Drews, Robert, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C., Princeton Univ Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993. 252 pp.
[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
With the kind intent of keeping my “To-Read” pile at Olympian scale, Lex recently brought my attention to this older book on the “Catastrophe” that hit the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean civilizations some 3,000 years ago.
“End” is a sweeping academic history by a Vanderbilt University Egyptologist which attempts to provide a new answer to the question of why palace culture in the eastern Med seemed to topple between 1225 and 1175 BCE. In the end, only the Egyptians and Assyrians were left intact, and in the case of the former, they faced several stiff challenges from “barbarian” warriors in the period. Famous Mycenean, Cretan, and Hittite empires were fatally wounded, however, and a new Iron Age was introduced leading to the Classical Antiquity that is more familiar.
For some readers, the experience may be have the following flavour:
HUMPHREY WILLIAMS: …And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so, the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots. Here endeth the lesson.
From Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life … Part II: Growth and Learning
But the story of this cultural disruption is more than “x begat y, who begat z” chiseled into stone or written on papyrus or clay tablets. The dramatic shift in settlement patterns, precious goods, and cultural achievement continues to fascinate folk from the social and natural sciences, and the academic controversy has an interesting parallel to the fall of the western Roman empire discussed some months ago in a review of Ward-Perkin’s book here at Chicagoboyz.
As summarized by Drews, some three thousand years ago, palaces and cities throughout the Aegean and Anatolia show signs of razing and destruction, all at roughly the same time. Subsequent settlements appeared to concentrate the population into more defensible sites, with heavier fortifications, and greater population sizes. There seemed to be a focus on monitoring seabourne approaches to these settlements.
Simultaneously there is a shift from small elite chariot armies (armed with composite bows) sponsored by an equally elite nobility, to an emphasis on infantry armed with javelins and long swords, supported by cavalry. The tales of Egyptian and Hittite kings handling “hordes” of “sea people” are left in stone, ceramic, and papyrus records. When the tropes of state propaganda are subtracted, it is clear the kings were coping with a familiar set of enemies fighting in a new and dramatically effective way.
Drews takes this historical information and first reviews the academic literature for suggested causes. An older explanation was earthquakes, which damaged the palace sites and triggered fires. Drews is skeptical of this explanation because in his eyes the destruction, and pattern of material remains, shows less natural and more man-made destruction.
Perhaps this cultural trauma was triggered by the migrations of barbarian peoples into the region other scholars suggest. Drews sees little indication from the destruction or the written record that any raiders were settling in the areas they burnt. There were no apparent cultural displacements.
Perhaps it was the shift from bronze to iron weaponry that changed the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. But here again, the record now suggests that the dramatic events of the early 12th century BCE took place before the widespread appearance of weapon-quality iron.
As an ancillary argument to the migration theory, some have suggested perhaps a drought triggered the movements of peoples into the civilized areas of the eastern Mediterranean. But the literature (sometimes in the form of clay tablets preserved by fires set during actual attacks) notes only occasional droughts, and makes no mention of it in association with the disruptions of the time period in question.
Raiding by the barbarians of the northern and western Mediterranean has been proposed, and Drews has some sympathy with this cause, but he notes that raiding per se is an insufficient cause. The civilizations of the eastern Med had had a trading relationship with barbarians for centuries, had hired them as mercenary runners and foot soldiers for almost as long, but had never had need to fear them.
Finally, a general “system collapse” has been suggested for the destruction and abandonment of the palaces of the late 13th and early 12th century BCE. These cultures were dominated by very small elites and small cadres of professional soldiers. Perhaps there was some kind of revolution triggered by the social and political conditions. For Drews, the top-heavy nature of these cultures did make them militarily unstable but the question must be, why the disruption at a particular time, and across so much geography?
Having outlined, and dismissed as unsatisfactory, the various explanations for the demise of palace culture of the period, Professor Drews then turns to what we know of the military organization of the Bronze Age civilizations … For his suggestion for a cause is “military.”
He proposes that the hand-to-hand fighters of the northern and western Mediterranean, long used as guards and mercenaries by the civilized peoples, came to discover that their unique slashing and thrusting long swords (when matched with adapted armour and javelins) had the ability to crush the expensive chariot-bourne archers of the kingly states. And having removed the chariot forces, the unfortified palaces, cities and towns of the area were completely vulnerable to looting, and then burning.
What follows then is a detailed consideration of the literature and archaeology of the region, reconstructing the weaponry, deployment, and logistics associated with massed chariot armies in the Bronze Age. These armies were to dominate warfare across the Middle East and as far East as northwest India.
This is an academic work, though well-written, so folk who are daunted by French and German quotes and footnotes which occasionally fill half the page are better served by books for the general reader (such as Robbins’ Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt, and the Peoples of the Sea). For those interested in digging into the details of Bronze Age war however (which itself is scantily covered in most histories of warfare), they will be well rewarded. Written in 1993, recent scholarship has enhanced, modified, or taken issue with Drews’ account, but the broad picture that the author draws, and the very wide range of sources he consulted, continues to place this book at the centre of the discussion. Everyone cites him — pro and con.
In a nutshell, the use of horse-drawn light-weight chariots, and the introduction of the composite bow (with dramatically greater range and power than the simple curved bow) led to an era where kings could dominate the settled landscape in the face of lightly-armed enemy infantry. Chariots provided mobility and long-range striking power. Backed by “runners” or “skirmishers” they could slaughter most infantry at a distance. They quickly became the military force of choice, and records illustrated chariot battles as the premier method for sorting out differences between, say, the Egyptians and Hittites.
The drawback of chariot armies was two-fold. Numbers on the battlefield were critical, so kings competed to create the largest chariot forces possible and deployed them en masse. Secondly, the logistical expense of chariot armies was enormous because chariots, horses and men were all specialists and treated as an elite. Acres of land would be needed to support a single chariot team with food for man and beast. It seems likely that chariot warriors were therefore a de facto feudal elite, given land and security responsibilities in return for their service and for purchasing or maintaining their equipment.
Through the centuries, from roughly 1800 BCE to 1200 BCE, chariot forces were the staple military force along the civilized eastern Mediterranean.
In contrast to the civilized areas, the Italian and Balkan regions of Europe were developing weaponry and armour more suited to combat infantry than chariot forces. The arrival of the bronze sword called Naue Type II triggered a new style of hand-to-hand warfare that enabled both slashing and thrusting attacks. With the addition of greaves (armour for the front of the leg), round shields, and mail coats that allowed mobility (as opposed to charioteer armour meant to stop arrows while one stood still), the mercenary troops which previously only acted in support of chariots became self-sustaining on the battlefield.
The development of throwing javelins, an outgrowth of hunting spears (contrasting with the earlier thrusting spears of infantry), gave the barbarian mercenaries a method to halt the *horses* of a chariot team. Once such a team was disabled, the expensive chariot and its riders were at the mercy of massed infantry. “Massed” as in “large numbers” not “ranked, row upon row.” Quantity of infantry counted when fighting chariots.
The second half of Drews’ book is a careful review of the evidence for changing military equipment across the period of the Catastrophe, and the origins of that weaponry.
What are the implications of the change? To Drews, the shift in weaponry, and styles of warfare, meant that the palaces of the eastern Med (unfortified and protected only by a tiny, expensive corps of chariots) were extremely vulnerable to seaborne raiders in large numbers, armed with javelins, swords, and armour. In turn however, those raiders were at a disadvantage when caught on the water … because they did not have the combination of expert archers and impressed rowers that an Egyptian king could deploy when given sufficient warning.
If the raiders could operate unobstructed in groups of several thousand (in as few as 30-40 boats), they could loot and destroy towns, cities and palaces near the sea coast at a relatively quick pace. Once word of the new strategy’s success spread, other barbarians groups could quickly adopt it. Indeed, the king of Libya attempted several attacks on Egypt using massed infantry armed in the new way and drawn from a half-dozen regions of the western and northern Mediterranean. The Egyptian king survived those huge confrontations by keeping his chariots out of the fray, and building his own armed infantry in numbers sufficient to stop the invaders.
Thus, for Drews, the 50 years of turmoil, looting, and burning in the eastern Mediterranean is a reflection of a new approach to warfare … infantry with swords and javelins. With the dawning of the Iron Age, these troops morphed into the heavily armoured, spear-carrying hoplites that take us through the classical period into Roman times (the Roman legions used two javelins and a thrusting sword, primarily).
As mentioned earlier, a bit of research on the Internet confirms that Drews’ book has been widely cited but by no means adopted wholeheartedly. The geophysicists are particularly heated about their support for earthquakes, particularly for the concept of “earthquake storms” or patterns (cf. Professor Nur’s online article) which could have hit the eastern Mediterranean for a period of 50 years and subjected palaces and towns to repeated destruction and fire from natural causes. Such a sustained burst of earthquake activity could have devastating economic consequences and alter infrastructure dramatically.
Indeed the controversy between archaeologists and geologists on the matter has become so heated and polarizing that their students have written papers on how to better reconcile the two groups and get them to make adjustments for their cognitive biases. It’s not often that a 3,000-year-old conflagration still manages to throw off so much academic cross-disciplinary heat!
Again, the conclusion that Drew reaches is that by the end of the 13th century BCE, the former mercenary soldiers of the kings of the Eastern Med (drawn primarily from the north shore of the Mediterranean as far west as Sardinia and Sicily) had developed a method for handling chariot armies — new mobile armour, greaves, javelins, and long sword (suitable to sturdy cutting and thrusting).
With these methods, they were able to methodically topple the tiny elites supported in unprotected palaces across the Aegean, the Levant, and Anatolia. They were also able to make life very difficult for the Egyptian pharaohs and threaten (unsuccessfully) the Assyrian kings of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers.
This is a well-written book, with a fascinating and controversial hypothesis. It introduces a remote time in civilization, still poorly understood, and does so in a way that even the lay enthusiast will find inspiring. It illuminates a time of cultural disruption fully as significant as the fall of empires some millenia later. And it provides a review of the literature on society and warfare that should let readers Google and Amazon their way into the most obscure parts of the academic literature on the Bronze Age. Though an academic book best suited to advanced undergraduates and enthusiasts, it will also provide much pleasure just to those genuinely curious.
Table of Contents
Part One: Introduction
c.1 The Catastrophe and Its Chronology 
c2 The Catastrophe Surveyed 
Part Two: Alternative Explanations of the Catastrophe
c.3 Earthquakes 
c.4 Migrations 
c. 5 Ironworking 
c. 6 Drought 
c. 7 Systems Collapse 
c. 8 Raiders 
Part Three: A Military Explanation of the Catastrophe
c. 9 Preface to a military explanation of the Catastrophe 
c. 10 The Chariot Warfare of the Late Bronze Age 
c. 11 Footsoldiers in the Late Bronze Age 
c. 12 Infantry and Horse Troops in the Early Iron Age 
c. 13 Changes in armour and Weapons at the End of the Bronze Age 
c. 14 The End of Chariot Warfare in the Catastrophe