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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.1 (Winter 2009)
history and literature
courtesy of artrenewal.org
“The Catastrophe”: What the End of Bronze Age Civilization Means for Modern Times
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Archeologists, historians, and classicists call it “the Catastrophe.” It happened more than three thousand years ago in the lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither geological nor climatological but rather sociological in character, this chaotic enormity erased civilization in a wide swath of geography stretching from the western portions of Greece east to the inner fastnesses of Anatolia, all the way to Mesopotamia; it turned south as well, overrunning many islands, finally swamping the borders of Egypt. It left cities burned and wealth plundered; it plunged the affected regions into a Dark Age, bereft of literacy, during which populations drastically shrank while the level of material culture reverted to that of a Stone Age village. Echoes of the event – or complicated network of linked events – turn up in myth and find reflection in early Greek literature. The Trojan War appears to be implicated in it, as do certain episodes of the Old Testament. Recovered records hint at this massive upheaval: diplomatic letters dictated by Hittite kings and tablets bearing military orders from the last days of the Mycenaean palace-citadels. Places like Sicily and Sardinia took their names in the direct aftermath of the Catastrophe.
A distant but still piquant awareness of the Catastrophe’s effects inspired one of the earliest theories of history. In his Works and Days, mostly consisting of common-sense advice to the humble peasant farmers of Boeotia, the Eighth Century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod declared that humanity could count five phases. The first three belong clearly to myth, but the fourth and the fifth boast a more realistic or historical character in the poet’s description. The fourth men, Hesiod says, generated the heroes whose deeds the great legends of the Trojan War enshrine, but the war itself amounted to the last, lusty cry of a warrior caste that, while pouring blood and treasure into a ten-year siege, ignored sinister developments back home. The prolonged absence of the baron-kings in their enterprise of glory had resulted in a domestic power vacuum. They would pay dearly for the costly vanity of their victory in Asia. In Hugh Evelyn-White’s translation of Hesiod: “Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of [the heroes], some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part of them.”
Homer’s Odyssey, slightly earlier than Works and Days, also gives a hint of the debacle through its constant invocation of Agamemnon’s fate when he returned from Troy to Mycenae and by its main storyline of the squatters in Odysseus’ palace who have taken advantage of his absence to make a blatant attempt on his kingdom.
In light of the Catastrophe, Homer’s emphasis on the barbaric, loutish behavior of the suitors acquires a provocative meaning. The suitors resemble Hesiod’s fifth men, the phase of humanity to which Hesiod sees himself as belonging: this is the “race of iron” whose chief traits are envy or resentment, disregard for law and civilized achievement, and a strong proclivity to violent expropriation of other men’s chattels and goods.
As Hesiod sees it, the successors to the heroes brought forth a degraded way of life inherently violent and unjust, so much so that in a prophecy he foresees divine retribution:
Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. [Neither will] the father… agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime… They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city… The wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them.
By contrast, says Hesiod, the gods translated some of the heroes to the Isles of the Blest. The successor peoples brought only wantonness and havoc. Homer’s suitors offer themselves again in illustration, being oath-breakers, flouters of custom, and criminally invidious in their scheme to appropriate Odysseus’ wealth and royal authority for their own. Homer, of course, identifies the suitors not as invaders who have come to Ithaca with a piratical intention but rather as spoiled sons of local aristocrats, thwarted at home in their ambitions. The suitors seek illegitimate upward mobility in the presumed widowhood of Penelope and the patent inexperience of Telemachus.
Nevertheless, Homer does make it clear that the suitors despise orderly existence, labeling them with some of the same pejorative formulas as he applies to the inarguably primitive Cyclopes, who are actual cave-dwellers. The disintegration of the heroic polities all across the Greek world, moreover, provides the backdrop of Odysseus’ adventures. The fate of Troy at the hands of the Achaean expedition foretells the fate of many a heroic kingdom. Homer grasps acutely that he lives in a time of fortunate revival and that between his own day and the last admirable era stretches a prolonged hiatus commencing with abrupt destruction and consisting in fallow centuries. The heroic sagas follow the generations far enough to say that Orestes avenged the death of Agamemnon and that Odysseus quelled insurrection in his palace, but after that they fall silent. No contemporary of Homer tells us about the reign of Telemachus or that of Nestor’s eldest son. Apollodorus does record, at a late date, a story that after the events in Odyssey foreigners indeed descended on Ithaca and drove Odysseus into exile.
Hesiod’s characterization of the fifth men as a race of “iron” portends much. In his metallic succession of ages, the poet had identified the heroes with bronze. Archeologists have long spoken of the phase of civilization, from about 2000 B.C. down to 1100 B.C., as the Bronze Age, on account of its primary metallurgical achievement. The Bronze Age polities were also the first literate societies, not in a general sense, but rather administratively. The mastery of elaborate syllabary writing systems by royal bureaucracies made possible the organization of complex principalities and even empires, while the bureaucratic character of such regimes perhaps also limited their adaptability in emergent conditions. As Robert Drews points out in his masterly End of the Bronze Age (1993), a providential access to iron weaponry conferred on “uncivilized populations that until that time had been no cause for concern to the cities and kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean” a capacity for “a new style of warfare” that the existing societies never anticipated and could not rally themselves to meet. Rapidly moving guerrilla armies wielding iron swords broke the back of aristocratic chariot-and-archery armies on almost every occasion. The storm of plundering and burning began in the northern areas of Greece, with raids on the tempting granaries and treasuries of the place-citadels, around the time that the heroes of Troy undertook to wend their way home. The burning of Troy VI, Homer’s Troy, certainly had something to do with the expanding turmoil.
Drews, correlating the mass of evidence and the many interpretations, says, “the Catastrophe seems to have begun with sporadic destructions in the last quarter of the thirteenth century [B.C.], gathered momentum in the 1190s, and raged in full fury in the 1180s.” In its whirlwind celerity as well as in its incendiary result, Drews reckons the Catastrophe as “arguably the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the western Roman Empire.”
One can glimpse the urgency of those remote and foreign days in the “Linear B” tablets recovered from the burnt remains of the Mycenaean palace—identified by archeologists not without cause as “Nestor’s Palace”—at Pylos, on the west coast of the Peloponnese in the Messenia district. In Odyssey, Homer records how Telemachus visited Pylos in search of intelligence about his long-absent father. For Homer, Nestor’s city represents the ideal of an intact heroic society, at peace, aware of no threat, its common people reconciled to the ruler by his justice and generosity. Pylos, unlike Mycenae, lacked fortifications, from which fact one draws the obvious inference that its builders and occupiers never thought that it needed any. Drews argues that whatever the vices of the Bronze Age societies, whether Greek or Levantine or Anatolian, they all give abundant evidence of working in proper order until the last days. In the final decade of the Thirteenth Century B.C. or in the initial decade of the Twelfth, someone—we might guess at a consortium of Peloponnesian principalities, with Pylos or perhaps Mycenae taking the lead—undertook construction of a defensive wall across the Isthmus of Corinth. The builders of this Achaean equivalent of Hadrian’s Wall can only have embarked on the project hastily when they saw an imminent, potentially lethal menace developing to the north. The wall, incomplete, failed its purpose.
At Pylos, shortly before the enemy sacked and burned the city, the king busied himself in issuing abrupt and desperate orders to his officers through his lieutenants. We know this because the scribes wrote these orders on clay tablets for later copying in a more “permanent” medium, such as papyrus or vellum. Ordinarily, the janitor threw out the clay tablets. The conflagration, however, destroyed the “permanent” records and providentially baked the raw clay into a form that interment under the rubble then fortuitously preserved. It is a snapshot of the end.
The best account of these military orders issued in a distraught hour by desperate men, comes from Leonard Palmer’s Minoans and Mycenaeans, published more than forty years ago. Palmer considered the geography implied by the tablets, which direct military commanders to send detachments of soldiers and weapon-smiths hurriedly to different locations. He concluded that the city expected attacks from the north, primarily along the shoreline—and therefore from a ship-borne, Viking-like raid—but also over various inland routes. The Cretan writing system used by the Mycenaean scribes ill fitted the Greek language, so Palmer, like every other decipherer of “Linear B”, whether in the case of the Pylos tablets or others, must tease out much by guesswork. Nevertheless, Palmer can identify the names of at least two of the general officers, Echelawon and Lawagetas, whom the inscriptions indicate as commanders of the coastal and border guards. Like Crockett and Bowie at the Alamo, they were doomed heroes. Headquarters exerted itself, as the crisis loomed, to send additional oarsmen to a naval station on the Gulf of Messenia. The staff also sent bronze-smiths with ingots of metal. Palmer believes that statuettes removed from temples of Potnia, or “the Mistress,” had been melted down to make weapons. The Pylians much revered this Mycenaean goddess antecedent to Athene. In Odyssey, Athene figures as the hero’s divine patroness, and she fights with Odysseus and Telemachus in the slaughter of the suitors. Metaphorically, Potnia was indeed fighting with Echelawon and Lawagetas at Messenia and at the unfinished wall.
It did not go as well in Pylos a generation after the Heroic Returns as it did for Odysseus in Ithaca. Soldiers “willing to row” transferred hastily from army to navy postings. To the “farther provinces” went the foundry workers whose job it would have been to melt down metal objects, like votive statuettes, to make arrowheads and javelin points. “Masons” accompanied the smiths. Here one immediately thinks of fortifications in need of bolstering or defensive walls in need of repair. The tablets record that women who work as “grain pourers,” who might have been engaged in preparing field rations for the line, had convened en masse in Pylos itself and in Leuktra, a northerly regional settlement of the kingdom. “The overall picture of emergency… is unmistakable,” Palmer writes; “the archive is permeated with this sense emergency.” Palmer concludes: “Thus alerted and organized, the Pylians awaited the attack from the sea. The ruin of the palace and the fire that preserved the archives are eloquent testimony that the attack was successful. Pylos was blotted from the face of the earth and its site was never again occupied by human habitations.”
“One man will sack another’s city,” as Hesiod put it. In a chapter entitled “The Catastrophe Surveyed,” Drews systematically tallies up the wave of early Twelfth Century incendiary activity in Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, the Southern Levant, Greece, the Aegean, and Crete. Borrowing a phrase from the German scholar Kurt Bittel, Drews remarks that “at every Anatolian site known to have been important in the Late Bronze Age” one finds a “destruction level” significant of a universal “Brandkatastrophe.” Thanks to Homer, posterity remembered the Mycenaeans, although for a long time intellectual opinion considered the events of Iliad and Odyssey to be pure fancy; but in the absence of a Homer, the Anatolian victims of the Catastrophe vanished even from memory. The Hittites ran a formidable empire with monumental cities for three hundred years and were perhaps the greatest diplomatists of their age, but in classical times no one remembered them; they emerged from millennia of oblivion only through the efforts of archeology in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The magnitude of havoc in those decades of galloping trouble is still sufficient to awe the imagination.
Hattusas, the capital city of the Hittite Empire, went up in flames shortly after the destruction of Troy VI, which the Hittites knew under a double name as the kingdom of Taruisa-Wilusa. The last effective Hittite king, Suppiluliumas II, had actually helped his Syrian and Cypriote allies vanquish a pirate fleet, with its embarked marine soldiery, near Cyprus, swiftly raising his own navy for the purpose. This sea battle signified the military last hurrah of the once formidable Hittite empire. With his northern trade routes already cut by the disaster at Troy and his attention drawn to the south, Suppiluliumas could not overcome powerful pressure from an age-old barbarian enemy, the Gasga or Kaskians. It was not only Hattusas that collapsed amidst fire and smoke, as Drews says, but also the cities at Alaka Höyük, Alishar, Maşat Höyük, and Karaoglan, whose old names vanished with their inhabitants so that we must nowadays identify them by the nomenclature of Turkish geography. Milawanda (known in historical times as Miletus), where Achaean colonists maintained a trading polity under Hittite leave, also perished in the storm front of mayhem and rout. The Cypriote cities, architecturally sophisticated and influenced artistically by the old Cretan civilization, met their death at just about the same time as the Anatolian ones.
At one Cypriote site, the fleeing citizens hid their valuables in cubbyholes, as though they imagined that they might soon return. Cyprus, like Attica, evidences some cultural continuity in the aftermath of the Catastrophe, but the new style compares with the old in an impoverished way, and the people resettle not so much in the old places as in difficult-to-reach mountain fastnesses. Refugees from the Peloponnese certainly arrived in Cyprus following the destruction in their homeland. A form of “Linear B,” the Eteo-Cypriote Syllabary, remained in use among the Cypriote Greeks, who spoke an Achaean-derived Ionian dialect, well into historical times.
In the Levant, the best-attested site of the Catastrophe is ancient Ugarit (now Ras Shamra in Syria), a wealthy and culturally sophisticated Bronze Age city, with an attendant petty empire. Ugarit derived its prosperity from its middleman position in the Eastern Mediterranean trading economy; the kingdom could make war but it preferred to make treaties of exchange. As at Pylos, the onslaught accidentally preserved written documentation of the final panic. In Drews’ words, “when Ugarit was destroyed some hundred tablets were being baked in the oven, and so we have documents written on the very eve of its destruction.” Hammurapi (but not that Hammurapi), the Ugaritic king, reported on the news to his ally the king of Alashia (Cyprus). His words register his sense of shock and helplessness: “Behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities (?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country.” Manuel Robbins, in his Collapse of the Bronze Age (2001), quotes Hammurapi’s letter of appeal to the Hittite king, not yet driven down but already in dire straits on his own. Says Ugarit: “The enemy advances against me and there is no number… our number is… send whatever is available, look to it and send it to me.”
The phrase “no number” means numberless or innumerable. The image of a multitudinous swarm or horde represents the Catastrophe essentially. But the Hittite king—it might be Suppiluliumas II or it might also be Arnuwanda, his obscure successor—had already written to Hammurapi requesting grain by urgent transport to offset the effects of a devastating famine. This food shortage might have stemmed from tentative depredations in the northern provinces of Hatti (the Hittites’ name for their country), or social weakening through crop-failure might have signaled to a piratical conscience that plundering raids could safely commence. “Look, lads—the guard is down,” as some cunning brigand undoubtedly said. With Hatti already embroiled, no aid came. Ugarit died. A large number of arrowheads excavated from its ruins suggest to Robbins a systematic slaughter of those inhabitants who could not escape. In addition to Ugarit, Alalakh, Hamath, Qatna, and Qadesh also fell to “the hordes” (Hammurapi’s phrase) that launched themselves on the Levant.
In the east, Assyria proved a bulwark against the tide. In the south, Egypt likewise held out, in its qualified way. Pharaoh Ramesses III erected stelae celebrating his victory over “the Sea Peoples” who poured into the Nile delta in the 1180s. Yet as Drews and Robbins and many other commentators have pointed out, the defeat of the invaders, while it prevented the destruction of the New Kingdom, portended the stultification of Egyptian culture and the end of Egypt’s role as an international power. From the Eleventh Century B.C. onwards, the Pharaohs largely minded their own business until first the Persians and then the Macedonians incorporated them. However, the victory stelae provide useful information about the identity of the mischief-makers. Among the identifiable ethnic components of this marauding conglomerate, the Egyptian scribes listed (in Drews’ summary) Ekwesh, Denyen, Lukka, Shardana, Shekelesh, Tjekker, Tursha, and Weshesh. According to the scribes, these mixed peoples came from “the islands” or “the coastal lands.” Some of the names retain a meaning for modern researchers. The Ekwesh and Denyen, for example, are probably Achaeans and Danaans—that is, Greeks, dubbing themselves as they do in Homer. The Lukka are Lycians, an Anatolian people who lived more or less at peace with the Hittites as allies or vassals; they were still a nation in classical times.
The Shardana, Shekelesh, and Tursha adorn the roster somewhat unexpectedly. The first two names have connections with Sardinia and Sicily, but the evidence cannot tell whether they came from those places bearing the name of their origin or went on to them subsequently to christen them. The Tursha are the Tyrrhenians or Etruscans, a people associated with Italy. Again, it remains unclear whether they came from Italy or went on to that place. The Tjekker are hill tribes from the Levantine interior. The name Weshesh might be a variant, hence also a duplicate, of Ekwesh. Why are these exotic philological matters important?
These items of linguistic esoterica warrant attention because they bring up the problem of catastrophic agency. Archeologists and historians have known about the Catastrophe for a century, although their sense of it has become more acute in the last fifty years. Several theories have arisen to explain the near-universality of the Catastrophe in its region. The earliest and in some ways the most tenacious is the Migration Theory. This theory posits that a single ethnically uniform people, reaching a point of crowded numbers in their Balkan homeland and, arming themselves with novel iron swords, poured into Greece and then into the Aegean; they would also have crossed the Bosporus into Asia Minor, where they continued their rampage, driving all before them. In a kind of domino process, they displaced others, some of whom joined them in the train of rapine and arson until the madness spent itself in Egyptian sands. Various minor sequelae to this Völkerwanderung account for the redistribution of old nationalities, the disappearance of others, and the appearance of novel nationalities that differentiate one end of the catastrophic epoch from the other.
Competing theories, as characterized by Drews, postulate Systemic Breakdown or Natural Disaster such as drought or earthquake. The latter Drews discounts as sole causes. The Systemic Breakdown Theory, on the other hand, has some merit and combines easily with aspects of the Natural Disaster Theory. The Bronze Age kingdoms were inflexibly organized, heavily ritualistic in their conception of life, and dangerously feudal in their relations with one another, as the episode of Paris and Helen makes clear. Widespread drought leading to famine (which the records of Hatti attest) might well have created a social crisis with which administrative inflexibility could not cope. Yet as Drews emphasizes, despite their cumbersome nature, all of the Bronze Age kingdoms functioned as usual up to the hour of their sudden demise.
Drews rejects the single people version of the Migration Theory, but he retains certain elements of the general idea. Robbins stresses the importance of drought and famine but like Drews sees the commotion of peoples, rather than the movement of one people, as essential to understanding the violence of the phenomenon. Drews’ interpretation is interesting because it implies—even if it never explicitly states—that there was something mimetic or imitative in the rapidly successive separate chapters of the Catastrophe; his idea furthermore possesses the charm that literary echoes of the event, such as those in Homer and Hesiod, acquire added explanatory value in light of it. If not in Drews or Robbins or other modern sources, then in observations by the archaic poets, we might actually be able to discover the motivation of the Catastrophe. As Drews sees it, the Catastrophe begins with the descent of a people called the Dorians into Greece. The Dorians, a culturally primitive Greek-speaking tribe (or congeries of tribes), lived in the mountainous north of the Helladic peninsula and in adjacent regions of the southern Balkans. Greek legend spoke of the violent “Return of the Heraclidae” as following close on the conclusion of the Trojan War and as plunging the heroic world into chaos although no poet ever worked it up as his theme.
The Dorians destroyed Pylos. Their bloodthirsty fellow tribesmen had already burned out the palace-citadels at Gla, Mycenae, Orchomenos, Sparta, Thebes, Tiryns, and dozens of other sites, big and small. When Hellas emerged from the four centuries of its Dark Age, the Hellenes remained culturally divided. The Attic-Ionian civilization, literate, political, and mercantile, stood against Doric culture, exemplified by the Spartans, who remained locked in the warrior-society ruthlessness that had made their barbaric ancestors such formidable final enemies of the Achaean Greeks. As Drews mentions, the Peloponnesian Wars merely resumed an old conflict in the Greek world going back to the end of the Bronze Age.
The holocaust in the Peloponnese fell shy of the absolute. A few pockets of resistance put up a fight and forced the invaders to bypass them. This happened in Iolkos in Thessaly and more importantly in Attica, where the Athenians always maintained that their history on the site was undisrupted from heroic times. So it seems, on the material as well as the folkloric evidence. So also does it seem that refugees from the turmoil elsewhere in Greece saw Attica as an initial destination for displaced persons. From Attica, organized groups of refugees embarked for Cyprus, Rhodes, and the coastal areas of Anatolia after the spasm had worked itself through. Gradually the Ionians resettled in parts of Greece beyond Attica, extending their enlightenment. The Ionians, unlike the Dorians, discarded many of the institutions of the Bronze Age, most especially kingship, but also the habit of the fortified city. Where kingship remained in the Ionic world, it persisted only as a ritualistic vestige. The new dispensation in Ionia inclined to the democratic. Doric institutions, as at Sparta or in Crete, remained atavistic. Spartan hegemony in Laconia gives some idea of the original Doric attitude to the conquered—utter dominating bigotry and, in practice, enslavement or Helotism. Originally it would have been contempt sprung from envy: the envy of the savage who sees across the marshes into the ease and luxury of a more highly developed way of life and schemes how he might profit by the labor of others. Now in Homer, the suitors, despite their presentation as natives of Ithaca, exhibit just this attitude. They are pampered sons of the aristocracy who can boast no real accomplishments of their own and have no capacity for effort or production. They resent Telemachus, the heir apparent, and see cynically in Penelope the chance for dynastic marriage and wealth-by-dowry. The name of their leader, Antinous, means “He who defies Reason,” or more simply “Disorder.”
It is possible that the Greek chapter of the Catastrophe combined external encroachment by treasure-hungry savages with internal divisions and treachery in the feudal kingdoms. One can imagine Mycenaean betrayers who offer their expertise in organization to the restless Dorians, or their simple willingness to participate in pillage, and so exacerbate the troubles. “For a share of the takings, a certain gate will be left unguarded”—it would have been something like that. The legend of “The Seven against Thebes” corresponds to such a pattern.
Beyond this theorizing, there lies another, perhaps more important point. The Bronze Age kingdoms constituted an ecumene: all communicated with one another regularly, all traded with one another, and all exchanged intelligence along with goods via the trade routes. It was a coherent world, conscious of the interconnectedness of its parts, not unlike our own. News of the disaster in Greece would have reached over the Bosporus in short order. It would have filtered from the cities into the hinterlands and would have formed an example, or a set of cues. The cities are vulnerable. A mass of skirmishers can defeat the chariot brigades and then take what it wants from the defenseless settlement—food, wine, plate, and women. Rumors of the Dorian success might well have emboldened the Gasga to descend on Hattusas. Soon, all sorts of marginal people, joined by disenfranchised fifth columnists, would have reached the decision to strike now and take their chances. No one had a plan. The motive everywhere was invidious and vengeful—and bestially myopic. It was the enormous result of long-festering differences and capacities.
The Catastrophe amounted to vast, spontaneous jacquerie, the sole aim of which consisted in the satisfaction of the short-term lusts that motivate brawny clan warriors. The pirates built nothing; they merely destroyed. When once their orgy had expended its zeal, the authors of it faded into the chaotic background that their violence had generated. Laconia and Crete lapse into Doric stasis. The Philistines, influenced by a formative segment of displaced Mycenaean aristos, impose a gaudy conquistador order in the Levant, shortly to be challenged by the Israelites, whose exodus from Egypt and arrival in Canaan is probably an episode of the general disruption. A Levantine exodus establishes Carthage—literally, “The New City”—on the Tunisian coast; and evidence for Levantine activity in Sardinia and Sicily also exists for this time. A nucleus of Hittite elites leaves the burned-out citadels behind and migrates into the littoral areas of Anatolia, where “Neo-Hittite” polities come into existence in the archaic period and where the ruling class, like the Midas dynasty in Phrygia, becomes Hellenized on the Ionic pattern. Passages in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and parts of the Aeneas story, which is older by far than Vergil, together suggest that Mycenaean and Hittite refugees reached Italy and actively fostered novel polities in the early Iron Age of the peninsula.
Hesiod’s thematic insistence on “Envy” and “Strife” or Eris (to give it its Greek name) in Works and Days fits what one could call Post-Catastrophic Ethics quite aptly. It is the poet’s initial topic. Two Erides exist, Hesiod opines: “One fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due. But the other… stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth.” In Odyssey, the hero’s steward, Eumaeus, charges the suitors with being utterly shiftless and piratical. Indeed they are. What Eumaeus has husbanded and increased for his absent master in goats and cattle and olives and wine, the shiftless squatters vying for Penelope’s hand have greedily consumed and will go on consuming. Unless order is restored, the economy of Odysseus’ estate will follow the drastic course of a zero-sum game in the shortest imaginable term.
Drews can say moderately contradictory things about the Catastrophe. He narrates the destruction vividly. He addresses the energetic dilapidation, however, in slightly misplaced teleological language: “In the long retrospect… the episode marked a beginning rather than an end, the ‘dawn of time’ in which people in Israel, Greece, and even Rome sought their origins.” Drews has some grounds for his assertion because, as he says, with the recovery after four hundred years came not only “alphabetic writing” but also “nationalism” and “republican political forms” along with “monotheism” and the life of the mind. The Catastrophe and the belated recovery, while not entirely separable, are nevertheless distinguishable events buffered from one another by a block of centuries. The moral, so to speak, lies in the annihilation. Robbins describes post-Catastrophic Greece this way: “The land was so impoverished, so lacking in material possessions, that archeologists have found little which would illuminate those times. Great buildings were not built, and houses were of the simplest sort, hardly more than huts.” Except in Attica, “pottery design and execution degenerated” and “there was no writing, even in the alphabetic script which came into Greece later.” One confronts as stark an Ausratierung as is imaginable.
Plato, who took a keen interest in history and in what one might call the archeology of folklore, proffers two stories that reflect a lingering memory of total destruction. One is the Atlantis story, which is told in two parts in the adjacent dialogues Timaeus and Critias. The other, from The Laws, is the story of the Cosmic Reversals.
The circumstances of transmission of the Atlantis story interest Plato almost as much as the story itself. In Timaeus, Critias, the teller of the tale, says that he heard it from his grandfather, also called Critias, who heard it from Solon, who had cast it in the form of a short epic poem; but Solon had a source prior to himself—certain Egyptian priests in a temple complex on the island of Saïs in the Nile Delta, where he had gone on a diplomatic and intelligence-gathering mission as an envoy of the Athenian state. Wanting to impress the priests with his knowledge of the past, Solon began retailing stories about ancient events of his own nation, beginning with the story of the Deluge of Deucalion and Pyrrha. His priestly interlocutor interrupted him, saying (in Desmond Lee’s translation), “Oh Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children, and there’s no such thing as an old Greek.” The priest adds that Greeks like Solon “have no belief rooted in old tradition and no knowledge hoary with age.” Solon registers wordless surprise. The priest continues:
There have been and will be many different calamities to destroy mankind, the greatest of them by fire and water, lesser ones by countless other means…. There is at long intervals… widespread destruction by fire of things on earth…. When on the other hand the gods purge the earth with a deluge, the herdsmen and those living in the mountains escape, but those living in the cities in your part of the world are swept… into the sea.
A bit later the priest comments that one effect of the periodic calamities is that “writing and the other necessities of civilization have only just been developed when the periodic scourge of the deluge descends, and spares none but the unlettered and uncultured, so that you have to begin again like children.” Given the tendency of ancient discourse to confuse social and natural calamities, or to let natural metaphors refer to sociological events, this prologue to the Atlantis story and the story itself make sense as remote recollections of the human upheavals of the Catastrophe. “Deluge” can mean a human as well as a hydrological event (“Après moi le deluge!”). The priest was right, after all, in his knowledge that the civilization that Solon represented was new and that it was largely unaware of the background to its own emergence. He was also right that the destruction of civilization, by whatever cause, entails the destruction also of literacy, therefore of record keeping, and therefore of archival and learned memory. He was right finally in his ascription of survival to those who live or who take refuge in the high country, as happened in Attica and in Cyprus. The Ark of Survival comes to rest on its Ararat.
As for the Atlantis story itself, it concerns an “Ancient Athens”—where the people, like those at Pylos, worshipped a goddess foreshadowing the later Athene—and the aggressive imperialism of the island-nation of Atlantis. While the sophistication of Plato’s Atlanteans disqualifies them from standing for the probable agents of the Catastrophe, the climax of the Athens-Atlantis war—to wit, the total annihilation of both polities—rings with a familiar resonance. Scholars have linked the Atlantis story to the old Minoan civilization of Crete and to the volcanic destruction of its outpost on the island of Thera around 1400 B.C. Some of that lore no doubt informs Plato’s fable, but motifs from the Catastrophe flavor it, too.
In The Laws, the Stranger tells Socrates, represented as a young man, about the periodic bouleversements that afflict the cosmos. The cosmos has a rhythm of two phases. In one phase, God infuses the order of his Logos into things and sends the world careening away from him. At the inception of this phase, life conforms to a Golden Age, rather like Hesiod’s Cronian Age, when the first men lived happily under the tutelage of the chief Titan god. As the cosmos spins farther away from God, social conditions deteriorate until, in a calamitous moment, the direction of things reverses and the world starts its journey back towards God. At the instant of bouleversement, the second phase begins. First the influence of God ceases; next things fall apart, men are reduced to savagery, and they must struggle to rebuild orderly life all on their own. This fable operates at a higher level of abstraction than the Atlantis story, but once again at its core one confronts the dogmatic certainty that nothing human goes on forever. Men are never entirely in control of their own affairs and existence is always subject to radical contingency.
Consider the fragility and vulnerability of the existing Western civilization represented by North America and Europe (along with Australia and New Zealand) and to a degree by Japan. People of this civilized dispensation necessarily awake each morning with the assumption that things will go on as they have, that the order remains stable, and that they may presume it as the background to their pursuit of happiness. Civilized order demands a measure of blitheness, hardly distinguishable from an attenuated faith, for its maintenance. The common man disdains prophets because he finds it difficult to differentiate prognosticators of doom from positively disposed agents of dissolution, seeming as the prophets do to call for changes in attitude and behavior that strike ordinary people as themselves corrosive of normality and habitude. Cassandra knows that Troy totters on the brink of fire and bloodletting. but no one pays her the slightest attention.
Suspicion of disaster as a possibility sometimes succeeds in breaking through the outer shell of social complacency, but in curious self-disarming ways. The acute concern at the recent turn of the century over the “Y2K” computer-programming problem offers a case in point. All sorts of panic-stricken predictions hung on the belief that on 1 January, 2000, every computer in the world would shut down, causing the infrastructure of the industrialized nations to grind to a halt. The “Global Warming” hysteria has something of the same character, with its predictions of a melt-swollen tide inundating Florida and millions of people dying from heat prostration as the tropical zones become uninhabitable. To the list of doom-scenarios one could add fear of plague (AIDS, it used to be, or nowadays “bird flu”) or anxiety about a giant meteor impact of “Dinosaur Killer” magnitude. Such apocalyptic fantasies characteristically elide the most probable cause of any impending systemic collapse of civilization.
Men build civilization and men tear it down. They build it by intention, exertion, and discipline. They tear it down by acts of casual omission as much as by acts of concupiscent aggression and destruction. Civilization carries with it many of the causes of its own gradual declension. In the achievement of widespread and sustained security, for example, the likelihood that the beneficiary generation will fail to appreciate the formative insights of the benefactor generation runs high. Complacency results. The beneficiary generation then fails in the obligation to maintain the basis of security, institutional, economic, military, or otherwise. It is too busy “having fun.” In the succession of the beneficiary generation, once again, an Oedipal contempt for the benefactor generation can develop, which seriously distorts the conception of reality of the beneficiaries. A delusory independence from ancestral exertion expresses itself in the spurious rebuke of received authority. In Odyssey, Homer sharply contrasts Odysseus’ hard-won capacity for self-restraint with the suitors’ concupiscent impulsiveness—their mindless enthrallment to their own grossest appetites. The same difference marks Odysseus off from his crewmates, all of whom succumb to their lack of any appetitive brakes, leaving the king to return to his kingdom alone. The suitors, who are a beneficiary generation par excellence, treat law and custom with disdain. In a speech, Telemachus makes the prediction that, unless checked, the suitors’ arrogance will spread through all of Ithaca and wreck the society.
Homer never says so, but it lies in the logic of his story that, had Odysseus not returned home and had one of the suitors indeed become the technical husband of Penelope—and therefore the nominal king in Ithaca—the exegesis would nevertheless not have found its terminus. The remaining disappointed suitors would have besieged the lucky victor and done away with him, and so on, not quite ad infinitum. One human trait that restraint restrains, after all, is envy, resentment, or what Hesiod calls destructive Strife, and which he sees as the perpetual corruptor of social order.
In its complacent self-absorption, a beneficiary generation can become flagrant in the ostentation of its affluence. It can come to regard itself as naturally endowed with permanence in its status and as possessing a kind of invulnerability to threat rather than as having direct responsibility for the maintenance of its own welfare. Such ostentation provokes renewed resentment—first among the internal proletariat that exists in every society, and second among the various external proletariats that gaze into affluence from the impoverished yonder side of the frontier. This is not a matter of justification, but of imitation, as inflamed desire transforms itself into a practical if thoughtless intention to acquire by any means what others flaunt as their entitled portion of enjoyment. In a legal sense, the inheritors of wealth have an absolute right to it, whereas the bandits who scheme to take it for their own have absolutely none. Should the constabulary catch the bandits in actu, then the bandits can only expect to be shut away, sent to forced labor, or even strung up in the town square. This will all be entirely correct, as the French say, and not simply from the civic perspective. A mass of bandits will, however, exceed the ability of the constabulary to respond. “Behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities (?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country,” wrote the Ugaritic king.
If the affluent society should begin to federate members of the external proletariat for unskilled labor or military service, as the Bronze Age kingdoms seem to have done with the Shardana and the Shekelesh and as the Roman Empire did with the Gothic barbarians, then the internal and external proletariats can arrive at a sense of a common grudge and therefore, however dimly perceived, of a common cause. The avarice of the proletariat can grow stronger than the commitment of the civic classes to their own preservation. As one fits aspects of Homeric and Hesiodic sociology into what is known historically and archeologically about the Catastrophe, one sees that something like this process must have occurred in a great boiling-over three thousand years ago in the region comprising Greece, Anatolia, the islands, and the Levant. The Catastrophe, says Drews, was worse than the fall of the Western Empire.
So that there might be order in the polity, Plato constantly argued, there must first be order in the individual soul. Restraint and askesis play essential roles in the orderliness of the soul—hence also in civic arrangements. Restraint acknowledges the sacredness of persons and property and askesis honors the wisdom of not flaunting affluence—not because one lacks title to it, either as the fruits of personal productivity or as inheritance, but because to do so is anthropologically foolhardy. Ours is an age of fantastically inflated, pathologically ostentatious economies; quite without cosmic calamities, it is also an age rapidly losing its historical memory and even its literacy. There is a voluntary relinquishment of intellectual and moral rigors for the sake of paltry divertissement. Too many modern people see in their electronic conveniences, in their false freedom from anxiety and care, what the guardians of Mycenae must have seen in their Cyclopean walls and defensive ditches: untouchable superiority and immunity from annoyance. Our electronification, our material flagrancy, and our sense of rightful endowment will likely render us more, not less, vulnerable than ancient peoples to sudden, unforeseen catastrophes whose occasion might simply lie in a power failure—but whose form (or rather formlessness) will be greed and rapine at their rawest, and whose story will be one of the precipitous collapse of those institutions that, despite our delinquency or our contempt, formerly protected us from “evil things.”
Thomas F. Bertonneau has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UCLA  and teaches English at SUNY Oswego. He is Secretary of The Center for Literate Values and contributes frequently to Praesidium, often on topics concerning the Classics, popular culture, or music and the arts.