The wheel turns, ages pass, society becomes more advanced. Advancement leads to stability, to connection, to peace. But what happens, when that’s not true? Often, when we think of the ancient past, the times before the Greeks and the Romans, we think of a barbaric, or a primitive age. But that age of barbarism we think of, actually followed the late Bronze Age collapse. Before the collapse, there were societies that wouldn’t be rivaled again for half a millennium. So today, let’s look at the technology, social policies and political structures that made these kingdoms so impressive, so advanced. And that may in the end have lead to their downfall. First, we have to talk about bronze itself. As we touched on last time, bronze is an alloy of tin and copper. And most of the Bronze Age world was missing at least one those components. This meant that Bronze Age civilisations had to trade. And I’m not just talking about small time exchanging of shinies. We’re talking a full on, modern day “our society requires trade to function” type of trade. Everything from farmng to war depended on bronze. Much in the same way it depends on petroleum today. So a globalised, internationalised system of trade sprung up around bronze. And with it came trade in almost every other good. This was a positive thing. It allowed a material standard of wealth, especially for the nobility that was unrivaled anywhere in the world, except maybe for China. This level of wealth wouldn’t be seen again, until the Classical Age. But it also meant that the kingdoms of the period were sort of like a Jenga tower. They stood tall, but if too many pieces got pulled out, that whole thing would come crashing down. So, this interconnected system of trade while enormously beneficial, may perhaps have also been one of the factors leading to the Bronze Age’s collapse. Next, let’s talk war. Because in this period, the chariot was king. Almost all the major powers of the time built their armies around a chariot core of one type or another. And here’s the thing about chariots: they’re really expensive and they’re difficult to use. You can sort of think of them like medieval knights. It takes a lifetime of training to use these weapons, and maintaining them costs a small fortune. This meant that, like medieval knights, Many kingdoms had a hereditary warrior class that was dedicated to doing just this. But what happens if you lose a ton of those guys at once? You can’t just replace them. It takes years to train a guy up to the point where he can be proficient with a chariot. And what happens if your economy collapses? You no longer have the spare resources to maintain a caste whose singular role is to train to use some complex weapon. Much less to pay artisans to build that weapon, and technicians to maintain it. And so, while this particular engine of war was highly effective in a time when we hadn’t really bred horses big enough to carry a man in full armor, It was also a liability. If things went really wrong, you could no longer maintain this highly sophisticated military machine. And then what happens if you need to defend yourself? What happens if you face some outside threat? What happens if you have to fight, but your whole conception of what an army is is no longer viable? And so again, this very weapon that made many of these states so dominant is perhaps one of the dominoes that sets us up for the Bronze Age Collapse. And, since we’re talking about armies, let’s talk about the governments they fought for. Because these were incredibly organized, incredibly centralized governments. The level of central control in the late Bronze Age state is almost mind-boggling. Far, far beyond the monarchies of the Middle Ages, perhaps even more than many modern states. Which is important because due to this centralized control, many of the late Bronze Age kingdoms were structured as command economies. Every piece of grain, every dram of olive oil, every bar of bronze was tallied by the central government. Farmers were told what to plant, where to plant, and when. Mines were state-run operations. And, clearly this varies a bit from nation to nation, but from Egypt to Mycenae, you had top-down economies organized by the central authority. But what happens to a top-down economy when the top goes missing? If you’re a laborer, and, every year an official comes and gives you the seeds you were supposed to plant, and tells you when and where to plant them, What happens if that official just stops showing up? And this issue is compounded by two other pieces of technology: the first is irrigation. Bronze Age societies had very sophisticated irrigation systems. These were massive public works projects that took effort to maintain. And it took some element of centralized planning to build them efficiently, to maximize crop yield. After all, having every farmer dig their own irrigation is gonna get way messier than simply laying out a thousand plots at once. This was great, as it meant high crop yields which in turn meant that you could support big cities filled with artisans, priests, warrior-nobles and bureaucrats. And being able to support so many specialized positions in turn means more material wealth, a stronger government, and more opportunities for innovation. But what happens when that irrigation system gets destroyed? Or simply, stops functioning as efficiently? Well, then you’ve got a whole mess of people in your society who don’t make food. And, even ignoring the potential problems that arise from the fact that some of these people are *very well-armed*, what happens when you can’t support the non-food producers, but *they’re* the planners who make this system run? The problem just compounds until you have a runaway collapse. And that’s not the only problem cause by using advanced irrigation to support an ever-growing population. First, there’s the obvious issue of overpopulation. Even if your food supply can support a large number of people, can the rest of your infrastructure? There are health and sewage concerns. There’s a question as to whether your economy can really employ all of these people. And of course, there’s the question of whether you can keep these people from revolting. But there’s also a less obvious problem with this type of intense agriculture. And that is soil degradation. Whenever you heavily farm an area, you leech out minerals. You create erosion, and you disturb the soil biology. Today, we do a great deal with modern farming techniques to avoid this, but the late Bronze Age was perhaps the first time that humans had farmed on this scale. And, as we mentioned last time, while the Nile did bring with it rich silt that helped to restore the soil whenever it flooded, This just wasn’t true of many of the other kingdoms. And so, silently, year after year, perhaps too slowly for anyone to really notice, crop yields decreased. And with them, the ability to support the ever-growing population of the late Bronze Age states. And lastly, we have to talk about writing. Because the Bronze Age world had come to rely on writing, for everything from highly advanced record-keeping, to international diplomacy. But a scribe is sort of like a knight of letters. They’re amazingly powerful but they’re also expensive, and they require training from a young age. And, though history shows that having the written word propels civilizations forward, and that every small increase in literacy ends up rippling out into large increases in the wellbeing of a society over time, even this idea that we usually think of as a purely positive, beneficial technology, creates a potential liability. After all, if your whole society depends on written records and on record-keeping, what do you do when there’s no one left to write the records? And so, piece by piece, the very complexity, the very advanced-ness (?) that made late Bronze Age society so impressive, so much better to live in than anything that followed for hundreds of years, also made them more fragile. As societies became complex, interweaving chains of trade, agriculture, education and bureaucracy, the potential damage that could be caused by removing any link from those chains grew and grew. So join us next time, as we look at what might have caused those chains to snap.