Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Population of Ancient Rome

In popular books (and far too many scholarly books) is the statement that ancient Rome had a population of 1,000,000 (one million).1 This is likely mistaken for the reasons outlined below.

Map of Ancient Rome

A) Size and situation of Ancient Rome

The Rome described here is the Rome bounded by the Aurelian walls. This Rome covered an area of c. 1,230 hectares2 or c.13.86 sq. km.3 Within the walls of ancient Rome were large areas of dense housing called insulae “apartments” (c. 46,602) and domus “palaces”, (c. 1,760).4 There were also extensive public areas such as the various forums, public buildings, the Imperial palace and gardens and especially near the area of the walls, (which were not built until the reign of the Emperor Aurelian, c. 270 C.E.), large areas of open space.5

B) Population Density of Ancient Rome if Population One Million and Implications

If the Population density of Ancient Rome was 1,000,000, (one million) the following density of population is achieved; a density of c. 813 per hectare or c. 72,150 per sq. km.6

What are the implications of this figure? The most important implication of this figure is that Rome had an incredibly high density of population. Moreover in terms of the actual density of population if we calculate in that a minimum of 25% of the area within the area of the Aurelian walls was public areas, empty space etc., than the population density goes up to c. 1,084 per hectare or c. 96,200 per sq. km. Are these figures realistic?7

The Round Temple in Forum Boarium

C) Comparisons

Some authors have tried to compare ancient Rome with modern cities by citing the incredibly high populations and densities of modern cities. For example:

If we assume a population of about a million, we must conclude that Rome in the early principate was one of the most densely populated cities the world has ever known – as crowded, probably, as modern day Bombay or Calcutta.8

If Bombay and especially Calcutta have become modern day examples of horrific urban congestion the aptness of this comparison is somewhat weakened when the actual population density of Bombay (c. 1980) is found to be c. 18,796 per sq. km., and Calcutta density (c. 1988) is found to be c. 31,779 per sq. km.9

The Colisseum

In fact modern cities seem to have lower population densities than pre-industrial cities because they cover much larger areas. The mean density of a modern city works out to c. 5,991 per sq. km. and median density works out to c. 3,790 per sq. km.10 Regarding a comparison with pre-industrial cities the densities work out to a mean of c. 16,661 per sq. km., and a median of c. 12,897 per sq. km. Regarding figures for cities from the Roman period the mean density works is c. 13,607.11 Of Course given our lack of “hard” information for cities of the Middle ages and the Ancient world the density figures for cities of that time period are not set in stone. The Margin of error is very large.

Another comparison is with the population of modern Rome at various times. In 1901 Rome had an estimated population of c. 538,000 which covered an area of 1,411 hectares with a density of c. 381 per hectare or c. 33,360 per sq. km. And this Rome used far more of the space of ancient Rome for housing.12

Map of Rome in 1902

Finally a comparison with the excavated city sites such as Ostia and Pompeii and the use of modern counting procedures lead to a density of c. 18,000 per sq. km. for Pompeii and c. 32,000 per sq. km. for Ostia. Applying these figures to Rome leads to a population of c. 249,480 if the Pompeii figure is used. If the Ostia figure is used Rome’s population is c. 443,520.13

Temple of Vesta

D) Conclusion

The implications of the above analysis is that a figure for 1,000,000 (one million) for ancient Rome is rather unlikely, given the density called for if the population had been 1,000,000 (one million). Also the fact that Rome would not achieve a population of 1,000,000 (one million) until well into the twentieth century. Further that it is rather unlikely that Rome had such an unprecedented density of population for a pre-industrial city as 72,150 per sq. km.14

Comparison with the ancient excavated cities of Ostia and Pompeii along with comparison with the recent modern population of Rome suggest a figure of 400,000 – 500,000 people for the population of ancient Rome.15

Map of Ancient Rome

1. For example see Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and City at the height of the Empire,J. Carcopino, Yale University Press, New Haven, CONN., 1940.

2. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, Ferdinand Lot, Harper and Row, New York, 1961, p. 70.

3. The Population of Ancient Rome, Glenn R. Storey, Antiquity, v. 71, 1997, pp. 966-978, p. 966.

4. Footnote 2, at 70.

5. Ibid.

6. See Footnote 3 p. 966, for persons per km. Figure per hectare is my own calculation.

7. Calculations are my own.

8. The Ancient Roman City, J. E., Stambaugh, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore Maryland, 1988, p. 90.

9. Footnote 3, p. 976.

10. Ibid., p. 975-976.

11. Ibid.

12. Footnote 2, at 70. Calculation of population density per hectare and km. is my own.

13, Footnote 3, pp. 973-975. Calculations of total population are my own.

14 Footnote 3, p. 966.

15. Footnote 3, p. 975, see also Footnote 2.

Pierre Cloutier

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Notes on 1984

1984 is more of a cultural phenomena than a work of great literature, but since a generation has past since the actual 1984 perhaps it can be examined without political / mythological blinders.

I can remember that when 1984, the year, arrived we were treated to a deluge of books and articles, TV specials etc., about the book and the phenomena, and it had been steadily growing for years. I can remember when 1984 references were much more common than they are now. The year has come and gone and it lost its “cachet” so to speak. In fact I took the novel in High School, (Grade 12)!

Still from 1954 BBC Film of 1984

There are not very many critiques of 1984 from the point of view of Science Fiction, but there are a myriad of critiques from a political point of view.

To get this out of the way first. It is a wearying, but basically an omnipresent view that Orwell’s novel is an attack on Socialism. This view is of course has been and is very “Politically Correct”, and depends on a studied, deliberate and willful effort to ignore what Orwell said about his novel. The mental discipline required to hold this opinion is quite formidable and depends on a carefully cultivated ignorance into which contrary facts may not intrude. For example:

1984, like Animal Farm, was a deep embarrassment to
leftists. Orwell, a socialist disgusted and disillusioned by the excesses of Stalin's regime, wrote both works in protest. Despite many attempts to re-spin 1984 as being "really about the alienation in all modern societies," the references to socialism in 1984 are pervasive. Oceania (the Americas and British Empire) is ruled by a system called Ingsoc (English Socialism), and Eurasia (Russia and Europe) is ruled by Neo-Bolshevism. The lessons of 1984 might be applicable to any totalitarian system, but the novel is first, last, and foremost about socialism.1

No doubt what Orwell had to say is irrelevant since our quoted writer “knows” that the “the novel is first, last, and foremost about socialism”. No doubt hoping that by repeated emphatic, statements to convince himself and his readers. Our author forgets that Orwell died a convinced Socialist. Would it not be more accurate to say that “the novel is first, last, and foremost about Stalinism”? One of the reasons that the novel is a “deep embarrassment to leftists” is that certain intellectuals insisted and still insist that it is a deep embarrassment to the entire left of the political spectrum, but of course deny that Nazism and such novels as The Iron Heel are a “deep embarrassment” to the right of the political spectrum, or to capitalism. This is obviously pure polemics, and its use is to score debating points.

Orwell’s comments in the novel about systems of exploitation and ruling classes in the past are of course ignored, including the rather frightening idea that to Orwell the society of 1984 is the “perfect” class rule, in which the ruling class has apparently found a “perfect” way to stay in power forever. O’Brien seems to be almost frighteningly clear eyed about what this new society is actually trying to do. Just how is that “Socialist”?

I’m referring to all that stuff about staying in power, the endless crushing of people; boot in the face forever stuff. Sounds not very “Socialist”, but has certain affinities to Fascist ideas about endless struggle, and only struggle making life worth while.

In 1949 in a letter to the New York Times about his novel Orwell said:

"My recent novel [1984] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. ...The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”2

But then Orwell’s novel, like his work Animal Farm, served an extremely useful purpose in the Cold War of being used not just to attack Stalinism but the “left” in general, (which could include anyone to the left of extreme conservatives). That Orwell was less than enamored with capitalism was of course forgotten down the memory hole. (How Orwellian!)3

A side issue is why Orwell named the novel 1984. One story is that Orwell originally was going to call it 1948 but was talked into calling it 1984 to give it an less immediate and more prophetic tone. Another story was that Orwell was debating whether to call the novel The Last Man in Europe or 1984 and was told to go with what was then considered a more marketable title. Its also possible that the title was a tribute to the Jack London novel The Iron Heel, which is about a Fascist like movement taking power, in 1984!, and delaying the onset of a Socialist world for centuries. Which casts an interesting light on the supposed anti-socialism of Orwell’s novel.4

Regarding the prophetic value of 1984. Well let’s just say 1984 is not very prophetic. The society described in 1984, with its run down buildings, shortages of everything, like razor blades, shoelaces, and its dreadful gin and tobacco is obviously modeled on a view of Stalinist Russia, although it also carries more than a small resemblance to ration ridden Britain of the war and post war period. So much for seeing what the real 1984 would be like.

As Isaac Asimov said in a review of 1984:

Orwell had no feel for the future, and the displacement of the story is so much more geographical than temporal. The London in which the story is placed is not so much moved 35 years forward in time, from 1949 to 1984, as it is moved a thousand miles east in space to Moscow.5

The story in the novel is a repeat of the Russian Revolution, with Big Brother having a moustache like Stalin, and Emmanuel Goldstein not just being a version of Leon Trotsky but looking like him complete with goatee. In fact Orwell has a real difficulty imagining a realistic future, in this case everything is always breaking down and everything including electricity is intermittent and rationed. And there is an omnipresent black market, shades of not just Stalinist Russia but wartime and post war Britain. In other words it is indeed 1948 and its Stalin’s Russia.

A classic example of that is this from 1984:

Winston fitted the nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil.6

This is of course the exact reverse of the truth. Old style pens scratch and the “ink pencil”, probably a ball point pen, does not! This passage does of course indicate a sort of nostalgia for the “good old days”.

Certain criticisms by Asimov do not work for example Asimov’s statement that no can be observing everyone through the two way telescreen at all times is irrelevant. The point is that at any one time someone COULD be observing you doing whatever and you can not be sure when you are being viewed or not viewed. So you would not need to be viewed all the time. So the argument that you would need c. five people to view each person and hence the system would be unworkable doesn't wash. All you would need is each person thinking that they might be being watched at any time. This would require a small group of watchers watching people randomly so that no one could be sure they wern't being watched at any particular time. Orwell was perfectly aware of this. This could potentially be very effective has a means of oppression.

As for Asimov’s criticism that having a system of volunteer spies not working because everyone would eventually report everyone is beside the point. The fact is Stalinist Russia had such a system and so did Nazi Germany and also the Stasi of former East Germany had something similar; so it can work. Asimov is right though in all those cases the system had a tendency to create an overwhelming amount of paperwork and files that tended to bog down the work of the secret police.

As for prophecy Orwell seems to be unable to conceive of computers for record keeping and the writing machines he does conceive of are rather crude for the real 1984. Orwell’s people use razor blades for example: electric razors don’t seem to exist.

Orwell doesn't seem to have been aware that such systems that he described in 1984 are by their very nature self destructive. For example it appears that corruption is rampant and everything either doesn't work or breaks down. Yet amazingly the telescreens work perfectly and the Thought Police and various ministries work without corruption. We now know that corruption, nepotism was very common and got increasingly common over time in the Communist party of Russia; indeed it got common in all Communist one party states to say nothing of regimes like Nazi Germany.

Orwell’s idea about Newspeak, a language that constricts meaning to the point of making heretical thought impossible is of interest. It is also extremely unlikely. Just how do you prevent the meaning of words being modified or changed over time? How would you for example prevent the technical vocabulary of Newspeak from bleeding into everyday words? Just how would you enforce rigid definitions of words and prevent modification through everyday use? It won’t work.

Then there is of course O’Brien’s fulminations. We are supposed to be awed by O’Brien’s statements and be terrified by their “awesome” implications.

For example:

When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will.7

This after O’Brien has began to torture him and of course Winston afterwards “freely” converts after extensive hideous physical and mental torture. O’Brien thus proves that the possession of virtually unlimited power over someone provides an ample scope to inflict these sorts of intellectual stupidities on helpless victims.

Or another example:

O’Brien silenced him by a movement of the hand. “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. here is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation – anything. I could float off this floor like soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about laws of nature. We make the laws of nature."


“Nonsense. The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness”8

O’Brien has a whole string of similar stupidities all dependent on the fact that Winston is his helpless victim. Of course O’Brien cannot really believe his idiocies otherwise he would be insane with monomania. It is to be wondered at, if O’Brien really believes this nonsense why is he torturing Winston? If reality is all in the head, why bother?

O’Brien’s philosophical justification for his stupidities is the notion of doublethink the idea of holding two contradictory notions in your head at the same time. Of course people do that sort of thing all the time. But in extreme cases such contradictory thinking would produce disordered thinking even insanity. In O’Brien’s case he uses the notion of doublethink to excuse extreme disordered thinking i.e., willful stupidity. The fact that he has to torture Winston to make Winston accept his insane pontifications is proof that O’Brien’s idea of reality being all in your head is wrong. O’Brien is able to inflict such nonsense on Winston only because he has extreme coercive power over him, if O’Brien was the victim would he magically be able to wish the torture away has being all in his head? I think not! Of course O’Brien never explains how doublethink enables you to not just have two contradictory notions in your head at the same time; but how do you avoid tension between them? How do you avoid situations about having to choose one idea over the other?

O’Brien’s verbal vomit is only terrifying because he has power over another human being and is able to terrorize that human if he refuses to accept his ravings. Otherwise it is intellectually empty.

At the end after torturing Winston most hideously O’Brien breaks him, which is hardly surprising. O’Brien makes some idiot comment about Winston no longer being human because of the way he, Winston, looks physically. This is of course shoddy nonsense. It is O’Brien who has done this to Winston which of course means that O’Brien is less than human. It is fascinating that O’Brien continually says that Winston is responsible for what is happening to himself and that he, O’Brien, is carrying out the "Party's" will. What a fascinating evasion of responsibility. Why such cowardice? After all this is from a man who claims reality is all in the head.

It is curious that Orwell in his novel seemed to be unable to conceive of people being able to resist the tortures of the Thought Police even though the techniques used are very similar to techniques attributed to the NKVD and Gestapo,9 which some people were able to resist. Orwell seems to have a pretty negative view of people.

The aim of the Thought Police torture to convert the unbeliever seems to be similar to the arguments and ideas of the Moscow Show trials of the 30’s where the accused confessed their guilt and admitted their crimes and at the same time said they believed that the Party / Stalin was always right. Once again Orwell does not predict the future but recapitulates the recent past.

Of course Orwell didn't anticipate that after Stalin died the whole system would thaw. It appears that O’Brien’s vision of a boot stamping into a human face forever could not be maintained without tearing everything apart and generating to much instability. The systems rulers decided to turn down the pressure by several notches in order to have some stability instead of risking an explosion.

Its of interest that in Orwell’s novel the “Proles” are looked upon with barely disguised contempt by everyone including the author, yet they are left relatively, (at least compared to party members), “free”. This is obviously going to be a source of future conflict because given the continual terror in the “Party”, the rampant shortages and corruption to say nothing of the overall general decay just how is the emergence of some sort of “middle layer” to be avoided that would eventually challenge the “Party”. Despite O’Brien’s philosophical idiocies nothing he says indicates that the “Party” is immune to decay or that it can avoid presiding over a decaying and failing regime.

Regarding the idea that the regime needs war to burn up surplus production? Well building pyramids would do the same thing, to say nothing of a simple steady increase in population or another of a myriad of substitutes that are more easily controlled.

The idea that a society would need to endlessly rewrite history and spend enormous effort to do so is a simple waste of resources. It is of course simply not necessary people simply don’t require that degree of manipulation to be convinced. This of course owes itself to the Stalinist Russian practice of writing people out of history. For example removing Trotsky from photographs. However the massive continual effort portrayed in 1984 to rewrite history is a simple waste of time.

The fact is has Asimov says:

He [Orwell] did not have the science fictional knack of foreseeing a plausible future and, in actual fact, in almost all cases; the world of 1984 bears no relation to the real world of the 1980’s.10

1. Two Literary Non-Mysteries, Steven Dutch, Here

2. 1984, Wikipedia, Here

3. See The Cruel Peace, Fred Inglis, HarperCollins Pub., New York, 1991, pp. 103-106, for a overview of the Cold War uses of 1984.

4. Ibid. Footnote 2.

5. Asimov on Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, Avon Books, New York, 1981, p. 249.

6. 1984, George Orwell, The New American Library, New York, 1949, pp. 9-10.

7. Ibid., p. 210.

8. Ibid., p. 218.

9. The Russian and German Secret Police during the Stalinist and Nazi eras.

10. Asimov, p. 259.

Pierre Cloutier

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Crisis or
The End of the Bronze Age Part II

In Part I I looked at the causes of the crisis at the end of the Bronze Age, (1200-900 B.C.E.) here I will look at the course and consequences of the crisis.



During the Reign of Rameses II, (c. 1250 B.C.E.), Egyptian records mention raids by both the Libyans and by various sea going peoples into the Egyptian Delta. It also appears that Rameses either settled or was unable to prevent Libyans and others from settling in the Nile Delta. We also begin to hear about problems in administration, collecting taxes and the like.

During the Reign of Rameses II son, Merneptah (c. 1215 B.C.E.) both the Libyan and sea peoples made major attacks on Egypt which if the Egyptian accounts are anything to go by were beaten off with serious difficulty. Merneptah’s various records complain about corrupt and bad officials. After Merneptah's death the 19th Dynasty went into a severe crisis and shortly afterwards came to an end, with much corruption, bad harvests, intrigue. In fact a scribe looking back at this time period records the following for the period after Merneptah's death:
The land of Fgypt was cast a drift, every man being a law unto himself , and they had no leader for many years - empty years when Irsu, a Syrian [Chancellor Bay], was chief having set the entire land in subjugation before him; each joined his neighbour in plundering their goods and they treated the gods like people and no one dedicated offerings in the temples...1
Rameses III of the 20th Dynasty (c. 1170 B.C.E.) faced renewed attacks on Egypt by both the "Sea Peoples" and the Libyans. From his account it appears that Rameses was initially beaten and only survived by winning a crushing naval victory at the last moment. During his reign corruption became common, the tombs in the valley of the Kings started to be systematically pillaged and Rameses III himself was apparently murdered in a palace intrigue. Egypt lost control of much her remaining Asiatic Empire. The Reigns of the Kings who succeeded Rameses III was characterized by increased corruption, growing provincial independence, massive Asiatic settlement of the Nile Delta loss of control of what was left of Egypt in Asia.

Relief of Rameses III

By 1100 B.C.E. this process was well advanced by 1050 Upper Egypt, centered in Thebes was virtually independent and Nubia to the south was lost forever. In fact some time about 1088 B.C.E. things had so broken down in Thebes that for a period of time known as "The year of the Hyena" order completely broke down. This was when thieves were able to strip the precious metal from the gates of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Thebes it also appears that pillagers were able to plunder the inner shrine. Shortly after words Egypt was divided between the High Priest of Amun, aided by the God's Wife of Amun in Upper Egypt, (the seizure of power was apparently a desperate effort to re-impose order), and a Pharaoh, (soon to be two) in Lower Egypt.2

The downward slide continued so that by about 970 B.C.E., the independent Libyan chieftains of the Nile Delta where powerful enough that one of them was able to seize Tanis and proclaim himself Pharaoh and have the title recognized throughout Egypt. Egypt was never to recover from the crisis.3


In about 1200 BCE Egyptian control of Cannan began to seriously slip we know that Merneptah was forced to campaign in Cannan to restore Egyptian control.

For example an Inscription from his reign contains the following:

The princes are prostrate, saying: "Mercy!"
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!
All lands together, they are pacified;4

That he faced coalitions of enemy cities and attacks by the Sea-Peoples advancing along the coast from the north. Shortly after that, in the period 1200 BCE - 1150 BCE the following cities were sacked Akko, Megiddo, Bethel, Lachish, Gaza, Ashod, Ashkelon Deir Allia, Hazor, Tannach. This list is not complete. Certain cities did not fall, such as Jerusalem. About 1160 - 1140 BCE the Pelest, from Crete and Cyprus settled in the cities of Philistina, i.e., Gaza, Gezer Ashkelon, and formed a confederation and becoming the Philistines. In the north of Philistina the Danu settled. And near Akko the Tjeker occupied the city of Dor.

In the interior and in the highlands the local peoples, composed of farmers, refugees, and immigrants, some perhaps from Egypt formed a tribal confederacy called Israel based on a rejection of rule by the city state and based on tribal system of defence and support. Israel was apparently in existence by 1200 BCE and is recorded by Pharaoh Merneptah has being one of Egypt's enemies that he crushed. The Israelite confederation was engaged in fighting with some of remaining Canaanite city states, in alliance with some of the rest.

The conquest narratives in the Bible are problematic in that they record the destruction of cities that were not sacked at this time, and it does not record the sack of cities that were sacked at this time. In fact in the entire conquest narrative only Hazor is mentioned as being destroyed in the North. In the south various cities like Debir, which was not occupied, are claimed to be destroyed. Other cities like Gaza are claimed destroyed by Israel when in fact it appears that the Sea-Peoples sacked them.

It appears from the Books of Joshua and Judges that this was a confusing period in which the tribal confederacy operated as way of providing both security and stability. In about 1020 B.C.E., Saul was chosen has the first King of Israel to lead the fight against the Philistines after words David would become King (c. 1000 B.C.E.)

Israel under David and his son Solomon flourished briefly during this period (c. 1000-940 B.C.E.) in which Babylonia, Egypt, the Hittite empire, and Assyria was laid low. After Solomon's death Israel was divided into two kingdoms soon to be threatened by the reviving power of both Egypt and Assyria.

Born with the Tribal confederacy is a belief system, or religion; forged under conditions of crisis and the loss of faith in conventional modes of belief; it will change our world radically in the future. These developments will take centuries to come about.5


The history of Syria during this time is still a bit unclear but a general pattern of events is clearly known.

In about 1250 B.C.E., archaeological remains indicate the beginning of a decline in trade. Some cuneiform tablets indicate an increase in piracy and raids. At this time most of Syria was controlled by the Hittite Empire, which was having increasing problems maintaining control over its subject peoples. About 1200 - 1150 B.C.E. a wave of destruction swept over Syria. During those years the cities of Kadesh, Carchemish, and Aleppo among many others were sacked along with other cities and numerous smaller sites. The great seaport of Ugarit the most important Phoenician seaport was sacked along with cities on the island of Cyprus.

Shortly afterwards migrants from Asia Minor settled in much of northern Syria, establishing their own city states upon the ruins of the devastated old cities. These city states are called Neo-Hittite because of their cultural and linguistic links with the old Hittite Empire. By about 1000 B.C.E. these city states were established and were engaged in a series of fratricidal wars for local supremacy. Shortly after 900 B.C.E. they would be threatened by a reviving Assyrian Empire.

Aside from migrants from Asia Minor large numbers of Arameans, a semi pastoral people, had moved in from the desert fringes of the Fertile Crescent and settled large areas of Syria. In the coastal regions the southern Phoenician cities of Sidon, Byblos and Tyre were able to weather the storm, although some inscriptional evidence indicates that Tyre for example may have been besieged 3 or more times. It appears that the Phoenician city-states were able to take over what was left of trade in the Mediterranean. The Phoenician monopoly of trade would last for centuries, well past the end of the crisis. Only the rise of the Greeks has trading rivals after 800 B.C.E. would that begin to change.

This period also saw the large scale settlement of Greeks onto the island of Cyprus.6

Asia Minor

Lion Gate, Hattusa

The chief event of the crisis in Asia Minor was the destruction of the Hittite Empire. Between 1250 - 1200 B.C.E. there was increased unrest in the Empire as refractory vassals to break free of Hittite control. Between 1200 - 1175 B.C.E., the surviving cuneiform tablets indicates increasing difficulty suppressing rebellions, shortages of grain, (we have a letter from the Hittite King requesting grain from Egypt), and general unrest on the frontiers. The writings and inscriptions end abruptly about 1175 B.C.E., the capital Hattusa is sacked and destroyed never to be rebuilt. At the same time sites like Tarsus, Karaoglan, and Alishar Hoyuk are also destroyed. The destroyers are unknown. Although the destruction seems to have occurred at the same time at the hand of the same, unknown, invaders.

In the aftermath large numbers of the people of central Asia Minor abandoned their homes and moved south, over a long period of time, into northern Syria.

Relief of Suppiluliuma III last known Hittite King

Some time between about 1150 - 1100 B.C.E. invaders began to settle former frontier provinces of the empire and threaten the Assyrian empire. About 1000 B.C.E. the Phrygians moved into central Asia Minor from Thrace in Europe and set-up the kingdom of Phrygia, famous for the story of King Midas. Shortly afterwards the Lydians set-up the kingdom of Lydia near the Aegean coast of Asia Minor.7


The inscribed tablets found in various palaces in Greece, (Knossos, Pylos, Mycenae etc.) give very few hints about the approaching disaster. It appears that trade was being disrupted and declining in the period 1250 -1200 B.C.E. Further about 1250 B.C.E., the palace at Thebes was destroyed only to be rebuilt almost at once.

The tablets at Pylos record the existence of an apparent threat from the sea, (raiders it appears and a concern with collecting revenue also). Further a wall was built across the Isthmus of Corinth linking the Peloponnese with the mainland.

About 1200 - 1150 B.C.E., most of the palaces were destroyed for example Thebes, Pylos, and Knossos. The fortresses of Mycenae and Tiryns were able to survive although the area outside the walls was devastated. In Ionia (Aegean coast of Asia Minor), the cities of Miletus and Troy were sacked. In fact it appears that the sack of Troy about this time inspired the Epic poem the Iliad.
Lion Gate Mycenae

After this wave of destruction much of Greece was severely depopulated and a large portion of the population moved to Ionia and Cyprus in the centuries which followed.

Literacy vanished in this period (1150 - 1100 B.C.E.) and virtually all building activity stopped. In about 1050 B.C.E. the Dorians moved in from central Greece into the Peloponnese and later into Crete and nearby islands. During this time period or shortly before the fortresses of Tiryns and Mycenae were sacked. During the entire period of the crisis Athens was able to successfully survive.

Greece disintegrated into a collection of petty city states, trade collapsed and what was left of it fell into the hands of Phoenician merchants. This was the "Heroic" age of Greek history that provided the inspiration for Homer's Epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Palace cultures never revived. The new emerging Greek culture would centre not on palaces but on the "Polis", or city state with its institution of rule through various types of communal rule.

By 900 B.C.E., signs of reviving trade, settlement and building activity are present in Greece. The new emerging Greek culture would exercise a profound influence on our world of today.8


Assyria represents in some respects a anomaly. The initial period of the crisis saw an expansion of Assyrian power into Syria as both Egypt and the Hittite empire retreated from Syria and the Hittite empire collapsed. Unlike both Egypt and the Hittite empire to say nothing of Mycenaean Greece, the records of Assyria are comparatively quite abundant.

What the records reveal is continual campaigning by one Assyrian Monarch after the other. Including wars with Babylonia and with the various peoples who had occupied the former Hittite empire. These conflicts started c. 1200 B.C.E. Assyrian kings were able to campaign to the Mediterranean until about 1080 B.C.E., despite this the Assyrian kings were unable to secure either control or security. We know that Assyria was distracted by wars with both migrating peoples from the north and with Babylonia.

The wars were continuous has Assyria was forced to fight peoples migrating from the North. We know that c. 1175 B.C.E. Assyria had to fight off a major invasion from the North. Despite apparent success with Assyrian armies frequently advancing to the Mediterranean, the Assyrians had to deal with the same problems over and over again, conquering and re-conquering territories, while in the heart land of Assyria harvests declined and civil strife was common.

After a last spasm of effort c. 1075 B.C.E. Assyria went into dramatic decline. During the preceding period, (c. 1200 - 1075 B.C.E.) large numbers of Aramean semi-pastoral had been infiltrating into Syria and Assyria and Babylonia presenting a continual threat to Assyrian control. Any solution was only temporary during this period. From 1075 - 900 B.C.E. most of northern Mesopotamia was lost to the Arameans who pressed Assyria from the west by c. 900 B.C.E. Assyria was a small beleaguered kingdom confined to a 50 mile stretch of the Tigris river only about 30 miles across.

Despite the decline shortly after 900 B.C.E. Assyria would quite spectacularly revive.9

Stela of Adad-Nirari


Unlike Assyria the records of Babylonia are fragmentary and sparse during this time period. We know that beginning about 1200 B.C.E. Aramean semi-pastoralists began to infiltrate into Babylonia and that harvests began to decline. The Kassite dynasty which had ruled Babylonia for over 300 years was in terminal decline beset by wars with Assyria and Elam, famine, unrest and economic decline. c. 1140 B.C.E. the Elamites sacked Babylonia. A period of confusion followed during which Nebuchadnezzar I established a new dynasty and defeated Elam. (c. 1125 B.C.E.)

Shortly after Babylonia began engaged in debilitating wars with Assyria and was unable to cope with continuous economic decline and the Arameanian infiltration of Babylonia. By 1050 the Babylonian state had disintegrated into competing city states many controlled by Arameanian Kings with large scale Arameanian settlement. The nadir of all this was reached in about 900 B.C.E. when from the sources we have it appears that much of Babylonia was abandoned and many of her cities in partial ruin. A revival of central rule was shortly to begin.10


The Kingdom of Elam was able to take advantage of the beginning of the crisis to sack Babylonia but was unable to escape defeat by a reviving Babylonia. Meanwhile and after Elam was beset by migrating peoples from the north. We have only poor records from this time period in Elam it appears that Elam was beset by chronic and severe internal problems and simply unable to take advantage of either Assyria's or Babylonia's problems. Elam was not a factor in Middle Eastern politics until after 900 B.C.E.

In other parts of Iran the evidence seems to indicate a significant population loss in the period c. 1200 - 1000 B.C.E. followed by a recovery. At the same time several peoples from the northern part of Iran moved to the south and east.11


The traditional date of the Aryan invasions of India is c. 1500 B.C.E. Traditionally they have also been credited (or discredited) with destroying the Indus Civilization. It now appears that the Indus civilization collapsed a few centuries before the Aryans arrived and that the Aryan invaders came in waves one of those waves, in fact the main one, seems to have been c. 1200 - 1000 B.C.E. It has been recently claimed that this wave was in fact the only wave of invaders. This event was one of the turning points of the history of India because it brought to India many of the basic ideas that would develop into Hinduism.12


In China this period c. 1200 - 1050 B.C.E. saw the decline and fall of the Shang dynasty of China, which was afflicted by internal strife, failing harvests according to both traditional history and oracle bone inscriptions. (Tortoise shells on which questions would be inscribed for divination purposes) About c. 1050 B.C.E., the Chou a people from the west who had set up their own kingdom c. 1200 B.C.E. overthrew the Shang and established the Chou dynasty that would govern China both in reality and nominally for 800 years. This period would see the establishment of "Classic" Chinese civilization.13


In Europe this period c. 1200 - 900 B.C.E., saw the expansion of the "Tepe" people from central Germany / Poland area of Europe. The Tempe people were the ancestors of the Celts who would eventually spread all over Europe from Thrace to Spain.

It also appears that various peoples from Asia Minor and Thrace moved into Italy and Spain. For example the Sikels migrated to Sicily from either the Balkans or Asia Minor. The Sharhkans migrated from Libya to Sardinia, (this is controversial)

In comparison with the time period before and after the period c. 1200 - 900 B.C.E., seems to have unusual for the amount of disruption and population movement in Europe.14

Consequences and Conclusions

For the West the crisis of c. 1200 - 900 B.C.E., was instrumental in the formation of the two dominant cultures that form its foundations Greece and Israel. Without the crisis it is hard to believe that the Religion of Israel that would exercise such a profound influence would have developed. As for Greece. Until the crisis the Greek culture was basically a variant on the palace cultures of the Middle East, now it would change into a different mold different enough from other cultures to exercise in a different way from Israel a profound influence on all of us.

In the rest of the world the crisis also had an influence by for example in China inaugurating the rule of the Chou dynasty brought changes into Chinese thought not just a change of dynasty including the concept of the mandate of heaven, and in India the Aryans who arrived during this time brought both to India basic Hindu concepts like Karma.15

We have been living in the world created by the crisis ever since.

1. Ancient Lives, John Romer, Phoenix Press, London, 1984, p. 58. Romer is quoting a scribe who wrote many years after the death of Merneptah.

2. Ibid. pp. 168-176. Gives some details about the chaos that hapenned during the Year of the Hyenas".

3. The End of the Bronze Age, Robert Drews, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1993, pp. 18-21, Out of the Desert, William H. Stiebing Jr., Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1989, pp. 178-182, The Ancient Near East, vol. 2, Amelie Kuhrt, Routledge, London, 1995, pp. 285-393, The Rise of the West, William H. McNeil, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL, 1963, pp. 113-120, A History of Egypt, James Henry Breasted, Bantam Books, New York, 1964, pp. 389-448, The Sea Peoples, N. K. Sandars, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, pp. 105-137.

4. Ancient Near Eastern Texts, James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1969., pp. 378,.

5. Stiebing, pp. 189-202, Drews, pp. 15-17, Sandars, pp. 157-174, Kuhrt, pp. 401-456, The Tribes of Yahweh, Norman K. Gottwald, Orbis Books, Maryknoll NY, 1979. Who were the Early Israelites and Where did They Come From?, William G. Dever, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Cambridge, 2003, pp. 153-189, What did the Biblical Writers know and When Did They Know it?, William G. Dever, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2001, pp. 97-157.

6. Kuhrt, pp. 401-418, Sandars, pp. 139-155, Drews, pp. 13-15, Stiebing, pp. 175, 178.

7. Stiebing, 171-174, Sandars, pp. 139-144, Drews, pp. 8-11, Kuhrt, 386-393, The Hittites, O.R. Gurney, Penguin Books, London, 1952, pp. 36-39.

8. McNeill, pp. 188-196, Drews, pp. 221-29, Sandars, pp. 55-103, 179-195, Stiebing, 169-171, Decline, Destruction and Aftermath, Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy, in The Cambridge Companion to The Aegean Bronze Age, Ed. Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 387-407. Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaic Ages, M. I. Finley, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 1970, pp. 58-68.

9. Stiebing pp. 180-182, Drews, pp. 17-18, McNeill pp. 116-122, Kuhrt, pp. 386-401, The Greatness that was Babylon, H.W.F. Saggs, Mentor Books, New York, 1962, pp. 96-106, Ancient Iraq, 3rd Edition, Georges Roux, Penguin Books, London, 1992, pp. 266-281, The Might that was Assyria, H.W.F. Saggs, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1984, pp. 55-69, History of Assyria, A. T. Olmstead, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL., 1923, pp. 57-80.

10. Ibid.

11. Kuhrt, p. 394, Saggs, 1984, pp. 56-57.

12. The Birth of Indian Civilization, Brigit and Raymond Allchin, Penguin Books, 1968, pp. 144-156, McNeill, pp. 86-89, 108, Mankind and Mother Earth, Arnold Toynbee, Paladin, 1976, pp. 115.

13. McNeill, pp. 223-224, Toynbee, pp. 116-117.

14. Roux, p. 265-266, McNeill, pp. 102-109, Sandars, 97-103.

15. Sandars, 197-202, Drews, pp. 29-30, Stiebing, pp. 189-202.

Other Books used.

Shang Civilization, Kwang-Chih Chang, Yale University Press, London, 1980.

Early Civilizations of the Old World, Charles Keith Mai8sels, Routledge, New York, 1999.

Chariot, Arthur Cotterell, Pimlico, London, 2004.

Structure, Dynamics, and the Final Collapse of Bronze Age Civilizations in Second Millenium B.C., Kajsa Ekholm Friedman, in Hegemonic Declines Present and Past, Ed. Jonathan Friedman, Christopher Chase-Dunn, Paradign Publishers, London, 2005, pp. 51-87.

Archaic States, Ed. Gary M. Feinman, Joyce Marcus, School of American Research Press, Santa-Fe NM, 1998.

The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.

Myths of the Archaic State, Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

Pierre Cloutier

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Crisis or
The End of the Bronze Age Part I

The end of the Bronze Age, (c. 1200-900 B.C.E.) in the history of the world may in fact be the great turning point. In this essay a brief look will be made of various causes, courses and consequences.


A) Climate Change

Around 1300 B.C.E. there is evidence of a cooling of the climate in the Middle East and Europe, in fact the whole Old World seems to have been affected by a gradual cooling has the weather became both cooler and noticeably dryer.

The evidence for an increase in dryness of the climate has come from an examination of many strands of evidence. For example evidence of prehistoric lake levels and the advance of Glaciers would seem to indicate that between c. 1250 B.C.E. - 1050 B.C.E, was a period of unusual dryness. The result was a series of prolonged and serious drought. Which brought in its wake chaos and disorder producing the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations.

The idea is that the Bronze Age civilizations were dependant on surpluses created by agriculture that disappeared when the drought came. Agricultural surpluses at this time tended to be very small so that a prolonged drought was potentially cataclysmic and not simply disastrous. Archaeological evidence indicates that in parts of Greece the population may have declined up to 75% during this time period.

Evidence from Babylonia indicates a period of severe dryness that lasted until c. 900 B.C.E. Evidence from Egypt indicates that there was at this time a period of dryness and bad harvests. Physical evidence from India indicates a period of dryness and poor local harvests in fact it appears possible that some Indian rivers may have dried out. In China there is some evidence from Oracle bone inscriptions of problems with harvests and the weather.

The problem with this evidence is that although it is suggestive it is not conclusive other pieces of evidence indicate that the weather was not unusually dry in each of the areas mentioned. Also increased dryness may have been a tendency not a sudden, dramatic change of weather conditions. In other words this is not a sufficient sole cause for the crisis.1

B) Mass Migrations

The Egyptian inscriptions record that the attacks of the Sea-Peoples where veritable movements of entire peoples, including children, wives and goods, of people looking for a place to settle down. Much of the migrations originated from Aegean area and peoples from there settled from Sardinia to Palestine. In Europe ceramic and other evidence indicates a series of mass movements into Europe.

It was first proposed in the late nineteenth century that the close of the Egyptian New Kingdom had been caused by the mass migrations of whole peoples. The model for this being the mass migrations of the period at the end of the Roman Empire.

The most convincing evidence for the mass migration theory is a series of inscriptions from Egypt that describe mass movements of peoples from the north into the Middle East. An inscription from the reign of Rameses III; the inscription talks about a confederacy of many different peoples that after destroying the Hittite Empire then devastates Syria before descending on Egypt. These inscriptions date from the reign of Rameses III (1182 - 1151 B.C.E).

For example:

The foreign countries made a plot in their islands. Dislodged and scattered by battle were the lands all at one time, and no land could stand before their arms, beginning with Khatti [Hittite Empire], Kode[Asia Minor] , Carchemish[Syria] , Arzawa[Asia minor] , and Alasiya [Asia Minor?]...A camp was set up in one place in Amor [Cannan?], and they desolated its people and its land as though they had never come into being. They came, the flame prepared before them, onwards to Egypt. Their confederacy consisted of Peleset, Tjekker, Sheklesh, Danu, and Weshesh, united lands, and they laid their hands upon the lands to the entire circuit of the earth, their hearts bent and trustful 'Our plan is accomplished!' But the heart of this god, the lord of the gods, was prepared and ready to ensnare them like birds...I established my boundary in Djahi , prepared in front of them, the local princes, garrison-commanders, and Maryannu. I caused to be prepared the river mouth like a strong wall with warships, galleys, and skiffs. They were completely equipped both fore and aft with brave fighters carrying their weapons and infantry of all the pick of Egypt, being like roaring lions upon the mountains; chariotry with able warriors and all goodly officers whose hands were competent. Their horses quivered in all their limbs, prepared to crush the foreign countries under their hoofs.

... a net was prepared for them to ensnare them, those who entered into the river-mouths being confined and fallen within it, pinioned in their places, butchered and their corpses hacked up. 2

It was evidence like the above that caused late nineteenth century historians to theorize by analogy with the "Wandering of Nations" at the end of the Roman Empire to suggest that something similar happened at this time. This explanation is now under severe attack. For example it appears that the analogy with events around the fall of Rome are not quite as convincing if only because it is now recognized that the "Barbarian Hordes" that "destroyed" the Roman Empire were actually quite small, (For example the largest "horde" referred to, the Vandals, numbered, Men, Women, Children and Slaves, 80,000 persons) and so migration turns out to be an inadequate explanation for the fall of Rome. That being the case it may not be the explanation for the end of the Bronze Age. Further the inscriptional evidence used to support this theory is not quite as clear as it seems given that many of the peoples referred to in fact lived quite close to the peoples they were attacking. Also evidence of a change in population is not apparent in most places.

Despite the above points there is some evidence in some areas of population change. For example the arrival of the Phrygians in Asia Minor by c. 1000 B.C.E., the Philistines in Palestine by 1150 B.C.E., and the Greek Speaking Dorians into southern Greece c. 1000 B.C.E. In most cases these migrations seem to have occurred one or two centuries after the collapse of Bronze Age civilization in the areas settled into by the people involved. The only exception seems to be the Philistines whose arrival coincides with the destruction of many cities in Syria / Palestine.3

Relief showing Ramese's III defeat of the Sea Peoples

C) Raiders

A different reading of the evidence indicates that, at least in the Aegean, it is possible that Raiders based in modern day Thessaly pillaged, one by one the Mycenaean Palaces and destroyed Troy.

This argument first originated from an analysis of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, which indicated that the traditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey seemed to originate from an area of southern Thessaly from which bands of sea-borne raiders originated in period of c. 1200-900 B.C.E. It seemed that oral traditions from that area played a role in creating the Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey whose traditions centred around the exploits of raiders. The problem with this account was that it was based on amalysis of traditions that involved only one of the cultures that collapsed and it did not explain the completeness of the collapse given that the raiders were interested in rich booty not in inflicting massive cataclysmic destruction.

In other words the raiders appeared to be more a symptom of decline than a cause of the decline and fall of Bronze Age civilization.4

D) The Military Explanation

During the Bronze Age Military Power was concentrated in the so-called Palace Civilizations, which based their power on the command of large Chariot armies. Egypt had thousands of Chariots, and so did Babylonia, Assyria and the Hittite empire.

In this time period Horses were not large or strong enough to support a human riding on his/her back, but were perfectly capable of drawing a Chariot. The Chariot was drawn by a team of Horses, (two). On the Chariot were usually 3 persons. The Driver who drove the horses, a soldier who protected with a shield and sword the main warrior, and the main warrior, the Archer who fired long arrows from a powerful compound bow.

The evidence indicates that the whole system was quite expensive. The horses had to be carefully trained to function as a team and were therefore expensive. The Chariot itself was a very expensive item requiring a specialist to build. The compound bow was expensive requiring, usually, years of work by a specialist to create. The armour of the Archer was also expensive. And the Archer required years of training and as a specialist warrior was not cheap. Add to that the driver, the cost of horse fodder, the great expense of Bronze weaponry, due to the cost and rarity of Bronze. The result was that most countries were much too small to support more than a few hundred Chariots. Only great states like Egypt or the Hittite empire, Assyria, Babylonia could support thousands of Chariots. Needless to say losing such expensive military equipment was not wanted given the cost of replacing it.

The Chariot and the Archer were the main military forces of this time period. The Chariot being used as a mobile platform for an archer to shoot from, and the main enemy of the chariot archer being other chariot archers. Battles were contests on level ground between chariot armies.

The Chariot Archer were aided by skirmishers who provided support and helped protect the horses from injury and attack. Theses forces also provided troops to besiege cities and fortresses and to provide troops to fight in difficult terrain, like mountains etc. Theses skirmishers were vastly more numerous than the numbers of Chariot archers, drivers and bodyguards.

Theses troops were recruited mainly from peoples living on the margins of the great civilizations, such has the peoples of central Greece, the Caucasus, the Zagros Mountains, and the Arabian Desert, highland areas throughout the Middle East and probably beyond.

Between 1300 B.C.E., and 1200 B.C.E., these skirmishers discovered that with their protective armour, javelins, long swords. Spears and the occasional bow combined with their vastly larger numbers that they could destroy the Chariot armies of the Palace civilizations. Only civilizations that could field large infantry forces to protect the Chariot forces had any chance with swarms of skirmishers who, killed or wounded the horses and then dispatched the vastly outnumbered archer, driver and body guard. The result was the pillaging of one Palace after the other, the destruction of cities and mass migrations throughout the eastern Mediterranean.5

E) The Advent of Iron

The warrior aristocracies of the late Bronze Age depended for their power on the use and monopoly of scarce bronze weaponry. Bronze was rare because it was an alloy of copper and tin. Copper was relatively common. Tin however was quite rare and had to be imported from far away. At this time the main source of tin seems to have been Hindu Kush area of the Himalayas. Tin also seems to have come in smaller amounts from England. Making bronze also required that both the copper and tin be liquefied and so required highly technical and specialized training to do. It also required fairly complex apparatus to do. This limited the ability of people to work with bronze. The result was to add greatly to the cost of the resulting bronze. The end result was very expensive bronze tools and weapons.

Iron had one crushing advantage over bronze, it was relatively common, certainly more common than copper. The main problem was that working iron required higher temperatures than bronze, but unlike bronze there was no need to liquefy iron it could be worked solid. It was the invention of the bellows that enabled craftsman to create the temperatures necessary to work iron. With bellows the craftsman, or blacksmith, working iron, was also considerably more mobile than the worker of bronze. With the loss of the monopoly of metal weaponry the warrior aristocracies collapsed.

We know that iron weaponry starts to appear in the 14th century, for example an iron dagger appears in the tomb of Tutankhamen, made from meteoric iron. The Hittites also started to use iron weapons in the 13th century. The problem with iron weaponry being the main reason for the collapse is that iron weaponry became common well after the end of the Bronze Age was underway. In fact the armies of the Sea Peoples and others that threatened the great civilizations were overwhelmingly armed with bronze. It appears that the spread of iron confirmed the collapse and end of the Bronze Age Warrior aristocracies but did not cause it.

At the last half of the dark age period, (1050-900 B.C.E.), it appears that large forces of iron equipped peoples had encircled, undermined and invaded the great civilizations of the Middle East and thus putting all such societies under serious threat. So it appears that iron played a role later on in prolonging the crisis, and confirming its effects.6

F) Systems Collapse

We know a fair bit about the Palace civilizations of the late bronze age due to the survival of Palace archives from such places as Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos in Greece, Hattusa in Turkey, Ashur in Assyria, Babylonian cuneiform tablets, and of course the records of Egypt.

What these tablets reveal is that the world of "Palace" civilizations was one of bureaucratic domination and administration.

Babylonian Boundary Stone

The records could be quite meticulous and detailed listing, vats of olive oil, amounts of wheat stored, officials working in the palace etc., etc. Given their size the "Palace Civilizations" were quite bureaucratic and top heavy. These societies depended upon a class of scribal record keepers to record taxes, of grains, olive oil, rare metals, etc. Further trade was subject to quite rigid control by the Palace bureaucracies.

The Palaces were not simply habitations for members of the Royal and Noble families, they were centers of bureaucratic control and production and distribution. For example the Palace of Minos at Knossos in Greece, which covered an area bigger than Buckingham Palace in England, devoted much of its space to storage and distribution of grain and olive oil. Also in the Palace was found archives and centers of bureaucratic activity. This pattern of centralized bureaucratic Palace culture with centralized taxation, distribution, production and control was found in the Hittite Empire, Babylonia, and Assyria and in Egypt. This system required meticulous record keeping and a staff of full time bureaucrats and record keepers.

At both Pylos in Greece, Thebes in Egypt and at Mari in Babylonia surviving archival documents reveal careful records were kept of size of herds of animals, taxes in kind from fields, amounts of various goods stored in different locations, who did what or was to do what, and Royal control of foreign trade.

It appears that the system was heavily dependent on the continued operation of the bureaucracy and the smooth functioning of system. It seems to have been rather sensitive to disruption. It seems to have required rather significant exploitation of the peasant population. As soon as the system was unable to extract the necessary taxes from the population it was in trouble. It appears that in many areas there was no significant middle part of the population, ("middle class"), to mediate the social dynamics between the classes of rulers and ruled.

So that when the system was stressed, by crop failure, invasion, wars, etc., it had a built in potential to crash and burn because it lacked strength to deal with the severe stress.

An analogy can be made with the Classic Maya collapse of 800-900 C.E., when another top-heavy system fell apart under stress because of lack of basic strength. Cultures like that of Egypt and Babylonia-Assyria were able to better weather the crisis because of the much greater strength of the middle strata of their societies and because the bureaucratic apparatus was therefore less of a burden on the societies.

Although suggestive this theory would be helped if we had much better records from this period and so is far from proven.7


The most obvious conclusion is that a search for a one cause for the collapse will fail. It appears that the reasons the collapse happened were multi-causal, and that theses causes interacted in such a way to produce the end of the Bronze Age and the birth of a new world.

Course and consequences to follow in Part II

1. Out of the Desert, William H. Stiebing Jr., Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1989, pp. 167-187. see The End of the Bronze Age, Robert Drews, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ., 1993, pp. 77-84 for a summary and critique.

2. From Here See also Ancient Records of Egypt, vol. 4, James Henry Breasted, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL., 1906, pp. 37-39.

3. The Ancient Near East, vol. 2, Amelie Kuhrt, Routledge, London, 1995, pp. 385-410, Drews, pp. 48-72, The Sea Peoples, N. K. Sandars, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, Ancient Iraq, 3rd Edition, George Roux, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 266-281, The Greatness that was Babylonia, H. W. F. Saags, Mentor Books, New York, 1962, pp. 98-104, also see Steibing above.

4. See Drews, pp. 91-93, and Sandars.

5, See Drews, Part 11, pp. 97-225.

6. Drews pp. 73-76, Sandars pp. 174-177, Rise of the West, William McNeil, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL., 1963, pp. 117-118.

7. The Collapse of Complex Systems, Joseph Trainter, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, McNeil, pp. 116-133, Drews, 85-90. Kuhrt, pp. 385-410, Structure, Dynamics, and the Final Collapse of Bronze Age Civilizations in the Second Millenium B.C., Kajsa Ekholm Friedman, in Hegemonic Declines Present and Past, Ed. Jonathon Friedman, Chistopher Chase, Dunn Paradigm Publishers, London, 2005, pp. 51-87, Myths of the Archaic State, Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 131-160, Roux above, For the Mayan Collapse see The Fall of the Ancient Maya, David Webster, Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Course and Consequences to follow in Part II

Pierre Cloutier

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Original sin"?

Lenin giving a speech

One of the great problems of modern Russian history is the origin of the authoritarian regime that the Bolsheviks established after the revolution. Certainly during the Cold War and after anything like "objective" analysis was very difficult. The fact that the collapse of 1984-1991 entirely discredited the regime hasn't helped.

The Cold War led to a pronounced bias concerning the Soviet Regime in both the West and Soviet Bloc. In one case, the West, leading to a demonization of the regime and in the Soviet case leading to a glorification of the regime. The Soviet glorification of the regime does not concern me in this essay except to note that it was embarrassingly simple-minded and consisted of the repeated chantings much of the time of ritual shibboleths.1

In the West two schools gradually emerged to explain the origins of the one party state. The first and undoubtedly most influential, even now, is the "original sin", idea of Bolshevism. This was the opinion that within the ideology crafted by Lenin was the blueprint for the creation of an authoritarian one party regime. Thus the ideology of Bolshevism impelled, required that once it seized power it must establish autocratic rule. This view sees Bolshevism as an ideology for gaining power. Thus conspiracy, coup-d'etat, secret police, in a word, coercion is the essence of Bolshevism. Thus Bolshevism because of Lenin's idea of a "Vanguard Party" would inevitably become a dictatorship. In this view the October Revolution of 1917 is a coup d'etat of a small group of single minded conspirators.2

The second idea was the idea that the Bolshevik autocracy emerged as a result of factors associated with the Revolution, such as foreign intervention, civil war, the collapse of the economy, general chaos and the need to safeguard the revolution both externally and internally. In this view the social chaos that enveloped Russia from 1917 onwards compelled the resort to coercion and violence in a desperate bid to overcome and deal with significant problems. For example the extreme grain shortages that developed in the the cities in the late winter / spring of 1918. In this view The Revolution of October 1917 was largely popular and ad hoc.3

The view that the Revolution turned into an authoritarian state has a result of contingent factors goes back to to the early days of the Revolution. Leon Trotsky4 for example viewed autocratic rule as a solution to the problems of backwardness, social chaos, civil war and revolutionary isolation. Basically the idea is that if, the social breakdown, had not happened or if the new regime had not come under attack from forces without or within, or if the revolution had spread, if Russia had not been so backwards then the the revolution would not have degenerated into an authoritarian state.

The "original sin" idea takes it for granted that Lenin's doctrine of a "Vanguard Party",5 led inevitably to the growth of a authoritarian one party state upon the seizure of power. Certainly Lenin's idea that the "Proletariat", (working class), needed to be led by a party of professional revolutionaries with the right consciousness, was in this opinion bound to lead to an authoritarian solution once power was attained.

The problems with the "original sin" approach begin with the fact it is basically a post-hoc approach; it sees the results of the revolution and projects back into the past those developments and sees them has inevitable. for example it ignores that the Bolshevik party was faction ridden, subject to massive internal disputes and certainly the pre-revolution rhetoric of the Bolsheviks does not indicate any overt belief in authoritarian political management. Analysis of actual Bolshevik practice in 1917, pre October Revolution does not indicate very much if any authoritarian practice.6 In fact the party was divided by a host of issues, including whether or not to seize power, the suppression of the press etc., it was a far from a monolithic, tightly unified instrument for wielding political power. Further many of the steps leading to the creation of the one party state were bitterly opposed within the party.7 Further this notion ignores contingent factors like the existence of vocal violent opposition, the catastrophic economic situation which certainly helped to ensure / encourage the use of coercion and authoritarian means.

In some cases this is characterized by blaming the opposition to the Bolsheviks forcing the Bolsheviks to resort to violence and coercion by the hostility of the various opposition groups.8 The main idea being that Lenin and his associates were forced into suppression by the hostile acts of various parties.

In terms of evaluating the above two ideas hindsight must be avoided at all costs. The tendency to see things through the prism of what did happen resisted at all costs. In this case the fact, and it is a fact, that the Bolshevik Party was not, before the attaining of power, an authoritarian dictatorial party run on either Stalinist or Dictatorial lines is clear. And it is easy to find comments indicating a sincere belief in free elections, freedom of the press, etc., etc. So what happened? Bukharin explained it thus; that in the past the workers:
was forced to demand, not freedom of assembly just for workers, but freedom of Assembly in general..., freedom of the press in general... etc. But there is no need to make a virtue of necessity. Now that the time has come for a direct assault on the capitalist fortress and the suppression of the exploiters, only a miserable petty-bourgeois can be content with arguments about "the protection of the minority".9
An apt response to this sort of nonsense is:
In the past you see, we had to mask our real view so that our opponents would not know that we were lying when we pretended to support democratic rights on principle; we had to conceal that we demanded minority democratic rights only for ourselves and would deny them to others once we got the whip hand . . .What a gigantic conspiracy it must have been, for the entire Marxist movement to have carried out this fraud! Bukharin claimed that the movement had lied in the past, and he was telling the truth now: but in fact, of course, no such absurd conspiracy had ever existed - Bukharin was lying now, to cover up a 180, [degree], turn in his view of democracy. In any case, with this line of argumentation, no one could believe him and his likes then or now. A movement that printed this drivel was discredited for the future as for the past.10
I suppose when Bukharin was being tried in his infamous show trial during the purges of the thirties and then executed, he might have paused a bit over some of the foolishness he uttered earlier during his years in power.

The problem with the contingent arguments is that they assume that humans are programed to respond in certain ways to given situations. Accepting that the Bolsheviks took power without the intent to create a dictatorship, and that democratic norms existed even flourished in the party, and that no evidence, unless its conjured up through hindsight, supports the idea that Lenin was planning to establish a one party state beforehand; we still have the problem of why the Bolsheviks did what they did.

Certain things confound the issue. It is for example very hard to believe and what evidence we have refutes it, that the other Socialist parties, or the Anarchists / Greens would have resorted to mass permanent coercion if they had attained power. We have for example the events of 1917 before the Bolsheviks took power. Given that the standard justification for the Bolsheviks in using coercion was violent opposition, then no one should have a problem with the coercive means sometimes used to crush the Bolsheviks. In fact its quite obvious that the opposition was far too lenient and loose in its measures from this point of view. But then its seems to come down to double standards, the idea being that it was unjust to crush the Bolsheviks and just for the Bolsheviks once they were in power to crush violent opposition. That doesn't wash. If it was just or permissible for the Bolsheviks to violently oppose the Provisional government then by what moral calculus was violent opposition to the Bolsheviks NOT permissible or moral, but beyond the pale? And just why should one be indignant about the rather clumsy attempts to suppress the Bolsheviks but approve or accept has permissible their attempts to crush opposition?11

Also we have to remember that well before the Bolsheviks seized power there were other Socialists who saw dictatorial ideas in Lenin's notions of the Vanguard Party.

The revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg reviewing several of Lenin's works in 1904, severely criticized, Lenin's idea of the party has being conspiratorial, dictatorial and dangerous:
But here is the "ego" of the Russian revolutionary again! Pirouetting on its head, it once more proclaims itself to be the all-powerful director of history - this time with the title of His Excellency the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party of Russia.
Let us peak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.12
Another example is Leon Trotsky in a pamphlet he published in 1904 called Our Political Tasks said:
In the first case, it is more difficult to “cheat”: history, having placed a definite task on the agenda, is observing us sharply. For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”
In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; [emphasis added] on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”; in “external” politics these methods are manifested in attempts to bring pressure to bear on other social organisations, by using the abstract strength of the class interests of the proletariat, and not the real strength of the proletariat conscious of its class interests. 13
Needless to say once Trotsky joined Lenin this little work disappeared down the memory hole. Trotsky's desperate efforts to refute the idea that Stalinism was his and Lenin's monstrous bastard child had to ignore this amazingly prophetic statement, especially the truly amazing section emphasized above. Trotsky spent much of his life in exile denying that he and Lenin were in anyway responsible for Stalin and Stalinism. The above statement refutes Trotsky out of his own mouth.

One can multiply those statements from other people involved in doctrinal disputes among the Russian Social Democrats. One could also list in very great detail the complaints among Lenin's colleagues about his dictatorial behavior and his tendency to demand obedience and submission before the revolution.14
Lenin's capacity to engage in polemical excess, (He regarded anything has permissible) and his belief that opposition had to be annihilated, crushed, destroyed, speak of a personality that isn't leery about using excessive means.15

Given the above it cannot be considered an accident that once the Bolshevik's took power they rapidly adopted authoritarian solutions to the problems they faced.16

Even if it is accepted that the external and internal situation encouraged or perhaps even required authoritarian solutions it does not explain the particular solutions used or the fact has the quotation from Bukharin above indicates, that these solutions had a tendency to be seen not just as temporary expedients but has more or less permanent, and in some sense "ideal", and a tendency for those solutions to be maximized in terms of effect. Further the tendency existed for force to be used as a substitute, i.e., "shortcut" for dealing with intractable problems.

It appears that Lenin and many of his colleagues had a tendency to devalue, things like freedom of the press, fair elections etc., even before attaining power, and to be fixated on the issues involved in holding and retaining power in and of itself. There was further a tendency to think that the ends justified the means and a great difficulty in seeing that the means used would affect the ability to get to the goal or make the goal impossible of attainment. It should be said that those tendencies had formidable opposition within the Bolshevik party itself and Lenin was never without vocal opposition within his party.17

It is also worth mentioning that Lenin's conception of politics was shall we say limited. As one critic has said while discussing Lenin's The State and Revolution:
Further, of course the implications here are major, there is no conceptual space for a parliamentary opposition. Delegates are described as being representatives, legislators and executives. A delegate who is only a representative, who wishes to bear no responsibility for legislation with which he or his constituents disagree, but claims the right for his opposing and critical arguments to be heard, who refuses both a legislative and executive role, is not catered for in such a system. In fact he is specifically ruled out: he it would be who conceived parliament as a "talking shop" and his job as going there to talk persistently against those who were "doing". So here again we have the insistent emergence of the theme of the impossibility of divisions among the people: the people must have a unitary set of interests and possibility of political conflict - which can result only from representatives becoming careerists - is to be avoided by the tight bonds between representatives and electors. Here the very possibility of party - that is organizations expressing diverse views and value orientations - is abolished long before any exigences of the 'particularly hostile' conjuncture persuaded the Bolsheviks to get around to it in practice. 18
The idea is that Lenin's own theoretical views, shared by many of his colleagues led to a view that opposition to his / their opinions, in fact opposition of any kind, was somehow illegitimate. Certainly his tendency to view those who disagreed with him, or advanced positions contrary to his, has motivated by prospects of material gain in one form or the other with only his position has free of such motives and therefore 'pure' is easily authoritarian in result.19

If its clear that the possibility of Bolshevism degenerating into authoritarian rule because of certain ideas and attitudes of mind that were common among the Bolsheviks and a good deal less prevalent in other Socialist political parties and groups in Russia was a very real one.

Regarding the unfortunate conjuncture of events after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Unfortunately a lot of it seems to be complaining that it rains sort of logic. The argument not only attacks the opponents of the Bolsheviks for opposing them, which makes the assumption that opposing Bolshevik policy was somehow wrong / illegitimate, but assumes that the external situation was somehow perverse, and accidental.

Has Evan Mawdsley has said:
It is, however, going too far to say that without the Civil War things would have developed differently. The crucial point is whether the "Revolution" and "Civil War" were two distinct things. They were not. In the first place, many developments that might seem to come from the Civil War were really indirect, inevitable, and delayed consequences of the seizure of power. The Bolsheviks were great partisans of class conflict, and of class conflict pursued to the death. It is utopian to think that after the seizure of power one's opponents will simply lie back and think of the inevitability of human progress. The Bolsheviks were less afraid of civil war than they should have been. When Soviet power was so weak and thinly based, when the Bolshevik party and class in whose name it ruled were so small, it is hard to see how the enemies of Bolshevism could not have had considerable success.
Given the nature of Russian society and given the ideology of the party that took power, Civil War was implicit in the October Revolution. The costs of the Civil War were the costs of the Revolution.20
In the aftermath of October 1917, the Bolsheviks demonstrated a striking tendency to rely on coercion to solve problems. From the break-up of the Constituent Assembly in February 1918 to dealing with general industrial decline and lack of food in the cities. The Bolsheviks showed a readiness to use the short cut of coercion. If the Constituent assembly is a problem disperse it! If food in the cities is a problem send armed workers to seize it from the countryside! If industry is in decline; regiment the workers by force! No doubt the situation was bad but this tendency helped smooth the way to one party rule.

Just has the Bolsheviks benefited from a massive increase in popular support in 1917, such that when they overthrew the Provisional government in October 1917 they had considerable probably massive, popular support. In the first half of 1918 faced with a massive decline in popular support due to the worsening economic situation, which many Bolshevik policies probably helped to make even worse, the Bolsheviks resorted to coercion. Faced for example with the massive rise of support for the Mensheviks, independent Socialists etc., in the local Soviets during the first part of 1918, and a corresponding decline in Bolshevik fortunes in those elections. The Bolsheviks resorted to purges, violent dispersal of the Soviets, fraud; in some cases massive. Faced with the prospect of losing power the Bolsheviks substituted coercion for popular support. Such Bolshevik measures in turn created more opposition which in turn helped justify / excuse more coercive measures.21

So to get back to the question that started this essay. Did Bolshevism have an original sin? There was certainly no plan to establish a one party authoritarian dictatorship beforehand and certainly circumstances played a powerful role in helping to determine this outcome. However ideology did play a role; even before the seizure of power, tendencies within Bolshevism in an authoritarian direction were noted by some with some fear for the future. This was combined with a attitude towards opponents that was authortarian and a tendency to disparage certain civil rights. Also an inability to see how ends could be corrupted by the means used.

In the end Lenin and Trotsky and their associates ended up rationalizing with a sort of false consciousness, a mystification, of what they did to sanctify their acts, and to cloak their desire to retain power. Bolshevism become a ideology to justify the exercise and rule of one party, a form of mystification to justify the power and privileges of a new ruling elite.

Towards the end of his life Lenin realized that something was wrong and Trotsky after he was forced out of power and then into exile realized also. Lenin's solution was stupefyingly simpleminded and did not involve giving up one party rule, that was of course rationalized away. Trotsky spent his later years engaging in prolonged apologetics, dedicated to the idea that he had nothing to reproach himself for and that his acts had nothing to do with the rise of Stalinism.22

If Bolshevism did not have an out and out "Original Sin" it certainly had a tendency in that direction. Of the two ideas looked at here it appears that the "Original Sin" idea is unpleasantly close to reality. Given both the tendencies within the Bolshevik party and the forces that would almost certainly be unleashed by the seizure of power a descent into authoritarian rule was virtually inevitable, despite the declared intentions and frankly sincere beliefs of most Bolsheviks. External factors while creating the opportunity for the seizure of power also virtually perscribed the outcome, authoritarian rule, when combined both Bolshevik tendencies and the virtually certain response to the seizure of power.

Thus does history behave like a bastard and Revolutions defeat themselves through success.

Bolshevik Poster
1. This does not mean that useful work was not done in the Soviet Union on early Soviet history, however the need even in serious historical work to pay at least lip service to Marxist-Leninist cant could not but be an impediment to serious historical analysis.

2. The best example recently of this approach is The Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes, Vintage, New York, 1991 and Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, Richard Pipes, Vintage, New York, 1995.

3. Good examples of this approach are The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd, Alexander Rabinowitch, Pluto Press, New York, 1976, and The Russian Revolution 1917 - 1932, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982.

4. See for example The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI, 1957.

5. The key text being What is to be Done?, V. I. Lenin, 1902, can be found at Here. This text outlines Lenin's theory of a Vanguard Party.

6. Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, Alexander Rabinowitch, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1968.

7. See for example The Bolsheviks come to Power:... and The Bolsheviks in Power, Alexander Rabinowitch, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 2007, also Before Stalinism, Samuel Farber, Verso, London, 1990.

8, For example Leninism under Lenin, Marcel Liebman, J. Cape, London, 1975.

9. The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period, Nikolai Bukharin, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1979, (original Pub. date 1919), p. 47, quoted from item in Footnote 10, pp. 141.

10. The "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1987, pp. 141-142.

11, See The Mensheviks after October, Vladimir N. Brovkin, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1987.

12. The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism, Rosa Luxemburg, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI, 1961, pp. 107, 108. Originally published in 1904, the article quoted being Leninism or Marxism.

13. Our Political Tasks, Leon Trotsky, from the Trotsky Internet Archive. The Chapter the quote is located in is Part II:Tactical Tasks in the section From pedagogy to tactics, at Here.

14. See Before Stalinism, and Three who made a Revolution, Bertram D. Wolfe, Bell Publishing Co., New York, 1964. for examples of rather unpleasant behavior and attitudes from Lenin before and after the Revolution see The Unknown Lenin, Richard Pipes, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN., 1996, a collection of rather unpleasant documents by Lenin kept secret until after the fall of the regime.

15. See Three who made a Revolution, pp. 353-355.

16. See Before Stalinism for the depressing details.

17. see Three Faces of Marxism, Wolfgang Leonhard, Paragon Books, London, 1970, pp. 47-94.

18. Lenin and the end of Politics, A. J. Polan, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1984, pp. 81-82. The State and Revolution, published originally in 1917, can be found Here.

19. Lenin and the end of Politics, deals with this in depth.

20. The Russian Civil War, Evan Mawdsley, Allen & Unwin, Boston, 1987, pp. 289, 290.

21 see Before Stalinism. The Mensheviks after October, is especially rich in detail about the tactics and strategies for holding onto power by various forms of coercion.

22, See both Before Stalinism and Lenin and the end of Politics. Lenin's solution of having workers oversee party bureaucrats and having more workers in both party and state bureaucracy are breath taking in terms of naivety and of course preserve one party rule.

Pierre Cloutier