There is a supreme tension caused by wondrous discoveries about the past; they provide enough insight to provoke curiosity and some understanding, but they hint at a vast and more complete whole to which they belonged. Even when that pool of knowledge grows we tend to find only how much left there is to understand. This is at its most frustrating for societies and cultures who are only partially out of our sight. We long to reach out and touch them.
The Bronze Age is full of such cultures. We are relatively blessed in some quarters. The Akkadian speaking cultures of Mesopotamia left us many of their documents intact, even at this early stage. They also engaged in diplomacy with many of their contemporaries, such as Egypt, Elam, and the cultures of the Levant. Between the legacy of Mesopotamia and their neighbours’ own archaeological remnants, we are privy to many events in their histories. This trove was added to by the discovery of the Hittites and the deciphering of their own records. But even in this group of relatively well known cultures there are ambiguities, puzzles, and outright blanks in our knowledge.
By contrast to these beacons, much of the Mediterranean in this era is barely understood. Cyprus and the two cultural groups we refer to as Mycenaeans and Minoans were clearly vibrant, active societies. Only the writings of the Mycenaeans have been deciphered, and within living memory. The script used on Cyprus, and the two used by Minoan cultures, remain locked. The faintest of references to these peoples have had to be excruciatingly drawn out from cultures with a larger textual corpus, and many of those references remain disputed. Archaeology has matured greatly since the discovery of many ancient societies, and this has helped consolidate our limited pool of knowledge. But a limited pool of knowledge it remains. We are still, ultimately, operating on our best guess and not near certainties.
This is perhaps highlighted best of all with the Bronze Age collapse. It refers to an interregnum of sorts, in which many previously organised societies were scattered, changed or destroyed entirely. At its most basic level, these are our certainties via one particular example; the Hittite Empire was a longstanding state, which varied in size and power over a period of several centuries. But sometime around 1200 BC, it collapsed never to return. By the time that we have access to written accounts in the area again, there’s a new crop of completely different cultures now living across Anatolia. Our direct evidence for this seemingly violent period is from a couple of Egyptian texts, and archaeological remnants that we have so far discovered. In addition, a few vague echoes from later periods have often been used as supplements to our small certainties. Even in those areas not razed in this period there were great changes- new dynasties arose, different languages became prominent, the balance of power was radically altered.
This is a confusing area to navigate. But I think that there is great scope to imagine many different reflections of what became the Early Iron Age and beyond; this was a period of evolution and change with enormous weight and consequence. Before introducing the notions that I am exploring, I’d like to talk a little about what informs my view of this period.
Traditional narratives of this period are full of single-issue explanations, and often feature mass migration rather heavily. This has not been helped by later narratives from particular cultures in the same regions, who believed this to be the case. But the resistance to these narratives within archaeology has grown into a complete paradigm change, particularly with genetic studies indicating many attested migrations involved far fewer people than previously thought. Alternative explanations are now sought, along with an understanding that collapse rarely occurs for just one reason. 5th century Athens was hit by a plague in the midst of the Peloponnesian war. This neither caused the collapse of Athenian society nor their immediate defeat in the war. Likewise, widespread corruption in early 17th century English civil institutions did not cause the collapse of the English state. To that end, this exploration is actively assuming that the Bronze Age collapse was a result of multiple factors and not one particular event.
Archaeological evidence has also altered many previous perceptions regarding the evolution of particular cultures. The Bronze Age Collapse is often talked about as though Mycenaean and Minoan culture instantly disappeared, and as if there were no complex societies left standing. But we now have direct evidence of several phenomena which contradict that notion. We now know that several cities that had previously housed major Mycenaean palaces continued to be inhabited, although the palaces were not rebuilt. More importantly, we know of several cities that were never abandoned, and didn’t collapse. Some of those were continuously occupied until the Archaic and Classical Greek eras, with no sign of a break in the material record. Many sites continued to produce clearly Mycenaean artifacts, and in some cases Minoan ones. The actual death of Mycenaean material culture is around two centuries afterwards, where the last traces of Mycenaean material culture are replaced by new movements in material culture. Despite the collapse of complex society in many areas inhabited by Mycenaeans, its cultural legacy had a long afterlife and did not vanish overnight. Nor was the collapse of complex society total. This timeline is proceeding under the assumption that there was no real Dorian migration to speak of, and the changes in Greek language and culture were likely a long-term result of the previous social landmarks being removed or destroyed.
What is to follow is also going to follow a more debated and controversial notion; that the death of the title wanax that features so heavily in Linear B texts and its replacement with the term basileus by the Archaic era was not simply a quirk of linguistics, but reflected a social conflict in the last stages of the Bronze Age within Mycenaean society. The original Mycenaean word that may be the origin of the term is qa-si-re-u, and the position the individuals with this title hold in Linear B texts we currently possess marks them out as both a feature of palatial life and also something akin to sub-kings or local rulers. It has also been argued that it was an originally non-Greek term, and a fundamental institution in the region well before anyone speaking Mycenaean Greek actually settled there. That is not for certain, and keenly argued, but it is the notion that I feel makes the most sense of what information we currently possess and the one that I am going to go ahead with.
What now follows is a saga of Hittites and Helots, Minoans and Mycenaeans, warships and warlords, and hope.
Welcome to For a Fistful of Amphorae, or These oath gods shall destroy you.
As he looked out from the high walls of the city, Ahi-Teshub sighed. He was the fifth governor of the province in the last decade and matters had not greatly improved. He needed more men; he always needed more men. The countryside was well populated by the natives, and they still looked upon him and his men with great disdain. Many native kingdoms of some strength still existed outside the borders of the province, all with grudges against the Hittites and the royal house to which Ahi-Teshub belonged. There were never enough scribes, never enough soldiers, never enough resources. And in the last year, the situation had become even worse; the surrounding kingdoms had destabilised and become increasingly warlike. Fortunately much of their attention was spent on one another, but Ahi-Teshub knew that he could not withstand a dedicated assault. Even here, at the mighty citadel of Athens.
Ahi-Teshub sighed, and rested against the parapet he stood next to. He longed for home. He didn’t belong in the back of beyond, far across the White Sea. And yet here he was. He was not even permitted to take a wife; his cousin, the King of the Hittite Empire, had forbidden many of the king’s more distant relatives from doing so due to the near constant coups of the past thirteen years. The modest wealth he gained from his position enabled nothing. It was worth as much as ash because it gained him nothing he actually wanted. He was trapped, and the only two options were to maintain the tenuous status quo or to fail and die. Ahi-Teshub spent another five minutes on the wall before returning to the palace.
Three days later, Ahi-Teshub was in a better mood. Hittite sails had been sighted off the coast, and landed at Marathon. He was eating olives when his uncle, Shamu-Teshub, walked into the chamber. His long hair had streaks of gray, and his face was extremely worn. At once Ahi embraced his uncle.
“Uncle, it’s wonderful to see you. Come, sit with me, you look exhausted.”
“And you too, Ahi. It's mostly just the trip from the port at Marathon, nothing a little rest won't cure. I must ask though; I was not announced at all, and I find you in this small space rather than a grand chamber. This does not seem right; are you struggling with your role here?”
“There have been so few visitors from the homeland that I closed the main hall. No Ahhiyan kings have passed through here in a long while, and I have to use the servants elsewhere as we are shorthanded here.”
“It seems times are hard for you too... I had hoped that your isolation here would keep you safe.”
“Safe? Safe from what, uncle?”
Both men sat down.
“I am sorry, my nephew, but I come with terrible news.The Kingdom is crumbling, Ahi. All across the north, we are struggling to contain the men of the mountains. Vassals rebel against the king across Arzawa and even further east. The Kashka are on the warpath again. Vultures have sensed blood. Our enemies are legion, and we do not have that power which granted us majesty in the reign of Muwatalli II.”
“But... if the Kingdom is in such turmoil, why are you here with me? Am I to return home with you and defend Hatti?”
“No, Ahi. You must remain here in Ahhiyawa, because this is one of the few places where our people might take refuge from the coming storm.”
“But uncle, we should be defending our home if it is in such trouble. We should be saving our homes!”
“Ahi, our home is lost! It is no longer a matter of standing and fighting, it is a matter of survival. You know me, you know I would only be saying this if I truly believed it. The upper lands are already lost. It is only a matter of time before Hatti is lost, and Hattusha is burned to the ground. The whole world is united against us; I only barely got here from Wilusa. The Empire is done; I have seen the forces ranged against us, and we have not the strength to repel all of it.”
Ahi’s face went pale.There was an uncomfortable silence.
“How could the Empire be falling? Our people have stood for so many centuries, how could we have failed now?”
“Ahi, I need to ask you what the situation is like here. The court has not been in contact with any of our lands across the White Sea. Are the Ahhiyans amenable to us?”
“... no. It is not good here, uncle. The Great King of Ahhiyawa is at war with members of his own family, many of his vassals have broken away. There are reports of war, and of their kings being overthrown by their lesser clients. It is not a safe place, uncle. And the Ahhiyans here still loathe us.”
“By the gods, it is worse than I feared. It is not just Hatti which is falling, it’s the whole world. Everything is falling...”
The uncomfortable silence returned.
“Uncle, if you are not here to take me home... why did you come here?”
“Firstly, I wanted to make sure you were safe. But secondly, I was planning to evacuate as many Hittites as I can find and bring them to somewhere sheltered from this chaos. I had hoped to bring them here, but if the situation here has grown so bad, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps it is indeed the end of all things.”
Another silence descended. But as Ahi-Teshub sat and pondered, something changed. The world that he had known was smashed to pieces, and was only going to be smashed further. Getting back to Hatti was now no longer an option. But his response to that was to find what he could do with the power that was available to him; as he accepted that his previous desires were now meaningless, he became open to the possibilities opening before him. His eyes were no longer shocked and flailing but focused and calm. And in his chamber in the palace of Athens, lit by the Mediterranean sun, Ahi-Teshub began to plan.
“Uncle, this land of Attika is not safe. But this is not the only land that we control in Ahhiyawa. There is the Great Isle to the east, which the Ahhiyans call Euboea. It is more easily defended than our position on the mainland and we control more of the countryside. A siege here would cut us off from the countryside, with no hope of reinforcement or rescue. We should quit this land, and consolidate on Euboea. I can move all of my men there, and you can evacuate our countrymen there when you return.”
“That makes sense, excellent suggestion! Hope is not lost yet. But are you sure that it must be Euboea? Many of the natives there are rather fierce, what about the island to the south west. Aegina, I believe.”
Ahi-Teshub shook his head.
“Our presence there is minimal, and it is much closer to the fighting than Euboea is. In addition, Euboea has copper and iron in abundance. We would easily be able to produce weaponry and other arms without relying on others. We would be free and we would be strong.”
“Then Euboea it must be. I will stay a night to rest, and then return with my ships.”
“Of course you should stay the night uncle, and your soldiers could use the rest. But you will not be going back with your ships. You will also have ten of my own. Your plan to transport our people here will not succeed without additional security, and without the capacity to transport them. If we mean to make a home for ourselves here in Ahhiyawa there will be no half measures.”