Read part one.
Homer, in The Odyssey, describes an incident in which Odysseus is mocked for his travel-worn appearance. He does not look, the observer says, like a warrior or an athlete, but more like ‘some captain of a merchant crew, who spends his life on a hulking tramp, worrying about his outward freight, or keeping a sharp eye on the cargo when he comes home with his extortionate profits’.
The world represented in Homer’s poems spanned the period from the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation in c.1250-1150 BC to the beginning of the Archaic Age in c.750 BC. The sea dominates this world. His stories abound with accounts of seaborne trade, raiding, and piracy. His heroes are warriors who sail the seas in search of booty and honour. The Trojan War is a massive amphibious operation.
Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Sea Peoples
Select communities of the Eastern Mediterranean had been growing fat on seaborne trade for 2,000 years. Long boats powered by many rowers had been used for inter-island journeys in the Cyclades from around 3000 BC. The phase designated ‘Troy II’ at that most famous of Aegean archaeological sites was a defended citadel guarding a harbour at the entrance to the Dardanelles dating to the period c.2700-2200 BC. What the Greeks called the ‘Thalassocracy (Sea-power) of Minos’ – with its sprawling, stone-built, frescoed palaces, and store-rooms packed with giant pithoi – rose to dominance in c.1950-1450 on the basis of Crete’s central location and the islanders’ revolutionary design of deep-hulled, high-capacity, sail-powered cargo ships.
The Mycenaeans who displaced them around 1450 BC were also traders. The Late Bronze Age Greeks flourished at the interface between high-consumption Eastern civilisations and a European hinterland rich in metals, slaves, horses, furs, and amber. The greatest of the Mycenaean fortress-palaces – Mycenae itself – stood astride the narrow crossing that linked the Adriatic, via the Gulf of Corinth, with the Aegean, via the Gulf of Argos.
When the Late Bronze Age states crashed – Mycenaean Greece, Hittite Anatolia, New Kingdom Egypt – it was the ‘Sea Peoples’ who played a large part in bringing them down. Waves of colonisation then rippled outwards from the East Mediterranean epicentre. Who were the Sea Peoples? Probably an ethnic mix of seaborne raiders. Different names appear in the Egyptian sources. Sardinia was settled by the ‘Shardana’, creating a rich culture of stone towers, iron technology, and bronze-working art which included figurines of warriors with long-horned helmets. Sicily was perhaps settled by the ‘Shekelesh’, since later Greek sources report the Sikels as one of three distinct ethnic groups on the island.
Greeks and Phoenicians
Probably, also, many of the Sea Peoples were Greeks and Phoenicians, the two peoples who were by far the greatest colonisers of the half millennium up to 500 BC. By this time, the Phoenicians, whose original homeland was the Levant, had established strings of colonies on the coasts of Western Sicily, Southern Sardinia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Spain, including settlements on the Atlantic coast that extended some 400 miles both north and south of the Straits of Gibraltar.
The Greek sphere included the whole of the Aegean, the Black Sea, and the coasts of Southern Italy, Eastern Sicily, Southern France, North-Eastern Spain, and Cyrenaica (North-Eastern Libya). The Greeks distinguished between apoikiai – farming settlements – and emporia – trading ports. The latter included major sites like Al Mina in Syria, Naukratis in Egypt, and Massalia (Marseilles) in France.
The technology of seafaring continued to develop. Contemporary images show a wide variety of craft – small, shallow-draft rowing boats for inshore waters; broad, tub-shaped, square-rigged sailing vessels for carrying bulk cargoes overseas; and a variety of large coast-hugging, oar-powered warships – triconters (with 30 oarsmen), penteconters (with 50), biremes (with two banks of oars), and triremes (with three).
Trade spawned other revolutionary developments. Not least important was writing. The Phoenicians had developed an alphabetic script by about 1000 BC, and it was soon copied to write Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and thus eventually all modern alphabetic scripts.
Sea-lords of the Baltic
The Mediterranean was not the only region where maritime economics powered dynamic socio-political systems. In the great mound of Bredarör near Kivik on coast of Southern Sweden, sometime between 1700 and 1500 BC, a mighty Nordic lord had been buried in a cist of eight decorated stone slabs. Depicted on the slabs were pairs of spoked wheels, pairs of horses, a figure riding a two-wheeled chariot, long boats, a pair of axes either side of a triangular monolith, and parades of human figures, two of whom blow horns.
Who was the Lord of Kivik? That he was a great seafarer seems beyond doubt. Huge numbers of rock carvings were made in the coastal regions of Southern Sweden in the 2nd millennium – no less than 75,000 images have been recorded at 5,000 sites in the west-facing regions alone – and a very high proportion of these depict long rowing vessels with high prows and sterns. Elsewhere in the Baltic region, and also of Bronze Age date, are monumental burials formed of boat-shaped stone settings.
‘A possible scenario,’ explains Barry Cunliffe, ‘is that in the 16th century BC the Lord of Kivik led his warriors on an epic journey, sailing south from home via the island of Bornholm to the mouth of the Oder, thence by river and overland portage to the Carpathian Basin. On their return, scenes from the adventure and the mysteries they had witnessed were painted on cloth to adorn the lord’s residence, thereby endowing him with great power in the eyes of all. On his death, the scenes were carved on the stones of his burial chamber, and a huge mound of boulders – the Bredarör – was piled up over it, dominating the view across the sea to the south and visible to all sailors approaching the coast: a fitting memorial to a great voyager.’
The elite culture implicit in the Kivik burial seems little different from that reflected in the boast that Homer attributes to King Menelaus in The Odyssey: ‘But when it comes to men, I feel that few or none can rival me in wealth, considering all the hardships that I endured and journeys that I made in the seven years it took me to amass this fortune and to get it home in my ships. My travels took me to Cyprus, to Phoenicia, and to Egypt. Ethiopians, Sidonians, Erembi, I visited them all: and I say Libya too.’
British type-site: Bush Barrow
Period: Early Bronze Age
In 1808, two antiquarians, William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare, excavated the richest Early Bronze Age burial ever found in Britain. It was covered by a very large bowl barrow, 40m in diameter and still standing 3m high, within the Normanton Down barrow cemetery just south of Stonehenge. The deceased had been buried lying on his back in about 1900-1700 BC. He had been a tall, stout, adult man. The grave goods accompanying him marked him as a person of the highest rank and status.
His weapons were a flanged bronze axe and two of the largest bronze daggers to have been found in a grave of this date. One of the daggers had a wooden handle elaborately decorated with fine gold-wire pins. Some bronze studs found near the head were once thought to have been from a helmet or a shield, but recent work by Stuart Needham has shown that they probably belonged to a Beaker-period dagger, some 200 years older than the burial. On the body’s right side was a ceremonial mace, its head of rare flecked stone from Devon, while the handle was embellished with bone zig-zag mounts.
There were three objects of gold: a large lozenge-shaped plaque resting on the man’s chest, a large belt-hook, and another small lozenge-shaped plaque. The two larger objects were decorated with delicate impressed linear patterns.
Bush Barrow is one of a series of rich Early Bronze Age burials that define the so-called ‘Wessex Culture’ of Central-Southern England in the period c.2000-1650 BC. The material found in the graves indicates strong links with Northern France and with Early Bronze Age Europe more generally. The Bush Barrow man is therefore an exemplar of the new warrior elite that dominated Europe in the 2nd millennium BC.
The Bush Barrow finds (and much else of great interest) can be viewed at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Long Street, Devizes, Wiltshire (www.wiltshireheritage.org.uk, 01380 727369).
Men of bronze and iron
Inland, also, it seems that power and wealth accrued to those who stood astride the great trans-peninsular trade routes. In the course of the 3rd millennium BC, where before there had been simple, undifferentiated communities of Neolithic farmers, more complex, stratified societies emerged. The Bronze Age elite lived in hillforts, went to war in horse-drawn chariots, and were buried with rich assemblages of metalwork and ceramics.
The Carpathian Basin and West-Central Europe were both incubators of powerful elites. Into the former streamed successive waves of people, goods, and ideas from the steppes of Southern Russia: not least horsemanship and chariot-warfare, traditions which also percolated southwards to the Middle East, Anatolia, and Mycenaean Greece. The latter region was home to the Urnfield culture of the Late Bronze Age and, a more or less direct evolution, the Hallstatt culture of the Early Iron Age.
What emerged in West-Central Europe was a ‘prestige goods economy’. The Hallstatt lords stood at the very heart of the European route network, growing rich on the carrying trade, amassing luxury goods, and using monopoly control of high-value items to build retinues of dependents.
At Vix, near Châtillon-sur-Seine, a rich woman was buried in a large timber-lined grave around 510-500 BC. She was accompanied to the grave by a (disassembled) ceremonial funerary cart, a variety of personal ornaments, and a drinking set that included basins, a beaked flagon, two Attic cups, and a huge bronze krater (mixing bowl). The krater had probably been made in a Greek workshop in Southern Italy. It stood 1.64m tall and was decorated with scenes of charioteers and warriors. Such was the weight that it must have been dismantled for its long journey to the barbarian north: a ‘prestige goods economy’ indeed.
European development had been little affected by the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean: this had been a regional, not a global, crisis. Instead, populations had grown, land had been partitioned, agricultural practices had progressed, long-distance trade in luxuries, above all in metals, had flourished, and arts and crafts had blossomed under elite patronage.
What made Europe so dynamic between 1300 and 500 BC was surely the competitive struggle between great lords for control of land, trade routes, shipping lines, and the flow of luxury goods around and across the continent. Again, it was Europe’s distinctive geography, the interpenetration of the land by seas and rivers, that made social development so restless.
Storm and strife
But a new era of storm and strife opened in c.500 BC. Population increased. Elite competition for control of prestige goods intensified. The trappings of rank and status took on increasingly grandiose forms. New states crystallised and clashed. In 480 BC, two Greek victories, one over the Persians at Salamis, the other over the Carthaginians in Sicily, opened the new era. From then on, the great powers of the Mediterranean rose and fell in a series of massive wars: the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta; the Macedonian conquest of Thrace, Greece, and then the entire Persian Empire; and the Punic and Macedonian Wars which secured the dominance of Rome.
The period ended as it had opened, with a double victory: this time that of Rome over both Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC, the destruction of these two cities symbolising the new superpower’s unprecedented hegemony over both the Eastern and the Western Mediterranean – mare nostrum, ‘our sea’, as the Romans henceforward called it.
The rise of Rome was a complex of many factors. Barry Cunliffe stresses one in particular: it was the decision of Rome, a land-based power, to create a navy in order to defeat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War that launched her on the road to global empire. After Rome’s first naval victory in 260 BC, she ‘was now a naval power with the means and confidence to break out of the constraints imposed by the long succession of treaties with Carthage. For Carthage, it brought the stark realisation that her naval supremacy in the central and west Mediterranean was now under serious threat. Four generations later the city of Carthage was in ruins.’ Thus, again, demonstrating the centrality of sea-power to European history.
The central heartlands of the continent were also in turmoil. A new Middle Iron Age elite – one whose La Tène culture displaces that of the Hallstatt lords in the archaeological record – had emerged. It seems to have been a more warlike elite, perhaps because increasing Mediterranean demand had made slave raiding and trading more economically significant. These are the Celts or Gauls described by ancient writers like Polybius and Livy, and what made them especially fascinating was their violent irruption out of their homeland into Northern Italy, the Balkans, and Anatolia during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.
‘In the heart of west central Europe, population growth, exacerbated by a number of other factors, led to the collapse of the traditional system, resulting in a mêlée of folk movements that reverberated across the continent for two centuries, penetrating deep into the Mediterranean world. The wide swathe of instability created across Europe severed the transcontinental routes, leaving the North European Plain and the Nordic zone to develop in relative isolation. A new configuration was beginning to emerge: in the Mediterranean the nascent Roman Empire had at last become the sole power – with the military might to extend out of its narrow ecological niche. But the inhabitants of temperate Europe had learnt that they too could cross traditional boundaries if they wished: the lines were being drawn up for a Europe-wide confrontation.’
Danebury Hillfort in Hampshire was extensively excavated by Barry Cunliffe between 1969 and 1988. With one fifth of the interior excavated, Danebury probably ranks as the most thoroughly explored Iron Age hillfort in Britain.
It was first occupied in the 6th century BC. The original defences comprised a single bank and ditch with two opposed entrances linked by a roadway. The interior was divided into distinct zones, with the central area reserved for storage, a series of square shrines on the highest point, and domestic accommodation around the edges. The population may have numbered 200-300, with up to 50 roundhouses occupied at any one time. Grain was stored in pits or ‘four-posters’ – square settings of four posts assumed to represent raised granaries.
The defences were strengthened in the 4th century BC, with two phases of work. A second line of ramparts was added, and outworks were built at the two gateways. The eastern gateway was given great hornworks projecting beyond the ramparts, creating a curved entrance passage with a dominating command post. Later, in the second phase of work, the south-west gateway was blocked. Numerous finds of clay sling-shot and small rounded pebbles shows that the sling was a primary weapon in contemporary warfare.
The site seems to have been abandoned during the 1st century BC. Perhaps it was thereafter used only as a temporary refuge, or perhaps the local lordship it represented had been absorbed into a larger polity.
Since the excavations ended, surveys of the surrounding landscape have revealed that the hillfort lay at the heart of a network of settlements and enclosures. Evidence from the hillfort itself implies a mixed farming economy based on wheat, cattle, and sheep. Among the crafts practised were woodworking, weaving, and metalworking.
That Danebury represents a society ruled by a warrior aristocracy seems beyond doubt. But the detail of the social structure is obscure. One possibility is that the chieftain lived with his own family and retainers in the hillfort, and that lesser nobles lived in the higher-order settlements round about. Alternatively, Danebury may have been the centre for the nobility as a whole, with virtually the whole of the surplus generated in the tribal territory being conveyed there for consumption in military expenditures and luxury living. Either way, the site symbolises the increasingly crowded, competitive, and violent world of the 1st millennium BC.
Barry Cunliffe’s Danebury Hillfort (Tempus) is a splendid summary of the archaeological work and the key findings. The site itself is open to visitors.
Barry Cunliffe’s Europe between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000, Yale University Press.
The making of medieval Europe.