Skip to main content

Mycenae, Minoa and Other Great Bronze Age Civilizations

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

The ruins of Knossos, once the capital of the Minoan civilization. It is believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake around 1300 BC.

The ruins of Knossos, once the capital of the Minoan civilization. It is believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake around 1300 BC.

Before the great empires of Egypt, Persia and Greece ruled the world, civilizations carved from bronze dominated the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Then, at the turn of the 2nd millennium BC, a series of natural disasters, invasions and droughts wiped them from the face of the earth. This cataclysm is known as the Bronze Age Collapse.

The Birth of the Bronze Age

It began with copper, which gradually replaced stone as the material from which weapons and tools were made.

Evidence of copper smelting dates back to 6000 BC and probably originated in Mesopotamia, where agriculture and the first cities emerged.

Then humanity discovered that adding tin to copper resulted in a sturdier material. Thus began the bronze age.

Tin was not easy to come by. It had to be sourced from far-flung locations such as Cornwall, England.

The Transition to Iron

In fact, the main reason iron replaced bronze around 1000 BC is not that it was a superior material but rather that the Bronze Age Collapse disrupted trade networks and made it difficult to acquire tin. So iron won out because it was easier and cheaper to acquire.

Of course, iron eventually led to steel, a superior substance. But early Iron Age civilizations preferred bronze when they could get ahold of it.

Bronze Age Superpowers

From 3300 to 1200 BC, bronze reigned supreme. These civilizations may not be as well known to people of today as the ancient Egyptian, Persian and Greek empires, but they were the dominant military, cultural and political powers of their time.

European, North African and West and Central Asian bronze age cultures around 2000 BC.

European, North African and West and Central Asian bronze age cultures around 2000 BC.

In this article, we'll take a look at the following five Bronze Age civilizations:

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Bronze Age Civilizations

  1. Sumerians
  2. Minoans
  3. Mycenaeans
  4. Hittites
  5. Mitanni
A restored ziggurat in what once was Ur — one of the most powerful city-states in Sumer.

A restored ziggurat in what once was Ur — one of the most powerful city-states in Sumer.

1. Sumerians

The Sumerian civilization emerged in Mesopotamia, which would later be the location of the Babylonian empire and modern-day Iraq.

As far as we know, they were the world's first great empire, although they were lost to history until relatively recently. In the 19th century, archaeologists discovered the first evidence of Sumer's existence when excavations of Assyrian ruins uncovered ancient tablets inscribed in Sumerian.

The language was identified as non-Semitic, making it an outlier from the languages that still dominate the region.

Sumerian Inventions

Sumer utilised the earliest known writing system: a cuneiform text that, by the dawn of the third millennium BC, had reached levels of sophistication unmatched by other civilizations of the time.

They are also credited with inventing the plow, the potter's wheel, and the lunar calendar.

Fans of mythology will be interested to know that the earliest-known heroic literature — the Epic of Gilgamesh — originated in Sumer. Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king who committed feats of strength similar to those of Hercules and Samson.

The First Cities

The empire consisted of 12 city-states, the most powerful being Ur (supposedly the birthplace of the biblical Abraham).

These cities were built around pyramid-like structures known as ziggurats, which in turn held temples dedicated to the city's patron deity. Priests held the most influence over Sumerian politics and culture.

Sumer's time came to an end in 2000 BC when Ur was sacked by invading tribes. What remained was later incorporated into the empire of the Babylonian king Hammurabi.

A fresco from the palace of Knossos, dating back to 1500 BC.

A fresco from the palace of Knossos, dating back to 1500 BC.

2. Minoans

An early Mediterranean civilization centred around the island of Crete (now part of Greece), with its capital being the city of Knossos.

The Minoans exported highly sought-after goods such as timber, olive oil, wine and dye to Egypt, Syria, Cyprus and the Greek mainland.

They had developed a complex bureaucracy as early as 2000 BC, and excavations of ancient tombs reveal that some citizens were buried with more wealth than others, suggesting that a social hierarchy was already in place.

The Minoans were a casualty of the Bronze Age Collapse, disappearing around 1200 BC (the city of Knossos had been destroyed a century before, possibly by an earthquake).

Theseus and the Minotaur

In the legendary tale of Athenian hero Theseus, Knossos is the location of the labyrinth where dwells the monstrous Minotaur — a man with the head of a bull.

In the myth, King Minos of Crete conquers Athens and demands the city send 14 youths every seven years as a tribute. These youths are sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Prince Theseus volunteers himself as one of the sacrifices and, with the help of Minos' daughter Ariadne, slays the Minotaur and ends the deadly tribute.

This may have a historical basis. The Minoans were the dominant Mediterranean power of the second millennium BC and may well have conquered Athens during this period.

If this occurred, one can imagine the humiliation and trauma of this defeat being passed down through the generations, eventually manifesting in the story of Theseus, who avenges Athenian pride.

Though it's unlikely the Minoans truly had a minotaur imprisoned beneath Knossos, the bull was a prominent symbol of their empire, and their priests wore bull-headed helmets whilst conducting rituals.

The Lion Gate; entrance to the great Bronze Age city-state of Mycenae.

The Lion Gate; entrance to the great Bronze Age city-state of Mycenae.

3. Mycenaens

Before the Spartans and Athenians, there were the Mycenaeans, the dominant power on the Greek mainland during the Bronze Age.

According to legend, the city-state was founded by Perseus — the Ancient Greek hero who slew Medusa (the lead character in the 1981 film Clash of the Titans).

Mycenae rose to power around 1600 BC. Ancient Greece was made up of independent city-states during the time, and it's unclear if Mycenae was successful in subjugating any of its rivals.

As such, it may not have been an empire per se, but it was the most powerful military force in Bronze Age Greece.

Homer's Iliad

Mycenae features heavily in Homeric literature. It was King Agamemnon of Mycenae who led an alliance of Greek city-states in the invasion of Troy.

As with Theseus' triumph over the Minoans, Homer's Iliad may have a historical basis. The ruins of what is believed to be the ancient city of Troy were discovered in 1871 in present-day Turkey.

So the Trojan War may have actually happened, and if so, Mycenae would have been the most likely to initiate it.

Lion's Gate in Hattusa (Turkey). Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite empire.

Lion's Gate in Hattusa (Turkey). Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite empire.

4. Hittites

The Hittite empire was located in what is now Anatolia, Turkey, with the capital being the city of Hattusa. French archaeologist Charles Texier discovered the ruins of this ancient metropolis in 1834.

The Hittites were not indigenous to the region; they invaded and colonized it, and the whereabouts of their true homeland are unknown. They are named frequently in the Old Testament as enemies of the Israelites.

The World's First Peace Treaty

As for their archaeological legacy, in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum is displayed a stone tablet bearing a peace treaty between the Hittites and Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Known as the Treaty of Kadesh, this is history's earliest recorded peace treaty, dating back to 1275 BC.

Invaders From the Sea

During the Bronze Age Collapse, the Hittites suffered a series of invasions from a mysterious seafaring civilization known as "the Sea Peoples".

The Sea Peoples are mentioned in numerous accounts throughout the ancient world. They are one of the primary contributors to the Bronze Age Collapse, harrying the coastlines of the great empires of the time and wreaking chaos and destruction.

Ancient Egypt managed to fight off the Sea Peoples and minimise their impact, but the Hittites were not so lucky. The invaders brought the once-mighty Hittite empire to its knees.

The ruins of a Mitanni palace in Tell Brak, Syria.

The ruins of a Mitanni palace in Tell Brak, Syria.

5. Mitanni

Mitanni failed to leave as powerful a mark on the human consciousness as other civilizations of the time, but it was a mighty nation in its day, encompassing parts of Northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Horse Masters

Historical records of the kingdom are sparse, making it difficult to know how their society functioned. What texts there are indicate that they effectively used horses in warfare and designed especially fast chariots that were superior to those of other Bronze Age civilizations.

Contact With Other Civilizations

The Amarna Letters, discovered in Egypt in 1887, contain records of correspondence between great civilizations of the time. This includes letters exchanged between the pharaohs of Egypt and the rules of Mitanni.

Another significant discovery was an ancient horse-training manual (found in the Hittite archives) that includes contributions by a Mitanni horse trainer.

The kingdom came to a definitive end in the latter Bronze Age when the militaristic Assyrian Empire conquered it. The Assyrians, for whatever reason, resolved to destroy Mitanni politically and culturally, leaving little trace of its existence.

The plague of the Philistines at Ashdod. Oil painting by Pieter van Halen, 1661. Plague may have been one of the contributing factors to the Bronze Age Collapse.

The plague of the Philistines at Ashdod. Oil painting by Pieter van Halen, 1661. Plague may have been one of the contributing factors to the Bronze Age Collapse.

The Bronze Age Collapse

Incredibly, all of these empires were wiped off the map within a relatively short period of time (1200 to 1150 BC). This is known as the Bronze Age Collapse.

A number of factors contributed. The most significant were drought, natural disasters and the Sea Peoples.

Out of the ashes of the collapse rose Iron Age civilizations such as Assyria, Persia and Classical Greece. These empires would lay the foundations of the modern world.

Who Were the Sea Peoples?

References

General Information. History.com

General Information. Britannica.com

General Information. World History Encyclopedia.

Related Articles