe the economy of Rome a bit too far to the bad side and, crucially, pushing the Northern tribes to desperate search of new resources in a domino effect. It may have been even more important in the BA collapse because the evidence in favor of this “cause” is quite significant (evidence of severe drought in Egypt, Iberia, Greece, Turkey and Palestine) and also because the states of that time were probable much weaker than “mighty Rome”. But in any case we have to understand that “mighty Rome” did survive where it had resources, i.e. the Eastern Empire, and that it was only the much weakened, relatively resourceless Western Empire the one collapsing. My Marxist history teacher used to blame the Christians and their partition of the Empire, depriving Italy of its main fiscal resources from the Hellenistic World, for the collapse of Western Rome ultimately. He probably had quite a point, one that is not often enough underlined because, well, Christian historians don’t like it. Again hard to compare with late BA collapse (for lack of data and all kind of differences) but I do wonder IF there was a disruption of the trade with Iberia (providing tin but also many other minerals, including gold, silver and copper) and, if so, this might have been a major co-factor in the general collapse (or maybe not: maybe the disruption of the trade was just product of the collapse, particularly that of Mycenae, which was in turn a product of mere warfare and looting gone wild).

“Overall, what I suspect is that you and me have views of history which are individual and difficult to discern just from our comments. This probably makes it difficult for you to see where I’m coming from and, likewise, for me to see your position. But I enjoy the discussion.”

I fully agree: I think that the interesting part is the discussion on its own. I don’t have often the occasion to debate these issues (most people would rather focus on football, party or TV fads) so for me it’s mainly an opportunity to share and exchange on issues that I happen to “love”, as “armchair (pre-)historian” myself. We can drop the discussion at any point. I think most is already said and we don’t need to reach to any clear conclusion. My pleasure to debate with you in friendly terms, thanks.


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