During the course of this assignment, you should
  • be able to discuss the following matters:

    Most of the Neolithic Empires fell under the control of one of the chariot peoples. The Hyksos ruled Egypt 1680-1580; the Kassites ruled Mesopotamia 1600- 1150; the Hurrians dominated the Hittite kingdom from about 1500 to about 1400; the Aryans gradually conquered northern India beginning about 1700; and the Shang dynasty (we have mentioned its unclear origins earlier) ruled the Central basin of the Yellow River of China from about 1580 to 1100. The Egyptians, Hittites, and Chinese managed to regain control of their own affairs and, in so doing, developed into the bronze-age empires.

    In all three of these cases, the invaders failed to conquer the land completely, and the governments of the neolithic empires managed to maintain their authority at least in a corner of the lands that had once been entirely theirs. In these retreats, they began to develop the war machine needed to overcome their invaders. This was not an easy task, since none had easy access to the copper, tin, and fuel resources necessary to smelt and cast bronze, and they had to depend on commerce to acquire these materials or, better still, to import bronze itself. But commerce meant that they had to produce goods to trade, ships to carry on that trade, and trading partners who would accept what they had to offer and provide what they needed.

    In developing this commercial base, the neolithic empires transformed their societies in some basic ways. In between the ruling elite and the mass of farmers and laborers, there emerged a middle class composed of artisans, artists, craftsmen, and merchants and traders. These middle class artisans usually worked in the same building in which they and their family lived, and in which a few assistants also lived. Industry and manufacture was carried on at the family level, and it would almost three thousand years before the emergence of the large factories and impersonal business firms with which we are familiar. Nevertheless, this small-scale form of production proved quite effective. Through the efforts of such "Mom and Pop" concerns, these states were able to produce goods that were admired and valued by all of the peoples living along the trade routes that slowly grew up between them and the raw materials they needed to support their own manufacture as well as that necessary to create their own chariot armies.

    Until about a century and a half ago, water transport was by far cheaper, faster, and safer than land transport. Much of the trade of the bronze age was carried on by boat, and underwater archaeology has uncovered the wrecks of such bronze age trading boats in the Mediterranean. The quality and variety of goods this ships carried provide a good picture of the tremendous progress in manufacture and art this new commercial age had inspired.

    But the development of a chariot army involved more than obtaining bronze and building chariots. It was also necessary to breed war horses to pull them and to train warriors to fight from them. The rulers were faced with a difficult problem. There are always two forces influencing the political structure of a state. One is centralization, the drive to concentrate power in a smaller and smaller elite, and the other is decentralization, the need to spread authority and power to keep the peace at the local level and to ensure that subjects far from the center of government pay their taxes and make the other sacrifices demanded of them. Sometimes, too, governments are forced to scatter their warrior class in order to defend the society's frontiers and to be close to their sources of supply and support. The danger in this is that it is almost a rule of history that those who hold military power eventually come to hold political power, or, as Chairman Mao zhe-Dong said, "Political power emerges from the muzzle of a rifle."

    The rulers of China, Egypt, and the Hittite kingdom adopted much the same compromise. They established a warrior class that was distributed throughout the kingdom and controlled local affairs in the name of the monarch. The monarch, for his part, controlled the commerce of the state with the aid of a professional civil bureaucracy that acted as a curb on local military officials. They also solidified the monarchy by regularizing the rules of succession, and by establishing elaborate state rituals and a richer and more complex religion centered on the idea that the monarch was not only chosen to rule by the gods but was a god himself.

    Since the monarch controlled the source of bronze, local warriors were dependent upon the monarch for weapon replacements and could not increase their power without his permission. The original chariot peoples had not had such a problem, but they were organized in semi-independent tribes, each with its own warrior- king, and had no central government requiring a centralization of power and authority. Although the decentralization of power within the old monarchies set a dangerous precedent, their policies were successful and they succeeded in driving out the invaders and recovering their lands. In 1580, the New Kingdom was established in Egypt and maintained a secure and prosperous state and society until 1090; The Hittite "New Kingdom" was established in 1430 and lasted until about 1200; while the Chou dynasty emerged in the Wei Valley of China in about 1000 and remained powerful, although shifting its center of power, until about 800 B.C.

    These new states were far different from their neolithic predecessors. They were more complex both politically and socially, and they were enriched by commercial enterprise. Small states sprang up along the trade routes they had established and absorbed cultural influences from their great neighbors. Egypt's cultural sphere soon included the Minoan civilization centered on Crete, the Mycenaean culture of the Greek mainland, and the land of the Canaanites and Hebrews, and spread south to Nubia and west to Libya and perhaps well beyond. The states of Phrygia and Lydia in the west and Armenia and Phoenicia in the east drew a great deal of inspiration from the Hittite example, and Chou influence slowly made its way east, toward Korea and Japan.

    The Bronze-Age Empires did not endure, of course, and we shall trace their disintegration shortly. They did manage to establish a network of trade routes that would endure down to modern times. Their wealth and influence spread civilization along those routes and gave rise to several "secondary" civilizations that would play important roles in the future. Finally, they provided a model that their successors would follow, and, after the chaos that resulted from the introduction of iron, the Classical Empires would draw much of their inspiration from what they considered to have been the Golden Age of their society.



    The New Kingdom, sometimes called "the Empire," was the glorious age of ancient Egypt, with such figures as Queen Hatshepsut, Rameses II, the treasures of the tomb of Tutankhamen, the records of the Tell el-Amarna letters, and much else. You should visit the Kent State site, New Kingdom, for a overview of this period. Another Washington State module provides a good survey of the Chou dynasty of China, 1050-256 BC, but should be supplemented with a visit to a University of Wisconsin site devoted to The Arts of China. The section on the Chou Dynasty is particularly good. A review of Ancient India might serve to round out this overview of the Bronze-Age Empires.


    There is more than enough material in the required assignments to keep you busy, but, if you have the time and inclination, it would be worth your while to browse through the materials offered by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in ABZU, the main guide for the Study of the Ancient Near East Available on the Internet

  • This text was produced and installed by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
    1 February 1998
    Lawrence KS