Generally speaking, we take it for granted that there is a system in place. It doesn't really matter what kind of system. Socially, economically, politically, medically, legally,
or internationally, there is a unified infrastructure that exists to serve as a type of funnel for how things get done. If something happens, there's always an answer or at least a set of operating
principles out there to put things back on track. An over-reliance on systems is one of humanity's really universal weak points because it lulls people into a false sense of security about their
status. Indeed, it seems that many of history's greatest disasters -- both World Wars, the Great Depression, the French Revolution, the annihilation of the Aztec
civilization, the Black Death, the Dark Ages, the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, etc. -- at least partially have their origins in the failure of an established system to respond
effectively to the challenges it faced.
In the late Bronze Age (approximately 1400-1150 BC), the Eastern Mediterranean region suffered its own system collapse largely at the hands of a group we call the Sea
Peoples. Who were these people? Where did they come from? What did they want? How and why did they bring down a perfectly reasonable and functional international order? The answers to these
questions are somewhat elusive because (a) we're talking about events that occurred more than 3,000 years ago and (b) the people most likely to be able to tell us were unfortunately the ones
brought down by these events. That being said, enough evidence exists that we can make some reasonably educated guesses about what happened and why.
Before we get bogged down too deeply in the identities and motivations of the Sea Peoples, we need to look at how this part of the world operated in the Bronze Age. The Eastern Mediterranean
region was dominated at the time by four great empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Hatti. Essentially all of the spaces in between and around these four lands served as vassals,
buffer states, or both for the others. Naturally, there would have been certain exceptions, but in most cases, it simply did not make sense not to ally with (or submit to) a larger power.
Then, as now, protocol was extremely important in international relations. Being the ruler of one of the four great empires carried the privilege of using the title Great King. Regardless of
whether relations were good or bad between Great Kings, they always referred to one another as "brother" in correspondence. Breaching this ettiquette was taboo, as a minor prince discovered when
he called the Hittite king brother, who rebuffed him by rhetorically asking "are we sons of the same mother?" Vassals were called "son" and otherwise unrelated foreigner rulers were simply called
"you," if they were called anything at all. Politically, this system worked because it was universally agreed upon and everybody understood their status in relation to everybody else.
The commercial order practiced throughout the Bronze Age is known today as the palace economy. In a palace economy, the ruler of a land owned everything his subjects produced, but the
relationship was not entirely one-sided. Farmers would give a certain percentage of their crops and artisans would give a number of their wares to the king in exchange for some money or land or
other goods. Since the king was paying, he was able to dictate what was farmed and what was produced and in what quantity. This was so important to the established order of the day that many of the
written records that survive from this time are simply lists of goods along with how much was paid for them.
Globalization is not a new concept; the rulers of the Bronze Age thought it was pointless to spend too much time and effort having their peoples farm or make stuff they would just be getting
from other places anyway. Why worry about textiles when a boat from Egypt is coming with a bunch of cotton? Was there any point in growing olives if you could just buy some from
Mycenae? Private enterprise on a large scale did not exist in the Bronze Age, with basically all economic activity outside of the immediate community falling under the royal prerogative. Merchants
could really only become wealthy if they had some sort of connection with the ruler of their country or if they engaged in illegal commerce.
The thing about systems is that they're complex and the more complex something is, the worse the consequences are if one piece doesn't function. For centuries, trade in the eastern Mediterranean
was dominated by the group we now call the Minoans, located primarily on the island of Crete. The Minoans produced and exported a little bit of everything and were the most competent seafaring
people of the age. Their place in the Bronze Age system was crucial to life in the region. Then around 1450 BC, the Minoan civilization imploded in on itself. As a seafaring people, most of the
biggest and most important Minoan cities were located along the coastlines of Crete. Unfortunately, at some point an earthquake or tsunami (or both) hit Crete, destroying its finest palaces and
the heart of its commercial infrastructure. Within a generation of this event, the island was overrun by a group called the Mycenaeans, and the Minoans began dwindling in number until they were
either assimilated or destroyed around the year 1100 BC.
I mention all of this because it sets the stage for the introduction of the Sea Peoples and helps to explain why they appeared when they did. The Mycenaeans were unable to maintain the full
extent of the Minoan commercial empire, leaving a void that other powers eagerly exploited. The chief economic beneficiaries of the Minoan demise were smaller states like Ugarit (in what is now
Syria) and Alashiya, which dominated most of the island of Cyprus. Politically, the race was on between the four great empires to get a piece of the pie, with Alashiya enjoying strong
relations with Egypt and Ugarit becoming a Hittite tributary. The upstart kingdom of Mitanni in northern Syria and southeastern Turkey was defeated and subsumed by the Hittites and the
Assyrians around the same time, which greatly concerned Egypt, for whom Mitanni served as a buffer state. In 1274 BC, things came to a head at the Battle of Kadesh in modern Syria, perhaps the
single largest military engagement of the Bronze Age, fought between Egypt and Hatti. While both sides claimed victory, the campaign itself was utterly indecisive and things returned to pretty much
the same condition they had been before as a result of the Treaty of Kadesh.
The Battle of Kadesh is famous because it is recorded on several monuments in Egypt commissioned by the pharaoh Ramesses II. Like most Egyptian records, these are largely pictorial in nature
and reveal much about the way wars were fought at the time. For the most part, combat was done on horse-pulled chariots. All of the great empires invested huge sums of money in developing better
chariots and finding elite warriors to man them. The basic infantry role at the time was essentially to go in and clean up the leftovers from a fallen chariot team. Both the Hittites and the
Egyptians outsourced the infantry job to foreign mercenaries and semi-vassals since it was cheaper than the alternative. Ancient Egyptian art relied heavily on ethnic stereotypes and almost
always depicted foreigners as significantly different in appearance from themselves and from each other, and these depictions were consistent across hundreds of years. The depictions of the
infantry mercenaries from the Battle of Kadesh give us the first known images of the groups that would later go on to be known as the Sea Peoples, shown as participating in both sides of the
At the time, the Treaty of Kadesh seemed like a great idea. Indeed, it was probably the career highlight of bureaucrats on both sides of the war. Peace was assured between two of the ancient
world's greatest powers and the international system was back up and running in the proper way. Unfortunately, this meant that the mercenaries were now out of a job and they probably would be for
quite some time. Ancient Egyptian records give us their names and modern scholarship tells us who they were. The Peleshet would go on to be known as the Philistines. The Ekwesh and the Denyen
should be familiar from Homer's Iliad as the Greek Achaeans and Danaoi. We also see the Shardana with their unique horned helmets and dirk-style swords, contemporary analogues for
which have been found on the island of Sardinia (it's unclear whether they originated there or went there later on, though). The Lukka and the Karkisha came from the regions of Lycia and
Caria, neighbors in Anatolia and former allies of the Hittites. Perhaps most fantastic are the Teresh, a group from northwestern Anatolia thought to be identical to the Trojans; the
archaic name for their region was Taruisa, from which we derive the name "Troy." Still others included the Shekelesh (possibly from Sicily) and the Libu (the Egyptian name for the people of
On the face of it, it seems absurd that a ragtag group of nationalities who had lately served as auxiliary soldiers for the great empires could possibly threaten their former benefactors. After
all, the whole point of the late Bronze Age system was to concentrate power into the hands of a few mighty states and then allow those states to dole out favors or extract tribute from the smaller
ones as the times required. And besides, evidence shows us that the Sea Peoples were not anywhere nearly as militarily advanced as the likes of Egypt or Hatti. There was, however, some precedent
for a coalition of smaller lands banding together against a larger power. Around the time of the Minoan collapse, Lycia, Arzawa, Troy, and several other Anatolian lands formed the Assuwa League
to check the rising ambitions of the Hittite empire. While the confederation ultimately failed in its aim, it diverted enough of Hatti's attention to give neighboring Mitanni sufficient time to
grow in power and set the stage for the conditions that would allow the Sea Peoples to really make an impression later on.
There is a school of thought that says the Trojan War was one of the first campaigns of the Sea Peoples. Many of the Anatolian and Western Sea Peoples were participants in the Trojan War, if
we are to believe Homer's descriptions of the alliances of the warring factions. While clearly it's impossible to know whether or not Helen of Troy or Achilles really figured into the war,
excavations at the site of Troy do reveal a destruction pattern around the year 1250 BC, placing the event close to the time of other conflicts that are known to be tied to the Sea Peoples. It is
telling that Homer refers to the Greeks primarily as "Achaeans" since a country called Ahhiyawa is recorded to have existed in the late Bronze Age. While its exact location is unknown, it was
situated to the west of the Hittite empire, placing it either in mainland Greece or Asia Minor. Either location would suffice as a point of origin for the Ekwesh (as Greeks have lived on the
western coast of Anatolia for thousands of years) and would neatly explain why the Teresh struck out as raiders at this time.
The Mycenaean civilization was withering around this time. We can be fairly certain that the Sea Peoples (particularly the Shardana) showed up on Crete in the late 13th century BC because we can
see the widespread abandonment of coastal areas in favor of permanent settlements on inhospitable mountaintops and cliffs, presumably as a way of escaping raids and invasions from the coasts. Even
the beautiful Minoan palace of Knossos was abandoned at this time as well, despite the fact that it was largely intact. The Mycenaean settlement at Pylos was likely destroyed by the Sea
Peoples. The largest Mycenaean sites in the Peloponneses can be shown to have been destroyed around this time, although it's not clear that the Sea Peoples were responsible. The upheaval they
caused elsewhere probably didn't help, though.
One of the most attractive targets for the Sea Peoples would have been Alashiya. Alashiya controlled much of the ancient Mediterranean's supply of copper, meaning it was a key component of the
Bronze Age system. Copper is the main component of bronze -- the alloy that most weapons and armor were made of at the time -- and the fact that we call this time period "the Bronze Age" should
demonstrate its significance. This country's friendship with Egypt was so vital that the pharaoh even allowed the king of Alashiya to address him as "brother," indicating that the copper-rich
country was not to be denigrated or offended. The Lycians repeatedly raided Cyprus starting around 1230 BC, destroying towns as they did so. The Hittites intervened at least twice to secure
Alashiya's copper reserves before the Mycenaeans -- fleeing the troubles engulfing their own land -- finally occupied the place sometime in the 1190s. With each subsequent invasion, Alashiya's
control over Cyprus diminished until it disappeared from the historical record.
The other major commercial hub of the region, Ugarit, was destroyed by the Sea Peoples as well. The last independent king of Ugarit, Hammurabi (no, not the one with all the laws), appealed to
the king of Alashiya for help. Hammurabi indicated that all of his available forces were in Hatti, protected his liege's territories from the invasions of the Sea Peoples. The urgent message never
reached its intended recipient, unfortunately, because the clay tablet it was inscribed on was found in a furnace during modern excavations of the site. This seems to have been an on-going line of
communication since an earlier letter from Alashiya was found at Ugarit describing the constant raids and incursions on their territory. Ugarit was burned to the ground around the year 1190 BC.
The major economic centers of the late Bronze Age had been destroyed and over-run. The fall of Alashiya was especially damaging since little copper could be found to make much-needed arms. The
most vulnerable of the great kingdoms was Hatti, since its western border was surrounded by hostile forces and the expeditions to Cyprus had ultimately been repulsed, depriving it both of the
resources spent and the resources never gained as a result. Assyria took advantage of the Hittites' weak position and invaded the country from the southeast. With the main Hittite force scrambling
to defend itself from another major power, the Sea Peoples were able to burn down the capital Hattusas in the 1180s. Faced with these pressures, the Hittite empire collapsed around 1175 BC. If the
quadripolar Bronze Age balance of power worked before, it certainly was not working now.
In 1208 BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah -- son of Ramesses II -- fought and defeated an alliance of Libyans and Sea Peoples, including Sardinians, Achaeans, Lycians, and Trojans at the
western edge of the Nile River delta. This defeat chastened the Sea Peoples who collectively stayed away from Egypt for some time. After the time of the Hittite collapse, however, they returned
in full force during the reign of Ramesses III in 1175 BC. While Egyptian records were chiefly designed as propaganda and therefore greatly embellish actual events, the writings make clear that
the threat of the Sea Peoples was not to be underestimated. An inscription on Ramesses' tomb says "no land could stand before their arms," singling out Kadesh, Alashiya, the Hittite Empire, and
Arzawa as all having fallen victim to their attacks. After several epic confrontations on both land and sea, the Egyptians were able to drive back the Sea Peoples...until a couple of years later
when they attacked again. And again a couple of years after that. And again.
Why were these people so hell-bent on attacking and destroying places? While the bulk of the Sea Peoples seem to have come from Anatolia, others did not, so it's not like they had a unified
empire to expand. Egyptian records give us a hint as to what the Sea Peoples were really after: a depiction of Philistine invaders shows the fighting men being followed by women and livestock. This
demonstrates that at least some of the Sea Peoples were wanting to permanently settle elsewhere. Ramesses' monument says he "allowed" the Philistines to settle in Egyptian territory in Canaan --
their traditional place in the biblical telling -- but it seems clear from almost a century of nonstop incursions into the region that he probably didn't have much of a choice in the
matter. While Egypt certainly fared better than the Hittites and the others, the land of the pyramids would not walk away unscathed. By the late 1100s, it had lost all of its holdings in the
Levant and it was destabilized enough to fracture into two parts: the wealthy southern portion was controlled by the priests of Amun who tried to shore up a dying country while the somewhat
impoverished north was "ruled" by a succession of pharaohs with little real power. Egypt's glory days were well behind it and it would not recover its former glory.
The question still remains, however: how were the Sea Peoples able to destroy so many powerful entities so completely in such a (relatively) short period of time? In contrast to the great
empires and their vassals, the Sea Peoples seemed not to have cared about chariots. Most of the Sea Peoples had served in the armies of Egypt and Hatti as infantry, meaning they were accustomed to
close-range combat. Since the Sea Peoples lacked the necessary resources to build chariots and man them, they adapted. The first use of spears as major weapons of war are recorded from this time.
The appeal of a spear in this context is not so much about lethality but rather the fact that it can wreak havoc on a chariot team. If you throw a spear at a chariot, a lot of things can happen:
you can kill or disable the horse, break a wheel, knock the archer or driver off the back, or any other number of things. In the ensuing chaos, it's not hard to go up and stab everybody involved,
which is basically what the Philistines and Lycians did to each other at the Battle of Kadesh on opposing sides. What you lose in speed by being on foot, you gain in maneuverability. It's also a
lot harder to train chariot teams than it is individual fighting men running around with swords and spears. Because the late Bronze Age system of warfare was static and predicated on the idea that
everyone would follow the same rules, it was slow to adapt. The only reason the Egyptians fared as well as they did against the Sea Peoples is because they had a lot more time to prepare than their
neighbors situated more to the north.
It seems like the background to the wars of the Sea Peoples is rooted in massive demographic shifts and population migrations. The environmental catastrophes that crippled the Minoan
civilization obviously would have had ramifications elsewhere in the region. Coastal areas in Anatolia -- the home of many of the Sea Peoples -- and Greece would have been flooded, likely
destroying local agriculture for some time. This would have caused large groups of people to relocate to more hospitable areas. If enough people do this at the same time, it ceases to be a
migration and instead becomes an invasion. These movements would have forced other people out and in turn forced them to relocate en masse. This pattern can be seen on Crete and Cyprus and in the
Troad. These migratory tendencies inevitably took on a military character because there was no real alternative.
Of course, it hardly needs to be said that the idea of the palace economy died at the hands of the Sea Peoples. With the major centers of economic power eliminated throughout the region, it was
simply not a sustainable model. One of the side effects of the Sea Peoples' wars was the rise of private mercantilism. Communities and countries became more self-sufficient, aware that even a
minor disruption in an internationalist economic system could have widespread disastrous consequences (hmmm...), nevermind the collapse of all the main centers of trade and commerce in the space of
a few short decades. Egypt stubbornly continued with its palace economy up to the point that a famine toward the end of Ramesses III's reign caused a minor revolt.
With the fall of Hatti and the weakening of Egypt, Assyria was able to assume the predominate political role in the region. Since Assyrian territory did not extend to the Mediterranean, it was
insulated from the attacks of the Sea Peoples as well as the economic chaos that followed the disruption of maritime trade. Assyria was able to treat Babylon as a client state before directly
annexing most of its territory. The Assyrian empire reached what was probably its greatest territorial extent in the immediate aftermath of the Bronze Age collapse, although it would willingly
reduce its borders over the next century as the peripheral parts of the empire became unmanageably difficult to control.
Ironically, for all the death and destruction they brought, it's not clear whether the Sea Peoples really accomplished anything for themselves. While certain groups were definitely able to
resettle in other lands (the Philistines, Achaeans, and Sardinians in particular) others just sort of faded away or returned home. It would be fair to call the time period immediately after the
collapse a dark age since the accoutrements of the former civilization ceased to exist. Writing would disappear from Greece for hundreds of years as a result. Trade was nonexistent (obviously) and
the vibrant cities and countries that had previously dominated the area were no longer around to make great buildings or produce significant advancements in technology. The dark and violent themes
of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the descriptions of the various plagues afflicting Egypt in the book of Exodus, and Plato's account of the fall of Atlantis certainly have their
roots in this time period. There would have been a lot less security in life after the reign of the Sea Peoples in this part of the world.
Still, without the upheaval of the Sea Peoples and the overthrow of the great empires, it's unlikely that we would even have any of those stories. We can also thank the Sea Peoples for providing
an instructive look at what happens when people pretend that everybody plays by the same rules in a complex system. We live in a world infinitely more complicated than the eastern Mediterranean in
the late Bronze Age and yet we somehow believe our system will work when theirs did not. I can only hope that people have a back up plan in place if the modern world faces a comparable threat to