Friday, April 3, 2015

The Minoans: Aegean Decline and the Bronze Age Collapse

While we have looked at many aspects of Minoan life during both the OT and NT periods, we have not looked at life during their cultural decline. The splendor of the NT period, with its large temples, elaborate jewelry, and expansive colonies was surely the peak of bronze age Crete. The Theran eruption heralded a new period, one in which the labyrinth at Knossos was the sole temple-palace on the island. The shining jewel in the Minoan crown, Thera, had been utterly annihilated and abandoned. Knossian dominance might have even allowed them control of the entire island, but it is unknown. Depending on the dating of the eruption, Knossian domination was either a brief period between 1,470-1,380 in the final waning hours of the Minoan culture, or its most vibrant golden age between 1,600-1,380. Both pictures paint the city of Knossos as a central facet of the unique Minoan culture during the LBA, but its stability was in the end an impossible task. The world around them had changed, and even their “wooden walls” could not save them.

By 1,400 BCE Minoan pottery began to become rigid and formal, it had essentially started to become Mycenaean. Specific scenes became standardized, and copied across the island. The patronage of the nobility was no longer the source of creativity that it once was. Cultural novelty still occurred, as the new Knossian Palace Style pottery proliferated during this period. Palace style and rich Mycenaean pottery were still made by potters specifically for the wealthy, and new forms of pots which show distinctive Mycenaean traits appear in the record. Helmets and shields begin to more heavily appear on pottery during this period, showing the rising importance of warfare in art.

Reconstruction of the palace of Knossos, from httpearth-chronicles.runews2013-09-23-51570

The post-1,400 BCE switch in general pottery styles was simultaneous in an island wide switch to Linear B (and Proto-Greek) from Linear A (the Minoan language). These pieces of evidence suggest that the island was conquered by mainland rulers, and its elite was replaced by ethnic Greeks. On the mainland this period after 1,400 BCE was a renaissance: instead of a single city's dominance (Knossos), the mainland was controlled by a series of walled cities ruled by kings. These kings extended their control into the hinterlands, marrying far off families to secure political alliances and gave patronage to local artists be it pottery, metalworking, or fresco painting. Over the course of 200 years Mycenaean culture and people would usurp the trading empire of their ideological ancestors throughout the eastern Mediterranean. While it is impossible to know which Minoan settlements were destroyed by the Mycenaeans and which weren't, what is assured is that after 1,400 BCE Mycenaean culture had come to Crete, and it had come to stay.

The Great Fire of 1,380, and the 14th Century BCE

The Knossian period on Crete was brought to an end by a giant fire, which destroyed the labyrinth at Knossos around 1,380 BCE. While people continued to live in the town around the gutted labyrinth, the temple proper was abandoned. Around 1,380 BCE the city of Thebes on the mainland was also destroyed, this was a perilous time for Mycenaeans and Minoans alike. After the great fire, the art of elaborate seal carving began to die out on Crete, and temples were no longer built on the island. There were many reasons why such an ancient practice would finally end, most plainly it is an example of the lack of a strong political will. The building of palace-temples took a king with good international trading connections, a good supply of stone and manpower, and more importantly time and stability. These pillars of megalithic construction were no longer present on the island.

Another significant factor was a general shortage in materials. By the LM period most of Crete's native cedar forests had been depleted through its kings' large construction projects. Palace-temples required large amounts of wooden rafters, making their construction prohibitively high for the weaker rulers on Crete post-1,380 BCE. In addition to large structural changes, larnakes were introduced and became widespread during this period. A widespread change the method of burial points to a much larger shift in the Minoan mindset, considering these beliefs do not change flippantly. These new Minoans buried their dead differently, they lived in towns near the ruins of palace-temples, and their kings no longer used scribes (or if they did it was not on the same scale)...society had changed dramatically.

An aerial picture of the modern day ruins at Knossos

Minoan cities no longer built giant palace-temples to calcify their authority, and their artists no longer dominated the fashion of the eastern Mediterranean. By 1,300 BCE Linear B was used throughout the island, as well as Mycenaean pottery, sealings, and artistic styles. Minoan culture entered a serious decline, and between 1,380-1,100 BCE settlements across Crete become smaller, walled, and move inland. These post-temple settlements were designed solely to account for defense, violence prevailed and the Minoan culture was on the defensive. With the domination of foreign art and language, and beleaguered by pirates the Minoans were fighting a losing battle, by 1,000 BCE Minoan material culture had ceased to exist. Some historians have suggested that the influx of Mycenaean culture on Crete during this period is from refugees, and not from an invasion, but either explanation reveals a confusing period rife with instability.

A reconstruction of building P, storage/shipsheds, at Minoan Kommos, built around 1,360 BCE. Even without temple-palaces, large scale architecture, wealth, and power did not disappear. Each bay is 4 meters high and 40 meters long, and was found to hold many short necked amphoras, deeply connecting this building in coastal Kommos to inter-city or international trade. It is also hypothesized that the bays may have at times held ships

Exquisite gold necklace attachments in the shape of bulls heads, 1,350-1,300 BCE, from Agia Triadha

The end of the palaces also meant the end of organized religion on Crete, and after 1,380 BCE the primary cultic focus of many Minoans' lives had reverted back to their traditional cave cults. Peak sanctuaries had most died out by this period, but considering cave sanctuaries are harder for pillagers to find it is sensible that these would become the dominant areas of stored iconography. The Minoan religion could not survive foreign influence either, and around 1,200 BCE even cave cults had died out. Aspects of the Minoan religion and mythology continued on in the hearts of their worshipers, influencing the origin story of Cretan Zeus as it was told in the 5th century BCE.

Reconstruction of a domestic shrine in house X of the southern area in Kommos, Crete, post palatial period (1,380-1,100 or 1,000 BCE), by C. Dietrich

The Trojan War and Sea Peoples, the 13th Century BCE

Peoples of the Sea” by Giuseppe Rava

By 1,300 BCE Mycenaeans had complete control over the Aegean, and by this period had large established colonies in Cyprus and on the Anatolian coast (with the centerpiece being the large city of Miletus). This is the century of Mycenaean hegemony. While Greco-Roman scholars placed the Trojan War in this period (by counting successive generations) placing mythical accounts of Mycenaean warfare in this century was if anything a lucky guess. In the middle of this century the rulers of Mycenae cemented their power through massive construction projects, in effect redefining their city's political and historical narrative. Around 1,250 BCE they extended the citadel so as to include Grave Circle A. They built a wall around the Grave Circle, repaired fallen stele dedicated to ancestral nobles, and built a small shrine at the site. The mid 13th century rulers of Mycenae intended to connect their current stable government to the glorious historic kings of 16th century. The 13th century rulers intended to change the narrative: those old kings would no longer languish in run-down burials outside the citadel, but were the venerated ancestral heroes whose ethereal power now propelled Mycenae's 13th century fortune. The city's glorious past was connected to their present, but this was not enough. The huge and imposing Lion Gate was built to crown the main gate of the city, and current kings were interred in beautiful tombs like the Treasury of Atreus. On Crete, small settlements moved further inland to escape sea raids, while on the mainland their cultural progeny proliferated.

A late Minoan jug, 1,300-1,200 BCE

A late Mycenaean figurine, ca. 1,200 BCE

Around 1,200 BCE there was yet another collapse on Crete, many places were burned and destroyed. This collapse was most likely caused by waves of Sea Peoples. After this series of raids, many old Minoan sites were finally abandoned, being left in obscurity forever. It is possible that the place name Minoa was introduced into Gaza around this time by the Peleset tribe (one of the groups considered Sea Peoples). The Peleset had fought with the Egyptians, forcing them to concede Gaza for the Peleset's settlement. The Sea Peoples as a whole may have included Cretans and Mycenaeans, who would have brought their native place name.

A map of cities destroyed around 1,200 BCE

 A reenactor from the Koryvantes group as a member of the Sherden tribe of Sea Peoples

Around 1,200 BCE on the mainland the then Wanax of Mycenae built an underground cistern which would have greatly helped the city survive a siege. This period was calamitous for Greeks, around 1,200 BCE there is a general decrease in the number of Mycenaean sites: 9/10 are lost in Boeotia, and 2/3 are lost in Argolis. It is the end of the Mycenaean palace culture, and many Mycenaeans fled to their colonies: to Cyprus, the Aegean islands, and to the Anatolian coast.

“This collapse was not instant and was not total. In addition to the individual sites, there are several elements of continuity; material culture remains mostly the same as before for another century or more (not only continued Mycenaean material culture but Minoan material culture as well), shipbuilding technology, ceramics, and agricultural practices are not disturbed in the slightest.” - Daeres, in r/askhistorians

While the flourishing native culture of the palace period dies out, the great power centers of the Greek world do survive through this period, as Mycenae and Tiryns both held their wealth and power of previous eras. Throughout the 12th century BCE Mycenaean culture generally continues albeit with new cultural influences. So called “Barbarian ware” became popular throughout the Mycenaean world during this time, and while it was actually a native invention it generally shows a down-ward trend in elaborate artistry. In addition cremation becomes slowly more popular, and became the norm in the 8th century BCE.

A map of some cities destroyed and those which survived the crisis around 1,200 BCE. All of the directional arrows are entirely speculative and should be disregarded

The Sub-Minoan and Sub-Mycenaean Period, the 12th and 11th Centuries BCE

Between 1,200-1,100 BCE, while Mycenaean material culture continued its political power collapsed. Pottery and decorative styles changed rapidly while fine craftsmanship and art declined. The citadel at Mycenae proper remained occupied throughout this period, the Wanax was able to hold on to some amount of power through the region's decline. This desperate struggle for control would not last, and by 1,100 BCE the palaces, their titles, and their writing had all died out on both Crete and Greece.

Even in areas which suffered better through the collapse, the decline in artistic quality is evidence. A chlorite vase inscribed with Cypriote or early Phoenician, 1,100s BCE, Mycenaean Cyprus

The only remnants of traditional Mycenaean culture were Achaean settlements on Cyprus and at Al Mina on the Syrian coast. The longest lasting aspect of Mycenaean culture was their dialect of Proto-Greek which was used on Cyprus well into the iron age. While the glory of Minoan culture had faded, elements of Minoan artistic style and pottery continued til around 1,000 BCE. The final place which expressed an identifiable Minoan culture is the refuge settlement of Karfi, on Crete, which continued Minoan traditions until around 1,000 BCE.

A figurine considered a household goddess, found at Karfi during the Sub-Minoan period. It notably includes the Minoan sacred horns

While the zenith of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization clearly had passed, the depths of poverty and despair involved in these changes is not a simple matter to assess. Sloppier pottery need not imply poorer people, although it might. Smaller dwellings would suggest lower levels of well-being, but simply less careful construction need not. The magnitude of the populations surviving to retreat away from the coast is difficult to discern from the artifactual remains, and the record of the pull-back is incomplete, so we have little firm, direct evidence of whether the relocations were made by shattered remnants of populations or more or less intact populations.” - Donald W. Jones

Culture always continues, even as specific identifiers such as Minoan drop off. There was always a nobility, even during the dramatic changes between 1,200-1,000 BCE, and these nobles still fought in bronze armor and desired nice pottery. By 1,050 BCE a new style of pottery became popular, called Protogeometric. It was invented in and popularized by Attica, specifically Athens, which had quickly recovered after the BAC. After its Attic invention, it quickly spread to the Peloponnese and Euboea. While Peloponnese artisans copied the Attic style, Euboean artisans (centered at its chief city of Lefkandi) developed their own style using the pendent semicircle. This Lefkandian style was then spread and copied by Cycladic and Thessalian potters. Protogeometric pottery was also spurred on by new developments in technology, such as using faster wheels (allowing potters to make thinner walls), and using compasses (allowing perfect circles). While some iconic forms of Mycenaean pottery such as the stirrup jar and the squat alabastron disappear, other forms of pottery survive into the Protogeometric period, simply taking on a new aesthetic veneer.

A Minoan protogeometric style pot, from the Sub-Minoan period, 1,100-1,000 BCE

Certain areas continued more ingrained Mycenaean traditions: Crete and Thessaly continued building tholos tombs into the early iron age, and the Argolid continued the LBA burial style of inhumation. Attica not only championed new styles of pottery, but also the imported iron age practice of cremation. While the general economy of farming, weaving, metalworking, and potting continued throughout these centuries, they were at a much lower output than previous eras. Items made in towns in this period were designed mostly for local use, and painted with local styles. Overall, there is a trend toward simpler styles in art Protogeometric art.

A Greek protogeometric style cup with three circles, 1,050-900 BCE

Argos and Knossos were continuously occupied during this period, and many cities were able to rebound quickly such as in Attica, Euboea, and central Crete. While the elite could recover a semblance of wealth and power, the lives of the poor generally remained unchanged as in previous centuries. An illuminating example of how a city dealt with the troubles of this era is seen in the story of Nichoria in the Peloponnese. It was abandoned in 1,075 BCE but re-emerged 15 years later as a village. This scaled down version of the town included 40 families with each having enough good land for both farming and cattle grazing. In the 10th century BCE a building similar to a megaron was built on top of a ridge overlooking Nichoria, likely inhabited by a chieftain. This building was made of a similar material to other houses in the town (mud with a thatched roof) and while it could also be a storage or religious building, it was probably a mini-citadel. The political heart of the town had been reformed around the chieftain's longhouse.

Mycenaean clay sculpture of a temple, ca. 1,100 BCE

As society changed local regions became more independent. Local social structures re-organized around kinship and oikoi (households), creating the seeds for the rise of the polis. Most significantly, the biggest societal change came not from the Sea Peoples but from the introduction of iron. From around 1,050 BCE small iron industries pop up across Greece, as the technology is imported from Cyprus and the Levant. This new metal allowed a leader to make cheap edged weapons for their mass of soldiers unintentionally it had democratized the cutting sword. In previous eras, bronze swords were expensive and reserved for the elite, that social structure had drastically changed. Within 150 years (by 900 BCE) almost all weapons in graves were iron, as nobility across the Greek world had universally adopted the stronger metal in all aspects of life.

“It takes till around 1050-1000 bce for many of these sites to be re-inhabited, and for the population of Greece to start visibly growing again.” - Daeres, in r/askhistorians

The Heroon at Lefkandi, and the 10th Century BCE

By the 10th century BCE most Greeks lived in small settlements, surrounded by isolated farmsteads. Some settlements had chieftain houses, such as at Nichoria in the Peloponnese and Lefkandi in Euboea. These nobles were no longer buried in great tombs, but cremated and buried with iron weapons. While political society had become re-organized at a smaller level, some long distance trade never stopped as Baltic amber continued to be imported from the far north. The nobles who could afford such exotic items still had wealth, and still desired exquisite objects.

The largest building from this era is the chieftain's long house at Lefkandi, in Euboea. It is called the “Heroon”, and was a long narrow building 150' long by 30' wide. It included two burial shafts, one with four horses and the other with two humans. The two people were a cremated male with iron weapons and an inhumed woman with gold jewelry. From the scale of the building the chieftain of Lefkandi was probably the most powerful ruler in Greece at the time, a hypothesis supported by the spread of Lefkandian pottery and colonists throughout the Aegean. By 900 BCE the rulers of Lefkandi had even reestablished trading connections with the Levant, continuing to aggrandize their political power.

A diagram of the Heroon at Lefkandi, in Euboea

A reconstruction of the building of the longhouses at Las Camas near Madrid, an early iron age site with a similar structure to the Heroon, phase 1

A reconstruction of the building of the longhouses at Las Camas near Madrid, an early iron age site with a similar structure to the Heroon, phase 2

A reconstruction of the building of the longhouses at Las Camas near Madrid, an early iron age site with a similar structure to the Heroon, phase 3

A cross section of the reconstructed longhouse at Las Camas

Looking at the two burials at the Heroon in Lefkand, they both are exquisite. The man's bones were placed in an imported Cypriote bronze jar which included hunting scenes on the cast rim. The woman had gold coils in her hair, gold rings, gold breast plates, and an heirloom necklace. The necklace, while buried with this woman in the 10th century BCE, was made 200-300 years previous (around 1,150-1,250 BCE) either in Mycenaean Cyprus or in the Near East. The woman also carried an ivory handled dagger. The sacrificed horses had iron bits in their mouths. The entire structure was most likely created to house the burial, or had been originally the chieftain's house which had become his burial plot. Sometime after the burial the building was destroyed, the site being turned into a general burial plot for the local nobility. Rich members of Lefkandi were cremated and buried close to the east end of the building until around 820 BCE.

A terracotta funerary centaur figurine from Lefkandi, Euboea, ca. 900 BCE

A map of dark age Greece ca. 900 BCE (this picture is actually very large, so save it and zoom in if you need a closer look)

A reconstruction of EIA (early iron age) Greek warfare

While the Heroon was built at Lefkandi, Mycenaean Cyprus had also rebounded some from the collapse. This is an agate ceremonial scepter head which was originally set into an iron shaft, made ca. 950 BCE on Cyprus

The Archaic Period, The 9th Century BCE and Beyond

The iron age signaled the change and creation of new traditions, such as with the elite burial and architecture at Lefkandi. Free standing temples were built, such as a temple to Hera at the summit of the citadel of Mycenae. Early recorded wars show the development of serfdom and the emergence of a new political surface to the Greek world.

The re-emergence of potent states arguably lies around 800-700 bce. Many areas see lots of strife due to competition between different aristocratic families and clans, who fought over the title of basileus. Writing is re-introduced by the Phoenician script, which is then adapted for the Greeks. But recover they did, even though it took a long time and even though entirely new problems emerged in the wake of the recovery.” - Daeres, in r/askhistorians

Sparta was first settled around 1,000 BCE, near the larger Mycenaean survivor of Amyklae. In the first half of the century the Temple to Apollo was built in Amyklae which incorporated the older shrine to Hyakinthos (a tumulus of Mycenaean origin which had become a sacred place). Sometime between 800-750 BCE Sparta conquered Amyklae, reducing them to a free people (but not Spartan citizens) within the Spartan Kingdom. Sparta quickly went on to conquer the rest of Laconia. After locking down their surrounding area they conquered Messenia after a brutal war between 743-724. This resulted in reducing the surviving Messenians to serfdom.

A map of the emergent Spartan Kingdom, ca. 700 BCE

A middle Geometric style pot, 850-760 BCE

A geometric style pot with female mourner celebrants

The old order had changed, ancestral powers like Mycenae and Pylos were no more. In their place, weaker cities like Athens could hold onto power by surviving the deluge, cementing their power by inventing and popularizing new artistic styles. Other weak states like Sparta reformed itself into a military meritocracy, and had to re-institute large scale slavery to hold on to power. In 776 BCE the Olympic Games were establish, these new iron-based Greek cities had begun to culturally synthesize. Each city-state eventually accepted these inter-state competitions, along with its internationalist moral codes such as the recognition of foreign athletes and its enforced cease fires. It was the beginning of a new Greek culture.

An early archaic Greek helmet from Tarento, Italy

A reconstruction of that helmet by the Koryvantes reenacting group

A reconstruction of an archaic hoplite by the Koryvantes group, ca. 800 BCE

A reconstruction of an archaic hoplite by the Koryvantes group, ca. 800 BCE

A reconstruction of an archaic hoplite by the Koryvantes group, ca. 800 BCE

In the early 8th century a version of the Iliad was written down by Homer, and as the century progressed a native variant of the Phoenician alphabet would be adopted by merchants and eventually the entire literate population, most likely starting in Euboea. This period would come to be dominated by iron and Phoenician trade, rather than by bronze and bureaucratic palace scribes.

“It is believed that the whole of Homer may have been passed on by oral tradition for several generations before being written down in the 9th century BCE. If this seems unlikely, it is recorded that in January and February 1887, a Croatian minstrel recited from memory a series of lays amounting to twice the combined length of the Iliad and the Odyssey.” - Rodney Castleden

By the 9th century BCE Greek society had remarkably changed. This is a model of a circular shrine, and contained figurines of a goddess, it was made in the late 800s BCE, and found at a tomb near Arkhanes, Crete

As the population of cities began to increase once again, some spread their culture by founding colonies in the Aegean and southern Italy. Some of the first cities to found colonies were the ancient rivals of Chalcis and Eretria, both on the island of Euboea. Beginning in the early 700s BCE Chalcis founded a colony in the bay of Naples, and then the city Naxos on Sicily. The rulers of Eretria must have formulated some response, the two would continue to compete viciously each entangling themselves into a network of Greek alliances. These two grand coalitions would come to fight each other by the end of the century in one of the earliest recorded wars, the Lelantine War (710-690 BCE). Chalcis and Eretria were strictly fighting over the fertile plain between their cities, but as each side drew in their allies soon the whole Greek world was at war with itself. Chalcis and its allies (such as Sparta and Corinth) won, destroying Eretria. This helped the entire coalition as Sparta gained more land in the Peloponnese, and the other primary ally Corinth expanded its colonial efforts. By the end of the 8th century BCE, not only had new states emerged from Greece but they began to found colonies once more, wars began to stretch across the whole of the peninsula.

The Lelantine plain, the heartland of Euboea. The early archaic city of Lefkandi sits at the mouth of the Lelas river, with the archaic rivals Chalcis and Eretria on the left and right of the usufruct

Map of the alliances which fought in the Lelantine War, between 710-690. Red: Chalcis and its allies (mainly Corinth and Sparta). Blue: Eretria and its allies (mainly Megara, Argos, Messenia, and Miletus)

While the politics of the era had changed, more integral aspects of culture and warfare had remained unchanged. The Geometric Age Greeks, just as their Mycenaean ancestors, were ruled by slaver elites in competitive city states. Each city would found and then fight over their colonies. The dramatic tablets from the 13th century BCE Hittite Empire show a similar political situation: the mainland and the colonies were connected by thoroughly intermarried elite families who rivaled with foreign rulers and mercenaries for power. While many aspects of culture had changed, the political situation of Greek cities had not.

An early archaic hoplite reconstruction, without a crested helmet, by the Koryvantes group

An early archaic hoplite reenactor from the living history association Hetairoi

A reconstruction of an archaic hoplite

Another reconstruction of an archaic hoplite

Other coastal regions of Greek besides Euboea were interacting with Mediterranean trade as well, leading to cemeteries throughout the 8th century BCE becoming richer once again. Burials began to include rich imports from the near east, Egypt, and Italy. Greek potters began to export their wares along the old trade routes, to the Levantine coast and to north central (Villanovan) Italy. A large amount of well made pottery from the era are found on funerary kraters. An aristocrat would pay to have a large amphora made and painted with a funerary scene, it would be placed as if it were their grave stele. The popularity of this new tradition increased along with its new painting styles, a native 8th century invention. Eventually these scenes became more complex and by the end of the century pottery had become less rigid, more elaborate, and began to include scenes based on epic poetry.

The Hirschfeld krater, showing a body laying out in prothesis surrounded by mourners, made in the Attic style between 750-700 BCE
Detail of the Hirschfeld krater

Detail from the Dipylon krater, a geometric krater also showing prothesis and mourners, 900-700 BCE

During this century iron tools and weapons had increasingly better quality, in conjunction with new supplies of tin and copper which were once again reaching Greek smithies. Through the 8th century BCE iron continued to have a humungous impact of peoples' lives. Ever since its widespread introduction in the 10th century BCE it had forced society to reform, armies could now more easily be fielded equipped with powerful weapons. Previously in the bronze age, swords were only owned by the nobility, but now that swords could be supplied on a larger scale any noble with enough money could easily raise a strong force. Society had to adapt to this change and the simplistic top-down approach of earlier eras could no longer support strong societies. Local units could hold much more power, and their cohesion required truly negotiating between factions of equals. While the rich still controlled the land, power was no longer centralized in a Wanax, Temple, or 9th century chieftain, but in a cabal of aristocrats. It was the birth of the Greek polis system.

Late geometric style pyxis with horses on the lid, 760-700 BCE

A late geometric style pyxis in an Attic style, made ca. 750 BCE

A late geometric style kotyle, made in Rhodes but found at a Greek colony on the island of Ischia, Italy, 725-700 BCE. It is called Nestor's Cup, as its short Greek inscription labels it so, "Nestor's cup I am, good to drink from - Whoever drinks from this cup, him straightaway - the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize." It is another example of the emphasis of the Iliad in 8th century BCE Greek culture

Hellenistic and Roman Eras

Mycenae was still inhabited during this period, and a contingent of Mycenaean troops fought at Thermopylae and at Plataea against the Persians in 480 and 479 BCE. The city lasted only 11 more years until 468 BCE when it was conquered by Argos. The Argians expelled the inhabitants, leaving their truly ancient nemesis plundered and abandoned. Mycenae was briefly inhabited again during the Hellenistic period, with a theater being built on the LBA “Tomb of Clytemnestra”. Surprisingly until the Hellenistic era, some Cypriots such as Arcadocypriot and Eteocypriot speakers continued to use a script called the Cypriot Syllabary, directly descended from Linear A. Eventually during this period Mycenae was finally abandoned, and the Cypriot Syllabary died out. These two final blows amount to the death knell for Mycenae's glorious and ancient civilization. The Romans were still fascinated by the site, which became a tourist attraction. Its “cyclopean” walls had entered into the Roman mind as a popular myth, and were mentioned by Pausanias in the 2nd century CE.

The Cypriot Syllabary, based on Linear A but adopted by Mycenaean colonists on Cyprus in the LBA. It was used until the 4th century BCE

A Roman coin from Colonia Julia Nobilis Cnossus, near ancient Knossos, showing a labyrinth

The historic Troy and the conquered Priam on the other hand, fared well under the lens of time. Herodotus relates that Persian Emperor Xerxes sacrificed 1,000 oxen to the Trojan Athena. Alexander the Great made a pilgrimage to the site as he passed through and (from Arrian) dedicated his full armor in the temple, and took down in its place some of the dedicated arms yet remaining from the Trojan War.”

A reconstruction of the acropolis at the Hellenistic city of Ilion
Top: Hellenistic Ilium's theater today. Bottom: A reconstruction of Hellenistic Ilion's theater

Under the Roman Empire it became a culture-wide focal point of study, tourism, and identity. As Aeneas came to found Rome, Troy was then the Romans prehistoric motherland. Various Romans constructed monuments to their history at the site, Caesar rebuilt the city and Augustus expanded its chief temple (to Athena). In the mid-4th century CE Emperor Julian the Apostate noted that fires still burned in its altars, cult statues of Hector were still anointed with sacred oil, and that the tomb of Achilles was intact and still venerated. These rituals were ended with Christianity, the city was devastated by an earthquake around 500 CE and finally abandoned after the 1,306 CE Ottoman invasion.

A reconstruction of Roman Ilium

Explaining the Collapse

“Unless life itself is destroyed in a region, there must always be continuity of some kind.” - Moses Finley

There is no single factor for the demise of the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures, but a confluence of different problems which jointly tore apart their cultural integrity. Many things are suggested, such as: climate change, earthquakes, population movement, internal conflict, foreign invasions, a change in weapons technology, or the more general systems collapse. It should be noted that the destruction is centered around large cities, and while destruction layers are found across the entire region, this should not be equated with similar widespread destruction in rural areas.

“In a single 25 year period spanning the end of the 1200s almost every single palace in Greece is destroyed or abandoned. This is what was interpreted as an invasion/migration for so long, but the simple truth is that 25 years is a long time and there is no reason to attribute a single phenomenon as being responsible for all of this..Some of the great citadels were almost immediately re-inhabited, for example Mycenae and Tiryns were reoccupied almost immediately after the palaces were destroyed...there are several locations where no disturbance is indicated in the material record, most of them lying in Boeotia and nearby regions of Central Greece. There is a growing number of sites that seem to have existed throughout this period of turmoil and afterward.” - Daeres, in r/askhistorians

Climate Change

The region Greece through southern Anatolia and Cyprus is prone to earthquakes, these have been civilization-destroying events having already occurred on Thera during the preceding few hundred years. The great earthquake of 1,700 BCE certainly destroyed multiple temple-palaces (and everything else) on Crete, if that had been followed by an invasion surely the Minoans could have been wiped out. While this theory certainly could account for a few cities being destroyed, it does not account for the 40+ cities destroyed across the entirety of the near east between 1,200-1,000 BCE. There are no mass graves, so a widespread plague is also not feasible.

Climate change is a likely candidate, its symptoms are extended droughts, heavy floods, drastic temperature changes, and continual bad harvests. All of those examples are detrimental to the stability of ruling powers. In the history of China, bad harvests equaled a loss of legitimacy for the ruling dynasty. In fact, during this period (in the 11th century BCE) the Shang dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou dynasty for this precise reason. Severe drought had thrown the older dynasty into arrears and inspired the Zhou's migration southwards, leading to conflict and eventually a new dynasty.

A chart of climate change over the last 10,000 years. Note the spike in temperatures around 1,582 BCE, and the even larger spike in temperatures between 1,343-1,121 BCE, the so called Minoan Warming period. The coldest drop in the last 10,000 years is called the “6,200 BCE Event”, which certainly would have effected the people at Catalhoyuk

In the Aegean region, a juniper tree's from the period shows dendrochronological evidence that around 1,200 BCE there were a series of bad droughts in the region. The Mycenaeans and the temple-palace structure revolved around redistributing wheat, its power was centered around its monopolistic control of its countryside's grain. Wheat rations were used as a form of payment to the palace-temple's workers. A series of bad harvests would have ruined the local king's power, depriving the city from paying its employees.

Around 1,200 BCE Pharaoh Merneptah wrote inscriptions in Karnak mentioning that he had given grain shipments to the Hittites in order to “keep alive the land of Hatti.” Part of what allowed Egypt to whether the storm of the BAC is that they could rely on the Nile's flooding. Around this time the Hittites reached out to the king of Ugarit (on the coast of Syria) for help as well, requesting, “You must furnish them with a large ship and crew and sail 2,000 kor [450 tons] of grain...[it is a] matter of life or death.” The Hittites would not be so lucky as the Egyptians.

Warfare during the Collapse

The movement of peoples likely played a large role in the BAC collapse, through foreign invasion and mass migrations. Much of the changed is considered to be through violence, as during this time most large cities across the eastern Mediterranean were destroyed. After Pylos was destroyed, the new invaders did not leave weapons or graves, suggesting they were raiding. Not every city was destroyed, Athens survived being razed. Pylian tablet JN 829 shows that coastal cities took preparations against piracy, and noted watchers are guarding the coast.” Another Pylian tablet is and order to take bronze from the temples to be made into spear points.

Egyptian and Ugaritic records reference a group they called the “Sea Peoples” and there are substantiated battles. It is still hard to distinguish whether these Sea Peoples invasions were a symptom or a cause of the BAC. There is a fine line between massed forced migrations and an outright invasion, as the political landscape in the Mediterranean reshuffled itself it would be hard to distinguish between the two. In 1,209 Pharaoh Merneptah fought back an invasion from Libya and “northern lands”, the invaders did not come simply to conquer, but brought their wives, children, and cattle.

An Egyptian relief showing a Sea Peoples woman pulling a child into a cart during a battle

It was a period of large-scale violence as well, the Hittites sacked Mycenaean Miletus around 1,315 and 1,250 BCE, Troy was sacked multiple times during this period. The Egyptians fought back the Sea Peoples three times, although bands of the Sea Peoples called the Peleset forced the Egyptians to give them land in what is now Palestine. Etymologically it is possible that the name of the Philistine tribe is an iron age version of the word Peleset, but it remains a theory. Some states fully collapsed during this period, the Hittites were consumed by a civil war, increased piracy (and Sea Peoples), and an invasion of the Phrygians from Thrace (around Bulgaria today). A Hittite vassal Hammurabi of Ugarit writes to the emperor,

My father, behold, the enemy's ships came; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the land of Lukka...Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: The seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.”

The Hittite emperor replies,

As for what you have written to me: 'Ships of the enemy have been seen at sea!' Well, you must remain firm. Indeed for your part, where are your troops, your chariots stationed? Are they not stationed near you? No? Behind the enemy, who press upon you? Surround your towns with ramparts. Have your troops and chariots enter there, and await the enemy with great resolution!”

But Ugarit was burned.

“The intricate, specialized industries such as textiles disappear. Linear B disappears. The palaces are all destroyed or abandoned, and the reach of individual states is greatly reduced. The number of sites with international contacts or dealing in international trade is absolutely decimated; only a handful of islands seem to have still had any international contacts in this period and it took a long time for this to recover. Whilst some places seem to have mostly been undisturbed [Athens], others were; Messenia seems to have been almost totally deserted, the site of Sparta and its nearby area was abandoned and not reoccupied for more than a century. Even after the destruction of the palaces, several sites are damaged by earthquakes, by fire, or deliberately destroyed (although many sites, like that at Lefkandi, rebuilt afterward). It's clear that this was an unstable, violent time in much of Greece.” - Daeres, in r/askhistorians

Another possible invasion lies in the classical myth of the Dorian people, who supposedly invaded Greece in prehistory. This explanation is suspicious, as the invasion is only spoken about in classical sources and was used as an origination myth by the classical Dorian tribe. There is nothing archaeologically concrete known about these invading people, if northern invaders came they did not leave new burials or pottery. It is more likely that the Dorians later invented this myth to explain the layout of classical tribes.

While the foreign invasion narrative is appealing, it is entirely impossible to assign blame to any of the destroyed cities across the eastern Mediterranean. It cannot be determined whether a city was destroyed by the Dorians, Sea Peoples, or fellow countrymen. Some Mycenaeans and Minoans may have joined the Sea Peoples, conflating the political outcomes of the two forces. On one hand, the Sea Peoples are a cause of the continued collapse as they certainly destroyed cities and destabilized empires; yet on the other hand, the Sea Peoples were a result of the collapse and preyed on already weakened empires.

New Technologies and Tactics

Iron swords, iron armor, and new tactics exacerbated the decline in older established armies in the near east. The Naue II sword was introduced from Europe, it was iron and could cut much better than bronze swords. Crafting iron swords was easier (as iron was easier to come across) than bronze, which allowed many more soldiers to have these devastating melee weapons. The prior bronze swords designed for piercing was no longer the most effective weapon on the battlefield. The Mycenaean Warrior Vase was produced in the waning hours of their civilization, and shows soldiers wearing novel helmets and shields. Full bronze panoplies, weapons, and chariots had all been signs of nobility, owned by a small elite. By the archaic era, the yeoman hoplite became the mainstay of armies and by this period (8th century BCE) iron weaponry and panoplies had become democratized.

The central tactical change was through the introduction of these new tools, now companies of infantry could stand up to massed chariot charges. This repositioned power to armies who could field large swathes of infantry, such as the Sea Peoples. These technological changes were no small part spurred on by the advent and popularization of iron. By the 1,200s BCE some people did have iron as the knowedge of iron working slowly left its origin around Urartu (around Armenia). Those who did have iron could more easily acquire it (repair their equipment, supply new recruits) than states could acquire bronze armament.

For the first time throughout the bronze age, large regiments of infantry could be fielded with powerful weapons and defeat the chariot. The chariot had been powerful throughout the early bronze age, first effectively used on a large scale by Sumerians with their donkey led war wagon. Those days had finally concluded. In the 10th century BCE the first regiments of horsemen were employed by the Assyrians, and iron armored cavalry regiments were continuously used until the 20th century CE. It should be noted that the Sea Peoples, disregarding their iron weaponry, were fierce fighters. An elite from among the Sherden tribe were selected by the Egyptian Pharaoh to become his personal body guard, a tradition begun by Ramesses II after his victory over the tribe in 1,277 BCE.

Systems Collapse

A more interesting and powerful idea about the BAC is called systems collapse. This theory suggests that the destruction of the carefully curated shipping lines and commercial networks between large city states throughout the region in the 13th century BCE was the primary cause of decline. This was only further propelled by foreign invasions of Sea Peoples around the end of the century and into the early 12th century. Commercial operations required safety, and particularly the prosperity of coastal regions (such as the Levant or the Aegean) had become dependent on external markets for their surplus luxury goods. The grand Mycenaean palaces and their bureaucracies were heavily dependent on the steady production of their peripheries, carefully recorded by their scribes. If surplus shipments stopped, or if a king was deposed, or if pirates attempted to sack your city, everything would be thrown into chaos. A few of these events happening at the same time could ruin a city.

The availability of enough tin to produce...weapons grade bronze must have exercised the minds of the Great King in Hattusa and the Pharaoh in Thebes in the same way that supplying gasoline to the American SUV driver at reasonable cost preoccupies an American President today.” - Carol Bell

The bronze based military empires of the near east and Aegean required long distance trade with the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan for tin. The quantities of tin required to make bronze forced near eastern rulers to rely on foreign imports to supply their armies. As can be expected, this foundation for military power is very unstable. The area around Afghanistan also suffered political crises during this period, and if a slight dip in trade turned into a break in trade each kingdom was stranded and weak. While the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Elamites would have trouble managing this crisis within their extended kingdoms, a single Wanax in Mycenae with only familial connections to a few other cities would have been utterly overwhelmed. The question as to what exactly caused the BAC is still by no means settled, with many explanations only covering partial areas or with cursory extent. The true extent of the collapse is a continued question of debate within the historical community.

Aspects of Mycenaean Culture which Survived the BAC

Besides the Cypriot Syllabary, other specific aspects of Mycenaean culture survived into the classical period. The position of the Wanax was classically redefined as a Basileus, which is a cognate of qasirewija. In classical society the highest aristocrats formed a council of elders called a Gerousia, possibly a cognate of the Linear B term kerosija. Mycenaean Damo is a cognate to the classical term Demos, which served as the political base of the classical system. The classical term polis does not arise, except in the personal name Potorijo (later spelled as Ptolis or Polis).

The township worshiping city gods of the classical era is similar to the Damo giving tribute to Poteidan. Shrines dedicated to specific gods also survived the collapse, many rural shrines could survive and even some urban ones did too. One such example is the urban shrine to the Mycenaean god Hyacinthos at Amyklae, which was only destroyed between 800-750 BCE when it was incorporated into a temple to Apollo. The continuance of rural shrines predated the rise of the polis and eventually, as cities became politically and religiously most powerful than the countryside once again (in the 8th century BCE), all rural shrines were eventually incorporated into their nearest polis.


Geometric and Protogeometric Pottery
LM and Sub-Minoan Crete, by Donald W. Jones
Early Archaic Hoplite
Bronze Age Collapse in Greece, by Daeres
Ancient Greek thought about the BAC by oudysseos
Collapse of Palatial Society, Guy D, Middleton
BAC Lecture, by Ethan Spanier
Climate Change in the Shang Dynasty (see China)
Mycenaean and Archaic Hoplite, by Koryvantes

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