I frequently read history books or articles related to the origins of Western Civilization, primary Ancient Greece. You can’t read about Ancient Greece without understanding the entire Mediterranean. Recently, my fascination has focused on the collapse of the Bronze Age1, also known as the Greek Dark Ages. This reference (Greek Dark Age) is understating the situation dramatically as the destruction, poverty, and defensive conditions were pervasive across the entire Mediterranean.
Much speculation exists but some fundamental questions about the course of events leading up to this “collapse” gives me pause in thinking about our current world. It is unlikely that we will see a similar collapse but there are elements that deserve thought. The scholar Nassim Taleb2 has written much about risk analysis and one carry away for me is that the more efficient the system, the more dependent we become on it and concomitantly the greater the risk 3.
Trade routes around the Mediterranean were vital to the survival of every palace state or large metropolis. Wealth came from trading of copper and tin to manufacture bronze of course but also agricultural goods, pottery, art, ideas and so much more. Disrupt that and poverty ensues. Farming had become efficient due to government irrigation projects. The fact that it was organized and planned by top down government is important because it the selfish motives were not at play and so designs were efficiently distributing water everywhere within reason. This systematic efficiency has inherent fragility; it depends on the irrigation channels being maintained and that requires a strong top down government oversight.
Agriculture presented another fragile weakness. There was no concept of rotating crops so year after year nutrients were sapped out of the soil and yields dropped with each year, but it was probably so gradual that it went unnoticed or was blamed on other causes. The cities continued to grow and demand for agricultural produce increased as well. Greece had limited agriculture because of their rocky terrain (they described their land as the place where the rocks thrown down by the Gods piled up). As a result Greece depended on agriculture from more fertile areas, and it was trade routes supplied these goods as long as they remained unobstructed.
Armies were made up of well trained mercenaries. Battles typically were fought as one large well trained army faced off in a field against another large well trained army. A trained soldier took years to train (some references suggest it took up to 20 years). A victory in battle would result in the absorption of the soldiers from the other side. Expensive chariots and training all cost money and time to equip. If single raid on a city occurred that could be handled but if it is a series of raids these expensive armies would be whittled down without enough time to restore valuable military resources. It is interesting to note that horses at the time had not yet been bred large enough for a soldier to ride; they were used mainly to pull the chariots.
Bronze is made up of copper (about 98%) and (about 2%) tin or arsenic. The health risks of arsenic made tin far more desirable. There were mines for copper but very few mines for tin 4. Again, this placed another very important demand on efficient trade.
The obvious delicate balances of efficiencies of trade, agriculture, peace, government planning, rich soils all played into a fragile system of high risk elements. There is suggestions of climate change combined with pirates and raiders from the sea (“Sea Peoples”) that may have broken this fragile system leaving populations defenseless, and or starving and likely rioting when the systems failed. Within a single generation almost every large city burned to the ground. This Dark Age left little us devoid of written word. That was another weakness… writing which had flourished with rich cities depended on trained scribes who tracked the goods traded. With the dark ages the poverty that likely prevailed could not support trained scribes and when trade routes were disrupted and govenments toppling there was no longer the demand for written records. Cities were abandoned and groups retreated to inland mountain tops or fortresses for defensive advantage.
This was a sad time in human history. I believe that what Nissum Taleb teaches us about the fragility of efficient systems may have played out its ugly consequences in thisdark period in history.