Reading History #9 – The Clash of Empires

Copyright @2015 by Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  1. What distinguishes the civilizations of the Bronze Age?
  2. What accounts for the development of advanced technology by peoples beyond the core of Fertile Crescent civilization?
  3. Why couldn’t the Hittites maintain stability following their conquest of Babylon?
  4. Who are the Canaanites and why do they become increasingly important during the Bronze Age?

Then the men of Judah went with their fellow Israelites and attacked the Canaanites living in Zephath, and they totally destroyed the city…. Judah also took Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron — each city with its territory. The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with scythes…. Now the tribes of Joseph attacked Bethel, and the Lord was with them. When they sent men to spy out Bethel, the spies saw a man coming out of the city and they said to him, ‘Show us how to get into the city and we will see that you are treated well.’ So he showed them, and they put the city to the sword but spared the man and his whole family. He then went to the land of the Hittites, where he built a city and called it Luz.

Book of Judges

A towering figure in 20th century historical scholarship, Fernand Braudel, once remarked that the story of the Bronze Age could easily be written entirely in dramatic form; “it is replete with invasions, wars, pillage, political disasters,  as long-lasting economic collapses, the first clash between peoples.” He also said that we could, if so inclined, write in a  more positive story of mutually beneficial contact, one that focuses more on commercial, diplomatic, and cultural exchange. 1 Whether or not one chooses to write a narrative of commerce and internationalism or war and contraction depends upon the meaning that any individual historian creates from the available evidence. What is certain, though, is that a multi-civilizational web of relations existed in the Bronze Age Aegean and Near East that was extensive and dynamic. Great and small states alike sought wealth through trade and power through wars of conquest. A complex international world existed centered on the eastern Mediterranean Sea in which Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Minoans, and Mycenaeans all interacted, what one modern scholar characterizes as “a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day.”2

The early kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt have provided us with the documents necessary to make, at least since the 19th century when scholars learned how to read  cuneiform and hieroglyphics, informed historical arguments (known as a thesis) about the core regions of the first civilizations. But of course other human communities, dare we say barbarians (meaning uncultured stranger or ‘those who don’t live like we do’), existed beyond the core of city dwellers. Sumerian and Egyptian cultures held dominant positions in the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Valley respectively. Even the foreign-speaking Amorites who had conquered the Sumerian kings and established political rule from Babylon quickly assimilated into the more dominant Sumerian culture. But by 1600 BCE, to use the phrase of one modern historian, “history was speeding up and civilization was providing men with new opportunities.”3 Change was afoot, complexity increased, and Babylon, though still thriving under Hammurabi’s line of kings, was put to fire and sword in 1595 BCE by one of a handful of peripheral peoples who, as outsiders, had developed their own unique cultures and, due to technological developments and increased complexity within their own societies, entered the mix as fully-fledged civilizations in their own right.

Great state powers, like great men, often have difficulty looking into the future to a time when they may not be king of the hill, or dominate the economic markets. In short, they fail to envision their own doom and, as a consequence, fail to adjust to changing circumstances, mistakenly believing that blessings conferred shall be forever enjoyed. Status, strength, and well-being, however, are fleeting and no thing in this universe endures forever changeless. History provides many examples of great powers that, upon reaching the Hyperion heights of wealth and military power, failed to maintain the achievement for long. The Mongols conquered and unified the largest territorial empire in history, stretching from China to Europe,  but lost it all within fifty years due to family squabbles and poor domestic policies.  Adolph Hitler established an empire in the heart of Europe that he declared would last for a thousand years; it was a smoldering heap of rubble within twelve. The Mughal emperors had only just established their authority over most of India by the 17th century when the English East India Company appeared and wrested it from them. And Britain, at the height of her own imperial rule in 1900, could scarcely fathom the loss of every major colony within two generations.

In all of the abundant sources we have from the Old Babylonian Empire, there is no indication of concern for the state of the state, no voice for systemic reforms or calls to address external threats. In short, there is no indication that those in charge saw any trouble on the horizon, let alone foresaw the complete collapse of the empire. The Babylonians, too, may have considered that the good things were so ordained and unchangeable. AS far as they were concerned Marduk looked favorably upon them from his ziggurat. His power was absolute and his authority, as every person knew religiously, remained unalterable. But that turned out not to be the case at all.

By 1600 BC or so, the city of Babylon had dominated Mesopotamia for some two hundred years (about as long as the United States has existed). As you read in the previous chapter, aggressive and well-armed foreigners rode (and they did ride, an important innovation in their war skills) out of the hills and swept into the fertile plains, driving like van Helsing’s stake into the heart of the Babylonian Empire. The Hittites struck from the north-west and the Kassites from the south-east. Sources tell us that in 1595 BCE a Hittite king named Mursili I, conquered the Amorite kingdom of Yahmkad (modern Syria) by seizing its main city of Aleppo, which controlled the access route into the Euphrates Valley. Then, with uncharacteristic swiftness, Mursili moved his forces into the plains and ended up at gates of Babylon. The Hitties defeated the Babylonians, destroyed a significant part of the city, and returned back north again with equal speed, thereby, according to archaeologist Eric Cline, “conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history”.4

The question we must first confront is HOW, how did these fringe peoples who barely appear in the imperial archives, within the span of about fifty years, rock the world of the Babylonians and break apart the once proud empire? The answer appears to lie in technology. When they came, the Hittites, and their Kassite allies, came wielding advanced military technology, new materials (iron) and new weapons (the two-wheeled war chariot and compound bow) that transformed warfare during the 16th century BCE. Military technology and innovative tactics tipped the balance in favor of the more mobile and deadly hill peoples.

Horses had been domesticated in the central Eurasian steppes around 3500 BCE and were a fixture in the high pasture lands of the Taurus and Zagros Mountains by 2000 BCE. Both the Hittes and Kassite had them. However, they remained rare in the river valleys, prized possessions of kings only. Riding horses and attaching them to war carts, skills perfected by the peoples outside of the Babylonian Empire, fundamentally transformed warfare and gave a decisive advantage to the invaders. Horse equipped warriors did not stand with a pack of spear-men, but rather fought with lance or compound bow either from atop the animal or from a mobile platform (chariot) pulled behind it. Besides having more powerful weapons, the armed warrior on horseback possessed a psychological advantage over the bronze-clad men on foot. Throughout history, cavalry has proved extremely useful on a battlefield as a shock force capable of breaking lines of men. You can imagine the fear that a 1000 lb. animal puts into a man standing in its path. The Hittite war-chariot too, with it’s new iron fittings and spoked wheels, proved both agile and shock inducing, devastating on the ancient battlefield. Eventually all the major states of the Near East used war-chariots in their armies, but when they first appeared, these new mobile weapon-platforms proved superior to anything the Babylonians could put into the field. The Hittites shredded the armies of the Babylonians.

By 1550 BCE the Babylonian Empire effectively ceased to exist. In 1531 BCE Mursili I returned for a final knockout blow (perhaps more a kick once down). The city of Babylon itself was sacked and burned a second time. For the next 500 years Babylon remained weak and insignificant, dominated by Kassite, Elammite, Aramean, and Assyrian kings.

INTERESTING: The animistic Babylonians might have suspected in the final act that something terrible was in the offing, inferring that their relationship with the gods had deteriorated beyond repair. Both a solar and lunar eclipse are reported as occurring in the  same year that the city fell. It is certainly possible that the double eclipse actually contributed to the collapse of resistance against the invading armies as bizarre natural phenomena, interpreted as divine disfavor, might have sapped the strength of the defenders. The psychological impact of being abandoned by your protector gods would have been immense. In short, the swiftness of the defeat was partially a failure of nerve; the Babylonians may have simply given up.

Hittite Rule

The conquest of Mesopotamia was, however, short-lived for Mursili I. The Hittites, far from the homeland and their capital city of Hattusas, almost immediately turned over the city to allies and returned to their home territory. A significant Kassite presence in southern and eastern Mesopotamia probably contributed to the decision to turn over the ruins of Babylon to them, but political concerns also drew the king back to the hills of Anatolia. Within the year Mursili himself was dead, assassinated by members of his own family.

Essentially the Hittite empire was ruled by whichever conquering war-lord king happened to be at the top of the pile at the moment. So what happened when a king died? Sqwabbles broke out among his sons and relatives and any other puffed-up strong man who happened to consider himself worthy of the throne. This was incredibly destabilizing to the Hittite state and partly explains why the Hittites never maintained authority over Babylonian territory.  When Mursili I was killed, a power struggle began which shook the Hittite Empire for seventy years. The army went leaderless, a power vacuum appeared, sons killed fathers and princes fought each other to earn the right to rule. All of their conquests in Syria and Mesopotamia slipped from their control. Generals were assassinated, armies dissolved in the field, and like a great wave that had swept down from Taurus Mountain and dispersed across the plains, the invaders receded again to their home territories, leaving the Mesopotamia in shambles, to be fought over by petty kings. One of those kingdoms formerly conquered by Hittite armies, the kingdom of Yahmkad, which Mursili I had taken in 1595 BCE, was reconstituted by an extremely warlike people calling themselves the Assyrians. They established their main palaces at Ashur and Nineveh, both on the Tigris River. It was Assyria that would ultimately inherit leadership over the northern remnant of Babylonia.

The disasters that befell the Hittites for three generations after Mursili’s death prompted an adjustment to the laws of kingship and inheritance. In an attempt to stabilize the throne, King Telipinu issued an edict c.1450 BCE, which decreed who exactly should inherit his title upon death. “Let a prince– a son of the first rank only be installed as king! If a prince of the first rank does not exist, (then) let he who is a son of second rank become king.” King Telipinu’s Law of Succession is a landmark of sorts historically. While it doesn’t seem to have done much to stop the downward spiral of the Hittite Kingdom, which entered a century of darkness after Telipinu, it did establish a certain precedent for many lines of royalty to follow. It is the first instance of the legal establishment of the idea of primogeniture, i.e. the custom that the first-born son should inherit his father’s title immediately upon death.

The core territories of the Hittites did survive. The ability to work iron also spread rapidly in the wake of the earlier Hittite victories. Iron was used because its durability and flexibility make it a more effective material for weapons. Iron ore, while scarce, was also more readily available than tin and copper. Tin was only available in quantity from a region that is now Tajikistan and it had to be carried nearly 2500 miles to reach Hittite cities. One historian has speculated that tin was tot he Bronze Age what gasoline has been to modern America, particularly between the fifty or so years after WWII. By 1000 BCE, iron was being used by all the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, though it was still a relatively scarce and certainly a valuable material. The need for more of this ore by every advanced city of the Near East probably established some of the first trading routes into Europe, where the ore was mined.

The Big Three

Between about 1450 BC and 1250 BC, the three most significant military states of the Near East — Egypt, Assyria (a renewed northern Babylonia of sorts, that ruled from the cities of Ashur and Nineveh on the Tigris River), and Hittite-controlled Anatolia — directed the collective efforts of their peoples into what, from the perch of the 21st century, looks a lot like one continuous brawl for royal bragging rights. Small kingdoms were battered successively by one then another of the Big Three. For two hundred years they battled each other along a 400 mile frontier in north-western Mesopotamia, razing cities and enslaving populations .

Essentially, by the mid-13th century BCE these three empires fought each other to a standstill, each secure in its home territories, the core of its civilization, but volatile and changable at the edges. Unable to make any substantive gains deep into the lands of its enemies and exhausted from the attempts, the main players settled into a truce of sorts. There had been a great deal of fighting and jostling for hegemony before reaching a state of armed peace. During the same time new civilizations appeared on the periphery of the Big Three and began to show their mettle economically and culturally, though they appear to have remained aloof from the military power-struggles in the Near East. We will look at two of these, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, in the next unit.

The Egyptians were a relatively new player in the fire and sword game of Mesopotamian great-power politics. While Egyptian civilization had been developing as a military power since the age of its first kings, c.3000 BCE, it was only during the period known as the New Kingdom (c.1550-1070 BCE) that the Egyptian pharaohs attempted to expand beyond the strip of territory along the Nile Rive. From their home territories in Africa, Egyptian armies crossed the Sinai into the narrow strip of land bordering the coast of Mediterranean Sea, into the land controlled by a people known as the Canaanites. Canaan found itself pinioned between the competing interests of all three of the great powers. Its location straddles the main land routes that connected Egypt, Assyria, and the Hittite Empire. Those routes were vital to trade as well as the movement of armies and proved too strategic to ignore. In the year 1457 BC (or maybe 1479 BCE) Thutmosis III, the greatest military leader in ancient Egyptian history, led his army northward and crushed a coalition army of Canaanites and Hittites near the fortress city of Megiddo, a name that will, because of Christian Scripture, forever be associated with a cataclysmic clash of arms. Nearly 35,000 men battled for command of the pass that provided access the the strategic gateway into the Upper Euphrates River, what is essentially modern day Jordan. When all was said and done, after nearly seven months of fighting, Thutmoses III controlled the city. By the end of his fifty four-year reign, Thutmoses III had launched sixteen full military campaigns into Asia, battling the Hittites and Assyrians and their allies. Egyptian chariots has even washed their wheels in the waters of the Euphrates.

By 1450 BCE Egypt’s empire had reached the point of its greatest territorial extent, but was it perhaps overextended? During the next three hundred years, Egypt, along with all of the other regional great powers, struggled mightily to maintain the empire in the face of what might only be described as a ‘perfect storm’ of destabilizing factors that ultimate prove lethal to the international system of the late Bronze Age.

INTERESTING ASIDE:    Some thirty-four hundred years later, General Edmund Allenby tried the same tactics as Thutmose III, in September 1918 during World War I, with the same successful results. He won the battle of Megiddo and took prisoner hundreds of German and Turkish soldiers, without any loss of life except for a few horses. He later admitted that he had read James Breated’s English translation of Thutmoses III’s account, leading Allenby to decide to replicate history. George Santayana once reportedly said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, but Allenby proved that the opposite could be true as well — those who study history can successfully repeat it, if they choose to do so.5


The Book of Exodus, the second book of Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament), tells us that the Israelites had by this time become a large and extremely powerful group of people, so much so that a ‘new king of Egypt’ decided to dominate them so completely so as to prevent them from allying with Egypt’s enemies. Israelite slaves are forced to work on Egyptian construction projects, including two entirely new cities, until liberated by a fondling Hebrew raised by the pharaoh’s daughter, a man called Moses. As you may know the story yourself, Moses, under the direction of his god (Yahweh), leads his people out of slavery in Egypt and back to the land of Canaan.

The problem for scholars seeking to confirm the Biblical narrative of the Hebrew exodus remains a lack of evidence beyond the religious text. There is no evidence, for example, of the widespread destruction of Canaanite cities during the period that might corroborates what we read in the books of Joshua and Judges, the two Biblical books that deal with the conquest of Canaan after the Hebrews were released from captivity in Egypt. However, we do know that by c.1200 BC, the Israelites (Hebrews) appear for the first time as an identifiable culture in Canaan. It is Israelite culture, argues Cline, “along with the Philistines and the Phoenicians, that rises up out of the ashes of the destruction of the Canaanite civilization… The Israelites are among the groups of peoples who will make up the new world order, emerging out of the chaos that was the end of the Late Bronze Age.”6

INTERESTING ASIDE:   An inscription on the stele erected during the rule of Pharaoh Merneptah and dated 1207 BC seems to suggest that Egypt temporarily recovered from the calamities of the mid-13th century BC. On the mortuary stele Merneptah claims to have pacified Hatti, plundered Canaan, and laid waste to Israel: ‘All lands together, they are pacified; Everyone who was restless, he has been bound.’ This is the earliest mention outside of Hebrew Scripture of a state or people known as ‘Israel’.7


  1. Fernand Braudel, Memory and Mediterranean, New York: Vintage Books (2002), p.111.
  2. Eric Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2014), p.171.
  3. Roberts, p.85.
  4. Cline p.36.
  5. Cline, p.30.
  6. Cline, pp.95-96.
  7. Paul Johnson, History of the Jews, New York: Harper Perennial (1988), p. 25.

One response to “Reading History #9 – The Clash of Empires

  1. Pingback: Homework for the Weeks of 7 and 14 Oct, 2013 | STA Cities and Civilization

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