The Bronze Age Collapse – The Wheel and the Rod – Extra History – #2

The Bronze Age Collapse – The Wheel and the Rod – Extra History – #2

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.

About the Author: Michael Flood


  1. After the Bronze Age collapse, we would not see societies so advanced for another half a millenium. What happened?

  2. It's like Pharaoh Seti said in The Prince of Egypt "But ONE weak link can bring down a MIGHTY dynasty!"

  3. I am very interested in understanding why do you believe that central plannign of irrigation infrastructure works was more efficient than autonomous farmers organizations.

  4. If that society was based on complex chain of blocks, isn't our society just another advanced form of that-> a blockchain?

  5. It is not true that we do a great deal with modern technology to avoid soil degradation. We are degrading the soil faster than has ever been the case before. We are using technology to accelerate soil, forest, water and air degradation so that we now destroy in a decade what the bronze age took two millennia to destroy.

  6. "BP's annual report on proved global oil reserves says that as of the end of 2013, Earth has nearly 1.688 trillion barrels of crude, which will last 53.3 years at current rates of extraction"

    Get ready y'all, next collapse is coming!

  7. 1:10 "Smelting may be fine for the lads, but I'm no smelter. And while bronze may be terribly clever, stone was all my old dad ever needed to feed a family of as many hands as I have and then more. As a tribe, why don't we leave bronze to the smart-alecks and whiz kids, and we'll carry on using stone axes like we always do?"

  8. I'm not a hippie or a pacifist, but when you think of the rivers of blood made throughout history in those areas of the Mediterranean Sea. Humans sure enjoy killing each other. : /

  9. When I played the original Rome Total war, I noticed a correlation between adding irrigation systems leading to high squalor and eventually revolts. Love seeing that kind of stuff come full circle in history !

  10. Same Danger Signs for Modern Society. Military relying on advanced technologies such as the F-35 that requires a fortune to maintain. Climate Change, Soil Acidification, Loss of Natural Habitats and Human Overpopulation leading to shortages of food.

    Our very Complexity which is a Strength is also a Weakness as it is Fragile. For example, thanks to the Internet, our access to Knowledge and Information is unparalleled in History. However, if for some reason we lose Electricity or suffers a serious Solar Flare then all of that is gone in an instant. Whereas the old fashion books are much harder to lose or destroy. The even more primitive Stone Tablets have shown that they can pass knowledge through the Ages even after the repeated destruction of Civilizations.

    While watching this YouTube video, I can't help feel a sense of deja-vu, as if we are entering a dangerous period where the complex systems in which our high quality lifestyles depends on are much more fragile than we realised.

  11. REminds me of some today topdown organized countries like Syria, Libya etc. Some people seem to think, when i give weapons to all the people, they will sort out the right government for themselves. Sometimes it works like in tunesia but without weapons and too much disturbing of the social organization. On the other hand, keep a tyranny in place and its structures at any cost, cant be the answer either. Man, i am glad not to be a politician. Russia lost its system and its empire but kept important structures so as secret service, army, management and personnel in the heavy industry (still mainly state owned or controlled).

  12. I think there was a long draught in the eastern mediteranean before the collapse. Plus a seria of earthquakes, one under the capital of i think the hatti empire. Anatolia, anyway. After centuries of farming they pretty much knew how to keep the soil healthy.

  13. You made some historical errors such as the Hittites were still a major power but actually they were shrinking to its downfall in 1200bc and their empire lasted for 450 years and were once offered the kingdom of Egypt after the death of King tut

  14. BWAHAHAHA!! now i know what the battlecry of my khorne barbarians following my Darkoath Warqueen will be!!! "BAR BAR BAR BAR…" oh god there gonna lynch me!😁

  15. So the period before of the darkest dark age that we know of was propped up by a heavily interwoven system of international trade. Instability in which may have been at least partially responsible for the collapse into said dark age.


  16. Whenever I hear about powerful and advanced civilizations I always wonder how long America or Russia or any modern day country will last. There have been empires that were once considered advanced just like technology is could have been the wheel, or fire, or maybe better armor. Honestly in the next five hundred years the iPhone will look like a rock compared to what they have now. I'm rambling a bit but long story short it's amazing to see that no matter how powerful something is, nothing lasts

  17. How the hell have I never heard of or seen this channel???!
    This content is fucking fantastique, muy magnifique!!!

  18. People in the comment suspected the SEA PEOPLE to be Mongol, Philipino and the Fire Nation.


    NO one.
    Literary no ONE!

    Me: It the Viking… it those Raider from Bronze Age Scandinavian…Well, EIther that or it Sponge Bob

  19. I can see a Domino effect from one person ending a trade, causing a end to the economy. When each nation basically has half of bronze and a failing trade world could have made this collapse

  20. watching this make me wonder, what happens if internet suddenly gone? no computer or smartphone? no more google so everyone will not knowing what happens to them, are we in the brinks of collapse?.

  21. This was wonderful!
    Its even better when you have translations, today i find out that you have one in Serbian language! Thanks to whoever did that, you are doing a great job!

  22. Is it really better to live in an advanced society as a surf among thousands, than living in a less advanced one with "barbarians" in smaller groups?

  23. This makes me think of modern society. We stand so tall with our technology, but if an EMP goes off and the grid is down, most of us will die of thirst without our water systems within days.

  24. Control of the state of means of production is ALWAYS a guarantee of destruction and crisis. However, missing the 4.2k event or the climate collapse ( yes before global warming).. main reason by the way your point of yie9is ridiculous, better explanation is lack of pesticide

  25. Liked the clip. The observation of interconnection is likely spot on. Also like the close equivalence of farmers and educated people. Much of the European Dark Age (for lack of a better phrase) was mostly the result of illiteracy, I think. And as the printing press was not yet available in the West, things could and did go down hill pretty quick. I wonder what sort of long term effect the Internet will have? If you have access to the web, why get a formal education? Some of those affects are being seen in our own time I think. So that a world wide Internet destroying virus that went on for only a few weeks would be no fun at all. Sounds like a theme of a distopia movie to me. Or a remake of 'Dark Angel?"

  26. This is the third or fourth time I’ve rewatched this little series, and you know what just popped into my head? That trope in fiction of “lost advanced (for their time) civilizations.”

  27. "In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable." – Threads (1984)

  28. It would seem to me from BEFORE watching any of this, that their fall could be due to their advancement. The written word allowing malcontents to find they're not alone and to organize, and vast disparities between the poor and wealthy classes creating such malcontents. There was always outside forces looking to destroy and plunder you, so what if your malcontents helped them get a foothold by sabotaging you from the inside? A trojan horse without the need for the horse. Another plausible factor is just disease. Living in dense populations being relatively new, their immune systems AND their political systems (and their complete lack of medical knowledge) would be poorly suited to dealing with an epidemic of any kind. Almost any kind of plague could easily have swept through multiple nations that did any kind of trade with one another and destroy them.

  29. First you say the collapse is a mystery then you suggest the possibility of a how it could’ve collapsed and then you say that this possibility is what happened.

  30. Imagine how advanced civilization would be if there empires didn’t collapse. Progress stalls for centuries after each major collapse event. Imagine if the industrial revolution happened in the Roman Empire and put modern technology followed 3 centuries later.

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