World History 1 85 - 6.1.1 The Late Bronze Age World

Egypt was the dominant economic and military power of the Late Bronze Age, for the most part a time of economic prosperity and political stability. Other powerful kingdoms included Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, the Hittites of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the Mitanni and Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia, and the Kassites and Elamites in southern Mesopotamia and western Iran (Figure 6.4). While each maintained its own unique culture, their interactions created a shared Late Bronze Age culture.

A map is shown with the Mediterranean Sea labelled in the west, the Black Sea labelled in the north, and the Caspian sea labeled in the northeast. A large part of the map is highlighted orange. Regions labeled within this area include: Mycenaeans, Hittites, Anatolian tribes, Canaan, Caucasic tribes, Hurrians, Kassites, and Elam. An island just south of the Mycenaeans is highlighted purple and labelled “Minoan Civilization.” Other areas highlighted purple are located in a long, thin strip heading south at the southeastern end of the Mediterranean, labelled “Egypt” and two oval areas  at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, titles “Syrian City-States” and Mesopotamia.”
Figure 6.4 While Egypt was the dominant power in the relatively peaceful Late Bronze Age, many other cultures thrived during this time. (credit: modification of work “Near East and Mediterranean in 2000 BCE” by “Briangotts”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

For instance, they all used a redistributive economic system in which agricultural goods were collected from local farmers as taxes, stored in the palace or temple, and redistributed to urban artisans, merchants, and officials who could not grow food. They all possessed military forces of elite warriors trained to fight from horse-drawn chariots. They interacted using a common set of diplomatic practices: Official correspondence was often written in Akkadian cuneiform, military alliances were sealed by arranged marriages between the royal families of allied states, and vassal states paid tribute to dominant states to avoid military assault.

These civilizations also exchanged prized goods, such as wine and oil from Greece, cedar logs from the Levant (modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria), and copper from the island of Cyprus. Great cultural achievements resulted from their interaction. For example, in the small maritime kingdom of Ugarit (now Syria), scribes modified their writing methods to suit their local Semitic language. They used this script to record traditional epic poetry featuring myths of their main deity, the storm god Baal.

Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece

By 2000 BCE, a unique culture had developed on the Aegean island of Crete, reaching the height of its power at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age around 1600 BCE. The later Classical Greeks told the myth of King Minos of Crete, who built a giant maze known as the Labyrinth and imprisoned there a half-man, half-bull called the Minotaur (the “Bull of Minos”). To avenge his own son’s death, Minos forced young men and women from Athens in Greece to enter the Labyrinth and be eaten by the monster. Historians see in the myth a distant memory of the earlier civilization on Crete and use the term Minoan, derived from Minos, to describe it.

The Minoans built spacious palaces on Crete, the largest at Knossos. Since these were usually unfortified, historians believe Crete was generally peaceful and united under a single government with Knossos as the capital. The Minoans also established settlements and trading posts on other Aegean islands such as Thera and along the Anatolian coast. Their palaces were huge complexes that served as economic and administrative centers. To keep records for these centers the Minoans developed their own script, written on clay tablets and known to scholars as Linear A. It has not yet been deciphered.

A common weapon and symbol in these palaces was the labrys, or double ax, from which the word “labyrinth” arose. In the courtyards, young men and women participated in bullfights that may be the basis for the myth of the Minotaur. Frescoes on the palace walls depict these fights as well as sea creatures and scenes from nature (Figure 6.5). The Minoan religion revered bulls and a goddess associated with snakes, nature, and fertility. The abundance of figurines of this snake-wielding female deity and other artistic depictions of women may mean that at least some women enjoyed high social status in Minoan society. Religious rituals were practiced in small shrines as well as on mountain tops and in caves and sacred forests.

An image of a rectangular wall painting is shown. The surface of the wall is stone with flat, round areas protruding out in various locations. The borders are beige, brown, and blue stripes with crescent shapes, with dots, lines and dashes inside the crescents. In the middle of the frame, a large brown and white animal with short legs and horns is stretched across the blue background with its legs splayed out. A dark brown figure in a light brown loincloth is upside down on the middle of the animal with their legs kicking to the right. A figure stands in front and behind the animal. The one in front wears a white short robe and is grasping the animal’s front horn. The figure behind the animal wears a brown loincloth, wrist and arm bangles, and is holding both arms straight out toward the brown figure on the animal’s back.
Figure 6.5 This small Minoan fresco (c. 1600–1450 BCE) shows a leaping bull with one acrobat on its back and two others alongside. It is one of five discovered in the Knossos palace on Crete. (credit: “Toreador Fresco (Bull-Leaping Fresco)” by “Jebulon”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Link to Learning

For a thorough examination of the art and archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age, visit Dartmouth University’s Aegean Prehistoric Archaeology website.

Sometime around 1500 BCE, the palaces on Crete were destroyed. Knossos was rebuilt, and scribes there began employing a new script scholars call Linear B, apparently derived from Linear A and found to be an early form of Greek. Linear B clay tablets discovered on the Greek mainland led historians to conclude that Greeks from the mainland conquered Crete and rebuilt Knossos.

The Bronze Age culture that produced Linear B is called Mycenaean since the largest Bronze Age city in Greece was at Mycenae. Bronze Age Greeks appear to have migrated from the Balkans into mainland Greece around 2000 BCE and adopted Minoan civilization around the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, in 1600 BCE. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaean Greeks were divided into a number of separate kingdoms. Immense palace complexes like those at Knossos have been found at Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes, Pylos, and Sparta, sometimes surrounded by monumental fortifications. These locations correspond to the powerful kingdoms described in the later Greek epic poem the Iliad, attributed to the poet Homer. This poem tells the story of the Trojan War, in which the Greek kingdoms, led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae, waged war against the city of Troy. Archaeologists have also uncovered the Bronze Age city of Troy in western Turkey, which suggests the Iliad was loosely based on oral traditions that preserved the memory of these ancient Bronze Age kingdoms. The Linear B tablets indicate that the ruler of these palaces was known as the Wanax or “lord,” the same word used to describe the heroic kings of the Iliad.

The Collapse of the Bronze Age World

The last century of the Late Bronze Age, after 1200 BCE, was a period of wars and invasions that witnessed the collapse of many powerful states. The palaces of Mycenaean Greece were destroyed, perhaps following revolts by the lower class and natural disasters like climate change and earthquakes. In the centuries that followed, the population declined drastically, writing and literacy disappeared, and Greece entered a “Dark Age.”

Later ancient Greek historians reported that Greek-speaking tribes known as the Dorians migrated from northwest Greece to the south after the Trojan War. The instability in Greece and the Aegean resulted in much migration by people in search of new homes. For instance, ancient Egyptian inscriptions tell us that the “Sea Peoples” destroyed the Hittite Empire and numerous kingdoms in the Levant to the north of Egypt. One particular group known as the Philistines (Peleset), who attacked Egypt, eventually settled just north of Egypt along the coast of the southern Levant. But there were many others, including the Akawasha, Lukka, Shardana, Tursha, and more who washed across the eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age Collapse (Figure 6.6).

A map is shown. Black lines are drawn all over. A compass is located in the bottom left corner as well as a scale indicating “300 km.” In the northwest corner of the map a dark pink arrowed line in heading south and labelled “Inland invasions.” Another dark pink arrowed line is shown in the north of the map heading southeast and then splitting into three – one heading east toward a black dot labelled Hattusas, one heading south, and one heading southwest. The last dark pink arrow is seen across the bottom of the map heading from west to east to an area labelled “Nile delta.” A small black arrow points to the “Nile delta” and is labelled “Sea People in the Nile Delta ~ 1188-1177 BCE.” Blue arrowed lines show in the middle of the map and are labelled “Sea people invasions.” The first arrow begins in an area in the middle west of the map by a city labelled Thebes. The arrow heads north a bit then heads northeast to a city labelled Troy. A black arrow points to the city of Troy and is labelled “Destruction of Troy ~ 1190-1180 BCE.” Another blue arrow begins west of Thebes and heads south past a city labelled Pylos and splits into three – one heading south and meeting up with a dark pink arrow across the bottom of the map, one heading north toward a city labelled Mycenae (a black arrow points to Mycenae and is labelled “Destruction of Mycenae ~ 1210-1200 BCE”), and one heading southeast to a city labelled Phaistos, continuing southeast to the Nile delta area. Another blue arrowed line begins just southeast of Mycenae and heads southeast splitting into three directions. The first heads northeast to a city labelled Miletos. The second heads southeast past the cities of Knossos and Phaistos continuing southeast toward the Nile delta. The third blue arrow heads straight east where it splits off into three directions. One head northeast. The second one heads east just south of the city of Tarsus, then just west of the cities of Alalah, Urgarit, Gibala (which is labelled in red with an “*” after the name and “1192-1190 BCE”), Byblos, Hazor, Mediggo, Dor, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, and ending right before the “Nile delta.” The third portion of this blue line heads southeast toward the city of Kition and Enkomi then joins with the second blue line of this path just south of Byblos. A black arrow points to the city of Ugarit and is labelled “Destruction of Ugarit ~ 1192-1175 BCE.” The cities of Hazor, Mediggo, Ashdod, and Ashkelon are indicated with a bracket with the label: “Canaan was impacted in ~1185 BCE.” To the west of the city of Kition the city of Paphos is labelled.
Figure 6.6 The “Sea Peoples,” as they were called in Egyptian records, came largely from the Aegean region. By studying the remains of pottery and other archaeological traces, scholars have concluded that these groups moved through Greece and Crete and into North Africa, Cyprus, and the Levant (as shown by the blue arrows) at the close of the Late Bronze Age. (credit: modification of work “Map of the Sea People invasions in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age” by David Kaniewski, Elise Van Campo, Karel Van Lerberghe, Tom Boiy, Klaas Vansteenhuyse, Greta Jans, Karin Nys, Harvey Weiss/”The Sea Peoples, from Cuneiform Tablets to Carbon Dating”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

Other groups were also on the move. Libyans, who inhabited the North African coastal region west of Egypt, invaded the northern Nile River valley and settled there. The attacks of the Sea Peoples and Libyans contributed to the later collapse of Egypt’s central governments after 1100 BCE, ending the New Kingdom period. Phrygians, who inhabited the Balkans in southeast Europe, migrated into Asia Minor (Turkey). The Aramaeans, nomadic tribes who spoke a Semitic language and inhabited the Arabian Desert, migrated into Syria and Mesopotamia.

These wars and invasions coincided with an important technological innovation, the birth of sophisticated iron-making technology. For thousands of years, bronze had been the metal of choice in the ancient world. But the disruptions caused by the Late Bronze Age Collapse made it difficult for metal workers to access tin, a crucial ingredient in bronze. Without a sufficient supply of tin, artisans experimented for centuries with iron ore. In the process, they developed the techniques of steeling (adding carbon to the iron to make it stronger), quenching (rapidly cooling hot iron with water), and tempering (heat treating) to produce a metal far superior in strength to bronze. By around 900 BCE, the Iron Age had begun in the eastern Mediterranean.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax