The Elements of Evolution – Iron Age

Iron Age

Metallurgy morphed from a predominance of bronze to widespread use of iron, specifically steel. Unalloyed iron is barely harder than bronze. Like tin to copper in making bronze, carbon acts as a hardening agent in rendering the alloy steel.

While bronze was cast, iron and steel are hammered into shape by blacksmiths: a reversion in technique for cobbling copper, but with a more durable material.

Like the Bronze Age, the Iron Age has low chronological value, as its advent temporally varied across societies.

The first known working of iron was in ancient Egypt ~3200 BCE, long before the declared Iron Age. Egyptian metal workers mastered the smithing of iron found in meteorites, using techniques that came to define the technical skills of the Iron Age. This knowledge was largely lost for over a millennium. In the meantime, the properties of iron went unappreciated. Iron was then worked in India beginning ~1,800 BCE.

Technology diffused at the pace of trade. Iron works appeared in Anatolia, Greece, and parts of Africa about 1300 bce. Centuries passed before iron-working technology reached central Europe, and, even later, northern Europe.

The adoption of iron coincided with material constraints and societal changes. A shortage of tin and trade disruptions in the Mediterranean forced metalworkers to seek an alternative to bronze.

Steel quality improved as iron became more available. Even as tin supplies later returned, bronze was largely shunned in light the cheaper, stronger, lighter, and more easily worked steel.

One account has the Iron Age ending in 586 BCE, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the city’s conquest by the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE. Other tabulation has the Iron Age ending with the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 CE, at the onset of the barbarian chaos in western Europe that ushered in the Dark Ages. At any rate, the Iron Age ended with savagery.

Ancient Greece

After the Greek Dark Ages ancient Greece went from a collection of city-states ruled by aristocracy (from 700 bce) to domination by Sparta and Athens (~510 bce).

The cities had divergent polities. Sparta was a closed, militaristic society ruled by 2 kings. In contrast, Athens moved to a more open model.

To avert becoming a Spartan puppet, Athenian politician Cleisthenes led Athens to limited tribal democracy, where male landholding aristocrats squabbled while Athenian culture flourished, ensuring the city’s eternal fame.

External threats kept Sparta from conquering Athens, at least for a time. Spartan hegemony at the start of 4th century bce was short-lived. Sparta suffered military defeat from other Greek city-states and its helot (slave) population surged while its citizens declined. Spartan citizenship was inherited by blood: men whose numbers were diminished by war. Subjugating the helots and suppressing their revolts weakened the Spartan social fabric. In 479 bce there were an estimated 7 helots for every Spartan.

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The eternal Achilles heel in the ambitions of conquerors is over-extension to the point of collapse. It has been the terminal disease of most empires, abetted by rambunctious upstarts, seeking their turn at enlarging the spoils.

Oppression of the masses and opportunistic territorial conquest by warlords was the well-established mode of civilization by this time. Alexander the Great was Greece’s last huge hurrah in that regard. Then came the Romans.

Ancient Rome

The civilization upon which later Western societies were modeled started on a hill surrounded by marshes in central Italy. The last of 3 Etruscan kings that formed and ruled the Roman Kingdom was overthrown. The clans that managed this in 509 bce politically grappled to a standstill. The resultant Roman Republic lasted 500 years, until exhausted by civil wars.

In the mid-1st century bce Roman general Julius Caesar parlayed his military success in Gaul into dictatorship. The Roman Empire was born. Assassinations and less lethal political intrigue saw an unsteady succession of emperors, capped by the most notorious sociopath in ancient history: Nero.

The overarching structure of Roman society largely followed those that proceeded it: a tiny elite of men lived off the toil of the masses, including an army of slaves which comprised roughly 1/3rd of the population.

The lasting legacy of Rome was its legal regime: the first with laws oriented toward commerce. While 2nd-class citizens, women could own property and engage in business.

Like every society that followed, Rome’s justice system was corrupt. The lower classes were fined and imprisoned while the elite were let off.

The decline of the Roman Empire occurred over 4 centuries. A catalog of ills took their toll: poor political leadership, economic decay, inflation, sovereign debt, lead in the drinking water (from using lead pipes for public water distribution), social corrosion (slavery, debauchery among the elites, disintegration of army discipline, Christianity), and constant incursions by outsiders adhering to the original Roman pillage model. Rome finally fell to Germanic invasion in 476.

A diminished Roman sovereignty held sway in the east for another millennium. This Byzantine Empire eventually fell to invading Turks in 1453, thus engorging the Ottoman Empire, which lasted until 1922.