The Bronze Age is a period usually marked out by the development of Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin and a period in which human civilization really got going. In the late Stone Age basic agriculture had been worked out and a few farming communities had emerged, small permanent and semi-perminant villages and towns with a few workshops and storehouses surrounded by farmsteads. By the Bronze Age these had developed into fairly substantial and sophisticated societies with a high degree of specialization and stratification, complex governments, laws in place of customs and widespread trade networks reaching for thousands of kilometers. Writing and mathematics were developed as tools of governments and were used to build large scale projects. At this time cities' populations grew into the tens of thousands, first as independent city states and later as empires.
Beyond these early centers of civilization newer if smaller scale agrarian societies would emerge and rise while nomadic pastoral peoples would develop along their own lines and would trade and fight with both the growing city states, the small scale farming clans and the remaining hunter/gatherers. The more developed civilizations soon came to see them as Barbarians.
Technically the Bronze Age was preceded by the Copper Age in which the basics of metalworking were worked out and first applied and which developments in other areas were made such as construction and ceramics, but for sake of simplicity on this site it's getting lumped in with the Bronze Age. Copper smelting began 8,000 years ago. Bronze Smelting began around 5,700 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and China about the same time and would spread from those two points although in 2013 tin bronze foil was discovered in the Balkans and dated to 4650 BCE indicating that bronze may have been discovered independently in a much wider area. It should also be noted that Bronze took some time to fully replace copper to tool use.
Generally speaking, the Bronze Age ended in the Fertile Crescent region after the Bronze Age collapse, in which several old civilizations fell or were devastated as ferrous metallurgy began to catch on. When civilization recovered and rebuilt, new ones rose in their place. In China the end of the Bronze Age was more gradual and less dramatic, iron working showed up and superseded Bronze without too much fuss between 900 BCE to 500 BCE. Several Native American civilizations (such as the Incas and the Aztecs) would reach a Bronze Age level of development before the arrival of more advanced Europeans. Their development was hampered by a lack of large domestic mammals suitable for draft purposes or riding (and the lack of Poxes from those animals would cause an accidental genocide as the colonial forces, on top of already destroying the Aztecs (with local help as the Aztecs were arguably the biggest assholes in the Americas. Turns out human sacrifice of prisoners makes one resented) pretty much unwittingly committed the largest act of biological warfare in history). The Andeans had llamas, which was better than nothing but was no horse or ox.
The Fertile Crescent
The Earliest agrarian societies on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and what is now Iraq, which saw the emergence of the first and the most successful bronze age civilizations.
Located in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, Mesopotamia is often called the Birthplace of Civilization. It was the site of the first agrarian communities in the neolithic period and latter saw the emergence of city states as we would understand them. Numerous cities would rise along the banks of these rivers, using it for transport and more importantly irrigation. This was a place with little rain and the rivers were rather unreliable. To make it productive, a lot of channels and ditches were required and you'd also want reserves of food set aside in reservoirs. Doing so was both labor intensive and required a lot of coordination. That said, properly managed it could support cities with tens of thousands of people. Possibly more than a hundred thousand.
There were numerous city states in Mesopotamia, which would wax and wane in power. In particular there was Uruk, Akkad and most famous Babylon. Power would shift between Priest Kings to more military monarchs. In particular, this gave rise to the notion of The Rule of Law with legal codes such as that of Hammurabi, which was set in stone in steles in public places for all to see. While it was rather brutal ("An Eye for an Eye") it laid out the notion that there is one set of laws for everyone, even (in theory at least) to the King. It was filled with double and triple standards of course, but it was certainly better than the near literal no standards from before.
There were several cultures which neighbored Mesopotamia. To the east in what was now Iran there various bronze age cultures emerging shortly after Mesopotamia and following it's lead. It was home to overland trade-routes with India. To the west in what is now Turkey was a set of similar cultures, most notable of which were the Hittites that rose towards the end of the Bronze Age.
Ancient Egypt is probably the most famous bronze age civilization. Modern Egyptology started with Napoleon, who took an interest in the pyramids such and hired artists, reporters and scholars to study the ruins (most notably finding the Rosetta Stone that let them decode their written language) and report back to France and has been going strong ever since. It helps that Egypt is a very desiccated place and we have a lot of records buried in the sand.
Like Mesopotamia, Egypt is based around a river which ran through a desert. Unlike Mesopotamia, the River was easy to work with. Between May and August the Nile would flood. Once it receded, the flood plain was both wet and fertile from freshly deposited sediment. In practical terms this meant that Egyptian Agriculture was on easy mode. High yields with little work and during inundation people had a lot of free time on their hands, which they often spent building Pyramids. There was little point for Egypt in making war; all the surrounding lands were barren desert, and most of their neighbors depended on trade with Egypt for food anyway. This meant the Pharaohs could easily afford enough men, horses, and chariots to keep anyone else from getting ideas (at least until the Greeks and Romans showed up).
A really outstanding fact about Egypt is that it was remarkably stable. From roughly 3150 BCE to 525 BCE Egypt existed as a political entity without much internal societal upheaval. There were periods of disruption and instability, but they were always fairly brief with people returning to the status quo with Pharaohs, priesthoods, nomearchs and so forth. Similarly there was a lot of continuity of culture. A few new technologies were introduced (Bronzeworking and chariots) but the overall impact on people's day to day lives was highly limited. It's easy to identify what dynasty an Imperial Chinese porcelain plate was made in based on it's style or what century a picture of a medieval knight was made in based on his armor. In contrast you would be hard pressed to find the stylistic difference between an Egyptian statue of a Pharaoh from 2600 BCE and one from 26 BCE of Caesar. Hell, Augustus's Pharaonic statues from around 10 CE look barely different from Narmer's palettes from around 3000 BCE.
The first use of bronze in China is dated at around 3100-2700 BCE although more concrete delineation is a bit difficult due to aforementioned smooth transition to the Iron Age and bronze being in continuous use since it was seen as a fancy material alongside jade. Chinese historians roughly equate early Bronze Age with the Shang Dynasty and late Bronze Age with Zhou Dynasty. In terms of cultural and social sophistication it was basically ˝China-lite˝ as the various elements that will come to define China were just getting started though as the picture on the left shows they were as advanced as the Egyptians and Sumerians.
Korea had begun using bronze by 1000-800 BCE which they adopted from the neighbouring Liaoning and Manchu cultures though they developed their unique style and culture. The Bronze Age in Korea corresponds generally with the Mumun period during which their societies progressed from isolated villages of pit-houses in the classical part to sprawling settlements numbering hundreds of houses secured by several ditch enclosures along with megalithic burial sites. During the late Mumun there was apparently an increase of conflict as the amount of settlements decreased and many transformed into hilltop forts with even more elaborate ditches, at this time iron also started entering use as well.
Japanese Bronze Age corresponds roughly to the Yayoi period at around 300 BCE when it was brought by settlers from Korea to northern Kyushu and then spread out north-west. This period was also marked by a complex interplay of migrants from the Korean peninsula and the more native Yomon - the former being displaced by the more chinese-like northerners, there is however little evidence of conflict and the two cultures apparently merged and bolstered Japan with new tech and culture (sounds kinda familiar, hmmm...).
- Money did not really exist back then. Peasants would give each other gifts and would do stuff for each other as they could (you give me some pots and I'll fix your roof when I can), governments paid people wages of food and goods and merchants haggled various goods with local officials, regular people and each other as they went. There were a few things that merchants preferred to deal in which were easier to deal with (bolts of cloth, ingots of metal, cowrie shells) but it was still an informal matter. This would vanish latter, and China, Greece, Egypt and Philistines had all established currency a hundreds of years before 1000 B.C. (possibly earlier). That said earliest forms of money were contrived as aides to accounting by bronze age bureaucrats, since shifting large amounts of grain about from hold to hold is hard work with a Shekel being pegged at a bushel of barley.
- The shift to agriculture meant that humans started needing supplemental dietary salt to live, as well as to preserve meat. Salt trade with areas able to mine or harvest it in useful quantities would become the first major form of commerce between empires.
- Many of the more developed Bronze Age societies had many aspects of society organized by the government. The government told peasants what to grow, collected taxes of food and similar from them, took them to central warehouses, gave artisans wages of stuff for making tools and weapons which they would use to pay people and distribute to people who needed them. All of which managed by castes of scribes and nobles. Basically think of the Imperial Tithe minus most of the Grimdark.
- Chariots! Animal domestication lead to animals that could pull carts, which were then weaponized. In places where flat land was plentiful, it was very hard to engage in a combat against a wheeled cart that was shooting arrows at you, and even harder if there was a full formation of the things. Cart, animals, trained soldiers, and weapons got expensive in a hurry, though, making these an "elite" fighting force. Their elite status would lead to them being phased out as the governments that used them hit recessions and horses were bred strong enough to carry a full archer one their back.
- A lot of what we think of as being part of the Classical Era has its roots in the Bronze Age. For example, the Egyptians have an extremely long history that stretches from the dawn of civilization to the rise of the Hellenic empire, much, much later. And the most famous Greek stories we know of by Homer, were written prior to the Classical age in what we know as “Archaic Greece,” and he was talking about a Greece even older than that that was effectively lost to its own Dark Ages. Much of what we know about this time period comes to us indirectly from the oral traditions of classical poets and historians, especially if the writing system of those societies became lost.
The appeal of the Bronze Age
The Bronze Age is the earliest period that we have accounts of, even if they are scant, fragmentary and incomplete. It is in this time that the earliest forms of civilization are gradually taking shape, and we know more of the shapes it took in those formative years than about the specifics of any particular band or tribe of stone age people. From big things like the Codes of Hammurabi to the fact that some fellow in Mesopotamia around 5,200 years ago was named Iry-Hor.
To the eye of the romantic, priest-kings reign over populations of devoted followers who demand that their legacy be set in stone with great monuments and by fire and blood as they clash for power and prominence. Ranks of spearmen and bowmen march into battle led by charioteers which clash on burning sands with the winners taking the losers as spoils of war. The heroes might be favored faithful servants to their city and their king and the new world that is rising or barbarian warriors seeking glory, freedom and plunder on the frontiers. Their deeds to be remembered in epic poetry, or inscribed into clay tablets by scribes.
If we want to get more fantastic, this period has produced complex mythologies with pantheons of squabbling gods and epic tales such as the story of Gilgamesh and the Trojan Wars. All of which are ripe material for a fantasy writer to mine. This is the time period for the Sword and Sorcery genre, as most of the myths that we know of from the classical period take place in this epoch. This gives the Bronze Age an air of mystique and grand adventure, where larger-than-life heroes fought against monsters and gods. Something that’s generally not possible with the even earlier Stone Age as the culture of that time period is too primitive to tell such grandiose stories, and where survival is really all that’s possible.
In addition to the above, the Bronze Age is also one of the main influences that gave us the "Lost Ancient Ruins"-trope. We have only very vague ideas of why the Bronze Age ended, and what followed was a long, barbaric time where things regressed hard. Unlike the fall of the Roman Empire and many of the Chinese Dynasties, the Bronze Age gives off this sense of complete mystery; who were these ancient people? How come they dissappeared, and how could they have been so advanced? In popular fiction culture, those lost civilizations are often eventually revealed to have been decadent priesthoods who built insanely huge monuments and made outstanding crafts (relics and macguffins our heroes and villains can fight over), but had some large flaw that was their downfall. Apart from the relics of incredible power, the Bronze Age has all these features.
The people of the bronze age had a very tangible relationship with their deities, constructing temples and shrines on scales seemingly beyond the means available to them... and begging the question whether forces beyond the knowledge of history played a part. Fantasies of aliens visiting Earth in the distant past and being received as gods by primitive humans are lent an air of credulity by the enormity of the monuments the ancient empires left behind. Not the part where all pyramids look the same though. The only thing that lends credulity towards is the fact that that is simply the best way to lay down a huge structure without concrete or steel.
In the Bronze Age, a rough template for a social order for agrarian societies would be outlined. There would be city states and kingdoms who's population would be divided up into various largely hereditary classes of kings, nobles, priests, scribes, warriors, artisans, merchants, peasants and slaves. Most of whom were rural supporting a few urban centers, wealth was mostly calculated in terms of food and agricultural productivity, most people never travel more than 20km from the place of their birth, work would be done mostly by hand with some applications of animal power and a few instances of utilizing wind and running water (boats with sails and traveling down river). While there would be exceptions, significant changes within these parameters and a lot of variations on the theme, this set up would predominate until the Industrial Revolution.
Bronze Age inspired Games, Factions and Settings
- Conan the Barbarian
- Tomb Kings
- Mythic Vistas - This series of splatbooks by Green Ronin started with "Testament", a fairly beefy splatbook centered around Bronze Age Historical Fantasy using the "Biblical Era" as its starting region.
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|