Whither the Wanax?

Contributing factors in the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC, Part 2)

An oft-bypassed attraction among the hill towns of Tuscany is the Museo archeologico nazionale di Siena. One enters this museum via the 12th-century hospital of Santa Maria della Scala—itself an interesting attraction as one of the oldest still-extant such facilities—then, proceeding down a series of irregular stairs and ramps beneath this edifice, you arrive in Roman antiquity. And so it goes, as you travel downwards, you are also traveling backwards in time, through Etruscan passages and artifacts, all the way down and back to the Bronze Age. The very word Tuscany derives ultimately from the name of these pre-Roman people who once dwelt in the region.

You may have noticed my reference to Troy VII in Part 1. This nomenclature is used by archaeologists to designate a specific stratum of ruins. These are similar in effect to geological strata where there are repeated periods of deposition, but with human habitation the cycles are much more rapid. These sequences generally reflect repeated destruction and rebuilding on the same site.

The pattern is widespread, especially among Late Bronze Age (LBA) civilizations. The siting of the city still has all the advantages it was originally chosen for, indeed more, as it is now higher, as it sits on a pile of rubble, which also doubles as a convenient quarry, so it is rebuilt on that same spot. The manner of the destruction is immaterial: earthquake, fire, famine, warfare, etc. Much as the King of Swamp Castle says of his home in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ‘em! It sank into the swamp, so I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, and then it sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!

Although Swamp Castle’s is a more compressed timeline, when an LBA city was brought down by some calamity, there was not only rebuilding, but improvement—the civilization would learn from its mistakes, put forth greater efforts, and often return better than ever.

For a more recent example, in 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome blazed for six full days, reducing 10 of its 14 districts, or 70% of the city to smoking rubble. Though Nero was blamed for the blaze by many historians, he was actually away at Antium when the fire broke out. In any case, the Romans rebuilt, changing the opus incertum building method out for opus reticulatum because they found concrete buildings faced with brick as used in the latter were more resistant to flame. Opus incertum was another faced-concrete method, but used stone for the purpose. At high temperatures, the Romans found, stone burns, while brick does not.

And this is what’s remarkable about the Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC); there is no recovery from the calamities cities typically take (more or less) in their stride.

Taking another example of urban resilience, one of the earliest demographers, John Graunt studied the population statistics of London in 1663, concluding:¹

Let the mortality be what it will, this city repairs itself within two years.

Which is to say, despite London’s background death rate being much higher than that of the countryside, to say nothing of its frequent outbreaks of plague, actual dips in population were quite temporary. By contrast, in the LBAC according to Jack Davis:²

The area of the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos remained, as a whole in fact, severely depopulated for nearly a millennium.

Another thing I mentioned previously was the international communication that took place in the LBA. In order for this to be carried out, scribes needed to be multilingual, but at least in the Near East of the time, Akkadian spread from Anatolia to Western Syria, Western Iran, the Levant, Egypt and Cyprus. It’s no accident the peak of Akkadian’s use as an LBA lingua franca corresponded to that of trade in the region from 1600 to 1200 BCE.

And along with trade, diplomatic communication was also carried out in Akkadian. A large number of tablets found in Amarna, Egypt from the rule of Akhenaten (ca. 1353–1336 BCE) contain correspondence from other royal courts including Cyprus, Elamite Iran, the Hittite Empire, the Mitanni, the Assyrians, the Kassites, as well as many smaller kingdoms of the Levant, and even as far as the Persian Gulf.

While it was extremely useful in this role of communication across many cultures in the Near East, the language itself had some significant flaws: The writing system of Akkadian is actually a borrowing itself, from Sumerian, which is both the oldest known written language as well as a language isolate. For Akkadian, this was a recipe for a highly complex system as well as a defective script.

One issue was there were a great many homophones. For example, the simple, one-syllable word ku (written ⟨gu⟩) could mean nine different things: bird, cord, eat, entirety, force, neck, legume, square, or voice, and this was far from uncommon. The way these words were represented somewhat helped to sort out which meaning was intended:³

Remember, I said “somewhat”—actually, you can see many of these are written in exactly the same way, and the sign for “eat” and “square” is that for “voice” with another element inserted, and the one for “bird”, is essentially similar to that for “entirety”, “force”, “neck”, and “legume”, but with a second, unpronounced symbol added. Of all of these examples, only the word for “cord” is truly unique.

Coming at it from the other direction is no better; the “voice” version of ku was also used to write k’ak, “mouth”, and tsu, “tooth”. And indeed, there were often many ways to write a single word; below are the many ways in which ngesh’kana, meaning “pestle” could be written, and it’s far from a unique case:

Consider for a moment the challenges involved in deciphering this language. The syllabogram ngesh, which appears as the first sign in each version of the word above, was also used as a determiner—an unpronounced pictogram meaning “tree” and signifying a tool or weapon. Essentially, for every symbol, you’d have to decide if it was a pictogram or syllabogram, what word is being indicated, and how—or whether—to pronounce it.

Add to this the fact this system was then adopted to represent Akkadian, a Semitic language unrelated to Sumerian, and cuneiform goes from being a complicated script to a complicated, defective script. I mentioned Sumerian was a language isolate, which means it has no known linguistic relatives, though there have been many attempts to link it to others.

Defective script is a technical linguistics term meaning the written signs used do not adequately represent the language as spoken. Many of the written elements began to change in order to represent the phonetic values of Akkadian, for which a syllabary was particularly ill suited.

Looking back at Sumerian ku, the homophony disappears in Akkadian: while “cord” is , “eat” is akālu, “entirety” is nagbu, “force” is emūqu, “neck” is kishādu, “voice” is rigmu, while “bird”, “legume”, and “square” have vanished. This is not to say Akkadian has no words for these things, but they did not use ones based on the various forms of ku.

Add to this the fact several other languages in the region adopted cuneiform, including Amorite, Eblaite, Elamite, Hattic, Hittite, Hurrian, Luwian, and Urartian, and the scribe also has to determine which of these several languages they are reading ahead of the tricky process of decipherment. The Amarna letters also are remarkable for the fact the Akkadian used is heavily flavored by the local language, with many “Canaanisms” appearing in the texts. That is, the Canaanite language proper did not exist yet, but the texts show some of the elements that would come to characterize that language—this is its proto language.

Furthermore, many of these kingdoms, notably Egypt, had an entirely different language and scripts they used domestically. Egyptian hieroglyphics and hieratic script date from 3200 BCE, making the fact the Amarna Letters were written in cuneiform Akkadian an interesting discovery confirming its use as a lingua franca in the region. The biblical confusion of tongues starts not to seem like much of an exaggeration. In fact, the story seems ultimately to come from the Sumerian epic, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, in which Enki is featured as the confuser of languages.

This level of complexity led to another thing I referred to in Part 1: a professional scribal class. It would have been nearly impossible for anyone not trained from a very young age to gain literacy. Few rulers, and indeed few at court in these kingdoms, would have understood the writing, and, outside of its home territory of Assyria and Babylonia, the Akkadian language itself.

Mineralogical examination of the actual tablets from Amarna shows their preparation was a painstaking process, including the use of various materials from Nile marls, whose inferior clay could blur incised signs, to Esna shales, with a much better texture as well as a pleasing buff color.⁴ This too would have been a duty of the scribes, as well as carefully refreshing such tablets once made so they could be used again. The tablets were generally not fired, so they could be reused—the baked clay tablets we have were often inadvertently exposed to high heat.

While the use of different materials might seem to show a process of improvement, the dating of these items indicates the opposite. It seems with the expansion of regional diplomacy and trade, to say nothing of the steles and other monuments that also demanded the attention of scribes, the ability to train skilled scribes was being outstripped by the need for them.

So when the alphabetic writing systems of Phoenician, Aramaic, and Greek arrived, together with materials like lampblack ink and papyrus, their adoption was rapid. With only 22 letters (or 24 in the case of Greek), scribes suddenly could learn to read and write in the space of months instead of years. Aramaic and Greek, both developments of Phoenician (along with many others) were to become respectively the lingua franca of the Near East and the Mediterranean.

The central bargain an agrarian civilization makes is that of specialization; rather than everyone being involved in food production, someone can make something those who are farming want but have no time for, let’s say shoes, and then they can barter that commodity for food. Writing first came into being as a way of recording these transactions.

Eventually, there are a great many specialists of different kinds. As long as food is plentiful, the system continues to work. However, when there is famine, workers in some of the less useful trades just become mouths to feed.

If you’re a scribe, even in dire times, your king needs you; if there is famine, you write letters to other rulers asking for grain, if there is invasion, you write letters asking for troops. But what happens when ties to other kingdoms are broken, and such letters receive no answer? What use then is a scribe, or for that matter, a king?

Kingship is essentially a fictitious role. There is typically nothing either genetically superior about them (the opposite is often true) nor does their training endow them with unique abilities—warfare and diplomacy would be learned, but more specialized generals and chamberlains would know them better, and as already noted, rulers would be dependent on scribes for reading and writing. Generally, it is because of a connection by lineage to some figure in the past kingship is conferred.

Divine associations are often made, either as to descent or at least blessing, as I’ve discussed, and enshrined particularly in the West’s doctrine of the divine right of kings, and in the East, in that of the Mandate of Heaven. The web of contacts among rulers also serves to mutually legitimize kings—kings acknowledge each other and will communicate only among themselves.

But in the LBA, these elites lost the international framework and the diplomatic contacts that had supported them. Couple this with famine, foreign invasion, and likely increased taxes to deal with these issues, and you have a recipe for revolt—the fiction of the king’s legitimacy comes to an end.

And the kings, and indeed emperors, in the LBA ruled supreme. Trade too was not what we think of even in the ancient model with individuals or consortia purchasing goods at one port that are rare and valuable in the port of their destination, traveling there and trading the goods they have brought with them for ones that have rarity and value at their port of origin. Rather, there was no “trade” at all, but a system of “gift-giving” among rulers. Such expeditions traveled under the direction and authority of the kings and instead of bills of lading, they were accompanied by letters describing both the gifts they were sending to their fellow monarchs as well as requesting the gifts they desired most to receive.

In Mycenaean Greek, the type of supreme ruler of the LBA is embodied in the word wa-na-ka:

Mycenaean Greek was written in Linear B, another logographic/ syllabographic system which was defective for representing that language. The word appears in Homeric Greek as ϝάναξ, acting as a bridge from the Linear B written form to the proper transliteration. That transliteration is wanax and meant “king”, “overlord”, or “leader”, but most properly, “high king”, and appears to have been common in the LBA, and in the Homeric epics, which are intended to represent those times, but completely disappears in the Dark Ages and afterward. As Early Greece-focused archaeologist, Josho Brouwers noted:⁵

[A]fter the Bronze Age, the term basileus [βασιλεύς] ascends in importance while the wanax of old disappears, and is only preserved in Homer in standard phrases like anax andron (“lord of the people”, i.e. Agamemnon), and reserved to denote deities.

In short, it seems the empires and kingdoms of the LBA got too big too quickly: Babylonia ruled its home territory in modern-day Iraq, as well as vassal states around the whole Persian Gulf, the Hittites controlled almost all of Anatolia, while the Mycenaean Greeks controlled the rest of Anatolia (part of the west coast) as well as the Greek mainland and islands, and Egypt, largest of all, comprised the whole Nile River Valley, with vassal states covering the Levant, Cyprus, Eastern Libya, and Nubia.

These vast nations proved unwieldy, stretching the limits of both infrastructure and communications, and the failure of any one of these states had a magnified effect on the others, all of which were fairly tightly interconnected in terms of the prestige of their kings as well as the prosperity of their people.

During and after the Dark Ages, nearly every Greek city-state did away with hereditary monarchical offices, opting instead for either democracy or oligarchy. Sparta was a notable exception, having two hereditary kings, but the redundancy was an important element of that office. Additionally, Iron Age city-states were much more modestly sized.

Together with the breakdown of trade networks, the invasions of the “Sea Peoples”, the famines, and unavailability of copper I presented in Part 1, as well as the strain expansion placed on these kingdoms, and particularly the scribal class, and the over-concentration of power with the rulers I’ve discussed here are all part of the “perfect storm” that precipitated the LBAC.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3: The Luwian Menace

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Apocalypse BCE


  1. John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, 1663.
  2. Jack Davis, Pylos section, The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean, Eric H. Cline, ed., 2010.
  3. In modern Sumerian transcription, subscripted numbers indicate the different symbols with which a syllable is written, while superscripted words represent unpronounced pictograms.
  4. Goren, Finkelstein, and Na’aman, “Mineralogical and Chemical Study of the Amarna Tablets”, Near Eastern Archaeology, 2002.
  5. Dr. Josho Brouwers, reply to “In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, states such as Hattusa, Egypt, Assyria, et alia are described as unified, unitary monarchies….” r/AskHistorians, Reddit, 2020.

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