Kerstian de Keuninck (1560 – 1632): Troy in Flames
Introduction to Part I: Modern people assume the immunity of their situation to major disturbance or – even more unthinkable – to terminal wreckage. The continuance of a society or culture depends, in part, on that very assumption because without it no one would complete his daily round. A man cannot enthusiastically arise from bed as the sun comes up and set about the day’s errands, believing that all undertakings will issue vainly because the established order threatens to go up in smoke before twilight. Just as it serves this necessity, however, the assumption of social permanence – that tomorrow will necessarily be just like today – can, when it becomes too habitual through lack of reflection, lead to dangerous complacency. It is healthy, therefore, to think in an informed way about the possibility that our society might break down completely and become unrecognizable. Such things are more than mere possibility – they have happened. Societies – and, it is fair to say, whole standing civilizations – have disintegrated swiftly, leaving behind them depopulation and material poverty. In the two parts of the present essay, I wish to look into one of the best documented of these epochal events, one that brought abrupt death and destruction to a host of thriving societies, none of which survived the scourge. I have divided my essay into two parts, each part further divided into four subsections. Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.
I. 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, and all the way to Mesopotamia; it turned south as well, overrunning many islands, finally swamping the borders of Egypt. The Egyptians nevertheless defeated the interlopers, some of whom stayed on as mercenary soldiers under the pharaoh. The Catastrophe left cities in smoking ruin, their 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 Neolithic 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 the Catastrophe, 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 and in its scattering of peoples.