The Great Folk Movements of the Era

  June 16, 2022   Read time 5 min
The Great Folk Movements of the Era
The Phoenicians were among the most important traffickers in civilization but so, willy-nilly, had been others – the Mycenaeans by their diffusion of a culture, and the Hellenes by their stirring up of the ethnic world of the Aegean.

The Cretans had been something more; true originators, they not only took from the great established centres of culture, but remade what they took before diffusing it again. These peoples help to shape a more rapidly changing world. One important side-effect, of which little has yet been said, was the stimulation of continental Europe. The search for minerals slowly took explorers and prospectors further and further into that unknown. Already in the second millennium there are the fi rst signs of a complicated future; beads found at Mycenae were manufactured in Britain from Baltic amber. Trade was always slowly at work, eating away isolation, changing peoples’ relations with one another, imposing new shapes on the world. But it is hard to relate this story to the stirring of the ethnic pot in the Aegean, let alone to the troubled history of the Asian mainland from the second millennium BC .

For about 800years from, say, the end of Knossos, the history of the Middle East is indeed very confused if our standpoint is that of world history. What was essentially going on were disputes about control of the slowly growing wealth of the best-defined agricultural region of the ancient world (the empires which came and went could not fi nd resources in the desert and steppe area on the borders of the Middle East which could justify their conquest), and in that story it is hard to fi nd any continuing thread. Invaders came and went rapidly, some of them leaving new communities behind them, some setting up new institutions to replace those they overthrew. These quick transitions could hardly have been grasped by those to whom these events would only have come home occasionally, and suddenly, when (for instance) their homes were burnt, their wives and daughters raped, their sons carried off to slavery – or, less dramatically, when they discovered that a new governor was going to levy higher taxes.

On the mainland, wandering peoples moved about in a zone where there were long-established centres of government and population, powerful and long-lasting political structures, and numerous hierarchies of specialists in administration, religion and learning. These partly explain why the coming of new peoples obliterates less of what had already been achieved than in the Aegean. Another conservative force was the contact many of the barbarians had already had with civilization in this region. It left them wanting not to destroy it but to enjoy its fruits themselves. These two forces helped in the long run to diffuse civilization further and to produce the increasing cosmopolitanism of a large and confused, but civilized and interconnected, Middle East.

The story begins very early, somewhere back towards the beginning of the second millennium BC , with the arrival in Asia Minor of the Hittites. These were a new kind of people in the Middle East; Indo-Europeans, arriving from the western Eurasian steppe, different in both language and culture. But they were far from being primitive barbarians. They had a legal system of their own and absorbed much of what Babylon could teach. They had enjoyed a virtual monopoly of iron in Asia; this not only had great agricultural importance but, together with their mastery of fortifi cation and the chariot, gave the Hittites a military superiority which was the scourge of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The raid which cut down Babylon in about 1590 BCwas something like the high-water mark of the fi rst Hittite ‘empire’. A period of eclipse and obscurity followed.

Then, in the fi rst half of the fourteenth century, came a renaissance of Hittite power. This second and even more splendid era saw their hegemony stretch from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. It dominated all of the Fertile Crescent except Egypt and successfully challenged even that great military power while being almost ceaselessly at war with the Mycenaeans. But, like other empires, it crumbled after a century or so, the end coming in about 1200 BC . There is a closeness of timing which some have thought too pronounced to be merely coincidental between the collapse of Hittite power and the attacks of ‘sea peoples’ recorded in the Egyptian records. The particular conquerors of the Hittites were a people from Thrace called the Phrygians, another Indo-European group that later would have a signifi cant infl uence on Greek culture.

The ‘sea peoples’ were yet another indicator of the great folk movements of the era. Armed with iron, from the beginning of the twelfth century BC they were raiding the mainland of the eastern Mediterranean basin, ravaging Syrian and Levantine cities. Some of them may have been ‘refugees’ from the Mycenaean cities who moved fi rst to the Dodecanese and then to Cyprus. One group among them, the Philistines, settled in Canaan in about 1175 BCand are commemorated still by a modern name derived from their own: Palestine. But Egyptians were the major victims of the sea peoples. Like the Vikings of the northern seas 2 , 000years later, sea-borne invaders and raiders plunged down on the delta again and again, undeterred by occasional defeat, at one time even wresting it from Pharaoh’s control. Egypt was under great strain. In the early eleventh century she broke apart and was disputed between two kingdoms. Nor were the sea peoples Egypt’s only enemies; at one point a Libyan fl eet appears to have raided the delta, though it was driven off. In the south, the Nubian frontier did not yet present a problem, but around 1000 BCan independent kingdom emerged in the Sudan which would later be troublesome. The tidal surge of barbarian peoples was wearing away the old structures of the Middle East just as it had worn away Mycenaean Greece.