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Late Bronze Age (Club of Great Powers)

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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The Late Bronze Age heralded the formation of the Club of Great Powers, which included Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Mittani and Hatti; this endured until its collapse in the 12th century.

After Hittite king Mursili I ended Hammurabi's Amorite Dynasty with his sack of Babylon in 1595, Babylonia entered a Dark Age until a tribal group known as the Kassites took the throne and initiated the Kassite Dynasty which lasted until 1155. What ensued was the pinnacle of 2nd millennium Babylonian literary achievement.

Assyria had been little more than a city-state until Assur-ubalit I (14th century).

Assur-ubalit I took the throne and began a pattern of expansion that ended Mittani rule in Syria, coalesced tribal opponents in eastern Anatolia and even led to Babylonia being briefly subject to Assyrian suzerainty. The Hatti exercised great power until their collapse. This was the situation in 1250 BC, but the collapse of the Late Bronze Age in the 12th century meant that very different circumstances emerged just two hundred years later.

Old Babylonia Ends1595 BC
Kassite Dynasty~1475 BC
Iran Unifies~1400 BCUnification of Susiana lowlands and highlands of Anshan in western Iran.
Assur-ubalit I1363 - 1323Assyran king Assur-ubalit I established firm control over what would become the heartland of Assyria, which had previously never been more than a city-state centered at Assyria. His immediate successors failed to maintain these gains and Assyria underwent a brief decline until Adad-nirari I took the throne in 1305 BC.
Assyria Emerges~1350 BCAssyria emerges as a major state under Assur-uballit. After a brief decline under his immediate successors, Adad-nirari I (1305 - 1274 BC) took the throne and he, Shalmaneser I (1274 - 1244 BC) and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243 - 1207 BC) regained control not only over the heartland but then went on to topple the Mitanni and take Syria east of the Euphrates. Assyria went on to exercise control over Babylonia as well. Under Assyrian king Adad-nirari I, Assyria was accepted into the Club of Great Powers whereby the leaders of the great states (Babylonia, Hattusa, Egypt and now Assyria) wrote to one another as though they were brothers in a village.
Amarna Archive1360s - 1330s
Battle of Qadesh1274Fought between the Hittites and the Egyptians.

Bronze Age Collapse

The Late Bronze Age collapse ended the system of great powers that had formed. The archaeological record shows a prolonged period in which individual cities were incompletely destroyed (usually just a few government buildings were ruined) and abandoned, while other cities survived yet declined in size. Each destruction was not so important as its summative contribution to unraveling the state apparatus which characterized the 2nd millennium. The agent responsible for this is considered the Sea People, described ostensibly by Egyptians as invaders who swooped down the Syrian coast from distant lands. They were attested in earlier decades as mercenaries, but now were cast as antagonists who came with their families and belongings to settle permanently.

Devastated civilizations and cities included: Mycenae and Hatti, which felt the brunt and whose vibrant economies and civilizations were stopped dead; Tarhuntassa, a kingdom in eastern Anatolia that had arisen amidst Hittite weakness; without Hittite protection, Syrian cities such as Ugarit were easy targets; some Levantine cities such as Ashkelon and Hazor; and Emar was the most eastward city to be destroyed. Egyptian kings Merneptah (1213 - 1204 BC) and Ramesses III (1185 - 1156 BC) both claim to have clashed with the Sea People in the Levant and defeated them at land and sea, though Rameses III's narration is nearly identical to Merneptah's and may have in fact been a fiction; it is known that some Egyptian kings plagiarized achievements.

Egypt Collapses

Despite Egypt's victories against the Sea People, its central authority was sapped and after Rameses III a decline ensued. Assyria and Babylonia were not directly exposed to the Sea People, but still suffered recensions, internal turmoil, urbanism declines and scribal activity reduction. Assyrian king Tulkulti-Ninurta I was assassinated, and succession problems and unrest in Syria led to the retreat of Assyrian borders to the heartland. It was not until Tiglath-Pileser I (1115 - 1077 BC) that Assyria restored direct hegemony to the Euphrates. Babylonia's Kassite Dynasty was toppled and replaced by competing Second Isin and Second Sealand Dynasties.

The end of the Kassite Dynasty may not have been hugely tumultuous, but it clearly shows that royal power had weakened. Second Isin Dynasty king Nebuchadnezzar I (1125 - 1105 BC) conquered Susa and precipitated the collapse of Elam. However, Babylonia slipped into a dark age shortly after his reign, and remained secondary until Nabopolassar ascended in 626 BC. Meanwhile, the Elamite empire in Khuzestan began to rise under Shutruk Nahhunte and his successors (1155 - 1127 BC). The migrating Sea People who precipitated the collapse of Hatti settled along the Levantine coast. Arameans began to arrive, discussed below.


Rather than painting the Sea People as a singular agent that brought about the Late Bronze Age collapse, some scholars use textual records and archaeological evidence to allege that habiru were responsible. An important aspect of the Late Bronze Age was the palace elite. However, this elite exploited the agricultural communities under its control and a huge wealth discrepancy developed. As more people became indebted to the palace, some escaped the state structure and were labeled habiru. Almost all great states, Mittani, Hatti, Egypt, Babylonia and Levantine states all made extensive references to the habiru. These social outcasts were depicted as being totally hostile, but also were used as mercenaries.

This unrealistically negative attitude toward habiru was likely due to the enormous threat they posed to the palace system. Labor shortages meant that when people fled palace control, it was difficult to find new workers and agricultural production decreased. Thus, treaties often dealt with extradition of refugees from neighboring states. The fewer laborers remaining now had to work harder, exacerbating the problem. The laborers may have rebelled and joined hostile forces against their masters, explaining the selective destruction of roya fortresses and public buildings. Not all cities were destroyed, but the infrastructure of most disappeared and they thus were depopulated or totally abandoned.

Egypt Fights Sea People1209 BCEgyptian king Merneptah fights Sea People.
Tukulti-Ninurta I
1207 BCSuccession problems and instability ensued after Tukulti-Ninurta I's assassination. His overthrow may have been due to the disrespect he showed the venerated city of Babylon.
Sack of Emar1185 BC
Egypt Fights Sea People1180 BCEgyptian king Rameses III fights Sea People.
Rise of Elam1157 BC - ?The Elamite empire rose under Shutruk Nahhunte, Kutir Nahhunte (1155 BC) and Shilhak-Inshushinak (1132-1127 BC). By the middle of the 12th century, it was Elam in southwest Iran that was the dominant power (not Assyria nor Babylonia).
End of Kassite Rule1155 BCElamite pressure precipitated the collapse of the Kassite Dynasty, which was followed by two competing dynasties: the Second Isin Dynasty and the less powerful Second Sealand Dynasty (composed of Kassites).
Nebuchadnezzar I
Second Isin Dyn
1125 - 1104 BCNebuchadnezzar I conquered Susa and precipitated the collapse of Elam. However, shortly after his rule Babylonia drifted into a Dark Age.
Middle Elam Ends~1120 BCEnd of the Middle Elamite period.

Aftermath of the Bronze Age Collapse

Little is known about the Near East during 1100 - 900 BC due to a paucity of sources. The first state to emerge from the Dark Age was Assyria, where rare texts appear from 1050 BC until in 935 BC Ashur-dan II initiated the Neo-Assyrian Era. From this time on, Assyria's administration produced an abundance of texts which shed light on Assyria and states with which it interacted. In Babylonia, it was only in the mid-8th century that scribal activity rose beyond the occasional document. Babylonia was very volatile. Rarely did two kings come from the same family, until Nabopolassar ascended in 626 BC and founded Neo-Babylonia. Near Eastern society almost completely restructured during the Dark Age. Internal populations migrated often, and foreigners were able to infiltrate as well. When records were resumed in the 10th century, many previously unknown populations were attested.

Similarities between Sea People tribals names and later populations suggests some continuity: Peleset became Philistines; and Denyen became Dan or Danuna. Peninsular Arabs entered central Babylonia, and remnants of tribal Kassites remained until the mid-10th century. Babylonian urbanites, maintaining cultural traditions amidst a landscape of chaos, resented the strange and unpolished semi-nomads. Arameans were the most prominent of the groups that gained in importance. Likely north Syrian pastoralists until the collapse, the weak hegemons of the Dark Age meant they could take political control of cities and spread. They kept their Bit + name tribal organization, and the appearance of their names amidst city rulers shows that by the 9th century Arameans politically dominated all of Syria. In the 11th century, Arameans began to raid Babylonia, but it was not until the 9th century that they were settled along the Tigris.

Like the Amorites before them, Arameans had entered from Syria and anchored in Mesopotamia. The Chaldeans were a separate tribal group located along the Euphrates in the south; between the two of them, tribes dominated the entire countryside. Spoken Aramaic spread, replacing spoken Akkadian. Phoenician harbor cities that survived the collapse had begun to use their alphabetic script in Hebrew and Aramaic, so when Aramaic began to spread, so did the alphabetic script.and along with it came alphabetic script. Akkadian cuneiform was difficult and costly to learn, so it fell into disuse during the Dark Age and was replaced with local languages. Akkadian was maintained as the official language and was used in royal inscriptions, letters, administrative texts and so on. However, Neo-Assyrian reliefs depict scribes writing on clay tablets (Akkadian cuneiform) and other scribes writing on leather scrolls (Aramaic alphabet). Arameans took on Akkadian names in addition to Aramaic names; a 2nd century Babylonian text lists Esarhaddon's advisor as "Aba-Enlil-dari, whom the Arameans call Ahiqar."

In addition to the Aramization of the Near East, bronze lost to iron as the most common metal used.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and no state had access to both metals; at least one or both had to be imported from outside sources. International trade in the Bronze Age meant this was feasible, but the collapse meant that it was not possible to readily make new bronze. However, iron ore was available almost everywhere. In the 12th and 11th centuries it was discovered how to alloy iron with furnace charcoal to make steel, which was much harder than bronze.

Iron use began in Anatolia and the Levant, which were hardest hit by the Bronze Age collapse.

Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt still had the resources to make bronze and lagged technologically. Only in the 9th century did they begin to commonly use iron, and even then it was limited to the palaces.

In addition to Aramization and the Iron Age, another revolution was the domestication of the camel.

Begun in the Arabian Pensinsula during the later 2nd millennium, camels freed nomads from leading pastoral lives between settlements. Now they could live in the desert, resting at oases and evading later suzerains.