Robert Drews: The End of Bronze Age
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the 1993 Princeton U Press edition.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Oveall Impression: A well-argued and enjoyable book..


The eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age ended in about 1225-1175 BCE during a catastrophe that swept across the entire region, affecting Mycenaean Greece (Teichos Dymaion, Pylos, Nichoria, The Menelaion, Tiryns, Midea, Mycenae, Thebes, Lefkandi, Ioklos), Crete (Knossos and Kydonia), Anatolia and the Hittite empire (Troy VI, Miletus, Tarsus, Hattusas, etc.), Cyprus, Syria (Ugarit, Kadesh, Aleppo, Carchemish, etc.), the Southern Levant (Hazor, Meggido, Bethel, Ashkelon, etc.), and (to a lesser extent) Egypt. The catastrophe peaked in the 1180s and ended about 1179 during the reign of Ramesses III in Egypt (virtually the last of the great pharaohs). The regimes in the region had been stable palace-centered, wealthy, and relatively peaceful, but what followed (at least in Greece) was a dark age (and there are few inscriptions in Egypt thereafter as well). A transition in Greek pottery from ceramic phase LH IIIB [i.e., Late Helladic c. 1320/1300 - 1190 B.C.] to LH IIIC coincides with this catastrophe. With the iron age came also the development of alphabetic writing, the growth of nationalism, republican forms of government, monotheism, and eventually rationalism.

The author considers and refutes alternative explanations for the catastrophe: 

(1) Earthquakes (cannot explain sacking and razing)

(2) Mass migrations (e.g., the "Sea Peoples") [the Egyptian inscriptions celebrating Merneptah's victory over the Libyans describe Lukka (Lycians), Ekwesh (Achaeans), Tursha (Tyrsenians fr. western Italy), Shekelesh (Sicilians), and Shardana (Sardinians); other inscription mention the Meshwesh (prob. Tunisians), Philistines and Tjekker from north of Philistia.) Note that the coming of the North-Greek speaking Dorians to the Peloponnese occurred not during this catastrophe but around 1100.

(3) Ironworking (incorrect because iron did not come into regular use until about a century later.

(4) Drought.

(5) Systems collapse.

(6) Raiders (only partly correct).

The author concludes that the principal cause of the catastrophe was a change in weaponry and military tactics. Previously, warfare by the palace regimes after about 1700 had been conducted primarily with hundreds or even thousands of chariots. They were used not just as battle taxis but as a means of bearing drivers and archers armed with composite bows capable of shooting long ranges. These chariotries, including their associated horses, were assembled at great expense. Examples of great Bronze Age battles with chariots include Thutmose III's at Megiddo c. 1460 against a coalition of Canaanite kingdoms, and Ramesses II's against Muwatallis II of Hatti near Kadesh in 1275. 

The author refutes the concept that the principal offensive method of the chariotry could have been charging with a stabbing lance, as Nestor in the Iliad proposes. (He suggests that the Homeric saga originated in the less civilized more bellicose parts of Achaea, especially Thessaly and Phthiotis, that the original saga was in the Aeolian dialect before the Ionian, and that the men who sacked Troy were Northern Greek speaking rather than the southern Greeks of the Linear B inscriptions.) He believes that Homer was ignorant of the actual method of chariot warfare, i.e. its use as a mobile platform for archers, because the heroic (epic poem) tradition developed in a culture of infantrymen in which the chariot had become a vestigial item used only a prestige vehicle. The Achaeans in fact achieved their victory by putting an end to chariot warfare by means of fleet-footed infantrymen throwing javelins. Bronze age footsoldiers, about which little was written, had served an ancillary function to the chariotry, as skirmishers or chariot runners, killing the victims injured by the charioteers (except for battles in mountainous terrain unsuitable for chariot use). The shardana ("men from Sardinia", presumably mercenaries) were noteworthy for this role.

At the time of the catastrophe and thereafter, the infantry composed of armored footsoldiers became of primary importance. The innovations in infantry in the catastrophe which facilitated hand-to-hand fighting included use of:

(1) The well-balanced and highly maneuverable small round shield (aspis), 2-3 feet in diameter, as opposed to the great shield (sakos)

(2) The javelin or dart, which could be thrown on the run and was very effective against a chariot force (using swarming tactics), including against the horses. They had elliptical heads allowing easy retraction and therefore reuse, rather than a barb.

(3) The Naue Type II sword (or Griffzungenschwert), originally made of bronze and later iron, c. 70 cm long, having nontapering sides and a sturdy flange for attaching to the hilt, and therefore optimized both for slashing as well as stabbing or thrusting. It probably originated in the area from the eastern Alps to the Carpathians in the 15C (the forerunner of the Naue Type II was called the Sprockhoff Ia) and was cast in foundries rather than forged in smithies. Its superior design led to its rapid dissemination in the eastern Mediterranean, once introduced c. 1200, though it did not appear there before. A find of these swords in Ugarit had been previously misdated to the 14C based on surrounding sherds but more likely constitutes a hoard buried during the final emergency there c. 1185.

(4) The infantryman's corslet, which protected the trunk, arose, along with greaves for protecting below the knees.

Chariot warfare ended under the attacks of overwhelming numbers of barbarian raiders and city-sackers. For example, 20,000 Libyans, Philistines, and Tjekkers may have attacked against Ramesses III. In literature, the Homeric Achaeans attacking Troy are probably of this type. In the OT, examples include the Israelite footsoldiers described in Joshua and Judges, or the Israelites led by Moses against the Egyptians, or the battle against the chariots of Jabin and Sisera of Hazor (Song of Deborah). 

The author makes summary conclusions including the following: During the catastrophe, thousands of barbarian skirmishers descended upon the plains they had previously avoided, destroyed the chariot armies on which defense of the plains had relied, and sacked and burned the cities they conquered. The process began in the northwest frontier and spread south and west. The conquest of Thebes was followed by Troy VI. The catastrophe burst on Egypt in 1208 during Merneptah's reign, when Meryre of Libya attacked accompanied by numerous mercenaries including northern-Greek speaking Achaeans. Although the Libyan failed, his exploits like those of the Achaeans publicized the possibilities of a new kind of warfare. The sackers sought cattle, gold, women, and other plunder. The success of war thereafter depended on every man playing his part and thus served as a prerequisite to the social and political changes that followed.