Bible and Beyond

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The End of the Bronze Age- Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C.

Robert Drews

(Princeton- Princeton Univ. Press, 1993) 252 pp., $35.00

Soon after 1200 B.C.E. the kingdoms and empires that had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean region for centuries came to sudden, often violent, ends. Cities and palaces were burned throughout Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. Scholars have postulated a variety of causes for this tumult and destruction at the end of the Bronze Age- a series of major earthquakes, a period of drought, massive migrations, overspecialized economies, revolts by downtrodden peasants and collapsing systems, among others. However, no theory suggested so far has attracted majority support. Now Robert Drews, professor of classics and history at Vanderbilt University, proposes a military solution to the problem.

After a brief overview of the era of conflict and devastation, which he labels simply “the Catastrophe,” Drews reviews and rejects most of the prominent explanations advanced in the past. While he does a good job of discrediting some of these hypotheses (especially those blaming earthquakes and ironworking), several of his arguments in this section are not entirely persuasive. For example, in his discussion of the drought hypothesis, he fails to consider important evidence, especially the indications that the levels of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were very low during the 12th century B.C.E. And in what will certainly be one of the most controversial of his arguments, he rejects the idea of an invasion by Sea Peoples. For Drews, the Peleset (Philistines) were not migrants from the Aegean or Asia Minor, but native Palestinians. The Shardana, Shekelesh, Lukka and Tursha were not wandering tribes, but just warriors from Sardinia, Sicily, Lycia and Italy. He concludes that “the only ‘migrations’ that contributed to the Catastrophe are the encroachments of Libyans and Palestinians on the Egyptian Delta” (p. 72).

In part three of his book, Drews maintains that the Catastrophe resulted from “a radical innovation in warfare, which suddenly gave ‘barbarians’ the military advantage over the long-established and civilized kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean” (p. 97). He identifies this “radical innovation” as reliance on massed infantry rather than on chariot forces. The change, Drews claims, occurred when foreign foot soldiers employed by the great kingdoms suddenly realized that with their javelins and long slashing swords they could defeat their employers’ chariot divisions. “Once that lesson had been learned, power suddenly shifted from the Great Kingdoms to motley collections of infantry warriors” (p. 97).

Among the most interesting parts of the book are the chapters in which Drews attempts to reconstruct the nature of chariot warfare and the role of infantry in the Late Bronze Age. He argues convincingly that chariots were mobile platforms from which archers launched volleys of arrows at enemy forces. Such chariots, Drews contends, formed the major component of Bronze Age armies, with foot soldiers being used only as supplementary “runners” or skirmishers. True infantry forces supposedly were used only to besiege cities and to attack enemies in terrain too rough for chariots. When the great kingdoms’ chariots proved vulnerable to swarming foot soldiers, they did not have large infantry forces of their own to rescue them.

Drews presents his case with great learning and skill. Nevertheless, many objections can be raised to various parts of his thesis. If, contrary to Drews’s claims, major migrations did occur during the Catastrophe (as the evidence seems to indicate), then much of his argument is undermined. Furthermore, he probably underestimates the role of infantry in the Bronze Age as well as the continued effectiveness of chariots in the early part of the Iron Age. The evidence suggests that the Israelites, the Aramean kingdoms, the Assyrians and others continued to make effective use of chariots well into the Iron Age. For example, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III invaded Syria in 853 B.C.E., his army included 2,002 chariots (though it also had 5,542 men on horseback), while the opposing coalition force fielded 3,900 chariots (2,000 of them contributed by King Ahab of Israel), but only 1,900 cavalrymen and 1,000 camel-riders.

The demise of chariotry in the Near East was probably due more to the development of more effective mounted cavalry than to the infantry tactics Drews describes. And in Greece the disappearance of chariot warfare may have been a result of the Catastrophe rather than its cause. After the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, the wealth required to maintain a chariot force was long absent in Greece.

Drews has probably not succeeded in explaining the cause of the Catastrophe. But he has given scholars some new factors to ponder, and he will undoubtedly encourage them to analyze more carefully the nature of warfare in the Bronze and early Iron Ages.