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The catastrophe of 1200 BC was traditionally attributed to a large influx of barbarians from Asia into the Mediterranean and Near East. The barbarians were thought to have overrun much of the area, displacing the locals, who in turn invaded more southerly areas. Where the displaced groups invaded by see, they were referred to as the mysterious Sea Peoples. An alternative view refutes the Asian influx and attributes the catastrophe to hordes of local barbarians who had always been near at hand, in the mountains and marginal lands that surrounded the more fertile areas. The barbarians included the Libyans to the west of Egypt, the northern Greeks (more likely the sackers of Troy than the Myceneans), tribes along the south coast of Anatolia, and the Philistines and Israelites of Palestine. Sea raiders from Sardinia, Sicily, and what is now modern Italy had a long history of piracy and serving as mercenaries, especially for Libya versus Egypt. They may have been the Sea Peoples.
Prior to 1200 BC these barbarians had been defeated consistently by the chariot armies when they ventured down from their hills and mountains, or across the seas. Around 1200 BC, however, evidence indicates that the barbarians made several changes in their weaponry and tactics that quickly ended the dominance of chariots. Military historians have noted the existence over time of a competitive cycle in the improvements and innovations concerning the three ingredients of warfare: firepower, security, and mobility. Changes in any of the three, such as an improved bow, better armor, or chariots or horses, could temporarily upset a pre- achieved general equilibrium that determined tactics, giving the innovator an advantage until changes in the other ingredients restored the equilibrium through new tactics. Around 1200 BC, the barbarians on the fringes of the civilized world made too many changes to the ingredients of warfare too rapidly. Before a new equilibrium of new tactics could be achieved, most of the civilized world was lost.
The important technical innovations of this time were the cut-and-thrust sword, the small round shield, and improved armor. A sword that could both cut and thrust made individual soldiers more dangerous in hand-to-hand fighting. Such a sword was easier to wield than a long spear. Many more blows, and more powerful blows, could be struck. The smaller shield was easier to manage than the tall and cumbersome shields used by the spearmen. Bronze greaves and other pieces of body armor also appeared at this time, as evidenced by artwork and archaeological remains. These advances in armor helped protect infantry from archery.
The most important innovation of the period was probably in tactics. Barbarian infantry finally learned how to defeat chariots after fighting them for 500 or so years. Better armor, mobility, and tactics must have allowed infantry to get close enough to the chariots to kill the horses with missiles, especially javelins. Once the chariots were disabled, the crews were quickly overcome. One after another, the chariot armies of Greece, Anatolia, and the Levant were beaten and the cities they protected were sacked.
Egypt withstood several assaults by fielding armies of the new infantry to support their chariots. These new Egyptian infantry armies were primarily barbarian mercenaries who employed the new weapons and tactics in support of their chariots. In 1208 BC the Pharaoh Merneptah claimed to have killed nearly 10,000 invaders. In 1179 BC Rameses III stopped another Libyan invasion at Djahi, claiming 12,235 enemy dead. Assyria, dominant over most of Mesopotamia, avoided destruction also. It was on the frontier and threatened by enemies in the Zagros Mountains to the east and in other mountainous areas to the north. Assyrian armies had much experience fighting barbarians in the rough terrain where chariots could not go and kept their enemies in check through punitive expeditions into the hinterlands. By 1200 BC the Assyrians had adapted to the new military innovations themselves and were not overly dependent on chariots.
Following the catastrophe of 1200 BC, the previously advanced areas fell into a Dark Age. Trade and production fell, and the expensive and now ineffective chariot armies became a luxury few could afford. Out of the waste and destruction, however, new strongholds and kingdoms eventually began to appear, and from the east came the next important innovation of war: the cavalry.